The vision of the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability is to expand the depth and breadth of theological inquiry and resources that address and include the gifts, needs, and contributions of people with disabilities and their families to theological learning and religious practice.

The Summer Institute works toward that vision by:

  • Sponsoring a 4-day long intensive institute that brings together leading scholars and writers in the areas of theology and disability with clergy, religious leaders, practitioners, laity and others who are interested and involved in inclusive ministries and faith supports.
  • Affirming and exploring the ways that disability impacts all of the major theological disciplines as well as the many dimensions of religious life and faith community practices.
  • Recognizing and celebrating the ways that the integration of theology and practice mutually inform and support one another.
  • Appreciating the diversity of perspectives that come from scholars, practitioners, and people with disabilities and their families from a wide range of religious traditions and from a wide array of experiences with disability. The Institute aspires to be a “big tent,” where everyone can speak from their particular background and experience while also respecting the same in others. We meet one another in an I-Thou framework that hopefully supports personal sharing, careful listening, and mutual learning.
  • Building a national/international event that is recognized for those contributions while also making the key resources from the Summer Institutes available and accessible to everyone interested.


Core Faculty and Mentors

The core faculty for the Institute has included Bill Gaventa, Hans Reinders, (Free University, Netherlands), John Swinton (University of Aberdeen, Scotland), Devan Stahl (Michigan State University), Ben Conner (Western Theological Seminary, Michigan), Erik Carter (Vanderbilt University, Tennessee), Tom Reynolds (University of Toronto), Amos Young (Fuller Seminary, California), Julia Watts Belser (Georgetown University, D.C.), and Darla Schumm (Hollins University, Virginia). The core faculty serve as advisers, speakers, and mentors/faculty to the participants during the week to create a community of learning, with input from new speakers each year. The Institute planning team currently includes Tammy Besser, Shelly Christensen, Kathy Dickson, Michelle Eastman, Topher Endress, Tom Jones, Cathy Webb, and Greg Woods. 


The Institute format has often included a Monday event open to a wider regional audience who might only be able to come for one day, followed by three days with two major presentations each day, discussion with speakers, discussion groups arranged around core issues of interest to participants, morning and evening meditation, and workshops led by Institute participants.  (In 2014, that order was reversed, with the one day event held on Friday.) The 2014 Institute also included three courses, held for 2 hours each afternoon, led by Institute faculty, with one of them being a Ph.D. Symposium. This symposium has continued each year, offering feedback from established scholars and peer review from other students, and serves as an important connecting point for emerging scholars with often overlapping work.

In 2016, the inaugural Emerging Scholar Lecture took place. By establishing an annual plenary lecture of 50 minutes, the Summer Institute seeks to provide a podium for emerging scholars entering the field of religion and disability. Scholars must have received an academic degree in theology, divinity, religious studies, disability studies, or a related field, after January 1, 2018. The subject matter of the dissertation must be related to spirituality, faith, or religion in connection to disability. Nominations for this recognition are accepted each year. For more information, please contact 

Academic Support 

One of the key purposes of the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability is encourage and support graduate level students in any discipline who are working in the area of theology, religion, and disability. There are several levels to this support, including:

  • Scholarships to cover part of the costs for the Summer Institute depending on funding available. That may vary from year to year. Income from the Summer Institute Resource Exhibit is dedicated to scholarships.  Scholarship applicants will be asked to assist in various aspects of on-site coordination, including registration desks, resource exhibit, etc.
  • Depending on the location of each Summer Institute, there may be academic credit or CEU’s offered for the week through a collaborating seminary or university.
  • Opportunities for presentation of student research and work at a graduate level in afternoon forums.
  • Academic credit in collaboration with a student’s own institution. That works as follows:
    • The student must work with his or her own seminary or university on a course or project plan, which will be approved for the level of credit sought.
    • The curriculum can include prior readings and/or review of presentations from previous Summer Institutes and participation at the weeklong Institute.
    • It may include the responsibility of presenting that work at the Summer Institute, either in a forum with other students or in a focused workshop.
    • It can also include individualized mentoring and review/grading of papers by any of the Summer Institute Faculty/Mentors.  For example, if a student is doing a research project that references or is based on the work of one of the Faculty/Mentors or in their area of work, then arrangements can be made with that Summer Institute Faculty to consult with and review their work either during the Institute or at a later date.
    • A tuition fee for that individualized mentoring and review will be charged.  The fee could come from a portion of the tuition fee paid by the student to his or her own school for academic credit (depending on the school’s policy) or in addition to the costs for that academic credit.

Interested students can contact for more information as it is made available.


The Summer Institute began in Pennsylvania as part of a Faith Community Leadership Project funded by the Pennsylvania Developmental Disabilities Council, coordinated by Bill Gaventa at the Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities, Rutgers University.

  • 2010 & 2011 (Gettysburg, PA). The first two Summer Institutes (2010 and 2011) were sponsored in collaboration with the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Audio presentations from the first two Institutes are downloadable from the website of The Boggs Center at
  • 2012 (Chicago, IL). Hosted by Catholic Theological Union. This Third Summer Institute was also endorsed by the Association of Theological Schools and the Association of University Centers on Disabilities, which has continued.  Other local sponsors included Catholic Theological Union, Chicago Theological Seminary and the Arc of Illinois.
  • 2013 (Toronto, ON). Hosted by Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto, The United Church of Canada, Christian Horizons, Inc., and L’Arche Ontario.
  • 2014 (Dallas, TX). Hosted by the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University (SMU), Highland Park United Methodist Church, and the Faith Inclusion Network of Dallas/Jewish Family Services.
  • 2015 (Atlanta, GA). Hosted by the Center for Leadership in Disability, School of Public Health, Georgia State University.
  • 2016 (Holland, MI). Hosted by Western Theological Seminary and Hope College.
  • 2017 (Azusa, CA), Hosted by Azusa Pacific University and Fuller Theological Seminary.
  • 2018 (Raleigh, NC). The Summer Institute will be held in Raleigh, North Carolina, June 11-14, hosted by Edenton St. United Methodist Church and Duke Divinity School. Join the Facebook page to receive announcements about planning.
  • 2019 (Holland, MI). Hosted by Western Theological Seminary
  • 2020 & 2021 (Cancelled due to COVID). Hosted by the Center for Leadership in Disability, School of Public Health, Georgia State University.
  • 2022 (Delaware, OH). Hosted by Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
  • 2023 (Waco, TX). Hosted by Baylor University and George W. Truett Theological Seminary.
  • 2024 (Boston, MA). Hosted by Boston College.


For more information on the Institute, including inquiries into hosting future conferences, contact 
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