About the presenter: Rev. Jerrie Shepard Matney has served as an interim pastor for the American Baptist Church for the past ten years. Prior to that, she served pastorates in Mass. and New York State, and presently lives in the Albany area. She is a graduate of Andover Newton Theological Seminary, Western Kentucky University, and Hiram College. She enjoys hiking, swimming, cross-stitching, and plate-collecting (not a good hobby for an itinerant pastor!) Since her son, Kris, lives in Boston, she is slowly, church-by-church, working her way east. .

You can post Questions/comments about the following paper to the author before October 22, 2005.

A Decade of Stuttering

by Jerrie Shepard Matney
from New York, USA

It took God almost twenty years to convince me to become a pastor. The short version of a very long story is that God persisted, and I was in my early thirties by the time I finished seminary and was ordained. One of the surprises of my life was that I loved parish ministry, and I joyfully served churches in Massachusetts and western New York. God was good. Life was good.

Then it happened. After 15 years of fluent preaching, I began to stutter slightly on the second Sunday of Sept., l995. I had just left an 11-year pastorate and moved to a new community and new church. I had also just taken my son to college (and cried through three states on the way home.) So I blamed it on all the transitions, but the next Sunday was even worse. I could hardly get a word out, and left the pulpit a few sentences into the sermon, as my speech got worse and worse.

Thus began a ten-year journey of the spirit - the mind - the body - and every other part of me that was intimately immersed in what I now refer to as "the stuttering wars." When I left the pulpit that day, I was sure I would have to resign, but the church loved me through two years of interim ministry, finding value in my work, supporting and affirming me in the midst of my struggles. They were able to hear the message in the midst of stuttering, they prayed with me before every service, and refused to let me quit. I will always be grateful to that congregation for saving my ministry, and perhaps my life.

It is difficult to describe what this small speech disability did to my spirit, especially during the first year and a half after it began. It altered my self-perceptions and even changed my personality. It also made me a bit paranoid: As I walked down the street or through the mall, I was convinced that people were staring and commenting on that stuttering pastor from the Baptist church! I was sure they wondered how the church could stand to listen to me every week. I began to question my call to ministry, which I hadn't done since ordination, began having panic attacks (not me), and became a quieter person (definitely not me.)

I struggled through many Sunday services, weddings and funerals - the joy of preaching totally smothered by my stuttering. There were times, after particularly severe episodes, when I was tempted to jump off one of the many bridges in the city. I never would have done it, but the thought was there, and that was scary enough.

Not finding good speech therapy at the time, I began to research everything I could about stuttering, reading multitudes of articles and writing to people in the top of the field. I was desperate to find out why this had happened to me, and of course, how to cure it.

Why didn't I just leave the ministry? I came close, many times. Part of it was the love and affirmation of the church, and part of it was that nothing else had been taken away. I still had energy, creativity, inspiration, and ideas, even in the midst of tears and fears and arguments with God. I just couldn't get the words out of my mouth! And ultimately, the primary reason was that I never felt "uncalled," even when there was every logical reason to look for another line of work.

At the end of that two-year interim, I took a short break from pastoral ministry. But I missed it, and was thankful to be called to another church six months later. I remember sitting with the church board, holding back tears as I anxiously told them of my speech problem, telling them that if they took me on, they took it on as well. By this time I had recovered a bit of my emotional equilibrium, and told God that as long as there was a church who wanted me, then I was in this for keeps. (I was to waver on that statement many times.)

I was still seeking a cure. I tried hypnosis, homeopathic medicine, and various remedies I read about in books and articles. Some of them worked for a time, then didn't. Some not at all. I joined online groups and corresponded with PWS and SLPs all over the world. I went in and out of counseling, in an effort to find a psychological cause. In the midst of this I served five more churches as an interim pastor, and at this writing am preparing to move to another.

There have been several signposts of improvement along the way, as I have discovered more and more resources. The most significant of these is a speech group, known as the Fluency Council, at the College of St. Rose. I found this group when I moved to the area three years ago, and it has changed my life. It is a unique program of both group support and individual therapy, and I am convinced that God brought me to the capital area so that I could be a part of it. Meeting other adults who stutter, many of whom struggle much more than I, has helped knock me off the self-pity wagon, boosted my confidence, and created valuable friendships. (If any of you are within driving distance of Albany, NY, it's definitely worth the trip.)

This program helped improved my attitude significantly, as did my work with another speech therapist who specializes in mind/body, mind-to-muscle connections. I was able to put my stuttering in better perspective - no longer was it this horrible dark cloud that hung over my life, ruining every speech and every sermon. There is certainly more work to be done, and some days are better than others. But with the changes in attitude, my speech steadily improved. Being a believer in accessing all the resources I can, I now have top-of-the-line counseling and spiritual direction, as well as excellent clergy groups, supportive colleagues, family and friends. And as church after church has affirmed my ministry, I have re-learned that one of the most valuable gifts we can give one another is unconditional acceptance.

I score each sermon on delivery only, from 0 to 10. (0 means I leave the pulpit in tears - 10 means no blocks whatsoever.) I've had 8 to 10 all summer - which is unusual for me. I don't know the reason, but I'll take it. I do know that I am a different person than I was ten, or even five, years ago. I am still anxious at times, but it is more manageable and less debilitating.

I have never taken lightly the privilege and blessing of preaching the Word of God, and sometimes stand in amazement that I still get to do this. Looking back over the last 10 years, I see intense struggles, periods of great doubt and fear, as well as a deepening of my spiritual life. This has never been a faith crisis. Have there been lessons in all this? There better be. I have learned how even a small disability can destroy one's confidence, and I've learned that no amount of rational thinking can stop a panic attack. I've learned that stuttering does not control my life - at least not anymore. I've learned that God continues to use us even when we're broken, and broken-hearted.

Have I fully accepted myself as a person who stutters? Nope. Do I consider stuttering a gift? Not yet. Do I wish it would go away for good? Of course. But I'm different than I was. The growth has been significant, the lessons well learned, and...I'm still preaching.

After a decade of stuttering, who could ask for more? God is good. Life is good.

You can post Questions/comments about the above paper to the author before October 22, 2005.

September 17, 2005
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