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.