Having My Head Examined

I feel part of this journey into ministry is the act of sharing it with those around me, both demystifiying and humanizing the “transition” from laity to clergy.  It’s a fascinating process, if exhausting and bizarre.  In my tradition (United Methodist), there are a great many steps toward ordination.  One of them is quite possibly the least pleasant part:  a psychological report.

There’s, first, a battery of some four or five psychological assessments that you have to sit down and take, among them the MMPI-2.  This is 567 true/false questions meant to chart your overall psychological map (anxiety levels, relationship with your own health, cynicism, self-esteem, familial relationships, etc.).  There’s also a fill-in-the-blank test that measures your mental health by how you respond to certain prompts (“I wish my mother would…,” “My biggest challenge is…,” “When I don’t know anyone at a gathering, I…”).  And there’s another true/false set-up of another 400 or so questions, and then a 200-question test…I took most of them right in a row (in retrospect, perhaps not the wisest thing to do but I did so want them over with) and it took me about five hours to get through everything.  (One other test didn’t have to be proctored by another person, so I took that home and did it while lying on my floor and wondering whether the Church was seriously worth seven hours of intense self-examination.  So the joke some folks make about I should have my head examined for wanting to be a pastor?  It’s not funny anymore.)

On every test there is the admonition to “be honest” and not try to answer the questions the way you think the Church wants you to answer them.  You know those kinds of questions; it’s like Buzzfeed quizzes on which Avenger you are.  The ones that slant toward Iron Man are pretty obvious and you’ll pick those if you want to be Iron Man.  But the Church wants (or says it wants) who you really are, and that is TERRIFYING.  I’ve done psych evals, I’ve been through therapy; I know what it looks like when I answer certain questions certain ways.  I know that this is not the “right” answer, that this is going to be a flag of some color in my mark-up.  Perhaps the hardest part of the tests was not the taking of them but the allowance for myself to be honest about the places I’m not all that well adjusted yet.

Once you’ve done the tests, they are sent to a psychologist who reviews them and also sits down with you for two hours to get a measure of who you are when you’re on the spot.  If you think the tests are fun, than this part is a rollicking party.  Said psychologist gets to ask anything he likes—and you can refuse to answer, of course, but that is itself an answer.  Again, the hardest part for me wasn’t necessarily the conversation but resisting the very strong temptation to shape the interaction so as to make myself look tremendously healthy and awesome.

Armed with the tests and this interview, the psychologist writes up a report about you and (after talking it over with you to see if you see anything egregiously incorrect in its representation which he may or may not change) that gets sent on to the various boards of the Church for their review and then FOLLOWS YOU FOREVER.

So do other reports, so it’s not like this is the end-all-be-all description of who you are.  But it is part of it, and it is unnerving as all get-out to have a nine-page (in my case) breakdown of all your insecurities and faltering places that complete strangers get to read.  Complete strangers who get to decide whether or not to support my call to professional ministry.  Complete strangers who get first this statement of clinical detachment from who I am and why I do things and how really, I’m not so bad once you get to know me.

I didn’t react well to this report at first, as you might imagine.  How could I?  It’s a hell of a thing to feel…well, to feel so very exposed.  I realize this is a hilarious thing to come from a weekly blogger, but both you and I know that I control how much of me you see, Reader.  I don’t lie to you, but neither do I come even close to telling you the whole truth—because you don’t need to know it.  And you do the same in your life; no two people hold the same information about us.  It would be silly to try that because our spouses should never be in the same kind of relationship with us as our parents or our bosses—but our spouses should know us deeply and truly and in the places where we cringe against the light because those aren’t beautiful.

So to have Church officials see those kinds of places?  Tough.  I don’t want them to see those, I don’t want to be that kind of vulnerable because it’s so easy to see the (constructive) criticisms and hear not that I don’t do well in this area but that I am bad, that I as a person should not do ministry; having your fears and anxieties and history on display like that is hellishly intimate in a very public kind of way.

But as I was striking out against that report in anger driven by fear and frustration (about which I’ll say more the week after next—which, oh, there won’t be a post next week because I’m off to be in a wedding.  I’m sorry I almost forgot again!), I realized God sees this all the time.  God doesn’t have to wait for a typed report to tell Him that I pull away from some situations, that my anxiety levels are not healthy, that it’s far easier for me to walk away from relationship than to stay in.  He knows that; He’s always known that.

But He loves me fiercely and He calls me to His service.

Whom then shall I fear if God sees infinitely more than psychological assessments and yet still values me as His daughter?  And what right have I to believe that I am less because of these imperfections when He continually makes me more by His love?

 

 

Lord, you have examined me;
    you have known me.
You know when I rest
    and when I am active.
You understand what I am thinking
    when I am distant from you.  (Psalm 139:1-2, ISV)

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5 thoughts on “Having My Head Examined

  1. Hopeful says:

    I order these psych evals for my clients routinely, and I learn so much about how to provide better services, and individualized services, by reading them. But every time I read one I pray that I’ll never have to complete one. Because even the thought of it scares the socks off me.
    So kudos to you for going through with it!

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    • Ha, thanks! They are really good tools for putting the many pieces of the mind into one place, but man. Even someone as introspective as I am isn’t all that thrilled about so completely naming some of this stuff. Much easier to hide it in the bin under the bed–and yet I’ve also noticed that having named these things, I’ve really been paying attention to all the ways I’m growing in those areas (which always manifests in a sort of TAKE THAT, NAYSAYERS! kind of way because I’m nothing if not combative).

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  2. I’m glad you got it out of the way early. I had my consultation a couple of weeks before I started seminary and it placed a heavy burden on me at a time when I did not need one more load to carry. I suppose I would have dropped out of pastoral ministry anyway, for lots of reasons (only some of which I’ve explained publicly), but the psychological consultation gave me a big push in that direction. I had an overwhelming need to get away and think it all over. It would’ve been wiser for me to take a semester off, but when you feel like you’re suffocating, you can’t be expected to do the wisest thing. Hopefully you will work through it better than I did.

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    • It’s crazy how I feel like I’ve processed through this and it still pops up in the most unexpected places with quite a bit of force. I can’t imagine having to do that and do the first part of seminary; that’s a lot.

      As to working through it, a lot of that is leaning on fabulous people like you to tell me I’m not crazy and we all have our places of brokenness and waiting until that’s all fixed means I’ll be dead and gone and have missed the ministry boat altogether. (I’m still deciding whether that’s efficacious.)

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  3. Sheila Bigelow says:

    Preach it, Sister!

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