I’m one of those people who has trouble thinking inside my brain. It’s like my thoughts need to breathe, and they can’t when they’re trapped within the confines of my skull. So, if I’m ruminating about something, I need to talk about it, or write it down, or do something to get it outside myself, where I can examine it and turn it over and tweak it until it looks like what I’m thinking (at the moment, at least).
As an external processor, I recognize that many people in the world around me are internal processors. For a long time, I tried to emulate them, assuming that was the normal way people share their ideas. But I’ve grown suspect of words like normal, and I’ve decided that I can only be who I am. Who I am is an external processor.
Internal processors formulate their ideas into thoughts before they reveal them to the world. I suspect most of them believe that’s the way everyone else thinks. When they spend time with someone like me, they may wonder why I feel compelled to say everything that pops into my head, why I don’t think things out before I speak. I want them to know that I AM thinking things out, but I need to do that WHILE I speak.
Back when I worked with Bishop Bob Kelley, he conducted all his correspondence with a Dictaphone. He’d record what he wanted to say, word-for-word, and then a secretary would later listen and type his words. I couldn’t imagine ever doing that. I would be going back and changing what I said so many times that it would be exhausting for both of us. I love word processing on a computer screen because I can read and re-write what I have written again and again before I'm satisfied with what I’ve said. If I tried to think like Bob Kelley, my head would explode!
For much of my life, I’ve envied internal processors. It’s a lot safer to share your thoughts when you can clearly own them than it is to share thoughts in process, thoughts that aren’t fully formed. We external processors open ourselves up to the possibility of being misunderstood. When we speak, we’re vulnerable.
Early in my ministry, I was figuring this out. Sometimes in meetings, I kicked myself for saying too much. Then the next time I would try hard to keep my mouth shut, and I kicked myself for not saying enough. I finally arrived at the conclusion that I’d rather kick myself for saying too much than for saying too little. And really, for someone like me, that makes sense. If I’m engaged, if I’m a part of the process, I can’t keep my thoughts to myself.
Being an external processor presents challenges for me as a pastor. I am not good off-the-cuff. If I don’t write down what I intend to say, I can go someplace I didn’t plan to go in a split second. On Sunday mornings, this happens regularly during announcements, or the children’s sermon, which are unscripted. I routinely jump down rabbit holes or say things I ought not to have said. Oy! It can be difficult for folks who expect their pastor to be diplomatic and in control of every word she speaks. With me, that just ain’t gonna happen, so unless they’re open to adjusting their expectations of a pastor, I’ll probably leave them bewildered and scratching their heads, asking, “What was THAT?” (This is just one reason why I really need to serve a congregation that's forgiving and has a sense of humor.)
It may not always be easy for people who work with me. As their pastor, they may expect me to give definitive declarations that they can accept or reject, and then we move on from there. Instead, what they often get are random thoughts that I’m still processing. I expect them to add their own thoughts to the mix, and then together we can figure out how we'll move forward. It’s called collaboration, and for me, it’s the only way to do ministry. It’s creative, and it involves everyone in the process. The results are always more fruitful than they would be if I sat in my study and came up with a final product all on my own and prescribed it to others.
I’m blessed to be serving in a setting where, for the most part, collaboration is expected. My external processing is truly a gift. I work with a staff team that listens to my ruminations on a daily basis. They help me sort through my thoughts and there is synergy when we put our minds together. The same is true for congregational leaders, although they aren’t as readily available to me when I’m thinking through a new idea. My way of external processing works well in a congregation where decisions are made collaboratively and all God’s people contribute to the ministry we share. I know the Spirit can work within the confines of our individual skulls, but she seems to thrive in an environment where she is free!
So, I’ll keep doing what I do. I won’t keep my thoughts to myself and I’ll invite others to join me. God will work with that. I’m counting on it.