Every so often, more often than I’d like to admit, I get this feeling that I am a failure- especially when it comes to this pastor thing.
I’ve been at my church for a little over a year. I think I’ve done a lot to help the congregation and to encourage them. I think this church is at a different place than it was last year. And yet, there is the feeling that I am not doing a good job, not good enough.
Part of this is dealing with some issues that took place in my life a few years ago that I am still trying to get past. But mostly, I feel like I haven’t done enough to attract new members.
I’m probably not alone in thinking this way. A lot of us do various things to help increase the visibility of our congregations. We engage in social media. We improve the church website. We host community events. And the result is…not many people darken our doors.
For me especially, it’s been frustrating. I’ve been trying to establish relationships with those who left the church just before I came. I’ve written, called and done everything short of showing up at their doorstep (and no, I am not trying that). I may have to just give up trying to extend a hand to them. I know that I’ve done the best I could, but I know that there is that voice somewhere that says I’m not good enough. If I were better, I would have made contact with them and woo them back to the church.
Then there is this feeling that I’m not reaching out to the community. If I were more outgoing, then maybe things would be better. Maybe if I didn’t have Aspergers, I would be better able to communicate with others and then there would be more members. I would be like that other pastor who can announce an event and 50 people show up.
All of this is nonsense to some extent. Some of the problems facing First Christian started before I came there. Some things are the result of changes in culture. But when few people show up to an event, or when few visitors show up to worship the questions always come flooding back.
If you want to know why so many pastors end up leaving the ministry, it’s because we tend to think that the success or failure of a church is all on us. Pastors end up shouldering a lot of responsibility on themselves.
In the end, I have to accept some grace. I am not all that. All I can do is be faithful. I try to do a good job, try to encourage the congregation, but in the end it is all on God. It’s God that I have to trust in, but that’s hard. I think we pastors are taught or at least we think, that we have to be demigods. I think God has to sometimes hit pastors upside the head and say to them “there is only one God baby, and you are not it.”
First-St. Paul might grow numerically and it might not. I am hoping for the former and that has been my prayer. But in the end, it is up to God. My job is to preach God’s hope to the people and hope they will see God at work in the world.
I just need to tell myself this over and over.
But of course that is not how life works. I am different from others. And that difference can lead to some problems; not only to those of us with Aspergers, but of course with those neurotypical friends and colleagues around us. Most people don’t really understand what it means to be on the spectrum. Even if they say they understand, the mostly likely don’t get it at all.
So, this is just some things that I’ve observed in my life and others that should help in dealing with someone with Aspergers. It’s not an expert analysis, it’s just my thoughts.
No, I am not psychopath. Because I tend to not express outward emotions like others, there have been people who think I just don’t care about anything. I can see why after a school shooting people hone in on the assailant’s problems, such as autism or Asperger’s. I think that’s rather lazy thinking. No, those of us on spectrum aren’t perfect, or angels and there are very likely people who are evil. But just because we don’t express emotion in the same way as others doesn’t mean that I’m going to go and blow away a classroom of fifth graders.
Aspergers is not quirk. One of the problems in modern culture is likening autism to eccentricity. It’s one of those cute things that you like about people. Let me be clear: Aspergers is not cute. It is can be a thorn in my side. When you get mad at something I said or did and conclude that I don’t care or that I’m incompetent, you will realize that this is not cute. Having Aspergers means having problems with communication. I can say something that comes off as brash and I was trying to be honest and helpful. So stop thinking that I’m the “crazy uncle.” Because if you think that and then we reach a misunderstanding, you will start seeing me as that ***hole, instead. Being an ***hole is definitely not cute.
But I do have quirks. I know, this sounds contrdictory, but stay with me. While Aspergers isn’t a quirk, it can produce some odd quirks that people need to understand. One of my quirks? Phones kind of scare me. Of course, I will take a phone call, but it’s just been difficult to use the phone- mostly because it makes me feel less secure. I remember when Daniel and I were dating. He lived in Grand Forks, North Dakota and there were a lot of occasions where I perferred using online chat than using the phone. It’s something I’m working on, but for a lot of people it just seems weird.
I actually do care. I tend to think most people see me as standoffish, which has probably led to a lot of people keeping their distance from me. What I wish people understood is that I do care about my friends and family; probably more than you know. The thing is, I can struggle with how to share that. Sometimes I come on too strong and freak people out; sometimes I’m too laid back and people think I’m uncaring. I’m still trying to figure this out, so if you want to be my friend, be patient; I’m not trying to be a jerk.
Small Talk is a challenge. I’m 44 years old and I still have a problem with small talk. What I’m learning is how much small talk is the basis of relationships both platonic and romantic. I think a lot of friendships never got deeper because I found it hard to just shoot the breeze. So be patient, I’m still learning about how to talk about the weather.
My intentions are good. I’ve been in a few situations where my actions were interpeted as being disrespectful. I can remember one situation where my response was accepted badly. I tried to explain the best I could (which is also an issue with someone with Aspergers), but I was still viewed in a highly negative view. What I wish most people knew is that for the most part, I’m trying to help. I’m not trying to being disrespectful.
There are more things I could talk about, but not right now. What I hope this can do is help people understand someone who has Aspergers. We aren’t bad people if you get to know us.
As I read a number of autistic bloggers, one thing becomes very clear: there are a lot of people with chips on their shoulders.
At some point, some autistic blogger will write a post about how someone somewhere at sometime did something that was offensive. So they write a post basically ordering people to stop doing whatever it is they are doing that the blogger finds offensive. But they usually don’t stop there. They then question the person’s motives, seeing them as not really caring about the autistic community.
I always find these posts tiring and whiny. Yes, some people do things that are insensitive; but we need to be more selective in dishing our outrage. For example, if you don’t like that someone calls you “a person with autism” instead of “autistic person.” You don’t need to act like this person or persons set fire to your house. Simply say to someone what you prefer. Sometimes people need a gentle correction, not the full force of political correctness.
There are things that do warrant outrage. There is a place to be angry. But not everything has to be treated as a capital offense.
There are times for outrage, but there is also time for educating. Sometimes we need to give a light touch, not a punch to the gut.
I have a love-hate relationship with the church.
Yes, that’s kind of an odd thing for someone whose job revolves around the church to say, but it’s true. Church can offer me comfort and challenge me in my mission of being Christ to others. But has also been a place of pain, a place where others misunderstand me and where I am constantly wondering if I’m doing the right thing and scared how people will react when I do get it wrong.
I don’t know how it is with other folks with Aspergers, what I am sharing might just be unique to me. But sometimes church has been a minefield, a place where I seem to do the wrong thing and not always know that until I get the angry email or conversation.
A lot of what happens in church revolves around unwritten rules. They are things that everyone else can see, but it’s something that I can’t understand let alone see it. Even when I think I’ve done the right things that won’t get me in trouble, somehow, I mess it up. I missed another rule.
The result of all this is that I live in quiet fear. I second guess my decisions, triple-check what I say, and wonder if the parishoner I’m talking to is mad at me and I don’t know it.
Church can be a minefield for pastors in general, but the church is even more of a minefield to me…and I don’t know where the mines are laid.
I don’t want to give the impression that church is all bad. I also don’t want to live in self-pity, blaming others for my mistakes. I also can’t expect my colleagues and the laity to have learned everything about Aspergers. I guess I just want people to see that am trying and learning to be better. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, I’m not bad…I’m just wired that way.
Some pastors love visiting with people. A number of congregations have what are called Visitation Pastors. These are usually retired pastor who go around visiting the sick and shut-ins. Most of the visitation pastors that I know tend to be rather jovial and extroverted people.
But First doesn’t have a visitation pastor. Correction, they do and it happens to be me.
Visitation is a challenge for me. Being autistic, the thought of visiting people makes me nervous for a few reasons; first, I have to engage in small talk, something I don’t do well. Second, is that meeting people is draining on me. I can’t explain it, but I expend a lot of energy meeting people. Finally, like many with Aspergers, I over think my time with people. I worry that I said the wrong thing even when it looks like I haven’t.
As an Associate Pastor, I rarely did visits. Now as a solo Pastor, I have to. I can’t tell people that I’m autistic and well, they just have to make do. It doesn’t work that way.
So, despite my dread, I go to the nursing home. I end up visiting some fascinating people, folks that have lived some damn interesting lives. Even as my eyes are darting around and I count the moments til I can leave, I enjoy getting to know these people.
When I leave, I am thankful to leave. But I am also grateful to have had this time to just talk with this person. I am glad to just be there and hear their story.
Being a pastor with autism is definitely not a walk in the park. It’s filled with challenges and traps. But you also get to meet people sometimes at their most vulnerable and try to be Christ at that moment.
I think that the Christian life is filled with things we don’t want to do, but we do them anyway for the greater glory of God. The autistic Christian has a whole bunch of things they don’t want to do, but I think God gives us the strength to do them.
The apostle Paul had something he called a “thorn in his side.” He asked God to take it from him. God replied “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.”
Paul’s words also brought to mind the song “Broken Wings” by Mr. Mister. The song, released in 1985, was pure 80s pop. But the lyrics were captivating. Think of the oddity of flying with broken wings. And yet, there something about those ironic lyrics that talked about grace under pressure. The refrain goes like this:
So take these broken wings
And learn to fly again, learn to live so free
And when we hear the voices sing
The book of love will open up and let us in
It’s been a bittersweet time for me.
On the one hand, I am excited of being pastor at First Christian. There are a lot of challenges; the church is down a faithful few and we are starting to find ways to grow numerically and spiritually as well. Most churches that are down to a handful would just close and that was suggested to the folks at First. But they decided to stick together and keep on keeping on. I am amazed at their faith and feel honored to journey with them as First-St. Paul becomes something new and yet the same.
But there is also a lot of frustration when it comes church planting. As many of you know, I was heading up an unoffical group in my Region dealing with new church. Without going into much detail at this point, the New Church Team is on hiatus. I’m not heading it up anymore (though I’m still on the team) but I don’t know when if ever the group will start up again.
As I’ve said before, last year was a dissapointing year when it came to church planting. There were a number of people who expressed interest in church planting, but for the most part all the talk was just that…talk. Add to that is the failure of a Region-sponsored church plant in Rochester, MN and 2013 just seemed bad.
It’s not all a failure. Our joint ministry with the United Methodists in North Dakota is doing rather well. I am thankful for Ward and Theta Miller and their heart and passion for ministry. I’m also thankful for having the chance to help the Millers make their dream a reality. The success with New Roots in North Dakota, made me hopeful and looking forward to helping birth another faith community. I was hoping to help my Region have a better track record with starting new churches and at least from my vantage point, I failed.
My passion (actually, it’s my aspergian obsession) with new churches is part of a bigger passion that is only now coming together in my mind. You see, I am passionate about new churches, but I am also passionate about keeping churches open. I don’t believe that you should never close a church. As a mentor once said, there are no churches around that have existed since that Pentecost Sunday. But I think that Regions and other middle judicatories need to think long and hard before shuttering the church’s door. Church should be a place where God’s people gather, remembering their calling and being sent into the world to preach the good news. We can’t do that if we aren’t learning how to be a faithful living community of believers. We really can’t do it if we lack a passion for evangelism and that is something that is found in spades in mainline churches:
Mainline churches have always been good when it comes to social justice, but when it comes to what drives us, the passion of Christian committment, well, not so much. I think part of the reason there seems to be little urgency when it came to church planting is because it seems so old fashioned. We mainliners don’t want to look like those fundamentalists, trying to shove their faith down people’s throats.
But our approach hasn’t been a whole lot better. At times it seems like we have no passion, that we are going through the motions.
We seem to have a hard time starting churches, but we seem to be able to close long-standing congregations such as those in Fridley, Rochester and Mankato. In some cases, these churches had outlived their ministry, so I can understand closing a church. But we aren’t planting new churches in these areas and other parts of the state. The reason we plant new churches is to create communities where people can see what God is all about. To be blunt, churches exist to show the wider community the love Jesus. Do we understand that? Do I? This is what Episcopalian Robert Hendrickson said in a blog post from 2012:
Current trends in the Church point toward a revolution of profound and disturbing significance. We no longer seem able or willing to say how it is that God transforms us as individuals and as a Body because we are uncomfortable with difference. The underlying message of the Diocese of Eastern Oregon’s proposal to endorse Communion without Baptism was first that we have failed to bring new people to the Church and second that the failure really isn’t that important because people are fine as they are and not in need of Baptism.
The message of the Church cannot only be “you’re fine as you are.” This kind of undifferentiated affirmation results not in an inclusive community but in a community without an understanding of its own purpose, message, identity, or goal.
I am not advocating that we return to fire and brimstone or rest our teaching on moralizing about private lives but I do think we need to be honest that God is calling us to be different, to change, to be transformed. Christ’s message was not one of affirmation alone but an invitation to die. It was an invitation not to live today as we did yesterday but to know our old selves as dead. This was the invitation of Baptism. This was the difference.
The Church comes together to celebrate Sacred Mysteries. It exists to say the Mass together and share in the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving – in Communion with Christ. It exists to baptize new believers into the Body. It exists to be a Body of reconciliation and forgiveness. It exists to call people into union with one another in Christ. It exists to heal and to offer hope for the life to come.
The Church exists to change us and all those around us in sacred moments by sacred mystery. It exists to make us different – to make us one in Christ.
In some of my discussions about church planting, a few fellow pastors have suggested that I plant a church. I am giving it some throught. However, I am already working with one church and I feel I need to let them know I am with them as they try to survive and thrive. I will see how God leads. I don’t know if I could do two churches at the same time, but who knows.
With only a handful of Disciples churches in Minnesota, I want to see new churches. But I am wondering if this is the time to give up, or take a “sabbatical” and start again. Maybe this is a sign that I need to take a break.
I just hope at some point there is a passion at the Regional Church and congregational level to start new communities that will reach out to the growing diversity that is the Upper Midwest. All I can do is trust that God will work through me and others.
God help me.
I’ve never been the guy that people want to hang out with. I’ve never been the person that people really want to confide in. For the most part, I’ve been the guy on the outside of the group.
None of this means that I have no friends. It does mean that there is a certain platonic intimacy that I haven’t fully experienced. It does mean learning to be alone.
I’m beginning to understand that the reason it has been such a struggle to make friends is because I’m autistic; meaning, I have difficulty communicating to others. I’ve started to liken this to entering a room where everyone is speaking German and I’m speaking Swahili.
Autistic blogger C.W. Wyatt notes that he is not the one that people want to hang out with:
Hanging out with friends seems to be something that most of my Facebook “friends” do on a weekly basis. Some seem to be hanging out nightly. They are the social butterflies I sometimes envy, because social skills matter personally and professionally.
I don’t get random emails, messages, or phone calls from people asking, “What are you doing tonight?” I can’t recall the last personal, non-work message, that was not initiated by me. People don’t reach out to me without a reason.
The other thing that makes communication difficult is that I’m constantly overthinking every damn thing I do. I obess over saying the right thing to someone. I get nervous that a sign of friendly affection might be taken the wrong way. I tend to think that I do things that are taken the wrong way. This has implications not just in social situtations, but also at work. I’ve ended up on the wrong side of a supervisor for doing something that got me into trouble.
I’m learning that I will always be on the outside. Please understand, this isn’t a pity party; I’m just understanding that no matter how I try to improve my social relationships, there will always be problems.