Magazine article The Christian Century

Stuttering Doesn't Stop a Call to Ministry

Magazine article The Christian Century

Stuttering Doesn't Stop a Call to Ministry

Article excerpt

Tom Sherrod, an ordained United Methodist minister, loathed to "declare" a couple man and wife.

As a stutterer, Sherrod always had problems with hard "c" sounds, and the "c" in declare was a doozy. "P" sounds weren't easy either, and the Bible is full of them. "If I tried to read, I would lock onto words," said Sherrod, a North Carolina hospital chaplain. "I tried to steer clear of certain scriptures."

Now, after intensive speech therapy, Sherrod publicly reads aloud whatever parts of the liturgy he likes. But before he learned to control the stutter, life was an exhausting exercise in avoiding some tough words and muscling through others.

A stuttering pastor, priest or rabbi sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but they are out there--ministering to the sick, comforting the bereaved and spreading the Word, even if the word may not sound perfect every time.

Increasingly, clergy who stutter are willing to talk about their stuttering and about how a profession that rewards inspiring speech can be open to those with speech impediments. The message from these clergy is often this: a stutterer can do the job well. But first there will be a struggle, both to minimize and to accept one's stuttering. That fight, though, can make for a stronger spiritual leader.

"I think I became a rabbi not despite my stuttering but precisely because of it," said Mark Glickman, who leads two Reform congregations in Washington State. "It was really a way of facing down my own demons."

Glickman, like all the clergy interviewed for this story, had a serious stutter in his youth that improved markedly with speech therapy later in life. Sometimes when these men speak--and stutterers are most often men--the stutter is hardly noticeable.

Ronald Webster, a Virginia speech researcher and clinician who treated Sherrod, said that about 1 percent of people--across cultures--stutter. It's a disorder rooted in physiology, not anxiety or other emotional issues, as was once thought. Speech therapy is typically helpful, Webster said, and clergy--Webster has treated about half a dozen--enjoy particularly good results.


"They tend to be more disciplined in their approach to therapy than someone who has not been faced with the immense pressure of public speaking," he said.

Even those who have enjoyed dramatic improvement in their speech still stutter sometimes.

Glickman has learned to be fine with this. …

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