Over the past two decades a variety of observers have raised
concerns about perceived clergy ineffectiveness in managing conflict or change.
The application of family systems thinking has brought a new awareness of the role that family-of-origin “baggage” plays in leadership and the need for self-differentiation by clergy when handling conflict. This new awareness has led some to charge that many clergy are ineffective because they are drawn to ministry out of personal neediness and deficits in family-of-origin “formation.”
Lack of self-awareness, poor interpersonal skills, dependency needs, and people-pleasing personality traits are often offered as reasons for the “ineffective” leadership of clergy during congregational conflict or change. Examples of these charges are numerous. In reading just two articles published in well-known journals, we found the following statements:
- “Psychological profiles of clergy across denominational lines, observed over almost three decades, suggest that certain deficiencies in ego development are consistent and typical.”1
- “Clergy often lack basic ego formation, clear self-definition, and a solid level of self-esteem—perhaps to a greater degree than the general population.”2
- “In everyday terms, clergy struggle with self-image, self-worth, and self-esteem every bit as much as the general population, or more so. In and of itself, this finding need not be significant—except, as suggested above, clergy may be seeking to ‘hide’ in a no-longer-viable professional hiding place.”3
- “Many (clergy) lacked self-awareness. As a result, their unconscious needs and motivations expressed themselves in ways the ministers were blind to.”4
- “Ministers come in a smorgasbord of personality types. My experience suggests, however, that certain styles are more common to clergy. Let’s look at three: the grandiose personality, the perfectionistic personality and the depressive personality.”5
While these dynamics show up to some degree in almost any professional population, our own experience in the roles of therapist, assessor, coach, and consultant to candidates and pastors of many different denominations led us to a different set of hypotheses regarding overall clergy candidate emotional health and interpersonal functioning. Analyzing a significant volume of data from psychological testing of candidates for ministry at North Central Ministry Development Center in New Brighton, Minnesota, we uncovered some intriguing trends that challenge these common myths.
We looked at the data of 750 students at two seminaries in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area—one evangelical Protestant and the other mainline liberal Protestant—to determine if common assumptions about the emotional health and psychological well-being of clergy are true, at least at the beginning of their careers. Does the role of minister itself attract people who are fundamentally less assertive, overly dependent, and emotionally unaware? As part of their programs for psychological and spiritual formation, these seminaries administer standardized psychological instruments during each year of a seminarian’s experience to identify areas for development. At the beginning of their first semester of seminary, each student completes the 16PF and the BarOn Emotional Quotient Inventory. The 16PF, a well-researched instrument developed and refined over the past 60 years, measures personality across 16 dimensions, purported to be common to people regardless of age and cultural background. The BarOn Emotional Quotient Inventory, based on the popular concept of emotional intelligence, assesses emotional intelligence in 15 areas related to self-management and interpersonal skills. Analyzing the data of a recent three-year period, we were able to arrive at some preliminary conclusions about how the personality styles and emotional maturity of the students we studied stack up against those of the general population. Our hope is that we can debunk some common myths related to clergy personalities and emotional development—or at least spark further research and discussion.
Myth vs. Reality
Myth 1: Clergy Lack Self-DefinitionAn assumption rooted in systems theory is that clergy often get into trouble because they lack self-knowledge and the ability to define themselves in the face of larger forces at play in their congregations. To some, they might come across as wishy-washy. Because they lack clarity about their own sense of self, they act as chameleons, trying to please everyone but satisfying no one.
Reality: Clergy Are Emotionally Self-Aware. In fact, the seminarians we studied scored as significantly more self-aware than individuals in the general population; they are able to identify their emotions and the reasons behind them. According to researchers in emotional intelligence, this ability is foundational to effective leadership and the rest of the competencies of emotional intelligence, as it is akin to intuition. Once a minister can identify and name what he or she is feeling and why, that minister can learn to make accurate decisions based partly on “gut feelings.” In contrast to what some clergy observers argue, these seminarians would seem to be less likely to act in blind and destructive ways.
Myth 2: Clergy Are Unable to Make Decisions. This myth relates to the previous one, but with the elements of people-pleasing and emotionality thrown in. It is the belief that, because clergy are attuned to the needs of others, they often forego their own needs in order to meet those of others. They feel pulled every which way by the competing demands of different individuals or groups in their congregations, and they are at a loss of how to resolve them.
Reality: Some Clergy Likely Struggle with Decision Making. The data reveal an interesting pattern of scores that may point to challenges in decision making. It should be noted that, for each score, seminarians score near the average, but the combination of higher and lower scores within the personality profile might point to difficulty. On average, the seminarians score higher than the general population for being sensitive to others’ emotional needs as well as their own internal processes, but they score lower for exercising logical problem-solving skills. Given their level of emotional sensitivity, they may make decisions out of concern for the emotional and interpersonal elements of a situation more often than most people. Another characteristic may also interfere with decision making. According to the data, seminarians tend to think in abstract terms, which can interfere with their ability to focus on the practical, concrete, and tangible concerns of their congregations.
Myth 3: Clergy Are Emotionally Dependent and Needy of Affirmation. It would seem that, because clergy are emotionally sensitive and adept at reading the affect of others, they might be especially vulnerable to others’ negative judgments and criticisms. Many clergy appear to be motivated in their work by praise and deflated when congregational members express dissatisfaction. We all know ministers who overwork in what seems to be a vain effort to win the approval of others.
Reality: Clergy Are Self-Sufficient and Reasonably Assertive. These seminarians are significantly more likely to trust their own judgment than are individuals in the general population. Their scores suggest that they take time apart to reflect upon their decisions and to formulate their own perspectives. Although they may not be overly forceful in expressing them, due to their concern for congregational members’ feelings, t
hey tend to know their own opinions and assert them about as often as most people. They appear to have a well-differentiated sense of what they personally believe
Myth 4: Clergy Lack Self-Care Skills. Common wisdom suggests that clergy wrestle with self-care, as they put in long hours, fail to set appropriate work/life boundaries, and strive to meet the expectations of their congregations. Because of the ill-defined parameters of the role, such as the lack of set hours and the open-endedness of ministry tasks, the potential certainly exists to work oneself to exhaustion. Is there something about the clergyperson’s personality that also places him or her at risk?
Reality: Clergy Tolerate Stress Well. Although these seminarians are sensitive to the needs of others, which can place them at increased risk for stress, the data indicate that they are also unusually skilled in taking steps to cope positively with stress. Based on their scores, these individuals tend to keep events in perspective, to remain optimistic, and to view setbacks as challenges. Their scores further indicate that they tend not to overreact to situations, such as by losing their temper and saying or doing things they later regret.
Myth 5: Evangelical Clergy Are Intolerant and Rigid. A stereotype persists in some circles that evangelical clergy are inflexible and rigid due to a strict moral code and traditional values. Compared to other clergy, they risk being seen as intolerant and judgmental.
Reality: Evangelical Clergy Are Reasonably Flexible in Their Personality Style. On average, evangelical seminarians score similarly to individuals in the general population for their ability to be flexible in the face of changing circumstances and to be tolerant of diverse viewpoints. Looking at the flexibility subscale on the emotional intelligence instrument, the evangelical and liberal seminarians have almost identical scores, with the evangelical seminarians actually scoring a tad higher.
The overall conclusion of our analyses is that these seminarians appear remarkably similar in emotional health and personality style to the general population. Their scores on the 16PF and BarOn Emotional Quotient Inventory do not suggest that they are any more likely to be grandiose, perfectionistic, or depressive than anyone else. If we were to draw a profile of the type of person attracted to ministry, before they actually serve churches in the clergy role, he or she would appear to have the following positive characteristics: emotionally self-awareness, sensitivity to the emotions of self and others, a strong sense of social responsibility, a socially outgoing nature, the ability to cope well with stress, and an interest and skill in abstract thinking. As drawbacks, they tend not to score as well for self-discipline or logical problem solving, though still in the average range. With regard to problem solving, there is some research to indicate that clergy, both effective and struggling, feel unprepared by their seminary training for the decision-making responsibilities of congregational leadership. Our results would seem to confirm that this is not a skill that they have developed prior to seminary either.
Our study suggests that there is nothing inherent in “the clergy personality” that would place seminarians at risk for the stresses of congregational ministry. Other research and anecdotal evidence demonstrate well that clergy often do feel overwhelmed, stressed, and burnt out. If it is not the type of person attracted to ministry, then what places clergy at risk? The good news is that it is likely a lack of specific skill training, such as problem solving, strategic thinking, conflict resolution, decision making, and the like, which could be more intentionally targeted in seminary and through continuing education.
There is little doubt that denominational leaders, clergy, and seminarians would benefit from additional research. Ideally, studies would combine statistical analyses with qualitative methods, such as interviews and focus groups, to learn more about the experiences, motivations, and sources of well-being of seminarians and clergy. It would also be interesting to see if there is a shift in emotional well-being and personality when individuals transition from seminary to congregational leadership. Could it be that the clergy role literally rewrites the emotional health of many clergy? For instance, a once self-sufficient and assertive seminarian, after taking enough bumps in a congregation, might unconsciously learn that it is easier (and perhaps even necessary for survival in some contexts) to become accommodating and passive. Finally, what about those clergy who not only survive but thrive? Research into their personality characteristics and emotional intelligence might be particularly telling. It could be that it is not enough to score average—as measured by the scores of the general population—but that certain characteristics set thriving clergy apart and contribute to their effectiveness. The church at large might benefit from no longer accepting vague, general characterizations of clergy as flawed, dependent, depressive, narcissistic, and the like, and to begin to channel efforts into identifying those traits, skills, and competencies that can raise ministries to the next level.
NOTES1. Howard Friend, “The Failure to Form Basic Partnership: Resolving a Dilemma of New Pastorates,” Congregations, September/October 2002.
4. Doug Anderson, “Dr. Jekyll and Pastor Hyde,” Christianity Today/Leadership Journal, October 1, 2001 (available online at http://www.ctlibrary.com/le/2001/fall/19.102.html).
Questions for Reflection
- Do you think the pastoral role literally rewrites the emotional health of clergy?
- How does the pastoral role affect your emotional well-being?
- Do you think there is such a thing as a clergy personality?
- Do you handle conflict differently in your pastoral role than in your personal life?
- Do you feel more emotionally self-aware or more shut down since dealing with people in the pastoral role?
- What steps might seminaries and denominations take to teach problem-solving skills?