When I finished seminary as a young minister with autism I often felt excluded due to my lack of social skills and sensory issues. Disability and the Church is the perfect fit to help churches understand neurodiversity and learn ways to equip individuals like me for ministry.” Ron Sandison
Ron Sandison interviews Dr. Lamar Hardwick
In July, I wrote an endorsement for Pastor Lamar Hardwick’s new book Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion. The release date is February 9, 2021. I had the pleasure to meet Dr. Hardwick at the Inclusion Infusion Live conference in Cleveland, Ohio. After writing the endorsement for his third book, I interviewed Dr. Lamar to share his journey as a pastor and advocate with autism. I love Dr. Hardwick’s vision for empowering individuals with disabilities and autism for leadership in the church. He is a humble and powerful advocate in the Christian community.
1. What were the circumstances leading to your autism diagnosis?
I always knew that I was different from other people.
As early as 7 or 8 years old I began to feel that I was different from other kids. I didn’t always understand why other kids did the things that they did. I didn’t always understand the things that they said. I struggled to make friends or to keep friends. When I was younger the other children would say things like “You sound like a robot” or “Why do you always look so mean?”
Eventually I learned to pretend to be like the other kids in order to blend in. I didn’t always know what to do to be accepted but I did figure out what I should not do to be a target for bullies. So, I learned to pretend not to be smart and to be interested in things that the other kids were interested in. I taught myself a number of different coping strategies that worked well.
When I became an adult, I used the same strategies until they stopped working. In 2012 I was working for a large church in Georgia as a youth minister. When the senior pastor resigned, I learned that I was being considered to be the next pastor of the church. Until then I had spent the majority of my time with teenagers but when I had to spend more time in the adult services, I began to hear comments about my lack of social awareness, my facial expressions, and body language.
I struggled tremendously with social anxiety and anxiety attacks during this time. Coincidently, I was taking a class in my doctoral program that required me to ask seven people that I work closely with to evaluate me. One evaluation from a person I highly respected read “Lamar has a difficult time picking up on social cues.” At that point I had no idea what social cues were, so I did my research and eventually found information about autism online. Eventually I decided to seek a professional assessment, which led to me being diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
2. At what age were you diagnosed with Asperger’s?
I was 36 years old when I was diagnosed.
3. How has understanding your autism diagnosed helped you?
It has helped me to better understand how my brain works and how to best use my gifts and skills. It has also given me the freedom to focus on my strengths instead of my weaknesses.
4. How have you learned to handle your sensory issues?
I usually have to monitor my schedule very closely. I try not to participate in too many activities that can overwhelm me. I also make sure to create some margin in between activities. I have also learned to use some sensory hacks, such as chewing hard candy or gum, drinking hot or cold beverages to regulate my sensory input, or using stims such as pacing to help me. In the end I have to protect myself from too much input if I am going to be at my best.
5. What was your greatest challenges in transitioning into adulthood? And how did you overcome these challenges?
I was already an adult when I was diagnosed, but I think the greatest challenge is learning to live up to my own expectations of what I am capable of. Many times, I have found that people are less tolerant of adults on the spectrum because they expect them to be able to do certain things because of their age. I have learned to not live by other people’s standards.
6. What was your experience as a young adult with autism studying for ministry?
I often found myself having vastly different perspectives from my classmates. At first it was intimidating because I believed that I was always on the wrong side of an issue. Eventually I learned that I have unique way of seeing faith and the Bible that can offer keen insight into a discussion.
7. How has autism helped you as a pastor?
It has given me the ability to retain large amounts of important information and to have a laser focus on completing important tasks. I am also able to recognize patterns and use that information to predict trends and plan for future the future growth of the church and the community.
8. As an autistic pastor what are some unique challenges you face?
There are times that people misunderstand my facial expressions or body language. I also have to be mindful of my sensory processing challenges and how it impacts my ability to communicate.
9. How did your congregation respond to your sharing your autism diagnosis?
My congregation was great. They have been very supportive.
10. What advice would you give to a young adult with autism who desires to be in ministry?
There are many areas of ministry both inside and outside of the church. Take time to explore which areas spark your interest and allow you to flourish. Don’t be afraid to carve out your own path. If you want to make a difference you have to be willing to be different.
11. What inspired you to write Disabilities and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion?
The church has always struggled to be inclusive of those with disabilities. I wanted to write a book that helped the church and church leaders to understand that the church was born to include all the people on the margins that society has neglected. The church should be leading the way in disability inclusion. The church should also have people with disabilities helping to lead the church into the future. As a pastor I knew I could reach other pastors and church leaders with this important message.
12. What impact do you hope your book will have on the Christian community?
I hope that it will spark a passion for disability inclusion. I believe that when disabled people are absent from the church it creates a huge void. The church is only half as good as it could be without the disability community.
13. How can churches empower individuals with disabilities for leadership positions in ministry?
I think the church must first re-evaluate its ideas of leadership. I think the church often makes erroneous assumptions about who has the skills to lead. Once we learn that God can use anyone, including people with disabilities, then we can change the way we invite people into leadership in ministry.
14. How can theological seminaries better equip young adults with disabilities for ministry?
I believe that courses on disability and theology need to be mandatory in all seminary curriculum. I would love to see it incorporated in coursework about church history and systematic theology.
15. Please explain your concept of ministry with people with disabilities as a partnership?
Too often churches and other organizations take a paternalistic approach to the disability community. There is an assumption that people with disabilities always need to be coached or taught. The relationship is often not a reciprocal one which devalues the wealth of knowledge and experience that people with disabilities bring to the Christian faith. I believe that ministry should not be aimed solely and doing things for the disability community. Ministry should be done with the disability community. There should be mutual interest and mutual investment.
16. How can churches advocate for people with disabilities?
The church should always be a voice for people on the margins of society. I believe the church can leverage its influence in society to advocate for rights and equality for people with disabilities. Listen to the needs and desires people with disabilities and stand with them in their pursuit of justice and equality.
17. Why do you think the church struggles with diversity and inclusion?
At the core I think there is still a lot of harmful theology about people with disabilities that needs to be unlearned.
Many churches have not been exposed to accurate understanding about issues related to disabilities. We need seminaries, bible colleges, scholars, pastors, and leaders as well as disability advocates to teach the church about disabilities.
18. How can a church promote diversity?
The church can promote diversity by practicing it openly. Representation matters and diversity does not happen on accident. There must be intentional steps taken to model the diversity that the church wants to promote.
19. What are three barriers to inclusion?
The three barriers that I have identified are learning, linking, and leadership. We need education, opportunities for true reciprocal community with people with disabilities, and a pathway to leadership at all levels of our organizations.
20. What lessons can the church learn from the disability community?
The disability community can offer a unique and rich new understanding of faith, God, the Bible, justice, and inclusion that is lacking in many churches today. People with disabilities often experience the world in ways that can transform our ideas about what it means to be a person of faith.
21. How does your church incorporate diversity and inclusion in leadership?
With intentional planning and pursuit. We actively seek out people with a variety of experiences, levels of education, ethnicities, cultures, and disabilities. We also make every effort to have a large representation of every group in leadership in some capacity because those voices can help shape the programming and direction of the church.
22. What challenges has your church experienced due to COVID-19?
Like many churches we have had the challenge of not being able to gather together regularly as well as the challenge of remaining connected with our congregation virtually. It is also challenging to participate in many of the rituals that are important to the church because of social distancing requirements.
My endorsement for Dr. Lamar Hardwick’s book:
The largest minority group in the church is the disabled. This makes inclusion of people with disabilities an important part of the mission and vision of the church. When I finished seminary as a young minister with autism I often felt excluded due to my lack of social skills and sensory issues. Disability and the Church is the perfect fit to help churches understand neurodiversity and learn ways to equip individuals like me for ministry. The strength of Dr. Lamar’s book is his ability to teach pastors and leaders practical steps to empower people with disabilities for leadership and use their gifts to advance the kingdom of God. I love his concept of ministry with people with disabilities—a partnership. This book will inspire your church to be an advocate in the disability community. I highly recommend Disability and the Church to every leader, pastor, and educator who has a passion for inclusion and a desire to equip the whole body of Christ for the work of ministry.
Ron Sandison, author of Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom, and founder of Spectrum Inclusion
Dr. Lamar Hardwick’s BIO
In 2014, after years of silently struggling with social anxiety and sensory processing disorder, and a host of other significant issues, Dr. Hardwick was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Aspergers Syndrome). He was 36 years old when diagnosed. His articles and blogs can also be found on his website www.autismpastor.com. He provides workshops, seminars, and consults churches, faith-based organizations, and schools on creating environments for people with autism. He also provides mentoring services for teens and young adults on the autism spectrum. Dr. Hardwick is the author of the bestselling book I am Strong: The Life and Journey of an Autistic Pastor.
Amazon Link for Disability and the Church: A Vision for Diversity and Inclusion
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom published by Charisma House and Thought, Choice, Action. He has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes.
He frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016. You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.