Psychological Healthy Pastor
(In Press Preview)
(Read English version)
Psychological Evaluation of Ministry Personnel
A Psychologically Healthy Pastor
Melvin W. Wong, Ph.D.
Translation credit: mailto:ShelleyTse@yahoo.com
Based on recent church growth research it was indicated that church growth depends on church health, and growth is the natural outcome of a healthy church. A healthy pastor with a healthy board is the most crucial element in the healthy functioning of a church. The measure of psychological health in the effective functioning of a pastor is found in how healthy is the character and personality of the pastor.
In the stricter sense of the word, psychological health should mean a pastor should not have a psychological disorder that is serious enough that will impede his functioning in the role of a minister. The minimum standard that the elder board should up keep is the protection of congregation members from harm and the prevention of dishonor brought upon the name of Christ.
Psychology is only one aspect within the wider wisdom of the Lord our Creator. This author subscribes to the belief that the Bible is the final authority of all human functioning. The minimum standard of the healthy character of pastors is therefore based specifically on 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and generally on Galatians 5:22-23.
This article was written from the perspectives of the congregation member as well as from the governing board to root out unhealthy pastors. This can be members of the local elder or deacon board and the denomination superintendent. The negative perspectives will be used to help leaders know what to look for in unhealthy pastors.
Unhealthy Social Functioning
From the perspective of experienced ministry leaders, social functioning of the pastor is the first and most obvious measure of a healthy pastor. When things go wrong, they are generally in the area of social functioning, such as sexual misconducts and indiscretions. Individuals who were from broken families, with abusive childhoods and experience of parental abandonment will unconsciously re-enact these unresolved problems socially as a desperate attempt to resolve them. This is most obvious with his family members, beginning with how he mistreats his spouse and his children. The closer you are emotionally to this unhealthy minister, the more hurt you will experience. This is codependency and tragic outcomes are inevitable. This pastor cannot escape this lose-lose paradigm socially despite his claims of being spiritual and the call to ministry.
Splitting and Polarized Emotions
This unhealthy pastor’s mindset is one of defensiveness, meaning that he thinks that the world is generally a hostile place and it is “survival for the fittest”. This is coming from the childhood trauma of physical and verbal abuse and humiliation that he has experienced. There is a constant threat to his self-esteem, self-image and security. In the traditional Chinese culture, this is considered as an issue with “face”, meaning the need to avoid losing face; to avoid feeling humiliated in order to assure self-confidence. Over a long period of time, his pervasive need for psychological self-defense causes the insecure pastor to categorize people as either “good” or “bad”, depending how safe he feels a particular person is. Without trying very hard, he will set up lose-lose traps in his elder board by favoring one leader and alienating the other. Ministry to him will be the desire to please the favored elder to secure his position. The opposing elder will be treated with quiet contempt. This pastor will inadvertently use sarcasm and gossip to manipulate one group of leaders against another, first privately and then publicly.
When splitting occurs, it sets off an unavoidable process of triangulation where the pastor wants to be placed in the middle. There is collusion where the unhealthy pastor wants to install only leaders hand picked by him. These are not good leaders but good followers of the status quo and they cannot be too intelligent as to give this pastor insecure feelings.
Eventually, the leadership will be more involved in “putting out fires” of low leadership morale, resolving personnel conflicts, gossips, demystifying biases and congregational stereotypes and etc.
The church cannot grow because enormous energy is used in high level leadership for internal problem solving, in deciding who is “right” and who is “wrong”. Many well-intended leaders and visitors will leave because everybody at church seems to be involved with some conflict. This church evolves into an “intellectual” church where things have to make sense, but caring and emotions are suppressed. Being “more correct” is more important than effective ministry, the Great Commission, though talked about on Sundays is an academic topic devoid of practical strategies to out-reach.
Everyone is afraid to offend others, therefore there is no ministry renewal but traditionalism takes over. By default, the traditional Chinese culture is used, and at times it is more eminent than the Christian culture that should always prevail in a healthy church.
There are some gossips and unspoken secrets in the church. People talk about these privately and no one can acknowledge this publicly or openly for he will risk being judged as a rebel, which equals “un-spiritual”. At times, the pastor preaches on “handling conflicts (gossips)” to manipulate the congregation to feel false-guilty in discussing church secrets privately. These gossips are usually about the pastor and his private battles with opposing leaders. There is mistrust within the leadership and this curtails intimacy development between believers, and there is no spiritual growth except a discussion on what should be and not on how to care, instead of the effective use of role-modeling of love and grace in edifying the saints. There is a “common false-guilt” felt within the church as well. Visitors are not really welcome because they may find out what’s wrong with this unhealthy church family system, thus putting everybody in the family to shame. The church will eventually become a rigid church involved in preaching the “technically correct” doctrine and legalism. The sermon is a technical theological teaching of Biblical truths, but the pastor himself cannot role-model these concepts; a subtle double-standard ensues. This becomes the “classroom” church and congregation members are obedient students coming to church with note books to record the theological teachings correctly in order to be spiritual.
Poor conflict resolution skill
As part of the unhealthy upbringing of this pastor (to no fault of his own), he has not experienced effective resolution of interpersonal conflicts. Avoidance is the first unhealthy method while “cut-and-run” is the second. Avoidance is denial and the overly simplistic belief of how “time heals”, “let the past be in the past” strategy in solving problems. Instead of focusing on the issue of resolving the conflict, the unhealthy pastor will focus on the perceived offender with an attempt to discredit him by back-biting and manipulation.
When this fails, either the church member will leave because of the injustice involved or the pastor leaves. In another way to put it, “people vote with their feet”, and the problem “disappears”. When the unhealthy pastor leaves, his problem will go with him to the next church and this cycle repeats until he reaches beyond mid-life crisis and does something very serious.
Unhealthy Intrapersonal functioning
A healthy pastor can handle stress and practices effective ways to resolve conflicts. An unhealthy pastor is stressed all the time. A little bit of disappointment becomes a big issue with him, such as when does he get his day off, where does he park his car at church, reimbursement for a book, etc. Trivial issues are stressful as much as relevant issues are stressful. He resents perceived demands made on him since anything and everything causes him stress.
Inability to Prioritize
This unhealthy pastor’s internal defense is perfectionism; the belief that if he can do his ministry perfectly, then no one can find faults with him. He also expects others to be perfect. In order to avoid mistakes, he makes sure every small, trivial matter is covered. Unimportant issues are equal to important ones, so the pastor is always stressed with little things and a pessimistic outlook ensues over time. The downfall of this psychological processing is that the pastor looks for what can go wrong instead of what can potentially be right and challenging. This is not about faith, but about self-preservation and personal survival in not making an error.
Shame and Blame
The unhealthy pastor is very sensitive to shame and guilt and he will try everything he knows how to avoid them. In the traditional Chinese culture this is called “saving face” to avoid the shame in being humiliated. The internal psychological defense against being found in the wrong is by ascribing or projecting the causes of an unacceptable feeling to others, this is blame. Blame is a form of denial in that the unhealthy pastor cannot bear being “caught” in the wrong, and by blaming others for this guilt, he can feel more superior about himself in the process. This is a short-term method in bringing about short-term psychological relief. There is a long-term side effect in that the pastor is not able to evaluate himself through the use of others’ feedbacks.
Close-Mindedness: Lack of Introspection and Insight
Blame causes a person to look at what’s wrong with others and not what’s wrong with himself, so there is no opportunity for introspection. Without introspection there is no self-correction, insight and no opportunity to learn from others. The pastor has caught himself in a self-defeating cycle of subjective thinking. With time, the pastor can only hold contempt towards those he does not agree with, this is usually about authority figures or spiritual leaders. He tends to undermine their authority privately to ease his guilty conscience. This is done by name-calling and labeling.
Over a long period of time, the unhealthy pastor will need to continue to assure himself that he is acceptable and worthy in the public, so he tends to “over-correct” in his needs for self assurance. To the public, this pastor appears to be confident, but at times boastful and arrogant. This is in his subtle attitude of sounding confidence in his choice of words as well as personal put-downs. This attitude will continue to worsen because without outside help, this unhealthy pastor will eventually embarrass himself in public and the governing board will need to respond in order to contain personal damages as well as the restoration of the church’s image. It is common for an unhealthy pastor to use labels and name-calling privately among his close allies towards other leaders or spiritual authorities over him.
Later on, he will inadvertently slip up when he speaks in public causing shock in the congregation. A very unhealthy pastor may mistake the congregation’s shock as attention and approval, and will inadvertently use personal attacks and off-color jokes to win the attention of the congregation by shocking them more. This will spiral downwards until the leadership cannot bear with him any more.
The above are bits and pieces of the manifestations of an unhealthy pastor. We may find one pastor having most of these problems and some with only a few of the problems. There is a more serious form of these dysfunctions; this is in the area of a full-blown personality disorder in a pastor. These pastors will commit actual crimes and can get prosecuted by law enforcement for lying, tax-evasion, embezzlement, pedophilia, sexual abuse of congregation members, and adultery.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
There is a serious disorder called narcissistic personality disorder. This is more common in Chinese first-born sons and men in generally. There are primarily two types; high-functioning narcissists versus low-functioning narcissists. The high-functioning ones are more intelligent, sophisticated and more physically attractive, while the low-functioning ones are clumsy and unattractive. Unhealthy pastors are usually from the high-functioning type. Since they are more charismatic in their personality and intelligent, they usually can finish their seminary training without being uncovered. Some may even begin seminary training with the best of intention, but later revert to a narcissistic functioning much latter in life. Once uncovered, shock waves are sent all over Christian leadership circle and everyone feels angry and betrayed because they used to think very highly of this person and as a pastor before. Some are so shocked that they refuse to believe the reality of the offending pastor who used to be their trusted friend.
Low Self-Esteem becomes Inflated Self-Evaluation
Narcissistic pastors began with low self-esteem growing up and to compensate for this insecurity in himself, a psychological self-aggrandizing mechanism begins to take over to compensate for this insecure self-evaluation. He has become used to compensate for his weaknesses by forming his own opinion about himself.
Since his subjective evaluation of himself is that he is “special”, “wonderful and good”, that entitles him to be treated in special ways by people. This is a psychological state of being where he believes he should be entitled to special privileges because he deserves them. These people are unable to acknowledge personal faults, cannot say sorry, they have no remorse and blames others for his wrongs.
Conflict of Interest, Dual Relationships, Blurred Physical Boundaries and Poor Emotional Limits
His self-absorption is strong and he can only consider his personal interest and what benefits him. He will have no ideas of what constitute conflicts of interest by being involved in dual relationships. For example, an unhealthy pastor will invite a woman who is going through a divorce to have lunch with him to “minister” to her. His strong desires to be powerful and needed will overtake his judgment to be proper in his physical boundaries and emotional limits with women. This is the first area of problem where unhealthy pastors do wrong.
Lack of Empathy
The narcissistic pastor, because of serious abuse or neglect suffered while growing up, he can only care for his own feelings. He has learned over the years that his parents will not treat him well and he had no choice but to be self-centered to survive this dysfunctional family full of chaos. This egoistic self-absorption prevents the unhealthy pastor to appreciate other people’s feelings. In other words, the unhealthy pastors have very low EQ: Emotional Quotient, and becomes somewhat emotionally alienated from others. The only way for them to survive is to have an overly developed intellect to compensate for this short coming. These dysfunctional pastors can be talkative, persuasive, logical, quick to argue and keen at self-defense, but they are woefully ignorant when other’s needs are called into consideration. Some high-functioning narcissists are aware of others’ feelings, but they choose to either ignore them (by suppressing their conscience) or to exploit them in order to manipulate others to benefit him.
A more serious form of this disorder renders the pastor a “under-developed conscience”. He will do immoral things privately that even non-believers will not do, but they lack a self-regulatory mechanism in them because the need for self-satisfaction is more important than self-regulation. They indulge themselves in food, clothes, possessions and vanity. With their calloused consciences, they can do hurtful things by exploitation of others, but they can still live with themselves. This insensitivity increases over the years because the need for satisfaction and approval also increases over time due to aging and the presence of more competent and healthy pastor on staff.
Half-Truths, Lies and Leading a Double Life
Lying is not a big issue with unhealthy pastor as he has lived with a double-standard for a long time. When he knows he is observed by others at church, he can do the “right” thing. He becomes another person when he is with non-believers or with his family. He uses half-truths to justify his conscience by telling him that he “did not lie”, just did not disclose the whole truth. He lies to cover things up for himself and to get away with being found out. For example, a pastor will use profanities occasionally at home and while he travels, but he will never do so at church.
Lack of Emotional Regulation
Unhealthy pastors can be conceptualized as adults who have not achieved emotional maturation fully. They have lowered EQ and are not able to delay gratification. They are inpatient and get irritated very easily. Unlike mature adults, they become driven by their emotions, usually the subjective feelings of personal hurts and injury. When frustrated, they become stressed and will use words that are not God glorifying.
Impulsive Anger: Rage Episodes
Unhealthy pastors fear two things. First, they fear being found out after they told a lie, so they become angry when this happens. Second, they fear being humiliated, so they are very sensitive to any slights from others. They are especially sensitive towards the “wrongs” or “imperfections” in their spouse and children. He gets mad very easily and his family has learned to avoid getting him into a rage. He blames others for his lack of anger control and his family members have learned to not dispute with him by accepting the blame. He is not a patient driver and does not want to wait in line for his turn. When he does not agree with others, he protects himself by saying they are stupid. This makes him feel superior and others can be discounted and disregarded, this further justifies his exploitation of them.
Addictions of the Unhealthy Pastor
When a pastor is overwrought with dysfunctions and with a great need to meet the expectations of those in power, there is usually an associated addiction to keep his life “balanced”. The precursors of addiction are emotional alienations from loved ones and cognitive rigidity. In a way, there is a counter-balancing effect of an addiction that helps him cope with a pervasive need to de-stress himself. The addiction helps him release anger and frustration. Online pornography, emotional affairs, physical-sexual affairs, stock market speculation, gambling and rages are common forms of addiction.
How to Help Unhealthy Ministers
Seminary admission: Personality disorder screening
Admission requirements should not only be based on academic achievement, but also be on healthy character. Psychological assessments should be included in some questionable candidates to rule-out serious personality disorders.
Tell! No secrets
Experienced clinicians and seminary faculty should disclose a candidate’s character weakness honestly. The Chinese practice of keeping quiet to avoid conflicts between churches and seminaries should stop because we have a higher good to achieve; the protection of the safety and health of the future congregation. We are finally accountable to our Lord should we fail to prevent potential harm for happening in a congregation.
Accountability and supervision
A healthy pastor will welcome a system of accountability and supervision, whereas unhealthy pastors will disdain upon the authority bestowed upon supervisors. Independent churches without the accountability of a denomination are especially vulnerable to this. Unhealthy pastors generally prefer ministries and churches without supervision for the desire to fully control his influence.
Monitored Psychotherapy or counseling
Fallen pastors and unhealthy seminary candidates, after psychological evaluation and recommendation from an experienced and trust worthy mental health professional should be referred for counseling. The confidentiality between a therapist and a pastor should be designed so the progress of the pastor should be reported to a supervisor for continue monitoring of his recovery and prayer.
After an unhealthy pastor falls, he should be subjected to the same standard of church discipline based on Biblical principles. However, the restoration process should be designed by experienced leadership, usually in the form of a multi-disciplinary team without the presence of conflict of interests and dual relationships. A pastor who has been convicted of a crime should not be permitted to serve again without close monitoring and supervision.
(作者為加州執照臨床心理學家，現任香港浸會神學院教牧輔導課程義務主任，曾任三藩市公立醫院精神科主治心理醫師、加州大學三藩市分校醫學院精神科助理教授，以及美國中國信徒佈道會、家庭更新協會的同工。與妻結婚 20年多，育有一女，現居美國三藩市灣區。 Info@ChristianMentalHealth.com)
Psychological Evaluation of Ministry Personnel
The evaluation begins with an email, telephone or fax referral from the supervising pastor or the personnel director of a missionary sending agency.
Then the candidate should contact this office to personally arrange a time for the evaluation process. The fee will be paid at the time of the evaluation either by the candidate or the agency requesting the referral. The fee for a usual evaluation is USD $800.00 covering a two-to-three-hour face-to-face individual clinical interview. This fee also includes all materials needed in the administration of the standardized psychological tests. (Generally consisting of two tests, with administration, scoring, and interpretation) and a written report. Additionally, there is a time for telephone consultation between the evaluator and personnel director to clarify any parts of the report and/or to answer any questions.
Usually, the evaluation can be completed within one full day (up to three hours of interview and three or four hours for paper and pencil testing).
While not required, a two-day arrangement is generally recommended because the second day can be used as a feedback time for the candidate.
A confidential written report containing the findings and analyses usually takes about two to four weeks to be emailed to the supervising pastor or the missionary sending agency.
Upon the first meeting of the face-to-face interview, the candidate will sign an authorization to release the confidential findings of the evaluation. In other words, the candidate will be informed that the confidentiality that exists in this evaluation process is limited and conditional. The candidate will be made clear of this understanding for the presence of informed consent.
The candidate will fill out a four-page biographical questionnaire to establish a written record of family history, educational and occupation history, ministry and spiritual history; drug and/or alcohol use history, family history of serious mental illness; history of emotional, physical or sexual abuse; history of destructive behaviors; and personal perceptions of strengths and weaknesses.
The candidate will take at least one or two computer-scorable and standardized psychological tests. The results of these instruments will be used as objective evidence to complement the subjective-clinical findings for the formulation of the impression, analyses and the final recommendation.
The report will generally include areas of strengths and weaknesses for the personal benefit of the candidate.
 Standardized tests are instruments that have been normed and researched to establish a standard of reliability and validity. These instrument will include the:
This is used in the general evaluation of the presence or absence of a serious psychiatric-psychological disorder, such as clinical depression, anxiety-panic disorder, impulsive-explosive behaviors, anger management problems, over-controlled-hostility, and addictive behavior potentials. Pastoral-missionary personnel can be considered a "high liability" (clergy sexual misconduct in the Catholic church) potential in North America as well as many part of the world. Seminary students are considered an important part of public safety personnel among law enforcement officers and nuclear power plant operators.
This is used in the general evaluation of the presence or absence of a serious personality disorder that affects daily social functioning of the candidate. This instrument is used to rule-out the presence of narcissistic, borderline, obsessive-compulsive, histrionic and dependent personality disorders that are common in disordered people in position of authority such as a pastor or missionary.
MCR: The Marriage Counseling Report or
This is used for the evaluation of ministry couples. When a couple is sent to a mission field, the marital health of this couple is evaluated using this instrument. This test yields healthy personality compatibility indexes between the couple as well as indications of marital satisfaction. This is similar to what Prepare-Enrich and TJTA measure, but the psychometrics of the MCR and CCR is a great improvement over them in the area of breath as well as the validity.
The latest versions of these instruments will be provided. Chinese translations of these question booklets can be made available to candidate whose primary language proficiency is Chinese.