For years, Americans had an easy default when they thought of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): It was the stereotype of a distracted kid goofing off at a game or a fidgety student losing interest in class.
No one imagined a middle-aged pastor trying to finish his sermon draft late Saturday night.
But as rates of ADHD continue to rise—with an uptick in diagnoses among women and adults—the picture of the disorder has become nuanced, and more people are coming to terms with their ADHD, including in ministry.
The symptoms of ADHD can be particularly challenging for pastors, whose all-encompassing vocation often comes without the administrative help that they need.
When Chad Brooks sees a pastor with ADHD, he sees someone who will either burn out in ministry or become the future of the church.
Brooks is a pastor and coach who works with United Methodist Church (UMC) pastors through the UMC ministry Passion in Partnership. The UMC requires a midcareer strengths assessment for all pastors, and Brooks has noticed that when pastors come to him for coaching and have scored poorly in their preaching skills, they often have a clinical ADHD diagnosis.
He developed a course called “Preaching Through Distraction” to help pastors learn to work more efficiently during the week rather than using the adrenaline of procrastination to crank out a Saturday night sermon.
A growing number of pastors reach out to Brooks for one-on-one coaching because their ADHD makes paying attention in a classroom setting too difficult.
“These people are deeply passionate about people and ministry, and if we cannot figure out how to be alongside each other, we are going to miss out on things we desperately need right now,” he said.
ADHD expert Russell Barkley says ADHD is best understood as an impairment of executive function, the self-control necessary to sustain action toward a goal. Executive function controls brain functions like inhibiting behavior, monitoring emotions, and planning and problem solving—in other words, the things you need in order to adult.
Barkley’s definition conveys the myriad ways ADHD can disrupt life. For pastors with ADHD, essential aspects of modern pastoring like planning meetings, managing appointments, studying Scripture, and preparing sermons are daunting. At the same time, many with ADHD report an ability to hyperfocus, though their brains might not fixate on productive things.
The prevalence of ADHD diagnoses, which shot up further during the pandemic, has largely gone unnoticed and unaddressed by the church, even though more pastors with the condition are feeling the crunch.
As church size shrinks, churches expect their pastors to be generalists who can manage everything, and pastors with poor executive functioning battle both the stigma and themselves.
For Brooks, much of his work involves helping pastors be honest with themselves about their strengths and weaknesses and develop habits that fit how God made them.
He asks his clients to document how they spend their time since time management is a major struggle for people with ADHD. By making a plan to break down tasks like sermon preparation into smaller pieces, pastors can manage their workloads without waiting for the adrenaline rush caused by procrastinating.
Casey Cease is a lay pastor and coach who also works in marketing and publishing. He believes his ability to switch gears among several enterprises is one result of his ADHD. He enjoys the variety.
Though no longer working as a church planter, Cease recalls how much he dreaded writing his sermons. As a church planter in the Acts 29 network, Cease believed his personal sermon style should match the academic, intellectual styles of Don Carson, Tim Keller, and John Piper. Yet the more Cease tried to craft his sermons like other pastors, the worse the sermons became.
“I felt like I was deficient,” he said.
Now when he preaches, about once each month, Cease gives himself permission to lean into the things that help him be faithful to the text, mindful of his congregation, and open to the Holy Spirit’s work.
Schedules are key. Cease sets aside Tuesday as sermon preparation day and schedules time for physical activity on Tuesday to help with focus. He prints out the text and uses pens and highlighters to physically engage with the passage while he thinks about it. By the end of the day he hopes to have a general sermon outline so that if he doesn’t have time to come back to it until Saturday, he can still preach a sermon that is faithful to Scripture.
For Cease, part of accepting his ADHD is accepting that his best sermon work naturally happens early Sunday morning. When he learned how to work with his brain rather than against it, “the stress of procrastination went away,” he said.
Sermon prep is still a struggle, but with a plan to break it down, the task no longer feels overwhelming.
As with his sermon prep, Cease has discovered ways to make spiritual disciplines more effective so his thoughts don’t wander as much. Getting outside for solitude, praying while walking, writing out prayers—the more Cease involves his senses, the more he engages his mind.
It also helps that Cease’s pastoral ministry was starting a church. People with ADHD often get excited about big ideas, and their energy is contagious. They draw others in with a compelling vision and then leave it to more administratively gifted people to handle the details.
Brooks noted that many people with ADHD are gifted at bringing people together, what the CliftonStrengths assessment calls woo. Cease said he was candid with his congregation about his struggles with ADHD and his anxiety and depression, building in transparency from the church’s earliest days.
Matt Podszus believes his ADHD makes him great at connecting with people. He’s naturally curious and intuitive, and when he started a campus ministry with The Navigators, ADHD energized him for the early days of a new endeavor when the future was undefined. He sees now that his ADHD helps him intuit connections and untapped possibilities that other people miss.
His ministry grew, but with it came more responsibilities. Managing projects, answering more emails, and attending more meetings strained Podszus to the breaking point. “I can viscerally feel it like a headwind,” he said.
Many of the pastors interviewed for this piece serve as church planters or have started new ministries. They reported that new ministries offer an interesting variety and fit well with their energy and ability to coalesce people around a vision.
Mike Emlet, a Christian counselor and medical doctor, said people with ADHD can feel ashamed that they don’t work or think like other people. Whether pastors or parishioners, Emlet sees people with ADHD internalizing the idea that the diagnosis defines them.
“We need to decouple worth, value, and righteousness from our performance,” he said. “Instead, the gospel calls us to ask, What does faithfulness look like today?”
Sometimes gospel faithfulness is taking the medication necessary to help the brain focus.
“I often thank God for providing my medication when I take it,” Cease said.
Medication and counseling have given Jeff Davis back his life. He’s now an active lay leader at Stonebriar Community Church, near Dallas, but teaching Sunday school and leading small groups were much harder before he began treatment for ADHD. In fact, Davis was homeless for nearly two years; he said his poor executive function prevented him from finding and holding a job.
He was morbidly obese because overeating felt like the only way to calm his brain. Counseling and ADHD medication have helped him find better ways of managing his ADHD symptoms, and he’s lost 80 pounds since the fall of 2022.
The once-homeless computer engineer is now the vice president of engineering for an AI chatbot company.
There is little written about ADHD from a Christian perspective, so Davis blogs about it to destigmatize a struggle that has defined his life. While milder forms of ADHD can have advantages, Davis’s ADHD has been a struggle without an upside.
“Is it an illness? I was homeless. I lived in my truck for 20 months. If that’s not a mental illness, I’m not sure what is.”
He said the response to his blog has been positive, with many readers thanking him for finally talking about something that rarely gets discussed in church. He gets frustrated when people at church treat ADHD as simply an inability to pay attention.
Podszus said the word just is triggering “because whatever they are going to say after that will not be feasible.” Like just answer the email, or just follow through on commitments.
Podszus is a student at North Park Seminary, and even applying for a reasonable accommodation at seminary is hard for someone with ADHD—the whole reason the accommodation is needed in the first place. Filling out applications, scheduling meetings, and obtaining documentation require an attention to detail and follow-through that feel impossible to the ADHD mind.
Emlet noted that 1 Corinthians 12 teaches that each believer is gifted and necessary for the body of Christ.
There are benefits that the ADHD can bring, particularly out-of-the-box problem solving. Podszus said his lack of attention to detail means he can empower his ministry teams to do their work without micromanaging them.
Brooks said the entrepreneurial, energetic giftings present in so many ADHD pastors will make them indispensable to the future of the church.
“We are going to need these leaders because in the places where I am working, I need 20 entrepreneurial pastors yesterday,” he said. “These are the pastors that our current age needs the most.”