Three years ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury made a comment about the clergy which was felt to demoralise some of them. He said that where there was a good vicar, ‘you will find growing churches’. This comment seemed to be unfair to the many clergy who work in difficult areas where the church finds it hard to make headway. It was also suggesting that a church that fails to thrive is in some way the fault of its leader.
In the Church Times last Friday, there was published an article based on some research by one Henry Ratter, a layman and a former senior manager at ICI. He has recently completely a PhD thesis which shows that clergy personality is in fact a factor helping churches to flourish. His research involved using the unlikely named Glowinkowski Predisposition Indicator. This is a tool to assess the thinking style and engagement with work among professionals. Ratter used the questionnaire on one hundred clergy in a rural diocese in England. The questionnaire assessed problem solving in their work alongside issues connected with feelings and self-control.
It is the second part of the assessment that interests me. I have long since claimed (privately) that some parish clergy are beset with issues of morale. Not a few of them seem, from personal observation, to have complaints about the amount of support they receive from above, bishops and archdeacons. Thus, they often feel isolated in their work and some of them seem to withdraw into themselves, becoming ‘prickly’ and defensive towards the outside world. This is expressed by a reluctance to take part in Synods and other clergy gatherings. In this way, they complain about failures of support while simultaneously withdrawing from the structures that are provided.
Ratter’s research was not directly addressing the issue of morale among the clergy but there were some interesting shafts of light on the problem. Out of the hundred clergy who completed the questionnaire, 37 were found to be ‘self-contained and ill at ease’. Ratter suggests that such a disposition renders this group less able to ‘express their feelings and emotions openly’ thus making ‘a negative impact on their work.’
The research of clergy personality profiles was conducted alongside statistics of church attendance. Four personality features were found to equate to ‘healthy’ congregational life. One was that these clergy were extraverted types. The other features were that they were ‘radical’, able to plan for the future, ‘at ease with themselves’ and finally ‘collectivist’. By way of comment I note that each of these features suggest that such clergy were confident, avoiding the collapse of morale that seems endemic among a cohort of their peers.
Speaking as a retired parish clergyman, I can see that the last feature mentioned by Ratter, the collectivist, is especially important. Through this word Ratter is speaking about the ability to get along with people of all kinds, empowering them and using their gifts within the structures of the parish. I know from experience that without good people managing finance, fabric, church fetes etc, life would have been impossibly stressful. Equally there needed to be trusted individuals to share strategy and vision for the future of the congregation. Trying to ‘go it alone’ would have made a difficult job impossible. ‘Collectivism’ seems like a strategy for emotional survival rather a quality of personality.
Yet we know that the ability to trust the right people and bring out the gifts of all is a skill. Insofar as I possess it, it went with the other quality mentioned by Ratter, being ‘at ease with themselves’. As a child I probably spent more time than was healthy looking up to other children who were good at sport or cleverer that I was. It was never difficult to exceed my skills on the sports field. Nevertheless, by the time was adult I had largely purged myself of this sense of inferiority. Away also went the emotions of jealousy and envy. Assisting me were the benefits of a good education and many opportunities for travel. Whatever the reason, I do not now spend any time wanting to be someone else or wanting what they possess. That is, I suppose, a mark of being at ease with myself.
This personal reflection is not meant to be about me but to reflect on the way that this piece of research points to a problem. Some clergy do seem to have an issue with a personality type which gets in the way of congregational flourishing. One expression that might sum it up is to say that some clergy are lacking social confidence. Whether training can eliminate the introversion involved in this trait is an open question. I am not convinced that there is at present much interest in examining the psychodynamic profiles of potential clergy or ministers. While some sort of psychological profiling may happen in the Anglican church at the selection stage, there is no evidence that anything equivalent is done for independent congregations where the potential for damage is massive. One of my few peer-reviewed published articles is on the issue of narcissism among the clergy. Although the topic of narcissism among leaders has become extremely topical with the arrival of Trump, I am not aware of anyone who has picked up the topic among the trainers of clergy. Ratter’s observations about the personalities of the clergy and their leadership potential may have created a few waves over the past few days, but I suspect that it will be quickly forgotten. Power in the church, its use and misuse, is a very disconcerting and threatening topic. Until it can be discussed in a way that does not threaten the actual holders of power, it will always be easier to leave the subject in an in-tray. There it can be quietly forgotten.