Leading with Dyslexia

As part of my preperation for ordination, one of the workshops I attended at a provisional retreat was on cultural barriers. I don’t remember much about the workshop except that the person teaching it gave us all a copy of a long passage of scripture in Spanish and told us that we were to all read it aloud. I asked if I could pass, as reading aloud unprepared that amount of English in front of fellow preachers is intimidating but to read in a foreign language is terrifying. No. At 25 years old, I struggled through a lengthy peice of Spanish scripture. It seemed no one else did. I certainly was the only one who had tears of frustration as they read.

In college, I learned that not everyone had to read a sentence three or four times before they understood it. I learned when I was 18 that it was not normal to start reading in the middle of the sentence or have the letters all of a sudden make no sense on the page or be really sure you know how to spell a word but also sure that it doesn’t “look right”. I was blessed in some ways to grow up in South Carolina where the educational system was not so stringent. I was never identified as anything but a poor speller and weak math student. I had great teachers who worked with me. Unlike many people with dyslexia, I was never put in special education classes or identified as unable to learn.

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I worked hard. I never wanted anyone to treat me differently because of the way my brain absorbs information. Really I never wanted anyone to know I had a “disability”. I had to read my books twice in seminary. I had to listen to lectures on the road to and from school. I didn’t have straight A’s but considering the two babies I had in seminary and the toddler I had at home, plus the two churches I was serving at the time, I feel fortunate both to have accomplished what I did but also to have learned what I was able to.

It does not matter how intelligent you are, when you announce hymns and you flip the numbers you feel dumb. Or when you are reading a passage of scripture and the words suddenly don’t make sense, you feel like the biggest idiot in the room. Every time my brain freezes when I am in the role of pastor I think of Bishop Kammerer saying to me “Take thou authority” and I wonder if I should have really been entrusted with that authority in the first place.

It is a vulnerable and scary place to lead with a learning disability. Because I learn the way I do I think I know something, I am so sure of it, and then I find out it’s true of one thing and not the other. That is so confusing in church polity. It’s embarrassing to always have to look things up but I cannot recall either paragraphs from the Book of Discipline nor chapter and verse from the scripture. I have to talk things out. And sometimes I talk through are ideas that are crazy and make no sense but I usually get to a simplified version that does make sense. It just takes me a little longer. I constantly have to apologize because time glides away from me and I don’t know where it goes expect that I do because it takes me so much longer to do brain tasks than it seems to take everyone else. And I always have to apologize because I miss things, or I think I know something and I don’t, or I “take my authority” on something I know to be best for the church but the change is not communicated in the clearest way.

Leading with dyslexia has taught me humility. It has taught me to be willing to step back and examine my shortcomings. It has given me the art of the apology. It has taught me how to shake of the dust from my feet.

I also suspect that like me there are a number of clergy and laity who struggle every day with a “hidden” challenge that makes them feel limited. The more I have talked about being dyslexic the more I have heard not only surprise but others struggles with learning disabilities, ADHD, depression, and more. Things we try to keep silently in the background that profoundly effect how we lead and who we are.

I think if I can claim the uniqueness of how my brain works and celebrate it, instead of constantly apologizing for how God made me to be I can focus on the many blessings it brings. Even more, I can help those whose journeys with dyslexia have led them to believe that the church, and perhaps even God, could never call them as a leader because they have nothing to offer.

I long for the day that I stop being ashamed because I was sure of something and I didn’t pour over the BOD or the history books or the whatever to triple check it. I long for the day I do not feel less than because I “cannot” like someone else but instead can celebrate the things I can that are unique to me because I was fortunate enough to have a brain that sees the world differently than everyone else.

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