Leadership and personality in the Church

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.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

5 thoughts on “Leadership and personality in the Church

  1. I have been reading the stuff in the current Church Times, too. Including a reply from Ecclesiastical Insurance about being blamed for the withdrawal of pastoral care of abuse victims by the church. It was a misunderstanding by the church, which was corrected in a few days, it says. Fascinating.
    What to make of the cleric who always says, “I’ll do it myself” every time they are asked about something? I’ve known two in my former place of worship over a relatively short time. Everything from doing the magazine to the Maundy Thursday service. (I can tell you, that is a bizarre experience) And in both cases, a complete refusal to listen to anyone else’s opinion. Usually by the simple method of not having meetings. But also by doing what they want in spite of the meeting that decided something different.
    Then there’s the cleric in the same parish who simply left out three members of the ministry team. Every time. Apparently simply by forgetting. But so painful for the people concerned.
    Or the cleric who got rid of one Reader because his wife didn’t like her, then a much loved clergyman because he didn’t, then another Reader…..
    Then the two clerics, different parishes this time, who got rid of female Readers because they didn’t approve of women’s ministry.
    I am trying to make two points. One is that the reasons why some clergy are hopeless at collaborative ministry are sometimes that the clergy concerned are hopeless! Honestly. And the other is that they vary hugely. Asking a hundred people is simply not enough. If you wanted to test whether a new fertiliser was any good, you would almost certainly have to test at least a thousand geranium plants with the old one and the new one. And remember, geranium plants can be identical genetically, thanks to cuttings. Tests on human beings need thousands of people.
    I wasn’t at all sure I liked the guy’s methodology.
    The church is badly run, for the most part. The supervisory classes don’t supervise properly, in the sense of care or control, and there’s a caste system, which is an huge institutional sin. There is a naïve and amateurish appreciation of the way to run a huge institution. And the way the church avoids its obligations to its people by pretending they are not employees stinks. Deliveroo have nothing on the CofE.
    You’re right that many, if not most clergy, work blinkin’ hard, and are often emotionally run into the ground by the weight of additional duties heaped upon them. They are being let down by the clergy who are not like this. If I may say so, nice hard-working chaps like yourself are also being naïve if you think everyone else is like you! They ain’t. But my experience of clergy being helped or otherwise by the laity, has ALWAYS been that they won’t accept the help that is offered. Not ever.
    I am prepared to concede that people can be slow to come forward. But I have simply never been in a situation where that was the problem.
    And I’m deeply suspicious of personality profiling. It’s being applied by people with very limited understanding of psychology. And most of what the church does is years out of date. All you need is proper supervision! Glibly said and hard in practice. But support for those who need it, and noticing when someone is useless would solve the problem.

  2. I fail to see how any organization can work when there is such a vast distance between the leaders and the led. This has been said so many times on this blog, so; ‘if there is an original thought out there I could use it now?’

    It is not just the church; it is the whole of our society that has one giant malfunction because of this problem. Things have not been helped by the celebrity cult of personality and media icons.

    Even the definition of, ‘Working class’ is now re interpreted by the media.
    A language of limited definition has grown round this subject.

    “When you think that you have lost everything, you find out that you can always loose a little more,” Show me someone in church leadership who can really understand that last Dylan quote?

    The music goes round and round, and choked souls are crushed by the wheels of cartoon priests, who only offer middle class absolution.

    *“Blood dazed intelligence beating for light, crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels”

    *(Isaac Rosenberg, Dead Man’s Dump)

  3. You do make me sad sometimes, Chris. You bleed for this issue. It’s much to your credit. Can I ask you to try to relax a little? I hate to see you getting so upset, though I don’t blame you at all. The rate of change is too slow, far too slow. Nice people have said to me that the church is changing. Fine. Good, even. But many people who might have been helped will be long gone before it happens at this rate! On the other hand, this blog, various courageous people, those who write the books and other things are the right way to go. Our contribution, all of us, is to keep banging on about it. But God does not expect us to do more than we can. You’re doing what you can, Chris. Try to rest with a clear conscience. I find I’m talking to myself, as well! Big hug, Bro!

  4. Stephen, sorry to have missed the deadline on your email. I use another address when trying to contact you, and I just never check this one! Oops! Does the Cathedral still have it? Mine I mean.

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