what does autistic spiritual leadership look like?

Becoming an ordained interfaith minister has been a difficult path. There’s a reason many other neurodiverse folks don’t tread the same ground. Amid working toward my version of autistic spiritual leadership, I continually face questions, doubts, and uncertainty that I find important to discuss.

I didn’t walk into this ministerial formation process knowing I was autistic. The beginning of each journey began quite simultaneously, which I see as no accident. Only until I realized my autism did I realize the greater purpose behind my work.

I could pursue autistic spiritual leadership without ever disclosing my diagnosis–first personal, then professional. It’s a part of myself I could push under the rug to make my exterior process smoother, less “controversial.” However, I knew I couldn’t do that. I’ve done unknowingly my entire life; I wasn’t about to keep up the charade.

Let’s dive into what autistic spiritual leadership is and what it can look like. I’m not the first autistic minister and certainly not the last. Neurodiversity needs to exist in spiritual leadership. We need representation. And that representation can be just as powerful and effective as any other person in the pulpit.

breaking the traditional mold.

When you consider a minister or spiritual leader, what qualities come to mind? Likely, you’re thinking of empathy, compassion, a degree of assertiveness, extroverted, and friendly. A people person. A voice that can resonate through a place of worship to every pew and congregant.

Now consider the qualities of autistic people. This might have you looking up the common traits associated with autism, or what you’ve seen in the media. That person coming to mind…likely seems like the complete opposite of that stereotypical minister.

I get it. I butt my head into that image every single day. The problem here isn’t just unfairly parring down a spectrum of diversity into single assumptions in both regards. You’re also limiting the communities you can truly build and support. No wonder neurodiverse folks can feel excluded from places of faith and religion altogether.

Pursuing spiritual leadership as an autistic person means going against the grain. That common theme trickles into every aspect of every step I’ve made thus far and where I may eventually go. To even begin doing so, someone has to break some barriers and stereotypes.

autism & spiritual leadership: contradictory?

I guess you could say I’m like Alexander Hamilton in being “young, scrappy and hungry.” Once I felt called to ministry (still deciphering how that looks), I jumped in head-first. Go to seminary, get working, get ordained….sounds easy enough, right?

Think again. Besides being at least a decade younger than my fellow seminarians (presumably less life experience), I was also the only open neurodiverse person in the room. If it didn’t hit me in the face like a ton of bricks before, I should knew it then. (Wait, you’re telling me you can be conversant with others for 9+ hours a day and not want dissolve into the ether?)

The curriculum, focused upon spiritual care in a variety of settings, also didn’t completely resonate with what I hold true. Just as we carry different spiritual beliefs and traditions as truth, we also have different ways of being, thinking, functioning, communicating, and caring for ourselves and others.

We learned forms of spiritual assessment, active listening, ritual-making, and more, much of which I struggled to identify with. I can empathize (too much, at times) with those who do resonate with these baselines for spiritual care, but we must also acknowledge that not everyone will.

I specifically think back to a class on Spiritual Psychology. For five lengthy days, we studied and sat with the same Tree of Life model that represents our multi-faceted psyche: grounded roots, a strong-willed trunk, and upward-facing, dreamy-eyed branches. Everyone in the room could places themselves into that model…except me. My autistic mind didn’t jive with it, and I wouldn’t expect myself to be the only one.

the case for autistic spiritual leadership

I approach my autistic ministry the same way I do with the Tree of Life model: I make it my own. I adapt what I know and have learned to welcome new, diverse perspectives. If we want places of worship and faith communities to feel like safe havens, then we must ask ourselves, what will make everyone feel safe? Appreciated for who they are? Celebrated in their full authenticity?

Autistic people have an interesting way of being both very young and very old, regardless of the candle count on the birthday cake. We possess a childlike joy and wonder, all while braving a society not made for us. We’re treated as incompetent, worthless, naive, “sick,” even unempathetic. Others define us by our weaknesses and whatever is deemed “wrong” simply for being different.

On the contrary, autistic people likely have the most empathy out of everyone in the room. We know what it’s like to fail, to feel like an outcast, to continually struggle and need extra support. Even if our modes of communication don’t look neurotypical and “normal,” that doesn’t mean we aren’t actively listening, showing compassion, or providing exceptional support. You don’t have to touch someone or look into their eyes to demonstrate that you care.

In fact, my autism is forming into a key facet of what I seek in ministry. Think of the expansive opportunities and ideas that can come from any form of diversity, let alone neurodiversity. I’m not the first autistic minister, and I’m sure not the last. Especially as our COVID world moves to new dynamics and formats, many of which are distanced and online, autistic people can easily lead the way. We can make faith more accommodating, truly exemplifying what God truly represents.

Yes, this journey hasn’t been easy. Questions continue to arise. Doubts seep in, if I’m qualified or capable enough. Which only further compels me to keep going, keep sharing. Our world needs autistic spiritual leadership. I will make sure it happens.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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