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A Call for Clergy and Religious Leaders

So I’d like to share what I take as good news. The question of whether I was on the autism spectrum has been raised ever since seminary. And as a child I was diagnosed with ADHD. After this issue had been raised in several ministry settings I’ve worked for I decided to get tested and found confirmation in what others saw. I was diagnosed with Autism (lvl 1) or what would have been known as Aspergers and ADHD.

Now when Aspergers had been raised I went into full research mode. And the results was that light was shed on all the issues I struggled with growing up as a kid and as a young adult. It was so revealing that when I sought a diagnosis there was a concern whether I had become too attached to this diagnosis. Yes I had but it was a relief to make sense of my life and my self image has been shaped accordingly.

ADHD was different. I assumed that this was a childhood diagnosis that went away with adulthood. It’s hard to diagnose many adults who have ADHD or Autism since they (and I)  have learned skills to relate to the work place and to social life. We may be different and quirky but most folks in adulthood can accept that.

Childhood was different. My obsessions with maps, with countries and geography and with politics set me a part as a child. My inability to negotiate social life made it such that I used to pretend I was a country engaged in the process of foreign policy. Some countries are large and bullies. Others are not. And the rules for engagement could be set by that pattern which helped me negotiate the travails of junior high.

So adulthood has been better. Especially in negotiating a career path. In my case ministry. But something happened along the way. While most workplaces probably considered me quirky, in a social position that is filled with professionals, my differences have moved beyond something to be noticed. And that something can produce a great amount of anxiety in a congregation.

When I have obvious face blindness where I don’t remember regular church visitors, when I take people literally without realizing the underlying dynamic afoot, when my self presentation has to be perpetually fixed by members of the church, we move from a dynamic of clear ministerial leadership to a congregation that has to take care of its pastor. It, instead, should be thinking about its own needs.

But I did and do have the benefit of being a social extrovert who readily seeks other people and their advice. And in growing up that has served me well. I had many friends who could take me aside and explain social situations and tell me what is “cool” which helped me negotiate childhood. And your average Asperger book and support group is great in connecting with people over shared concerns.

But here’s the deal. The assumption is there is nobody on the spectrum to be found in ministry. And when I read autism books they assumed that folks on spectrum will work in a library, in computer science, in engineering, or in some field that does not require heightened social skills. So there are no books about aspies who are social workers, counselors, teachers, and ministers.

That is, for someone who thrives in finding common experiences and shared ideas, I find that there are no resources for those of us who are autistic and work in the church. I’m not even sure if there are clergy resources for those of us who have ADHD. This is unfortunate and it fails to open the church up to the leadership and gifts of those of us who are not neurotypical. And it sends unfortunate signals to parishioners who are also working through disabilities while they wish to serve.

But my guess is, I’m not alone. There must be other clergy and religious leaders in the church who likewise find themselves on the spectrum. Some may be “out of the closet”. For some, that may not be possible. But like the clergy project which tries to connect closet naturalists in the church, we need some way of providing support and share ideas in a safe environment.

So this is an open call. For those who are out and on the spectrum who serve the church to help build the basis of an organization of mutual support and the sharing of ideas that can provide an outlet for all, including those that remain professionally in the closet. My e-mail address is revwelch@ou.edu and my church phone number is 405-534-1100. Let’s make this happen so that no one faces these challenges alone.

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