What You Should Know About Autism from a Minister With ASD

What You Should Know About Autism from a Minister With ASD November 30, 2022

person leaving church
photo by nr49

I am a minister in my mid-30s who was recently diagnosed with autism. I have learned a great deal in the short time since my diagnosis. In my previous post, you will find an account of my journey up until this point.

Every case of autism is different

Okay, time for some autism 101. Here is literally what autism is according to Cynthia Kim in her book I Think I Might Be Autistic: A Guide to Autism Spectrum Disorder Diagnosis and Self-Discover for Adults:

A developmental disorder characterized by persistent lifelong impairments in social communication as well as the presence of restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities.

Moreover, autism exists on a spectrum. It varies in severity from existing in high-functioning persons who hold regular full-time jobs, drives cars, has kids, and own homes to persons who are unable to speak or care for themselves. The symptoms of autism typically appear in childhood but can be mistaken for other disorders such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) as was in my case. Taken together, symptoms of ASD (autism spectrum disorder) impair and limit everyday functioning in some areas.

I was in congregational ministry for ten years before I was diagnosed with autism. I flew through seminary with nearly straight A’s, but the ordination process and relationships in the congregations I served were always a bit awkward. I never doubted my ability to preach and perform the sacraments, but it was the socializing afterward that gave me the problems.

I was once told that I should be more aware of how I was being ‘perceived’ by others. One of the worst comments I heard was that I was not making others feel included. I also knew that I struggled with retaining names and faces more than most. Dr. Lamar Hardwick shares similar experiences in his book I Am Strong: The Life and Journey of an Autistic Pastor.

“Most, if not all the feedback had to do with what people felt were my character flaws. I was too introverted. I didn’t speak to people. I never stayed after the service to shake hands with the congregation. I was even accused of walking right past someone who wanted to speak to me and ignoring her as if she was unimportant or insignificant. The problem was I never felt I did any of these things….”

In both cases, the label of ‘rude’ or ‘self-absorbed’ was attached. In both cases, there was an undiagnosed case of high-functioning autism.

We can be the most enthusiastic supporters of the ministry

One of the common symptoms of autism is what my therapist calls the tendency to find ourselves in ‘boxes.’ These are little obsessions that we have a hard time taking our minds off in the moment. Another one that is similar is the tendency to collect things.

If you were to come to my home, you would find a fridge filled with magnets from just about every place I’ve been. Downstairs is a collection of lighthouse figurines I’ve been working on since I was a youth.

What does this mean for ministry? I was often complimented on my enthusiasm and innovative new ideas for ministry during my parish work. Some of these ideas came to fruition in real ministry, others not. The point is that there is a great amount of potential in working in ministry with high-functioning autistic persons and what they can bring to ministry settings.

The enthusiasm may need to be tapered to an extent. I remember one project that the local congregation literally had to pull me from, kicking and screaming!

We want to be in ministry, too

If there is a biblical paradigm to be found it is likely found in Moses who at first, protested his call because of his social anxieties. Yet he became one of the greatest characters in the Hebrew Bible. I am not saying that Moses had ASD – there is simply not enough evidence in the scriptures to place that judgment. However, what we do know is that in the story of the biblical canon and the life of the church, God uses the least expected to carry God’s message for humanity.

The church (especially mainline churches) today is squeamish about mental disabilities in ordained ministry. To that, I ask, why? Are we not all uniquely awkward in our own ways? Do we really want a clergy force made up of people who fake perfection in closed-door ordination interviews? Do we really need the high levels of psychological testing that benefit a for-profit industry when we have a clergy force that experiences high amounts of depression and anxiety anyways? This sounds more elitist than it sounds like the God who chose profoundly flawed people like Paul, Moses, Ezekiel, Mary, and Jeremiah.

I do not know why mental disorders exist, but perhaps it is to teach us to be kinder and more patient with one another, remembering Ephesians 4:32: “Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.” (MSG)

Let’s let our congregations see real flawed human pastors. And yes, autistic pastors, too.

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