This coming Saturday my diocese is holding a “Ministry Formation Conference,” an all-day mini-convention for parish ministers across the board, but particularly for catechists and teachers. I had to go back deep into my old email well to find the precise name of this event, because it gets changed every year. Last year the event was called “Faith Formation Day,” and if I looked hard enough in my files I know I could find a variety of titles from years of presentations.
The outline of the day begins with a prayer service, followed by words from our bishop, and a keynote address from Dr. Hosffman Ospino of Boston College on multiculturalism in ministry. Unfortunately, the brochure describes his presentation as a “Bilingual Spanish/English” event; I hope this doesn’t mean what I think it means, i.e., a presentation that will be twice as long as the normal keynotes. At my age I just don’t have the temperament for this style anymore. The last Chrism Mass I attended a few years ago was conducted in English, Spanish, and Creole. I remember it well because our cars got towed for overnight parking by the time it was over.
The keynote is followed by a day of workshops, each one-hour in length. I am scheduled for 1 PM, but from past experiences with a number of organizations it is rare that the introduction and keynote segment ever concludes on time, and there is a domino delay that runs throughout the rest of the program. Last year I had two presentations, “Teaching the Crusades” and “The Resurrection Narratives.” Before last year, I did a variety of mental health presentations. This year I received an invitation to speak with my course description already written—something mild, along the lines of facilitating a nice, cheerful ministerial team. The Myers Briggs test was not mentioned but I suspect it was assumed. (By the way, if your parish team makes use of the Myers Briggs test, be alerted that its validity and reliability is low compared to other personality testing instruments.)
My approach to staff stress, based upon years as a pastor and as an Employee Assistance therapist, is to identify the person or persons at ground zero of the problem. And again, my own working theory is that sometimes such an individual may be suffering from a personality disorder—narcissist, histrionic, anti-social, dependent, borderline, etc. Thus, in workshops I try to help staffs recognize that the reality of their tensions may rest with the dysfunction of an individual. I do not teach pastors and staff to diagnose, which of course they are not permitted to do legally, but to recognize when they are being “sucked in” by the same person over and over again. As my guru Dr. Gregory Lester from Denver would repeat over and over in his workshops, “don’t get pulled into the drama.”
There are, to be sure, non-clinical ways of recognizing the same problem: ask yourself, for example, which person on your staff requires from you the greatest amount of energy and maintenance? The trap, in church work, is the belief that if a parish team just hunkers down with more compassion and prays harder—maybe have a staff prayer day—God will make everything smooth again. But I have watched dysfunctional church employees, pastors, or parishioners hold an entire group hostage for years.
What I have noticed in doing parish workshops, for example, is that sometimes the most basic preventatives are ignored. When I ask how often the staff members are evaluated concretely for job performance and personal deportment, on paper for the personnel file by the pastor, for example, in nearly every case I am told that such evaluations are overlooked or not considered necessary. This always suggests to me that a pastor might be afraid to do the honest confrontations that leaders are often called upon to undertake, perhaps out of sheer fear of a dominant employee. Aside from the legal liabilities involved when termination ultimately becomes necessary, failure to document “the dramas” guarantees that the parish stress will linger—probably escalate—and there will be an exodus of healthier staff at great loss to the local ministry.
Some readers and attendees have misunderstood my advice as a slap at those with mental difficulties. To this I would say two things. First, I am talking about a particular kind of disorder, i.e., that of personality. This is not the same as what we call mood disorders, which are rather common. I myself carry depression and anxiety diagnoses, and with regular medication and counsel I have been able to live a satisfying life for many years. Mood disorders—which include but are not limited to depression, anxiety, panic, bipolar disorder—seem to have an issue of chemical imbalance—hence the success of medication—and, this is critical, a patient does not lose touch with reality but can make positive changes in behaviors and thoughts that will reduce stressful symptoms. I think we would be surprised at the number of church workers who function well while under care for mood disorders.
My concern in church ministry is with personality disordered individuals. In personality disorder it is the act of thinking that is diseased. To be honest, the exact cause of personality disorder is unknown. I should add that every personality disorder sits on a spectrum of severity. Not every antisocial disordered individual, for example, is an ax murderer, nor is every borderline disordered individual a Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.”. Most, in fact, are not. But antisocial personality disorder, for example, is marked by a lack of empathy or compassion for others. One might ask if there are treatments for such conditions. When I resigned from my insurance panels two years ago, insurance companies did not reimburse therapists who billed for personality disordered services on the grounds that no therapeutic methods were found to be effective. [This is why Tony Soprano always paid Dr. Melfi in cash.]
I think the disorder can be managed to some degree, as medication can address the anxiety factor in many personality disorders, and Dr. Lester has developed some strategies of therapy that appear promising. The biggest problem is that patients with personality disorders do not recognize the illness, assuming that the world as they see it is the world as it is, and there is something wrong with you if you don’t see that. You can imagine how intimidating such behavior can be to a superior or colleague.
My second point here is that we are talking about positions of leadership, visibility, and personal interaction in the church, and the capacities of individuals to fill these positions. Ministry is not a universal right; the pastor who preaches in your parish this weekend spent from 6 to 12 years preparing to mount the pulpit. Mental fitness for ministry is a valid and necessary prerequisite for ordination, and by extension, all those who influence others in church ministry. [The physical and mental fitness of the major presidential candidates is considered by many an important factor in the overall assessment of readiness for office.]
Well, all of the above will be squeezed into 55 minutes and time for two questions to feed my own narcissism. I wonder if they will invite me back next year. Here is the published program description for Saturday:
Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your ministerial peers is something we don’t often think about–until a personal or staff crisis occurs. The presenter, a licensed psychotherapist with experience in workplace stress, will review potential areas of difficulty involving parish volunteers, employees, administrators, and the general Catholic public, and some general principles and strategies to maintain a fruitful and enriching church work site.
I made a commitment to teach a morality course for the faculty of one of our local schools, and today is the second of three after-school classes. This particular school had invited me last year for the introduction to theology course, the first in the series prescribed by our diocese for Catholic school faculty and staff as well as religious educators/catechists and parish ministers. This particular school is “juiced,” as there is a high energy level and enthusiasm for theological professional development across the board from the principal across the faculty that I have dealt with so far, about a dozen educators at the school thus far.
But I get nervous on Wednesdays, and it had nothing to do with the school. It is the subject, our 105 course on morality. There is an old joke among priests that the fastest way to derail a promising ecclesiastical career is by teaching morality in the diocesan seminary. Catholic morality, as a discipline, is a field of landmines, and as I say, many a Catholic ecclesiastical career has been dashed to pieces on its rocks. Obviously I am not worried about climbing the ecclesiastical ladder—that ship has long sailed, and it barely cleared the harbor at that—but teaching in the name of the Church continues to be a vital part of my baptismal stewardship, and I would like to continue making a useful contribution to that ministry.
Consider the dilemma: when anyone is assigned to teach Catholic morality. What exactly is the expectation? Is it to teach Catholics—seminarians, church ministers, lay people—what the sins are? If that is the purpose of teaching morals, the catalogue of sins is readily available in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and some would limit the scope of moral formation to precise knowledge of this manual of sins. The need for moral theologians and instructors would be minimal; just google up the conduct in question and check it out.
I don’t think anyone in Church responsibility really expects morality teachers to teach Catholic moral teaching in the fashion of spelling, though over the years of working with the internet and reading blog posts, I get the impression that a lot of Catholics themselves want that. There are a number of good folks who look upon the Church as the last bastion of truth and sanity in the world, and they much prefer trumpet calls of clarity to the arduous work of Scriptural, historical, and existential analysis that underlies every moral teaching of the Church. Parents who earnestly wish to raise moral children look to Church teachers—and particularly homilists—as dependable underwriters of what they understand to be precise moral standards established by God for all eternity.
Those of us who teach moral theology in any setting have the uncomfortable responsibility of explaining that morality is a complex discipline. Modern day morality begins with the Sacred Scriptures and the ways that the Church has interpreted the Bible in terms of morality. One frequently hears of the supremacy of the Ten Commandments—and even today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the Decalogue for its organization of moral discussion. But the fact is that in its original setting in the Bible, the Fifth Commandment forbids the killing of another freeborn Israelite male, period. A careful reading of the Pentateuch reveals a number of instances where killing (most often of a woman) is not just tolerated but commanded by the Law for sexual sins. Such was the case where even Jesus was called upon for his opinion of “a woman caught in the very act of adultery.” Her accusers added that the Law of Moses commanded the stoning of such a one.
Clearly, three millennia of the Judeo-Christian tradition have given time to assess the Fifth Commandment—to expand its reach, in fact—regarding such sins as elective abortion, embryonic destruction, and the killing of non-combatants in wars and combat. Our U.S. bishops—with much help from Sister Helen Prejean--have raised to public discussion the morality of state executions. One such bishop in our time, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, put forward possibly the most inspired interpretation of the Fifth Commandment when he coined the now-famous phrase, “seamless garment of life,” a term which curiously has not captivated everyone in pro-life ministry.
In short, the Spirit-filled Church has grown over time to a greater understanding of the Fifth Commandment as applied to the moral dilemmas of our own time, though not without stress. There are a good number of Catholics who endorse capital punishment, though it is hard to square this with the Church’s teachings on the sanctity of life, from conception to natural death, the latter term used quite explicitly in the prayers of the faithful in my church.
For reasons somewhat beyond my full comprehension, sins of the sixth commandment consume an inordinate amount of time, political action, and catechetical energy. I have attempted, over my lifetime, to discern why this is. There are some simple answers and complex issues in play. Many of the moral theology books I have read in my lifetime define 1968 as something of a watershed moment. That July Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s teaching against artificial birth control in his encyclical Humanae Vitae, and given that Vatican II had ended just three years before, expectations were high (though not universal) that the Pope would alter the teaching on both scientific and theological grounds.
Paul VI was sometimes referred to as “Hamlet,” but the birth control question was particularly troubling for him. Again, Paul VI’s encyclical continues to be treated in texts to this day, and from what I have been able to piece together, the pope was deeply fearful of making a change for his fear that he might throw all teachings of previous popes up for grabs, so to speak. He was also penned in by the Manualist tradition which held that any sin dealing with human reproduction was ipso facto mortal, i.e. of grave matter. The idea of a hierarchy of sins was (and, I guess, still is) unthinkable in Catholic teaching in this era. Personally, I felt then and still feel today that the present teaching against artificial birth control (pharmaceutical and barrier types) rest too much upon “physicalism.” The intention to space children is not in itself sinful, all things being equal, given that my own diocese (and every other diocese in the country) has an office dedicated to natural planning.
Under other circumstances, the Church as a family would have continued to research the birth control question in a respectful and interdisciplinary way. However, the ground rules for issues of controversy were redrawn by Pope John Paul II, who upped the ante by making adherence to Church teachings on all matters of sexuality a litmus test of loyalty to the teaching authority of the Magisterium. Thus, the issue of birth control, for example, has passed from morality to ecclesiology. John Paul II attempted to put the sexual teachings of the Church in a grand synthesis of sorts in his Veritas Splendor (1993), but the fact remains that Catholicism is still a church of 2,3, or 4 children per family.
And it is to the adults of these families that we Catholic instructors go forth, like Captain Kirk, “where no man has dared go before,” between official Church teaching and the beliefs of Catholics who, fifty years after Humanae Vitae, trust their own consciences on matters of personal family life. I do my best to represent the Church’s teachings while respecting the sincere consciences of my students, but talk about "the rock and the hard place." And you wonder why so few volunteer to teach the “Morality 105” courses of this world.