6 Ways to “Win” In Ministry When You Have ADHD

You’re flawed, but you’re not a failure.

Vocational ministry is a double-edged sword for a pastor with ADHD. For most people who suffer from this disorder, organizational skills, time management, and administration become huge nightmares for the leader with ADHD, the church team that surrounds them and the congregations they serve. Missed email, tardiness, and unfocused conversations can have a huge impact on the work that so many pastors are passionate about. Here are a few stats that put some of this in perspective:

  • Less than 20 percent of adults with ADHD have been diagnosed or treated, and only about one-quarter of those adults seek help.
  • More than half (60 percent) of adults with ADHD surveyed said they had lost or changed a job and attributed the job loss to their ADHD symptoms. More than 36 percent reported having 4 or more jobs in the past 10 years, and 6.5 percent responded they have had 10 or more jobs within the past 10 years.
  • Adults with ADHD are likely to have an anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, or other comorbid psychiatric disorder.
  • About 50 percent of adults with ADHD also suffer from an anxiety disorder. Adult ADHD symptoms that coexist with an anxiety disorder or other disorders may significantly impair the ability to function.
  • According to one study, a person who has ADHD is almost twice as likely as one who does not have ADHD to be divorced. A different study suggests that 58 percent of relationships with at least one person with ADHD are clinically dysfunctional—twice that of the non-ADHD population.

This ADHD thing is no joke. It affects every part of your life and when you’re in a position of leadership, it can devastate the potential impact and influence you could be having with those you lead. It feels like an unwinnable fight, but it’s not. Don’t ever expect to become an administrative Jedi, but, there are strategies and tools that can help you cope with the reality of your disorder.

***Before we get into specific strategies and tools, the first step is to get assessed by a psychiatrist. Don’t play games. If you’re an adult reading this, you don’t have time to muddle around. If you’re pastoring, in a relationship/married or have kids you’re already dealing with very tired people. Everyone is being nice to you, but deep down they are exhausted of dealing with you. It’s not that they don’t love you or think that you aren’t a talented leader; it’s that they’ve been selflessly picking up after you. Getting a private assessment puts on paper the exact type of ADHD you have, the severity of it and recommendations for specific strategies that can help you. It’s physical evidence that there is a problem.

  1. Get Friends: I don’t mean people you hang out with once in a while. I’m talking about friends who are like family. People who love you enough to tell you the truth about how your actions and behaviors have affected them. At the same time, you need friends who will love you unconditionally and journey with you as you figure things out. You’re going to need people in your corner. Ministry is hard and it’s lonely. Having friends that can shoulder you, call you out and push you are an invaluable resource for anyone, but especially for a pastor with ADHD.

    2. Get a Counsellor: Get an ADHD specialized therapist. These people are trained to deal with ADHD brains. They understand the neurology, as well as the behavioral challenges you face. They will be able to give you advice and help you strategize. Don’t cheap out! The cost at first is high, but over time you shouldn’t need to see your therapist as much (That’s the point of going to counseling). It’s well worth the investment for yourself, your family and your church.

    3.  Get Active: Dopamine, endorphins, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels spike when you’re physically active. For someone with ADHD “Exercise turns on the attention system, the so-called executive functions — sequencing, working memory, prioritizing, inhibiting, and sustaining attention,” It doesn’t have to be CrossFit. Even a 30-minute walk outside can do the trick.

     4. Get Administrative Help: Depending on the size of your church, you might not be able to afford an administrative assistant. You can, however, invest in resources that automate administrative processes for you. Online software like Planning center, Text in Church and anything by Google (docs, calendars, sheets etc.) can help you organize and follow up with your congregants. If you still need something to help you prioritize; the Productivity Planner is an amazing tool that keeps you focused. It integrates the Pomodoro technique which is such a helpful strategy for someone with an ADHD brain. If you’re willing to do some research, you’ll find that the number of resources and aids are endless. You have to find what works best for you. You’ll never be an amazing administrator, but you’ll be able to keep up…Mostly.

     5. Get a Hobby: Ministry lends itself to workaholism. A pastor with ADHD who is passionate about helping others spiritually will spend all of their time and energy doing church work. A characteristic of ADHD is something called “hyperfocus.” Hyperfocus is the tendency for children and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) to focus very intently on things that interest them. At times, the focus is so strong that they become oblivious to the world around them. Hyperfocus is the flipside of another ADHD symptom, distractibility. The drive to be “successful” and to accomplish a lot for God’s kingdom can drive a pastor with ADHD to work non stop, obsess and ultimately burn out. Find something you can put time and energy into that is not ministry. It will bring a level of fulfillment to your life and it will keep you balanced. You can even combine this with getting active. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure it is detached from your responsibilities at the church.

6. Get Honest: Stop acting like there is nothing wrong with you… There is. The only way you’ll ever feel like you’re winning at life is if you admit that there is something abnormal about your situation. If you have diagnosed ADHD and you’ve been hesitant to share it with people in your church, you need to get over it. If you’re a good pastor, you’ve taught your people to live in the tension between grace and truth. Although your team and your church might be frustrated with you, they love you. If they know that there is something wrong and see that you’re doing everything you can to cope with your ADHD, they will be more than willing to journey with you. If there has already been a lot of damage done because you’ve tried to deal with your disorder on your own, humble yourself and ask them for forgiveness. Your pride has gotten the best of you and whether you know it or not, it’s killing you.

I hope you’ve noticed I didn’t say anything about medication. Taking meds is a very personal decision. Studies are clear that a combination of medication and therapy is the best course of action for adults with ADHD. But maybe you’re nervous about meds. Make sure you talk to your family doctor about all the benefits, side effects and potential pitfalls. ADHD meds are NOT a silver bullet. They help, but they are not the ultimate solution for coping with your disorder.

Your life in pastoral ministry is not doomed. You can be a thriving leader who raises their capacity level and serves their church with excellence. Don’t believe the lie that you’re a screw-up and that you’ll never get it together. It’s not true. God has a way of helping those who seek Him for help. The very fact that you are reading this blog post is evidence that you want to get better. You are not alone, God has more for you than you can imagine and he’s using you in spite of your disorder.

ADHD Pastor // Part 2

“This doesn’t change anything. I’ve checked out and don’t know how to check back in.”

Her statement was as if a ton of bricks had come crashing down onto me. After the rollout of the assessment results and the official diagnosis, Carrie and I went to a local coffee shop to talk. I naively hoped that hearing that I had an actual neurological disorder would turn everything around. I wanted her to “love” me again and forgive me for all the horrible ways I had hurt her so that we could live happily ever after. I’ll just put it out there… I’m an idiot.

It was at that moment that I realized I couldn’t keep chasing her. I couldn’t keep trying to fix our marriage. If there would be any hope of us ever having a great relationship, I had to start figuring what was going on inside of me. The ADHD had absolutely influenced my thoughts, actions, and decisions, but it didn’t justify any of them. I knew at that point that I wasn’t going to get support from her. Honestly, I don’t blame her. She had supported and carried me for years. She was tired, disillusioned and was not in a good place personally.

The day after the diagnosis I went to my family doctor and asked to be put on medication. I showed her the assessment and she agreed it was worth trying. I also started doing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). I had read that a combo of meds and therapy was a strategy that seems to help most adults with ADHD to learn how to cope. I also found an amazing counselor. His name is Dustin and I love him.

Through all of this, my work life didn’t suffer. It became a safe haven for me. My bosses are the most amazing men I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. They supported, encouraged and walked me through the darkest period of my life without any judgment. They called me to integrity, to fight for what was right and always pointed me to Jesus. I am forever grateful for Marvin, Blaine and the whole Elim team . I’m a better man, husband, father, and follower of Jesus because of them.

I started meds in October and didn’t get fully regulated on them till January. The months in between were confusing. I felt numb on the meds. Even Carrie would tell me I was like a zombie which was very hard to hear. I took my meds daily, I did my CBT worksheets as much as I could. Slowly, I started to change. Some of it was the meds, but a lot of it was that for the first time in my life; I felt like I was winning. I could remember things. I wasn’t as emotional. I was completing tasks that normally would have overwhelmed me. I was enjoying moments with my kids and was not distracted. I could actually pray and read the Bible without losing attention. Friends were noticing that I was calmer and present when I was talking to them. I was changing and it was affecting everything.

Carrie through this whole process was still hesitant. Were these changes real? At the end of January that year I had just come home from speaking at our church’s young adult retreat. It was like any other normal Sunday night. Carrie and I talked after we put the kids to bed. She said she had noticed the changes in me, that things were different but that she was also afraid that everything would slip into the same tired patterns we had always known. I honestly thought that this was it. I thought that this was the conversation where she would finally tell me that she had made her decision to leave. Instead, that night she decided to meet me in the middle and to give our marriage another try.

The journey since then hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth it. I’m still on meds and I will be for the rest of my life. I’m still practicing the principles I learned through CBT. I still have off days where I forget things, can’t accomplish as much or am just simply struggling. But overall, things are completely different. I’m different. I’m married to my best friend… We’re actually friends. Our relationship is no longer co-dependant, it’s a partnership. Carrie doesn’t complete me, she’s not my soul mate… She’s the person I choose to do real life with. It’s sweet and it’s stable.

I finally feel like I contribute to our family’s success. Carrie went back to school and completed her education because I was able to handle things on the home front (imperfectly of course!). We started a business together that is succeeding in ways that we could have never imagined. Our kids have a dad who is present. Our life is not grand, it’s mundane in many ways, but it’s the life we are building together now, all five of us.

God took the mess I had made, and like a good parent gave me the tools I needed to clean it up.

Part 3 tomorrow // Tools to help you lead in pastoral ministry when you have ADHD.