Today we welcome Stephen J Bedard to the blog. Stephen will share his experience as a minister with autism. We recognize that there are many different experiences of autism, and last week we heard from Ron Sandison, a minister from Rochester Hills, Michigan. We are grateful to Stephen for sharing his story with us today!
We hope that after reading Stephen’s post you will check out his website at www.stephenjbedard.com, pick up a copy of his book How to Make Your Church Autism Friendly in paperback or on Kindle, and follow along on his blog by the same name.
Stephen J. Bedard is a pastor at Queen Street Baptist Church, adjunct faculty with Emmanuel Bible College and Chaplain at The Lorne Scots. Stephen has his BBA from Brock University along with MDiv, MTh and MA degrees from McMaster Divinity College. He is currently completing his DMin from Acadia Divinity College. He lives with his wife Amanda in St. Catherines, Ontario. Their oldest two children have autism and live in a group home setting. We have previously featured Stephen on the post The Church, Autism and Apologetics and he has been a workshop presenter at Christian Horizons’ Building Communities of Belonging Conference.
On Being a Pastor With Autism
What is it like to be a person with autism and to be a pastor of a church? That was a question that I was curious about until one day I found out that I had been one for fourteen years.
Most people I meet do not believe that I have autism. I don’t fit the stereotype that people have developed over the years. To make things more confusing, I’m very different from my two children who have severe autism. I don’t avoid eye contact, I don’t flap my hands and I seem to have no problems with communication (communication is my job after all).
I have what was once called Asperger’s Syndrome but is now considered high functioning autism because of recent changes in diagnosing.
I am not able to discuss my struggles with autism since I only received this diagnosis recently. Autism as a label has never been an obstacle, although looking back I can see how there were challenges. I never thought of it as autism, I just thought of it as life.
The autistic traits of my childhood included being very quiet (usually attributed to shyness), trouble making friends and a desire to be alone (usually attributed to being an introvert) and a tendency to take interests too far (usually attributed to being quirky).
Has autism made it difficult for me to be a pastor? The answer is yes but mostly no. The hardest part comes from sensory overload. There are times when I am talking with a person in a public place that all of the sounds rise to the same volume. The surrounding conversations, the serving of coffee, the clinking of glasses can be just as loud as the person talking to me. It takes strong concentration to pick out the sounds that I need to be hearing.
The person who diagnosed me was particularly interested in how I did pastoral care. It is not as much a struggle as people would think. First, the idea that people with autism lack empathy is a myth. My children with autism, despite being nonverbal, are extremely empathetic. I am able to do pastoral care because I care about the people in my congregation. Sometimes my overly logical way of thinking is helpful. But mostly I see myself not as psychotherapist but as a Christian who is willing to listen and to lift up needs to God.
There are other areas where my autism helps. My tendency to be excessive in my interests has led me to be on my fourth theological degree. This knowledge has helped me very much in preparing sermons and leading Bible studies. I have found my autistic traits help me in writing sermons and are of no obstacle in preaching them.
I have developed good coping skills that make living in and ministering to a non-autistic world to be achievable. I observe and listen. I have learned how people interact and I can communicate in a way similar to a person who had learned a second language. I am able to recharge by immersing myself in my reading and writing.
Being a pastor with autism in the end is no different than any pastor who has to navigate experiences and personality traits without a diagnosis.