Someone once described NNU’s annual Wesley Center Conference as “Where the Church comes to think.” While the phrase originates with Catholic University of America, I believe it’s an apt descriptor for us, too. For more than 20 years, our conferences have stretched and inspired thousands of clergy, scholars, students and laypersons through interactive engagement with leading-edge voices around a wide variety of theological topics.
In February, NNU welcomed nearly 200 participants to NNU’s Conrad Student Commons to discuss issues related to disability and the Church through a conference titled “A Body of Belonging.” Plenary session speakers included Dieter Zander, Jeff and Bekah Hall, and Dr. Diane Leclerc. Together with more than 20 other presenters, this year’s conference explored how the Church is incomplete without everyone present at the table, including those with disabilities.
“Hosting this conversation about disability was somewhat of a burdensome honor,” observed my co-director and NNU colleague, Dr. Mike Kipp. “We’re clearly not experts, but we approached this topic as learners with a genuine desire to learn, become more sensitive and grow as members of the body of Christ.”
Many of this year’s presenters shared from their own experiences with disabilities. Others framed their content as the parent, spouse or friend of someone with a physical, cognitive or emotional disability. The impact of their collective message was transformative.
For years, Zander was heralded as a megachurch pastor, dynamic church planter, musician and author. But in February 2008, he awoke in an ICU bed to discover that he’d slept through the most significant event in his life: He had suffered a debilitating stroke six days earlier. From that moment, Zander’s brilliant and creative mind was masked by aphasia as he slowly learned to speak again while also overcoming the physical and emotional hurdles that often sealed him off from the world.
In his photobook titled “A Stroke of Grace,” Zander recounts how “all those thoughts, those fears, those jokes that I couldn’t bring to life outside my head, God heard them. I felt his comfort, his peace, and even his laughter.” Together with his friend Mike Davis, they discussed what Zander now calls his “Kingdom of Cardboard and Spoils” and how he’s learning to live a simpler, more grace-full way of loving his neighbors for Jesus’ sake.
Jeff and Bekah (Ponsford) Hall (’01) are clinical psychologists in the Boise valley. In addition to running pediatric autism and diagnostic clinics, Jeff is also an ordained Nazarene elder serving as the inclusion pastor at Nampa College Church. The Halls have three children, the youngest of whom was born with congenital CMV, which causes severe lifelong disabilities. In addition to their rich plenary and Master Class sessions, the Halls served as our first-ever conference pastors who made themselves available to listen and support those with personal and ministry questions, as well as related challenges.
My NNU colleague Leclerc’s compelling plenary session underscored the transformative role a community of unconditional love can play, both for those with disabilities as well as their families. Leclerc spoke theologically from her own “hard and wonderful” experience of loving her son Ethan “just as he is,” despite the challenges of Asperger syndrome. Personally, taking in Leclerc’s message after Ethan (’18) shared his morning devotional was a personal highlight, not to mention our final commissioning where all participants shared the Lord’s Supper together.
Again this year, our 2020 conference reached across the map and around the world. Participants gathered on our Nampa campus from a variety of traditions as far as Alaska and Maryland. Additionally, more than 800 participated via our closed-captioned livestream or continue to access select content from NNU’s online Vimeo archive. Other video links and transcripts from this year’s sessions are also available on our website at nnu.edu/wesleyconf2020.
Next February, NNU will think alongside the Church about “The Economics of Vocational Ministry: Living at the Crossroads of Affordability and Calling.” We hope you’ll join us!