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Leadership Journal

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Pastor With ADD

Pastor With ADD

Seeking help for my distractions yielded tremendous blessings.

Fully resolved, once again, to make significant progress on my sermon for the coming Sunday, I sat down to pray. Sermon preparation frustrated me like no other responsibility.

As I tried to concentrate, the red flash of a cardinal landing on the windowsill caught my eye.

What sound does a cardinal make? It will just take second to Google that.

The search engine homepage greeted me with "Malaysian Man Pulls 328 Ton Train with His Teeth." Well, I've got to read about that; could be a sermon illustration.

After reading about the Malaysian man's herculean fear, I tried to remember how my Google search began. Oh, yeah, cardinals! Are the Braves playing the Cardinals soon? Won't take long to check that.

Stop! What am I doing? I need to start working on this sermon. I just need to pray.

"Lord, I have so much on my mind. I need to make some progress on this message today …"

That cardinal is still out there. What's he eating? We have a leadership meal tonight. I need to send out a reminder email …

I stopped praying, and scanned my long list of unread emails. I'll just read the important ones. Scanning the names and subject lines, I saw one from an elder: "CU at Breakfast."

I totally forgot about breakfast! I dashed out the door, hoping to make it to the restaurant before he left. As I raced out the door, my doctor's office called. They wanted to know, had I forgotten my physical?

History of distraction

Recently, at 46, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. In retrospect, the only surprise regarding this diagnosis was that I did not recognize it sooner. The signs were obvious. Most individuals with ADD can look back over the course of their lives and see familiar patterns.

When I was seven, I begged my mother to let me play little league football. I knew only two things about football: all my friends played it and the jerseys were cool. My mother shelled out the registration fee and the cost for cleats and a uniform. It was the beginning of an illustrious two-week career. Football practice proved to be a distraction from more pressing endeavors: searching for four-leafed clovers, chasing butterflies, wondering if The Hulk could beat The Thing, and if either one could beat Superman.

My coach did not appreciate my contemplative spirit. He would grab my face mask and scream, "You don't listen!"

It's a charge I've heard from countless others since. My inability to concentrate has plagued every relationship—with my colleagues, with my wife, and even with God.

My wife jokes that she's wanted to send me a postcard with a picture of the planet Earth, with a caption that reads, "Wish you were here!"

I have "zoned out" of more conversations than either of us care to remember, but she is kind, understanding, and more patient with me than I am.

For years I struggled with frustration, mild anxiety, and a low self-esteem. Sermon preparation highlighted my inadequacies like nothing else. I could only read a few paragraphs before my thoughts drifted. A few frustrating hours later, having little to show for my efforts, I would put sermon prep off for another day. Of course Saturday night would inevitably arrive, and I'd be up late, with a half-baked sermon and a knot in my stomach.

I had resigned myself to a life of frustration when a casual conversation with a friend opened my eyes to the root of my problem. He began to describe how he had recently been diagnosed with ADD. As he shared his experiences, they were painfully familiar to me. I sat in stunned silence.

He told me about long line of frustrated teachers, coaches, and employers in his life. He detailed the laundry list of incomplete projects he'd undertaken. He described bouts with depression, anxiety, and low confidence. More important, he told me of the positive changes brought about by this revelation and the therapy that followed. As I recognized my story in his, I felt something I hadn't felt for a long time: hope.

Getting Help

I made an appointment with a psychologist, who, with a combination of interviews and testing, diagnosed me with ADD. While psychologists cannot prescribe medication, they can provide testing, make a diagnosis, and suggest lifestyle changes for managing ADD.

In addition to helpful therapeutic advice, my psychologist recommended that I talk to a psychiatrist about medications and encouraged me to read Delivered from Distraction by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey. I found the book extremely helpful. The authors discuss practical approaches for managing ADD as well as the medications currently prescribed for ADD. Unlike many disorders, ADD actually has a positive side. In fact, Hallowell and Ratey prefer to think of ADD as more of a trait than a disorder. They write:

"People with ADD have special gifts, even if they are hidden. The most common include originality, creativity, charisma, energy, liveliness, an unusual sense of humor, areas of intellectual brilliance and spunk. Some of our most successful entrepreneurs have ADD, as do some of our most creative actors, writers, doctors, scientists, attorneys, architects, athletes, and dynamic people in all walks of life."

That took away some of the stigma for me, and I began to see that, with a little help, I could minimize the drawbacks of ADD while utilizing some of the benefits.

As with any treatment associated with mental and emotional health, the decision to take medication as a treatment for ADD is a personal and difficult one. I worked as a psychiatric nurse for seven years and I still found myself struggling with stigmas and stereotypes. Consultation with my physician, my wife, and a trusted friend, as well as my own research, led me to the conclusion that this was the best course of action for me.

Getting help for my ADD has been one of the best decisions of my life. No, I haven't morphed into a paragon of discipline, but I enjoy a greater sense of productivity and wellbeing than I have ever known. In addition to taking medication, I have made practical changes in the way I handle my lifestyle, schedule, and organization. Previously, I felt like I was standing in the batter's box with dozens of fastballs whipping past me. Now I can focus on one pitch at a time, and I feel confident I can connect. I can complete my sermons early in the week. The once ubiquitous piles of paper are disappearing from my desk, and procrastination is no longer the menace that it was.

More important, I can listen. I can listen to my friends, my son, and my wife. She no longer finds herself thinking, Wish you were here! I'm more fully present than ever. It has also had a positive impact on my spiritual life. I am now able to obey a command that has eluded me all of my life: "Be still, and know that I am God."

David Slagle is pastor of Veritas Church in Atlanta, Georgia.