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.

    3 comments

    1. I fit just about every bullet point of HPD there Chuck.  Never knew there was such a disorder, but I seem to be typical.  After RTS decided against being a pastor.  Working a non-religious job.  Did a little bit of To Be Told, but still haven’t quite seen what it is your talking about here.  I tend to worry and care a lot about if I am being a good enough father and husband right now.  And I am very sensitive to criticism about it.  Go off in a rage.

    2. Hey Chuck – thanks for your post… i”ve been reading your blog for several months now, and have been really encouraged to know I’m not going crazy, wrestling with all the messiness of ministry.  Sometime long ago I made a vow with myself that if I saw something broken, surely I had to be the one to fix it.  When I began ministering at my church,  I suddenly had a feast of ‘problems’ to ‘fix’.  People became projects, and I became a workhorse for my own self worth… all of it measured by other people’s evaluations of me.  After a few crisis events, I spiralled into depression and disillusionment.  I’m currently trying to untie all the knots with which I tied my sense of worth and peace and joy to the resolution of other peoples problems.  But if my job is to care… how am I supposed to guard myself, and draw the right boundaries with some consistency and integrity?  What is the language necessary to communicate that to the people around me?

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