Pastors Care Too Much

I was talking to a fellow professional in the world of psychology today, a seminary professor and a pastor, a man who has evaluated literally hundreds of candidates for ministry.  We were comparing notes.  We’ve both administered tests (like the MMPI and MCMI) that evaluate for pathology.  And it took about 3 minutes to discover that we’ve both seen Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD) emerge more than any other as the most common disorder among pastors.  But why?

The symptoms of HPD include:

  • Being easily influenced by other people
  • Being overly concerned with looks
  • Being overly dramatic and emotional
  • Being overly sensitive to criticism or disapproval
  • Believing that relationships are more intimate than they actually are
  • Blaming failure or disappointment on others
  • Constantly seeking reassurance or approval
  • Having a low tolerance for frustration or delayed gratification
  • Needing to be the center of attention
  • Quickly changing emotions, which may seem shallow to others

    Now, pastors with HPD are ordinarily very high functioning, as are most who struggle with this.  But, they (we!) often find ourselves over-functioning, intervening when we ought to set a boundary, becoming overly worked up about certain things others might shrug off, reacting quickly and sensitively, becoming defensive, and (as a result of all of this emotional exertion!), becoming easily tired.

    No wonder so much of the pastoral literature in the past two decades is about pastoral burnout.

    But, vacations and naps won’t fix the problem.  Rather, we need to see that we’ve become people who care too much.  We’re over-compensators, often thrust in to situations in our childhood where we were called upon to “be adult,” to negotiate, to help make the peace, or to intervene on behalf of someone being made fun of.  I’ve heard these stories time and again.  It’s no surprise that we become ministers.

    But our “caring too much” extends to our theological hyper-vigilance.  I was reminded of this recently as I’ve been re-reading some of the great old epistles of 1st and early 2nd century saints like Polycarp and Ignatius.  Over and again, they fought for unity, and tackled only the major heresies of their day.  They didn’t quibble over relatively small issues.  In their missionally animated world, they didn’t have the bandwidth.  There was no extra energy to litigate every apparent slippery slope.

    How do you care too much?  How do I care too much?  It’s a strange idea, and even sounds a bit heretical itself.  Aren’t pastors paid to care?

    And where did this begin for you?  For me?  Do we know our own stories well enough to see where these histrionic patterns started?  And who knows you well enough to call you out on your over-caring patterns?

    Share with me your thoughts.

    Richard Rohr on Men, the Church, and Theological Education

    You likely won’t agree with everything in the quote below.  I’m not sure that I do.  But it’s provocative, speaking to a kind of fear-based male ‘spirituality’ (for lack of a better term) which thrives on control, security, power, and more.  No doubt, I was influenced by this myself in my theological training, as associating around power and control, even if speaks of things like ‘grace’ and ‘humility’, is subtly enticing.  I suspect that it’s easier for those of us who minister in the First World, still firmly entrenched in Christendom power, to fall into this trap.  But it comes at a cost.  We find ourselves suspicious, fearful, finger-pointing at those on the ‘slippery slope’, questioning, afraid of mystery, prone to ‘rallies’ celebrating how right we are, masters at playing humble yet unflappably certain, guardians of the truth rather than followers of the Way.  I’m not meaning to set up false dichotomies, but just want to point out the way in which Rohr’s words may speak prophetically and cause self-reflection among those of us who wear the ‘title’ of pastor.

    “A recent study pointed out that a strong majority of young men entering seminaries in the last ten to twenty years came from single-parent homes, a high percentage having what we would call “father wounds,”4 which can take the form of an absent, emotionally unavailable, alcoholic, or even abusive father. This overwhelmingly matches my own experience of working in Catholic seminaries, and of men in jail, the military, or any all-male system. Many of these men were formed in postmodern Europe and America, where almost nothing has been stable or constant or certain since the late 1960s, and even the church was trying to reform itself through the Second Vatican Council. All has been in flux ever since about 1968. Then add to all of that fifteen years of nonstop public scandal over the issues of pedophilia and cover-up by the hierarchy. Such bishops, priests, and seminarians often had no chance to do the task of the first half of life well. It was a movable famine to grow up in, so they backtracked to do what they should have been able to do first—second! They are out of sequence through no fault of their own. They want a tribe that is both superior and secure—and theirs! Men join a male club, like the church, to get the male energy they never got as sons, or because they accept the male game of “free enterprise” and social advancement. I have often wondered if I did the same. I hope not. The result is a generation of seminarians and young clergy who are cognitively rigid and “risk adverse”; who want to circle the wagons around their imagined secure and superior group; who seem preoccupied with clothing, titles, perks, and externals of religion; and frankly have little use for the world beyond their own control or explanation. Ecumenism, interfaith dialogue, and social justice are dead issues for them. None of us can dialogue with others until we can calmly and confidently hold our own identity. None of us can know much about second-half-of-life spirituality as long as we are still trying to create the family, the parenting, the security, the order, the pride that we were not given in the first half. Most of us from my generation cannot go back on this old path, not because it was bad, but precisely because we already did it, and learned from it. Unfortunately, we have an entire generation of educators, bishops, and political leaders who are still building their personal towers of success, and therefore have little ability to elder the young or challenge the beginners. In some ways, they are still beginners themselves. Self-knowledge is dismissed as psychology, love as “feminine softness,” critical thinking as disloyalty, while law, ritual, and priestcraft have become a compulsive substitute for actual divine encounter or honest relationship. This does not bode well for the future of any church or society.”  Richard Rohr, Falling Upward