My name is Donald Callahan, and I am the pastor of a small Baptist congregation in southeastern Minnesota. I have been a pastor here since 1984. My wife and I have 4 children. The following information is drawn from my own personal experiences, study, and opinions concerning stuttering in my 19 years of public ministry. I am not sure how I would be categorized as a stutterer, but I do have significant blockages and grimacing when I stutter. I think professionals would consider my stuttering "moderate."
Familial Aspects Of Stuttering. My family is very supportive of me. My wife and I married in 1979. She has always been a source of encouragement to me in many ways, my stuttering being one of them. She has a desire to protect me from people who would hurt me or make light of my stuttering. I sometimes prevent her from knowing what insults I endure so as to protect her. She says that I have always clammed up concerning my stuttering; I guess that is true. My four children have always had a dad who stuttered. I read books to each of them over the years and enjoyed it. I stuttered when I read, but not as profoundly as at other times. I have not spoken a great deal to them about my stuttering, and they have never talked about my stuttering much either. They are very offended when their schoolmates laugh at my stuttering. It is difficult for me to see them so hurt.
I had an uncle who stuttered. I remember family gatherings as a child. We would be talking around the table, and my aunts and uncles would tell me to "relax and start over." I had no idea why. How relaxed can a young boy get and still be able to start over? As I recall, those gatherings were not very relaxing after all.
Personal Insights On Stuttering. Here are a few of my thoughts concerning different aspects of my life in relation to my stuttering.
Why the ministry? The call to the ministry came very gradually over a period of 10 years as I enrolled in a Bible college and took pastoral classes. In college I had to take a speech class to graduate. To my recollection, this was the only time I spoke out in a class in my entire college education. I have taken my stuttering as a challenge for my life in some respects. I did not want to feel as if I was hindered by it, or that it had shortchanged my life in some way. I gave oral book reports in high school and never asked to do it after class or in private with the teacher. This desire, along with a desire to help and encourage others, was an important part of the call of God on my life as a pastor. My personal experience is unusual. I never said anything in a seminary classroom until January of 1984. I remember it so vividly. I raised my hand and asked a question. In April of 1984, I was called to a church as her pastor. Starting at the time, I was called upon to speak publicly several times a week.
What Is Wrong With Me? I have come to see my stuttering as an alien thing inside of me. It is a trespasser into my life. It is a parasite that feeds from the fears and frustrations of everyday life. It is something that stands between my environment and me. It has a desire to keep me inside myself, while I need to contact the environment and its people around me. For me stuttering is a lonely, isolating dynamic in life that seeks to keep its host alone and afraid.
Some Things I Have Learned. I am one who has not had a great deal of formal speech therapy. I remember a little of it in grade school and some in high school for a while. As I look back on it, what impresses me most is how weird it made me feel. I was called out of class to therapy and everyone knew where I was going. In spite of the lack of my formal training, I have come to some interesting conclusions.
The Emotions Of Stuttering. From my limited research into stuttering, I was very surprised to learn that the emotions of stuttering are common and not unique to me at all. These emotions are ones most commonly mentioned. While I do not feel all of these every day, they are familiar, as each one has had its turn to work in my life.
- No one really knows why I stutter. This fact alone has to be one of the most perplexing aspects of the stuttering phenomena for me. If I knew that my stuttering were genetic, physical, emotional or caused by some trauma in my childhood, I could understand it. Perhaps it could be fixed. My Dad told me he "used to stutter" as a boy. As a child, I remember him using his hands to gesture in a peculiar way when he spoke. This is interesting, but it really proves nothing. He doesn't stutter now, and I've never heard him stutter.
- I have had to develop ways to cope with my stuttering. I feel that coping is my responsibility. I cannot ask others to do this for me. Having a proper attitude is the most important part of getting along in the world. For example, I do not consider the phone a problem for me personally. I stutter when I am on the phone and am occasionally frustrated while using it. Usually, I am able to communicate well enough to get my thoughts across. I try to maintain an attitude of acceptance. This has become easier as I have gotten older. I feel I have less to prove at 50 than I did at 30. I also replace words and play with their order in order to form sentences and to try to avoid blocks. Synonyms and word order are important parts of my strategy. I have been told that such avoidance behavior is not necessarily a good strategy.
- I have had the experience of talking to pastors who stutter. One in particular was a seminary professor who taught me early in my seminary career. From these examples came the thought that I could do it also. Many thought that I was just dreaming. They thought that no one would come week after week to listen to someone who stuttered. This amazes me too. This speaks to the love and patience of the people of my church. Some were not willing to invest in me as a pastor, and others were.
- My experience in the ministry is that the context of my speaking is very important to how much stuttering will be a factor. My sermons on Sunday are always a challenge. Usually, if I am prepared and rested, I have a better time of it than if I am tired or rushed in my preparation. With the demands upon my time, it is difficult to be as prepared as I would like to be. Sometimes, no amount of preparation will help the delivery. Those days I just slug it out and hope for the best. At other times, I have a great deal of fluency and am not really prepared that well. Stuttering is hard to depend upon. Just when you think you understand it, it changes. This is a real frustration to me. It seems to have a capricious nature that loves to play with the circumstances I am in. Reading is usually more difficult than speaking. I often depend upon others for public reading or involve others in different parts of the service. Informal conversation is sometimes a challenge for me, while counseling situations are usually not a problem.
Social Aspects of Stuttering. As a public figure, I have seen many reactions to my stuttering. I find myself surprised when I come in contact with another stutterer. I think we should expect some reaction from people we meet.
- Feeling Foolish -- The most difficult time for this is when I am overheard in a public situation, and I know that I have drawn the attention of the people around me.
- Feeling Frustrated -- I have already mentioned the frustration attending certain aspects of stuttering. Some other ones are having a good joke and not being able to tell it. Perhaps I have a witty comment or insight into a situation and I do not feel the liberty to express myself. Perhaps I know that I will stutter and not want to risk it or I do not have the energy. I am tired or I do not want to risk it. Often, the conversation moves too quickly, and I am three sentences behind before I begin. My best attempts at humor are the self-deprecating ones. I do not often mention my stuttering, but I am not totally opposed to it. One of my favorites is: "In heaven everyone will stutter; that way it will just seem like an eternity."
- Feeling Inadequate -- I know some very talented people who feel inadequate in some circumstances. They simply avoid those situations and seem to live very happy lives. Most people feel inadequate when it comes to public speaking and will avoid it like the plague. The feelings of inadequacy from stuttering are (PERHAPS) a little larger than that. Self-expression is important to the sense of self-worth. When people cannot express themselves, they (MAY) have a diminished sense of value as a person. When they speak and people do not listen or look away, or they are ignored, the message often interpreted by the stutterer is very plain. "What I say or think is of no value. The content is not in question. The messenger is inadequate." When I am cut off or interrupted, I feel this way. I read a bumper sticker that said, "Speak your mind even if your voice shakes." I appreciate the sentiment in that.
- Feeling Isolated -- The first cousin to inadequacy is isolation. A person can feel very alone when he is in a group and trying to make small talk. Introductions are the worst. I avoid introducing myself if I can help it. It is especially difficult when the leader of a group gets the idea to go around the room and let people introduce themselves and say something about themselves.
- Feeling Anger -- Anger is a great motivator. When I am angry, I can usually express myself fairly well. Unfortunately, what I say is usually not that helpful under those circumstances. I get angry with myself when I stutter and feel foolish. The impatience of others is what really sets me off. When others are impatient or purposefully rude, I get angry. I get angry when other people are mocked for their infirmities as well. I take it personally. I have often asked "Why" of God, but I don't think I have felt anger towards Him for my stuttering . As a pastor, I obviously have a theological approach to life. There are some good things in my life as a result of my stuttering. I feel I am a better counselor as a result of it. I am more empathetic towards others as a result of it. I can be an encouragement to others who labor under some malady and wrestle daily with physical or emotional challenges. I feel it has given me a better insight into people in general. I tend to form opinions carefully and express them more fully as a result of having to think and prepare my thoughts more carefully. I feel that if I had never stuttered, I would have never been a pastor.
- Feeling Failure -- "If only I did not stutter." I do not have feelings of failure now, but I have had that gnawing doubt of, "What have I really accomplished"?
- Feeling Fear -- What if I stutter? If you are told to try not to think of an elephant, you cannot do it. I realize that if I did not try so hard not to stutter that my stuttering would probably diminish greatly. When I am afraid to stutter, then I stutter more severely. When I am not in a circumstance to fear stuttering, my stuttering is usually greatly reduced. My fear of stuttering promotes stuttering. If I had no fear of stuttering, there would not be a problem. I realize this, yet in some circumstances I hear the "tapes" playing in my mind of every laugh, snicker and comment from my youth on. My first experience with this fear was a Christmas program in church. I was in the first grade and was a Shepherd. I was to speak probably two lines and be finished. I could not speak, and I remember wondering why people were snickering at me. Kids are adorable in those programs, and I do not know why I was affected this way. I do remember the fear. I also remember my friend who threw up while we were waiting to go on. After that night, I played Joseph. He usually had no speaking parts.
Re-training My Memory. As I reflect upon my high school days, I realize that much of the agony I endured was self-inflicted. I could have been more sociable and been more involved in life in school. The same is true of my college career. I have many wonderful experiences and memories of great victories in my life where stuttering is concerned. I have a tendency to remember the difficult times and allow that to cloud my thinking.
- Surprise -- Most people are kind and not mean at heart. They may smile or look surprised when I stutter at first. I expect this and usually get through it without embarrassing them or me. People remember this and are more eager to help the next. Once a teen was so surprised she thought I was having a heart attack.
- Avoidance -- Some people just do not want to deal with it. My stuttering makes them uncomfortable.
- Impatience -- This is the most difficult to face. People who finish my sentences and tell me to "spit it out" are the most frustrating.
- Teasing -- In the past, I have tried to be a good sport about teasing and said that it didn't matter. I feel I can tease about it myself, but I do not like others to take that liberty.
I cannot leave this topic without thanking my church people for their love and acceptance of me over the years. Their patience and confidence in me has been a tremendous encouragement to me in my journey through the ministry.
You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to Donald Callahan before October 22, 2003.
August 19, 2003