A Pastor’s Secret3 min read

I’ve been keeping a secret…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt different.  I’ve felt different in a way I couldn’t exactly pinpoint, and the older I got, the more my awareness of this difference grew.

How were people able to have such expressive body language?  Isn’t that a lot of work, I wondered.  I could sometimes be extremely quiet, partly because I didn’t know what to say, and partly because I could only socialize for so long without needing some way to retreat.

I wondered why the other kids seemed to socialize and click with each other with ease while I didn’t.  I wondered why I felt so different from other girls and could not relate to them or their interests.  I wondered why the other kids played with toys the way they did and how some toys were even supposed to be fun to begin with– but I pretended to know.

While the other kids’ make believing didn’t extend beyond their pretend play, mine did.

I masked.  I masked my confusion.

In college, I longed to go into ministry but I couldn’t see how it could work out.  My heart burned to not just read about other’s extraordinary experiences with God, but to have one myself.

In particular, I assumed I wouldn’t be able to preach well.  I couldn’t figure out how I’d ever possibly be expressive enough to pull off the Black preaching styles I was accustomed to hearing in church.

After feeling legit-stalked by God, I made the decision to do away with my back-up plans and dive head-first into my call to pastoral ministry.

I think I believed things would eventually resolve themselves.  So what, my homiletics professor described my preaching as robotic?  I eventually figured out how to make preaching work for me, and I was actually good at it.

My genuine passion and hyper-focus in young adult ministry and my indifference to social hierarchy made it easy for me to connect with people who had influence; as a result, opportunities opened for me.  My ability to pick up on patterns and connections others couldn’t as readily see made my perspectives unique, valuable, and sought out.

However, things didn’t resolve on their own.  As the responsibilities of the opportunities I was given grew along with the expectations to have social skills and understanding I did not have, to say I struggled is an understatement.  This prompted me to seek a complete answer for the questions I long had.

After a long journey, at 30 I was formally diagnosed with autism.

I wanted an extraordinary experience with God, but I didn’t quite grasp that it would take a deep awareness of where my own power ended and God’s began.  I’ll no longer be keeping this secret.  I cannot walk in faith while simultaneously hiding in fear.  This is me.  Against extraordinary odds, I’m not only a female pastor, but an autistic female pastor.  I’m not only a church planter, but an autistic church planter.

I believe God will use me, not despite my being autistic, but exactly because of it.  I’m challenging the perspectives of who autistic people are and what we can do.  We are diverse in our faiths, diverse in our professions, diverse in our backgrounds, and diverse in our challenges, but we are capable.

Sydney Henry

Sydney Henry is a pastor & church planter on a journey to abandon comfort & safe living for risk taking and a mission driven life.
Sydney Henry

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14 Comments

  1. Excellent, keep showing them how amazing we are,my sister in Christ

  2. Pastor Sydney,

    I respect your journey of self discovery, very much.  You are the first Autistic pastor I’ve ever encountered.  I am presently in a respectful conversation with my local church about vulnerabilities I see in doctrine that may place the church at unnecessary risk.  They’ve agreed to review some things I’ve written for consideration and circle back in the coming months.

    If I may ask a theological question from a neurodiverse perspective:

    How do you feel about the interaction of God with Adam and Eve in Genesis from the viewpoint of behavioral management?  This is such a hot topic in the world of neurodiversity…not theology, obviously, but how the neurodiverse are treated by the neurotypical.  For me, this creates a significant theological mess.

    I have a hard time validating the assumption that Adam and Eve are guilty as the author seems to presume because I see other approaches that could have been used which could have provided at least a different (if not potentially better) outcome.  Do the concepts of neurodiverse vs neurotypical apply in how you review scripture?

    For example, if there were only three people in the room in the Garden: God, Adam, and Eve, I don’t understand why He did not give them a test He knew they could pass rather than one He knew they would fail?  This seems to be a tangle with the idea of omniscience.

    Every title the authors attributed to God seems to have raised the bar considerably on the authors to describe Him accurately and in such a way that His behaviors match the titles.

    Any insight would be appreciated.

    Adam

    1. Hi, Adam, hope you don’t mind me jumping in, though the question is addressed to Sydney, and I hope she’ll reply too!  There were four people in the Garden: you forgot the Serpent.  And Eve and Adam *could* have passed the test; they simply had to trust God’s love instead of their own “wisdom.”

      1. Hi Lucy,

        Thanks very much for the reply.  I appreciate the dialogue very much.

        You are absolutely right that the serpent did end up in the Garden at some point.  I guess I was thinking about the time frame before the serpent showed up and, quite frankly, the question of who it was that unlocked the gate and allowed the serpent to come in to begin with.  It’s the staging of the scene that’s troublesome….along with the response of God.  So, it makes me want to look for possible other motives the author might have had in writing the story.

        God is absolutely seen in the story as being authoritative, no question about that, but the author doesn’t seem to have a focus of showcasing Him as a highly creative educator there.  So, it’s not so much about being omniscient, but rather what He is doing with all that knowledge at the time the exam was proctored. 

        If sin can be viewed as a disability rather than an inherent evil, then I wonder what accommodations could have been made to the help the students feel more accomplished and proud of the work they had put into learning rather than immediately showcasing their first failure to pass the test.

        If we started five thousand years ago talking about disabilities rather than sin, I wonder what our world would look like today.  Would Jesus have still healed those with disabilities to make them look more like the “typicals”?  or would He have brought them all together and helped them create a platform and a voice?  Probably wouldn’t have mattered to the Roman Empire, though, unless the Romans could have seen the value in the inner strength of the disabled. 

        Lots of moving parts here.

        1. Hello Pastor Sydney!—and everyone else! 
          First I would like to say I thought I was ready a description of me in this blog.  I’m a newly set-diagnosed (as of now) autistic with a masters in theology.  My homiletics class was extremely hard for me because like you, I get like I was a robot who had to search for my preaching button.  If you ever want to chat or see my blog, check out my profile/site.  I have theological posts and I swear no one reads them. 

          Second- I also want to speak about the discussion about Adam/Eve and behaviorism.  There are several things going on here: first ones opinion of scripture and it’s interpretation.  While some take Genesis stories literally (I mean word for word)—I believe there is an element of storytelling.  God can be creative, right?  This helps me think outside the box when it comes to what happens.  Also, God as omniscient AND as Creator means He can see angles we cannot.  Something as created beings we cannot comprehend fully.  Similarity, just because you create something to behave it a certain way doesn’t mean it’s bad.  A chemist might mix chemicals that don’t match to study its reaction, to find ways to better the formulas, etc.  Gods reason?  —I leave that with Him.  I figure he knows better than me.  Finally—the author of the text maybe was writing what is culturally appropriate and we don’t fully understand that either since we’re so far removed. 

          This is an awesome blog thank you!

          1. Hey there Sara Ann

            This is great dialogue, as I’ve never been able to discuss the intersection of theology and autism.  I agree that this is a great blog to start the conversation.

            Years ago when my oldest (Autistic) son was very little, I pulled back from the church because I never saw a place in scripture for those that didn’t understand the Gospel message.  It seemed very much black and white in that you either accepted Jesus and were saved or didn’t and weren’t.  Never did I see anything about being able to comprehend the story line itself.

            Years later, as I’ve developed a vocabulary surrounding topics like autism, trauma, and behavior, I am finding other areas of concern, as scripture also doesn’t differentiate between sin and neurodiversity.  I’m not sure the church has really wrestled with this yet, but I certainly welcome the discussion here if nowhere else.

            It saddens me to see the lost opportunities after the expulsion of Adam and Eve to use the Garden further as more of an incubator for humanity.  It seems like Humanity was removed from the egg before the egg was fully developed here, and I can’t agree with the judgement on humanity if we weren’t ready for the tasks at hand.

            As I learned more about autism and the nervous system, I thought back to whether or not Adam and Eve couldn’t just have been overwhelmed rather than pegged for being sinful, and I had a strong reaction to the narrative altogether.

            These are things I hope to discuss with my pastor and the elders in the near future as well as a fictitious first person narrative exploring the life of Adam.  As I read the text, neither he nor Eve were given the opportunity to share their side of the story, and as someone who carries the name “Adam” myself, I feel the need to raise my hand and try to address these concerns.

            Thanks again for the meaningful dialogue.

            Adam

          2. Your welcome and thank you!  I am really trying hard to open people’s senses about what they talk about and how it would look to those not neurotypical.  I believe you have helped me there 😉

            I see your points about not being fully “developed” …  I think the Genesis story points to even those who are typical that we are inherently flawed.  All of us.  Regardless of neuro type.  Maybe the writer just described it as far as his (definitely a guy) could interpret and maybe as Scripture the bigger message is the one we’re supposed to hear. 
            There are two stories from the Garden in Genesis (chapter 1 and chapter 2) and in one God even is sad because Adam/Eve were forced out. 

            I try to steer from “salivation” discussion because while it is part of the discussion—I don’t feel that was Gods point and definitely not Jesus’ point.  It also belittles people, their stories and their value.  Something I fell God is 100% focused on no matter what they are.  The point i believe is to point to God.  Hence why I start with God Creator.  It helps me feel valued as am (the good/bad/whatever) and better knowing God sent Jesus. 

            (I think theology is my hyper focus…I would show up early to seminary and never want to leave class…)

    2. Author

      Hi Adam, thanks for commenting 🙂

      I often find that the underlying premises we hold can cause us to get stuck if we don’t reevaluate them. 

      It seems that you are equating ABA theories in regards to autism with the nature of autism, how autistic people learn and neurodiversity.  Not only is ABA not in any way compatible with neurodiversity, it does not accurately hold how autistic people learn. 

      Simply put, the Garden of Eden was not an ABA classroom.  It was not discrete trail training.  God was not and is not playing the role of a BCBA.  Adam & Eve were not ABA students being trained to behave right, for God is NOT in the business of behavior modification.  If God’s ultimate goal was right behavior, He would of made them so that they would always behave like He wanted to begin with.  The Almighty Creator does not need or operate through it’s created beings’ faulty “therapy”.  He is God after all.  However, that was not His ultimate aim.  God create Adam and Eve in His image and they themselves, sinful or not, were the prize and what He cherished.  He ultimately wants an intimate and authentic relationship between Him and them not robots.  So, He gave them free will and choice.  He was not testing them.  He gave them a choice and well….they chose. 

      Adam & Eve’s behavior/sin matters because it broke communion between them.  God is good and just and these attributes…His character means he cannot not address sin and evilness nor be in its presence.  It’s not what eating the forbidden fruit itself was so abhorrent, but the evil it represents and involved (the serpent). 

      Since this time God has been moving in His plan to reconcile us to Him.  And that method is through Christ’s death on the cross as propitiation of our sin, and acceptance of that grace by faith not by work.  Hid attributes of being gracious and just are held in tension.  Sin is addressed, but he provides us a way back to Him.  Again if good behavior was the ultimate aim, he’d make us behave right at once.  But, He does not because God is not in the business of behavior modification, but of heart modification and God does not value our behavior over us. 

    3. Author

      It should also be noted, that at these point in humanity there were only two of them.  Whatever their specific neurology, there was no neurodiversity as we understand it because it was just them.  They were the norm for humanity as the only two, thus they could not of been “disabled”.  They were neurotypical, whatever they were.  The Creator created them and therefore knew them in every way including their neurology.  The Garden of Eden was created with them specifically in mind.  They were accommodated. 

      1. Hi Sydney,

        Great to have your response.  Thanks very much.

        Since you mentioned ABA, which is obviously a pretty tense subject for many, I guess the question that might follow would be why God didn’t try to use something like play therapy (or simply some sort of games outside of any therapy model) to teach them.  To your point, it’s not so much that God would have to align himself with any kind of man-made therapy, but the situation seems to be very tense nonetheless. 

        When students are in school, there are lower stress time when learning happens outside the framework of an exam.  When many students know that a test is coming and even during the test itself, test anxiety seems to spike.

        What are your thoughts about “test time” vs “learning time” in the Garden?  I was under the impression that they were constantly being tested, as I didn’t find evidence of low stress learning time where mistakes were both allowed and expected.

        Thanks again.

        Adam

        1. Author

          Your premise that they were being tested or taught in the first place is inaccurate.  Your questions are not in any way relevant to the context.  It seems you are seeking to understand God and this biblical narrative through behaviorism.  However, neither can be understood through it, nor does it stand that such behavior therapy theories and principles even apply here.  The box you wish to put God in simply can not contain Him. 

          Again, God is not a behavioral therapist of any kind nor was the Garden of Eden any sort of behavioral therapy or classroom.  It would not be accurate to see God as a teacher and Adam & Eve students in such a way.  There was no “test time” vs.  “learning time”.  This is not a thing lol.  It didn’t happen because the Garden or Eden and what took place there was not behavior therapy or modification of any kind.  This includes ABA, play therapy, floor time, horse therapy lol whatever….:)

          God cannot be understood through Autism therapies and they aren’t necessarily relevant to neurodiversity.  Most in fact aren’t.  While neurodiversity and disability is certainly relevant in scripture, it is not in any way whatsoever relevant to this portion of it.  There is no logical way to conclude that in this point in humanity, where just two humans existed, that neurodiversity and disability even existed. 

          1. Hi Sydney

            Thanks again for the interaction.  You may be very right in saying my premise is inaccurate, which is why I’ve raised my concerns to the pastor and elders.  I’ve never attended seminary, so I have no doubt that there are things to discuss.  Like Sara Ann here, I have an affinity and curiosity for theology that could, to some degree, be considered a hyper-focus at times.

            I thought that being omniscient would mean that whatever title any human could ever have that God would be the best at that role— whatever that title might be.  If God were an pilot…or a swimmer..,or an astronaut,..or an artist….etc., I guess I also thought that, among competing theories, God would instantly know which theory was best or even know the theories we haven’t even discovered yet.  So when it came to theories on behavior, I figured the same would apply.

            I’ll circle back in a few weeks after I’ve had a chance to meet with the elders. 

            Thanks

            Adam

  3. very very well done for getting your self diagnosed ,it will help you a lot .YOU could take part in research .this would help you a great deal
    peoples views/judgements on ANY Disabilty are very Snotty Nosed .i have Aspergers and M.E .  long list health issues .i am from England
    my blog,http;//mark-kent.webs.com
    twitter,supersnopper
    Linkedin,AutismDad

  4. Thank you for sharing, its a beautiful blog and echo’s something I have just written on being dyslexic.

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