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A few weeks ago, I sat at the bedside of one my colleagues as she drifted in and out of sleep. She had recently arrived home from the hospital under hospice care, and I was there to let her know how much she was loved and prayed for by the people she had impacted around the world.

At one point, I stressed to her my hope she could feel the love of her colleagues and former students praying for her, and that it was as much of a comfort as the pillows and blankets surrounding her. She responded by saying how much she loved every single person she has worked with for the last 35 years in Christian education.

I was deeply humbled to be present for such an incredible woman’s last hours. Barbara J. Newman made an incredible impact around the world for inclusion of persons of all abilities in their faith-based schools and churches. She made that impact not by climbing the typical ‘ladder’ of leadership, but by following the call that God had laid on her heart.

Barb spoke with authority that came from her own worship practices and deep faith in God’s goodness. And she practiced what she preached!  Her authority came not only from her deep knowledge about inclusive education, but also from her constant practice in the trenches, showing love to kids who might not be included everywhere. One day she would be fielding requests to keynote an upcoming conference, while the next she’d be troubleshooting situations on the ground, at the Christian school where she supported inclusive education for students with disabilities for over 30 years.

Hers was not a clear path to leadership or a typical job description, requiring speaking skills that would be inspiring and empowering all at once. No boss ever asked her to think about and create an entire Church Division from scratch, carving a niche and a message that would impact thousands.

Barb would often tell the story of how, when it came to parent/teacher conferences, she would begin by asking parents how participation in church was for their child. Because she was a trusted voice in the life of the child, many parents shared difficult stories of how their child wasn’t welcomed at church or in the youth group.

Barb’s calling brought with it righteous anger sometimes, too.  As she heard these challenging stories, she became angry about how kids with disabilities and their families were not being welcomed to their churches. As was often the case with Barb, her solution was action, and she knew how to fix it! After all, she had years of experience and training in creating communities of belonging for students with disabilities in schools.  Why couldn’t she provide the same expertise for churches? She had to do something.

So she did; Barb developed the church division at All Belong. It took innumerable plane rides, publishing almost a dozen books, lots of public speaking practice, and more, but she loved the work. She loved sharing her heart for inclusion, and she loved responding to God’s call on her life. And she loved the teachers and students she worked alongside, every day. As Barb honed her practice God provided a larger platform and she found herself speaking in front theologians, seminary leaders, disability advocates, and volunteers . She was often intimidated and humbled by her audiences, so she made sure to include in her introduction that she was an educator who understood and loved kids and was there to share what she had learned.

She also knew that the calling was bigger than herself. She knew to pass her vision along to others and encourage those who needed it. She also knew that her calling was bigger than herself, making her sudden passing all the more heart-breaking. I will never know why she isn’t here to continue to her life’s mission. But her work continues on in those she has inspired. She had no regrets about her work and about the path she took to leading, nor the style of love, empathy, and attention to others that she so embraced.

I am not alone in knowing that I will be learning from Barb’s work, her books, and her recorded presentations, for the rest of my life. I would encourage you to check out her work. As you do so, notice how she managed to inspire and empower at the same time, and listen for the unorthodox ways that God may be calling you to lead. Your path doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s path, but I can bet it will look like God’s love.

Author Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski

Elizabeth Lucas Dombrowski is the executive director of All Belong, a nonprofit that partners with Christ-centered schools and churches across North America to support inclusive education for students of all abilities. Elizabeth has served at All Belong, formerly known as CLC Network, since 2012 with a background in fundraising and nonprofit administration. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Valparaiso University and master’s degree from Grand Valley State University.

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Women Leaders for Christian Education