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.
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.
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.
Last week, I had a conversation over the phone with a fellow pastor who is interested in planting a church. He share some of his plans and ideas. It seemed solid, so I asked him to share an outline of his idea that I could pass on to some other folks in the area.
While I’m excited to hear about his plans, there is a part of me that is wary, a fear that he’s just talking and not really that into planting a church.
Last year, when I was still leading New Church Ministry Team in the region, I had a number of people call me and tell me that they wanted to plant a church. Each time I was excited and hopeful. It seemed like God was doing a new thing in the area. But everytime nothing came of it. Most of the time I’d never hear back. I had one person who said they had plans to start a church in the East Metro and was given items to start the church. This person even went as far as printing business cards. And then, nothing. He got cold feet or realized he wasn’t that interested after all and abandoned plans to go farther.
All of these aborted plans do have an effect. As I sit here a year later, I feel heartbroken. Since I am so literal, when these people said they wanted to plant a church, I believed them. Maybe there was an interest, but seeing so many people not take their idea to the next level kind of hurt me in a way. I’m not saying this to blame folk, just to share it had an effect.
So a year later, someone says they want to plant a church and I have a hard time believing them. Being the Aspie pastor that I am, the things I am passionate about are things I am REALLY passionate about. I am passionate about new churches. I want to see new Disciples of Christ churches in Minnesota. So, when I hear someone casually say they want to plant a church, my heart goes all in. This makes the letdown that much harder.
I sometimes feel that I’m alone in this passion. Everybody else seems concerned about other things, but no one else seems to want to plant new churches.
Part of the reason for my passion comes from my evangelical upbringing. While I don’t always agree theologically with evangelicals these days, I still admire their passion for sharing the gospel. I don’t see that happening as much in the more liberal waters these days. There are people like Nadia Bolz-Weber and a good chunk of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that do want to tell the good news. Bolz-Weber has a liberal evangelism that I love. I wish there were more people like her, wanting to tell people about the love of Jesus.
A while back I shared my frustrations with a fellow pastor. He suggested going and planting a church. I have to say that is tempting, but I’m already busy trying to revitalize a congregation so I don’t know if I can.
All I can do right now is pray to God that this time, someone is truly serious in starting something new.
I hesitate share all of this, because I don’t want this to be “Dennis having a pity party.” But I also need to be honest about how I’m feeling. And right now that’s a bit of heartache.
When I was in high school, I ran track. I didn’t run well, but I did run track. Practice would take place after school. I remember heading into the locker room to change, and passing by this front room set aside for physical therapy. Every time I passed by there were people my age chatting and having a good time.
One day, I decided I was going to join in. I came in after practice and walked into the room. Unlike other days, the room was mostly empty save for one student who was being attended to by a teacher. I walked in and sat down hoping to engage in some conversation. The teacher stopped what he was doing and looked at me. “What are you doing here?” he said. I gave him a confused look and started to think I had made the wrong decision. He pointed to the door and ordered me to leave. I walked out feeling ashamed that I had even bothered to come in.
I share this story because it serves as an example of the ups and downs of one person with Aspergers trying to be social. Looking back, I probably should have known that social situations change. But in my mind, everything repeats. If there were people goofing off one day, then they would be there everyday. Obviously there were time it was okay to be in the room and times this wasn’t possible. But that nuance was lost on me.
Relationships for someone with Aspergers is like walking into a room that’s pitch black. You can’t see anything. The darkness is scary and you feel very alone. The result is that you are always scared, scared that something in the darkness is coming after you.
This all makes it hard to simply be. You are constantly worried you are going to say something stupid and when you do, all hell breaks loose. So, you withdraw feeling more alone and isolated.
It’s not just that you don’t know how to act with potential friends, it’s also that you don’t know how to act with fellow co-workers. A conversation that I intended to be helpful was interpreted as being hostile. I nearly lost my position because of it.
And let’s not even talk about romantic relationships.
In many ways, I’m still that 16 year old boy trying to figure out human relationships and failing miserably. It’s trial and error, finding out what works and what doesn’t.
The thing is, after being rapped on the nose more than once you start to become risk averse. You feel like a trapped animal with eyes darting about; seeing others as a potential threat or potential friend.
Blogger and fellow aspie Penelope Trunk has said that people with Aspergers don’t have friends and don’t have the emotional need for friends. I tend to disagree with this. I want to have friends, especially close ones, I just don’t know how to start a friendship let alone maintain it.
Below are some things that I’ve wanted to say to people, but for whatever reason, I haven’t. Most of these sentences apply to more than one person or one occasion. Here they are:
- You mean a lot to me and that I’m proud to call you my friend.
- I actually do care, even if my actions tell you otherwise.
- I know I can be a loose cannon at times, but I mean well. Really.
- You are not as nice as you think you are.
- Thank you.
- I’m not scary.
- I really want to talk to you, but I’m so nervous of saying the wrong things.
- I thought we were friends.
- I didn’t tell you about the time I came to work on a holiday to set things right for you.
- I’m proud of you.
- Why do you treat me differently than the others?
- Please let me know what I did wrong so I can fix it.
- We need to see each other more often.