It’s been 13 years since I decided to take a semester off from college to go to Disney World.
At 19 years old, shy and awkward and fairly sheltered, I joined Disney’s college program. And believe it or not, in the 11 months that I worked at Disney World, I laid the foundations for my life in the ministry.
I’ve been reviewing a journal that I kept during my time working alongside Mickey and Minnie Mouse in 2003. Just a week into my experience, I wrote: “I think I’m really changing as a person. I feel so comfortable to act myself and be silly, because everyone else is.”
I was right: I was changing. Here are six fundamental values I learned at Disney that shaped me into the minister I am today.
My parents have always taught me the importance of caring for family, but each day at Disney I saw hundreds of families being intentional about their togetherness. Couples held hands as they strolled down Main Street. Family reunion groups snapped photos with their relatives to preserve memories. The importance of family bonds was evident all around me.
Walt Disney’s dream was that there could be a wholesome place families could enjoy together. If I was ever having a tough day, I could look at the families and be reminded of the magic of Disney.
Disney taught me that family is priority, and that it should transcend financial hardship, disputes and even distance.
Disney taught us that we should always treat each guest “as a cherished friend,” and that even if the line was long, the most important person was the one in front of us. We gave that person our full attention. The value of courtesy was always put above efficiency.
My interaction with guests at Disney was the initial spark for my future ministry. Ministry requires your full attention on the person before you. I took this lesson into my work as a hospital chaplain. Sometimes my patient list was so long that if I focused solely on checking visits off the list, then I wouldn’t be able to spend quality time with any of them. Ministry requires hospitality. Each person we encounter has dignity and worth, so we ought to receive them lovingly and make a welcoming space for them.
Another opportunity for ministry was volunteering for Give Kids the World, which has a resort near Disney World. The children staying there had terminal illnesses, and for many of them, a trip to Disney was their last wish. I volunteered some nights to hang out with the kids while their parents had a date night. It was my first experience being with children who were dying. They had such joy and innocence. I felt within me a yearning to always love the vulnerable among us, a fundamental calling of Christian life.
During part of my time at Disney, I worked in Guest Relations. There, I often had to exercise my listening skills, another critical ministry skill. Guests would share with me their compliments and complaints, and as in ministry, my role was to share in their joys and sorrows.
I’d either smile to affirm the great experience a guest was having, or I would nod and acknowledge how their experience was not so good. Families spend a great deal of time saving to make a trip to Disney World, so it’s understandable they may be disappointed if their expectations are not met. My primary role was not just to make the experience right, but to listen empathetically. Empathy places ourselves in the shoes of the other. Empathy reminds the other that we share in their humanness. This is a skill that I have developed through the years that I apply to my ministry.
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