Your Say: Response to Neurodivergent by Rev. Ben Gilmour 

Your Say: Response to Neurodivergent by Rev. Ben Gilmour 

Many thanks to Ben for an excellent article about a topic many ministers would not factor into their Sunday services / messages. A bit of background about me. I’m a retired Baptist pastor now attending a Uniting Church on the Central Coast NSW. I have felt ‘different’ all my life and never had an identity on which I could pin this difference. In the last few years, I have come to learn that I probably have ADHD, with possible co-morbidities. This made me understand my whole life better and, at 68 years old, many things have come to make more sense. Things like my incessant chatter, inappropriate comments, need to interrupt and lack of concentration.

This also goes with hyper-fixation which means I can concentrate on the oddest subjects imaginable for long periods. My latest ‘flight of fancy’ is designing a stage set based in the 1920s. Why? Because it seemed a good idea at the time and the idea won’t ‘let go’. Yet, although concentration can be hard, I managed to finish my Bachelor of Ministries, with an excellent grade. 

Here are a few insights from my 20 years of ministry, which I thought were ‘normal’ up to a few years ago. For the 20 years before that, I was a Special Education teacher which, again, I was strangely drawn to, not knowing why. I have always been drawn to the ‘more interesting’ characters in this world. 

Church today, except in the few progressive congregations, is still the same as it’s been for, probably, 200 years or more. People enter, having been greeted with a warm handshake, maybe a seat is suggested and they are supposed to be comfortable sitting in the same type rows, all facing the same direction. Immediately, problem may occur for the Neurodivergent person. 

Close contact, eye contact, a handshake may not be comforting. Some may prefer to just slip in and sit quietly in the back row (that’s me!). Greeting is lovely and, at 68, I understand and willingly play along with the greeter. They are doing a valuable job but must be trained to gauge each person. As Ben Gilmour wrote, ‘Educate yourself about neurodivergence’ and I’m not just talking to the Pastoral Staff but all people should be encouraged. Neurodivergent people aren’t trying to be rude. They just find many social occasions awkward. 

The service starts with a song, a prayer and a greeting (maybe not in that order). I find these incredibly affirming and never seem to trouble me, unless there is a greeting that goes like, ‘Do we have any visitors today?’ I would feel as though a spotlight has been shone on me and, remember, I know the formula and things don’t surprise me. 

It might be a good time to jump to the length of the service. In my churches, I liked to get things done in an hour and 15 minutes max. that included, with prayer / song/ message and greeting people, an offering and, often, another break or two. That’s vital. Give the neurodivergent brain time to reset. We don’t have to join in (we might) but we get a ‘time to reboot’. Services don’t need to stick to my timing. They can be shorter or longer but, remember, the longer you go, the more you may lose me. 

Realise that Sing / Pray/ Talk may not work, not just for neurodivergent people, but others in your congregation. I often shuffled our service around. If I could cope, I thought others may get out of their ‘liturgy lethargy’. The people with the biggest problem in ‘shuffling’ were the entrenched, not the newcomers, the neurodivergent and others. 

Now, to Ben’s point, ‘Be flexible in your approach’. Again, I can only talk to my approach. There are many others and, probably, better! When people arrived, they were handed a bulletin with an insert where I had placed notes from the message I would give later. The bulletin would have humour (make people laugh, it engages them) and, maybe, a quiz (good for kids, too). 

The whole service was thematic. That was a flow over from my teaching days. If I was preaching about grace – the songs, the Bible reading, the prayers were all based around that. As an aside, don’t make prayers long. If you do want to specifically pray for an issue, eg. LGBTIQ+ folk, have something appropriate on the PowerPoint to enhance and reinforce the message.  

I find the more, succinct ways of bringing the message, the better. I always knew that if you say something, a small percentage of your audience gets it. If you show something, another group does. But the most effective was to say it, to sing it, to pray it and to show it. And keep doing that. 

When it comes to the weekly message, I don’t care how long it is. Make sure the message has succinct, accompanying visuals to reinforce the message. And don’t be frightened to use humour, even in the bleakest of subjects. It isn’t irreverent; it’s a great way of diffusing tension. I always tried to follow humour with a big idea. Like a clever one-two punch.  

I almost forgot the big idea. I was taught to follow the three / five point sermon formula. Not for me. Message should have ONE major point with, possibly, some side-thoughts. And I found repetition in the service, Sunday after Sunday, gave people a rock solid idea of what Christianity was about. My poor congregations knew they were going to be told Jesus’ two Great Commandments at least once a Sunday.  

Lastly, as Ben wrote, ‘Avoid making assumptions’. Neurodivergent people you meet may have severe troubles but they may have good jobs like I did and you might have. I think there are a few neurodivergent CEOs out there. They have a harder journey because of the way they are. But, to me, ADHD is not a disability! It is an identity. My hyper-fixation can be a Superpower (and also my kryptonite). Finding out about my neurodivergence made me excited as it explained things.

It didn’t cure anything but I started to accept myself and forgive myself for the MANY weird things I did (and do) and it meant I could reassess my life and try to fit in a bit better. Will I stop talking incessantly? I hope so, at the appropriate times. Will my humour change? I hope not! But I’m one of the fortunate ones. There are a lot of neurodivergent people out there – you may be one of them. Undiagnosed and beating themselves up because they feel weird, out of place, inappropriate and have poor self-esteem. 

Jesus said, ‘Follow me!’ That was to all, not an elite. But, if he wanted an elite band of disciples, maybe he should have chosen a bunch of neurodivergent people (maybe the disciple were?). They understand when Jesus talks of last and first. They get Jesus’ sermon in Luke 4 – “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” But Jesus didn’t call an elite. He called ALL people. He forgave All people. He empowered ALL people.  

Rev. Tim Hayman (retired) 


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top