Two years ago we published an article in Congregations exploring how seminarians stack up against the general population on measures of emotional health and interpersonal functioning. The purpose of our research was not about defending clergy but rather finding more accurate ways to describe the predisposition, traits, and skills of those who are drawn to ministry and how these characteristics interface with the very real challenges of parish life. Not only were we able to “bust” a few myths but we also encountered some new surprises.

Over the last two years we have continued to analyze the vast amount of data that came out of our original research and are eager to present some further insights and conclusions in the hope that this information can be used by denominational leaders and seminary administrators and faculty as they work with students to enhance ministerial effectiveness. Here are the myths we explored, the truths we discovered, and a deeper analysis of the truth beneath the myths.

Our Original Research
Our original research was based on seminarians’ scores on two inventories that measure personality and emotional intelligence. Several guiding questions drove that research:

  • What is the level of emotional health and interpersonal functioning for those who are seeking a seminary education?
  • What skills and characteristics predict effectiveness in ministry?
  • How do seminarians stack up against the general population on these inventories?

What compelled us to do this research was years of hearing people within the ranks of organized religion express beliefs about clergy functioning and ideas about what drew people to seminary training that just didn’t seem accurate in our own experiences as pastors, testing psychologists, psychotherapists, and consultants. We had a hunch that many of the preconceived notions about clergy functioning were inaccurate, and we were curious about what the data might reveal.

The Relationship Mirror
One of the first suppositions we examined in our original study was that clergy lack self-definition or are not self-differentiated. What we found is that the seminarians we studied did not fit this stereotype. Our first study demonstrated clearly that seminarians score as significantly more self-aware than individuals in the general population: they are better at identifying their emotions and recognizing the reasons behind them. Furthermore, emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman argues that emotional self-awareness is the bedrock for all the other emotional competencies. When a clergyperson or seminarian is lacking this skill, though, that person stands out like a sore thumb, which may be a reason why these individuals are so memorable and the stereotype persists.

In our work as psychologists and consultants, we’ve noticed that the clergy who lack emotional self-awareness tend to minimize negative emotions, such as anger or sadness, and often exhibit physical manifestations of stress, such as high blood pressure, taut muscles, and aches and pains. These individuals also seem emotionally disconnected, as if they are disengaged from the realities of their situation. Certainly, many of us have encountered clergy who are present in body but do not appear to have much of a sense of self or an ability to connect well with others.

As researchers, we became curious about what variables might predict greater emotional self-awareness among seminarians. One somewhat surprising variable is that our current study indicates that the most important variable, by far, is the number and quality of personal relationships in a person’s life. What this means is that a person who is emotionally self-aware is also more likely to have the interpersonal skills of empathy and emotional sensitivity. In thinking about the importance of relationships to self-awareness, we speculate that other people likely serve as mirrors and sounding boards, reflecting back to us the accuracy of our perceptions, affirming our strengths, and offering suggestions for growth. Without these individuals in our lives, our emotional self-awareness appears to be blunted.

Our findings further indicate that emotionally self-aware people also possess skills in accurately reading situations and asserting their opinions in constructive ways. Others probably find them to have common sense, to be down-to-earth, and to be appropriately straightforward.

The Clarity of Calmness
Another myth we examined in our initial study was the notion that clergy are emotionally dependent and needy of affirmation. In contrast to popular belief, our results indicated that, on average, seminarians are just as likely to trust their own judgment and to come to their own conclusions as most people. We found them to be self-sufficient, independent, and reasonably assertive.

When pastors have such assertiveness and clarity of self, they can more easily present themselves as calm, strong leaders. Other research, such as that done at Eckerd College with the Conflict Dynamics Profile, has demonstrated that when people use active, constructive behaviors—such as appropriately expressing emotions, reaching out to make amends, creating solutions, and trying to understand someone else’s point of view—this is most strongly correlated with perceived leadership effectiveness.

Consequently, it is particularly illuminating that the most important predictor of independence in our present study is stress tolerance, which is the ability to withstand adverse events and stressful situations. By remaining calm in the midst of their circumstances, clergy are able to maintain clarity about their principles. They can also act assertively, which is the second most important predictor of independence. Other related characteristics of independence are an ability to read a situation accurately, an optimistic outlook, flexibility in responding, and a sense of self-actualization. When these qualities are present, a pastor is more likely to act according to what he or she believes is true and necessary.

An interesting paradox is that the most independent clergy also reported fewer satisfying personal relationships and experienced less day-to-day happiness. It could be that independence is at odds to some degree with the ability to maintain satisfying personal relationships. Asserting one’s own ideas may also engender conflict, which can also result in diminished happiness.

The Power of Optimism
A third myth we examined in our initial study was the notion that clergy lack self-care skills. In fact, our research found that seminarians generally have the skills to tolerate stress well. On a day-to-day basis, they are able to keep things in perspective and know how to practice stress management techniques. Our current results further indicate that individuals with the highest stress tolerance possess an unusual degree of optimism. In fact, optimism is far and away the most significant predictor of stress tolerance. In the midst of problems and conflicts, if a clergyperson truly believes that things will work out, he or she is more likely to remain calm. Additional analyses also found optimism to be a key component for problem solving, independence, and empathy.

From the standpoint of emotional intelligence and leadership, the importance of optimism cannot be overemphasized. A twenty-year research study by Harvard social scientist Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler of the University of California suggests
that emotions can pass among a network of people up to three degrees of separation away so that our joy may, to a large degree, be determined by how cheerful the people around us are and by how happy their friends are.5 Daniel Goleman also believes that moods are contagious, and that mood begins with the identified leader of a group. Optimistic clergy often mean optimistic congregations. With the right outlook, the likelihood of working through impasses significantly increases.

In our study, other characteristics of stress-tolerant individuals include a more relaxed daily rhythm, the ability to assert one’s needs constructively, and a flexible outlook.

The Considered ResponseA fourth myth we examined in our initial study was that clergy are unable to make decisions. Our findings were somewhat supportive of this notion. We learned that many seminarians do not score as high in decision-making ability or logical problem solving as the general population.

In our latest research, we examine this finding more deeply. Our current study suggests that the ability to manage one’s emotional reactions and impulses, or impulse control, is central to effective decision making. Related to this, stress tolerance appears again as a significant characteristic. The clergy who score the highest for decision making are typically able to step back, remain calm, and strategically choose their responses.

In our original study, we also found that clergy are, on average, significantly more emotionally sensitive. At the time of our initial findings we hypothesized that these two characteristics—emotional sensitivity and problem solving—might be interrelated, as a clergyperson’s tendency to be emotionally sensitive may interfere with his or her objectivity and use of logic. Our latest results support this idea. The most effective decision makers score somewhat lower for emotional sensitivity than their peers. Individuals with higher scores for decision making also tend to be less emotionally dependent on others, possess greater emotional self-awareness, and have a sense that they are living out of their potential.

Study Implications
With our current study, we attempt to go deeper beneath the myths to provide a more detailed picture of what is required for emotional self-awareness, independence, stress tolerance, and decision making among seminarians and clergy. A consistent finding is the importance of stress management, both in remaining calm as a general demeanor as well as controlling impulses in the heat of the moment. It appears to be particularly important when a decision is to be made or a problem needs to be solved. Our research suggests that an important component of seminary training and continuing education for clergy ought to be stress management.

Related to this, assertiveness skills are essential. From our own experience as psychologists and consultants, we know that conflict is a significant stressor for clergy, and many either try to appease or avoid conflict as a way of coping. In our experience, many clergy in the heat of conflict will, understandably, go into “bunker mode” and shut down both emotionally and interpersonally or become highly reactive and defensive. This certainly tends to exacerbate the conflict in the congregation. Our findings indicate that seminarians and clergy would benefit from learning techniques to improve their assertiveness and conflict management skills. This would increase their optimism and confidence in the midst of difficult situations, which, in turn, would strengthen their stress tolerance.

We were intrigued by the role of interpersonal commitments, and the tension between the need for relationships to maintain emotional health and their potential for tripping up clergy in decision making. On the one hand, these relationships are essential for emotional self-awareness; on the other hand, they can interfere with independence, objectivity, and the use of logic. In our study, although the best decision makers scored lower than their seminary peers in their sensitivity to others, these individuals still scored higher than the general population. One thought is that there might be an optimal point for clergy at which interpersonal sensitivity and independence are balanced. Individuals likely have to discover this point for themselves through experimentation and feedback. Another thought is that clergy could learn to turn these attributes on and off according to their circumstances. For instance, one could intentionally choose to be sensitive in a pastoral care situation and, later in the day, act as a logical problem solver at an administrative meeting. Although these skills are different, they are not mutually exclusive.
A final observation is that decision making appears to be a distinct skill set and ought to be taught more intentionally in seminary. While seminaries and clinical pastoral education programs have often focused on the development of emotional self-awareness and empathy (skills essential for providing good pastoral care), there seems to be less emphasis placed on how to prioritize, administrate, and make decisions. As consultants, we often deal with clergy who feel at a loss in these areas. Statistically, too, our research reveals a gulf between the decision-making skill set and the emotional self-awareness and empathy skill sets. Specifically, we conducted a side analysis and discovered significant overlap for those characteristics that predict emotional self-awareness and empathy, in which seminarians score high, and little contribution of these characteristics to the development of independence, problem solving, and decision making, in which seminarians score relatively lower.

On a practical level, this finding underscores the need for seminaries and denominations to be purposeful in creating programs, classes, and workshops to help seminarians better develop their decision-making skills. On a conceptual level, it points to a call for additional research to better understand how these three skill sets (emotional self-awareness, empathy, and decision making) relate to each other and contribute to effectiveness in the ministerial role.