When I started seminary 15 years ago, I had come to accept that I would never pastor a church. I just wasn’t a people person. Maybe I’d be a seminary professor or something. I didn’t know it back then, but I was basically acknowledging my Aspergers limitations.
Of course, as you can tell, I didn’t end up as a seminary prof. Instead, I’ve been the Associate Pastor at a church for nearly five years. And somehow, I’ve managed to not mess things up, praise be to God.
Just shortly after my Aspergers diagnosis, I wrote about what my future would be in the ministry. I had my doubts at times, but as this blog post from May 2008 shows, I was thinking about what conditions would make for a good pastorate:
Last night, I watched the Associate Pastor at the church I am a part of. We had our weekly prayer service- now biweekly during the summer months- and she was talking with two members of our congregation whose daughter, son-in-law and children were brutally affected by a tornado that hit the northern Twin Cities suburbs. She was skilled in being truly a pastor to them during this horrible time. As watched this scene, it occurred to me: I couldn’t do what she is doing- or at least it doesn’t come to me as naturally…
While I am relieved about my diagnosis of Aspergers, it leaves me with a big question regarding vocation: what in the world do you do with a pastor that has autism?
I’ve been around long enough to know that pastors tend to be social beings. They are supposed to be the kind of people who can connect with others. They “get” social cues. They know how to deal with sudden change. So what about someone like me who isn’t any of that? How in the world can I be a pastor if I don’t have those skills?
For a long time, I’ve wondered where I fit in the church. I knew I didn’t fit, but didn’t know why. But now I need to figure out how to use my gifts in ministry, how to use my Aspergers not as a deficit, but as an advantage.
I know that I need to be in environments that are structured and have some sense of stability. That has made me think of some kind of Associate Ministry. However, at least in the metro area, there are no possibilities for that kind of ministry among Disciple churches and very few in UCC circles. I guess I could start looking outstate and see what happens.
What I have wanted to do is to maybe create some kind of ministry in a congregation where I would be on staff probably bivocational. Maybe it would be to perform worship or lead Christian Education. But it would be something that is regimented.
Five years later, I’m the Associate Pastor at a church and I have spelled out duties.
As I look back over those five years, I can see how I’ve been stretched, having to move out of my comfort zones. No matter how much you try to keep things as routine as possible, there are going to be times where things won’t be routinized…where things will be chaotic. What I’ve had to learn as someone who is autistic is that sometimes things can’t be routine. If someone is in pain and needs help, you have to learn to summon strength from somewhere and help that person.
Last summer, I got a call at 10:30pm from the office manager. A longtime member of the church had died. We were between pastors, so I had to meet with the family in St. Paul. My android brain might have wanted to protest, but I had a job to do. I had to be human for a little while to help a family that had lost their loved one. A wife of 60 years needed someone to hold her hand.
What has happened over the last few years is become more…human. It’s not that I was some monster before this, but being a pastor means you have to engage people, giving someone a hug when they need one, or listening when they need to rant. None of this comes easy to me, and like most persons with Aspergers, you learn to fake it til you make it.
I’m still somewhat android-like in that when I see someone that needs something from me my brain starts whirring and spitting out a command that I should do. If someone is mad and hurt, my brain says, “Hug person.” And so, I give them a hug. No, it’s not warm and fuzzy, but I get the job done. And maybe in someway I learn to be a real boy along the way.
So, five years later, I’ve learned so much about people and I’ve learned so much about ministry. It tells me that I can do this whole pastor thing, and there’s even a benefit along the way: the robot-boy is becoming a human….almost.
Dennis, when I called you to talk to you about Mark’s passing away you were very supportive. I think you have a gift for ministry despite your aspergers. I don’t have autism – but I have bi-polar disorder – and it is an issue that can be a challenge – it’s hard for others to deal with a person when they are a bit manic. As I’ve aged, it’s been more down than up – and also I’ve isolated myself socially more.
Anyway, thanks for sharing this – this has touched me deeply.
This post kind of hurt to read, because I remember that feeling. I remember what it felt like when I thought I wasn’t quite real. I remember when I wrote that I was trying to become a real person. I remember how it felt to think I was making progress at that.
But – I’ve realized recently that I’ve always been human. And that all of us are. I’m an autistic human, and I’m a real person. We’re not robots. Autism doesn’t make us any less human.
And we, too, are made in God’s image – and it’s horribly wrong that we are taught to think of ourselves as less than human.