Dyslexia and Christian ministry


In my first year at theological college, aged 33, I discovered I was dyslexic. I guess I had known it since my mid twenties when my then fiancée’s house mate, a special needs teacher in Cambridge, told me she thought I was dyslexic.

As an engineer, with a good degree from a Scottish University, I had used all the strengths of dyslexia (3D thinking, visualisation of buildings in my mind’s eye; sales and marketing of a structural engineering system which relied on being able to combine the economics of construction with technical stuff). I had project managed a couple of small contracts in Singapore and really enjoyed it, pulling together teams from different disciplines to get the job done. I had not needed to know that I might be dyslexic.

What I discovered toward the end of my time in construction was that I could not write a legal letter for toffee. A couple of our bigger contracts had gone legal and I was given the job of wrangling with the main contractor. I’d take letters into my director’s office, knowing that I was unsure about what I had written, asking for help to review them, to be shown that I had no grasp of logical, legal, written argument. I knew what the problem was technical and contractual but I could not explain it on paper.

In my opening week at theological college I was told that essay writing is like a legal letter. The aim of an essay is to argue a point. I knew I’d struggle. Another struggle was reading the bible in public which took 110% effort to lift the words off the page, mentally process them and then speak them with the right tone and emphasis.

Being a dyslexic minister of the word of God presents me with some struggles but some strengths. Dyslexia is the condition where the brain processes information conceptually and pictorially rather than verbally. As a dyslexic, I have no internal dialogue.

So, the struggles are mostly word based. I struggled in biblical Greek, taking it to third year at college I was convinced of its importance and still use Greek today, but it is not easy. I really struggle to preach biblical narrative, for reasons I can’t quite figure out. Where a passage is logical, then I can preach, because the work I find so hard, making a step-by-step logical argument, is done for me. I struggle with my diary and chronological thought, often leaving things too late to organise them properly or double booking without realising it until the moment is upon me.

The benefits of being dyslexic are based on the dyslexic person thinking in concepts and pictures rather than words. I see things and then describe them. And so, structural organisational thinking, forward strategic thinking, having a sense of where things are and addressing needs appropriately, all these things come easily.  When it comes to the bible I see patterns and connections in scripture.  I find easy to see links between the situation on the ground in the Epistles, the flow of the arguments or theology of the letter and it’s application to the present.

Although it is tempting, because of time, to drop word based ministry, I am determined to stick with expository preaching and so when I prepare a sermon my preparation goes like this:

  1. read the context of the passage
  2. do my exegesis (translating Greek when NT)  using text flow diagrams and lots of colour
  3. find the theme and aim sentences
  4. develop a sermon structure
  5. mind map it and write my talk in mind map software
  6. convert the mind map into a full text
  7. use my text to speech software to read my sermon to me
  8. edit it
  9. produce the final version with lots of colour on each page (blue, red and black work for me)

On weeks where time is squeezed I jump from stage 5 to 9.  I did that last Sunday only to find I could probably have removed 25% of my material which was repetitious.  The problem is, I can’t hear the repetition, even when I am speaking live.

I hang the ministry God has given me on the peg of 2 Corinthians 2:17.

For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.

I speak God’s word with sincerity and give the best I have each week.  I pray that God will take his word and write in on the hearts of those who hear, not because I am eloquent but because his word and Spirit are at work when God’s word is preached.

1 Corinthians 1:17  For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

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18 Responses to Dyslexia and Christian ministry

  1. Andrew Gray says:

    Oh – this is a fantastic post. I discovered I was dyslexic – not with words (though public bible reading and, this week, leading BCP is tough) but with numbers: dyscalculia. But the knock on effects are identical to what you have said. It is sometimes quite painful, especially when others can’t see why you struggle. I have developed many coping techniques including memorisation tricks to take best advantage of the visual memory. But college is hard. Work is often tough, and everything takes me twice as long as it should. I look out for other dyslexic kids and train them in their memory skills which unlocks their abilities, and you should see them fly! Once more, thanks so much for this post, it was encouraging.
    A

    • neilrobbie says:

      Hi Andy, welcome to TG. Word ministry is not the most obvious role for a dyslexic. One college lecturer said to me that he’d noticed how dyslexics often struggled to explain theological concepts in logical steps but once they had grasped something it was grasped with great clarity and, hence, conviction. I can only imagine he had Rico Tice in mind as he thought about this. Go well. The BCP leading comes easier after you’ve done it a while. Neil

  2. Pingback: Dyslexia and Christian ministry « Transforming Grace « Assembly ideas

  3. Andrew Gray says:

    Thanks for the encouragement! Yeah, i can relate to all that. What does one of these ” text flow diagrams and lots of colour” look like? I know mind mapping, but this is something new to me.

  4. étrangère says:

    Neil – you should make these sorts of methods you use available to Bible colleges, those teaching sermon prep. Too often, from what I observe, a one-size-fits-all approach is taught, not taking into account culture or personality, never mind learning and teaching styles. What you say about seeing things you describe rather than having an internal logical dialogue sounds to me like the difference often between global north and south: north will do a linear argument to get to a point; south will tend to take much longer to paint a picture. To learn, I actually think most people find the picture more persuasive: it just takes time. And linear arguments are probably a necessary part ot it.

  5. Andrew Gray says:

    For me, its the shape of the thing that matters, and not actually how the thing works or necessarily where it fits. I often talk in terms of finding the shape to a passage or a project before I can get a handle on whatever it is I am dealing with. Currently I am putting together a training day, and i was typing out some notes for people. It wasn’t till I screamed in frustration last night I realised I had overdone the details and was going round in circles. This is a recurring problem

  6. Gavin Hunter says:

    Thanks for sharing this – I stumbled across your blog and i too am dyslexic after finding out in my third year at the scottish Baptist College. I can echo a lot of your struggles. Thanks for encouraging me to peservere even in the midst of struggles. I know the reality of how God calls the weak things to shame the wise :) Praise God for that truth.

    • neilrobbie says:

      Hi Gavin, welcome to TG. We can do all things though him who gives us strength. Keep going. I don’t suppose you are any relation to Andy Hunter at Greenview Evangelical? He was the year above me at Oak Hill. Neil

  7. Gavin Hunter says:

    Hey Neil. No I amn’t any relation to Andy Hunter at greenview – However I know the of the ministry at greenview well as I studied with there youth/ community pastor Andy Lloyd Williams at ICC in Glasgow- Good church! Thanks for the welcome.

  8. Leah says:

    Thank you so much for this post! I found out that I am dyslexic last month after arriving in September at a Theological College. It’s amazing what a bit of Christian concern can do after years of asking for the test,

    Your techniques look very good. When I receive disabled student allowance (I have applied) I will be able to try them out on the technology, but until then I guess I will have to struggle on.

    Thanks again,

    Leah

  9. neilrobbie says:

    Hi Leah, make sure you get “The Gift of Dyslexia” by Ronald Davies http://www.dyslexia.com/bookstore/firstchapter.htm.

    I hope you find your gifts and learn to deal with your struggles.

    God bless

    Neil

  10. Love the post – as a minister and dyslexic as well I laught out loud at points knowing exactly what your talking about. Thank you for this post.

  11. phatnancy says:

    Great blog post! I too am dyslexic and Christian. I discovered after university when a dyslexic ex-boyfriend saw the same reading struggles he had.

    My dyslexia has been a great struggle and great gift as well. I cannot stand to read the bible in bible study – listening to it is much better for me. However I understand some of the greatest and most difficult passages in the bible with ease. Have figured out some of the greatest theological concepts without going to seminary or reading those texts that one does to figure it out. All because of my 3 dimensional thinking. My pastor is constantly amazed that I can think my way through these concepts and theories.

    Thank you for this post and keep working though your dyslexia. It is a gift.

  12. a says:

    I am dyslexic and I am a Christian I am studying the Bible with ywam and it’s so hard for me. Would love you to give me tips to help study please. God bless

  13. Jan says:

    I have known I was dyslexic since I was about 7 but in those days they didn’t really understand how to help me/others. I was brought up on the KJV, which I cant stand, too small type, difficult font and antiquated language. I went to a senior school where it was multi-faith and still was reading the KJV at church, basically I’ve found it really hard. I’ve really been put off the bible and I don’t read it very much. I wasn’t and am not looking for Theology I was/am looking to follow someone (minister/elders) who were/are gracious and serve and are an example.

  14. Mike says:

    I wish I had your positive response to dsylexia. I was diagnosed when I was young maybe first grade. I had special classes, and I did well, until high school and then my mind just din’t work anymore. It’s a long story, but I have to say I am jealous that you are able to tough it out. I got a small book of just the Gospel Of John, and I was excited as it had pictures and drawing and things like that, but now that I am home, it is an overwhelming feeling. It makes me feel so stupid. They say many of the brillient people that we know were dyslexic, but that’s like anything. Unfortunetly I didn’t get any of that brilliance in another part of my life. Please say a prayer for me. I love God, but I am really annoyed and frustrated with him, that I can’t study the bible, which is the word of
    God. I tried audio tapes, no good. The only time I get it, is when my pastor teaches it for 15 minutes in puts it into a context that I can understand, but he doesn’t do that a lot, and he lives far away so I dont have that chance, but then I will hear it and it is gone from me, or I get it all mixed up in my head.
    I am so discouraged. I always wanted to be a minister, but there is no chance, as I can’t write a paper to save my life. I am hoping this little book that I got will be helpful NIV Quickview Gospel of John. They only had the NIV, I was hoping for a different translationk but if it work, it would be great.

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