Tuesday, October 18, 2011

You have to be a little crazy to be a deacon

My good friend and brother deacon who occupies "The Deacon's Bench" over at Patheos, Deacon Greg Kandra, has a very interesting post today about psychological testing as part of the process of applying for admission into formation programs which may lead to possible ordination as a deacon or presbyter.  Here's what Greg wrote about it, and from there you can read the full reflection by the original blogger on this issue.

I thought it might be helpful to review some basics about the application, discernment and formation processes that are involved here, and how psychological testing fits into that larger picture.  While I certainly don't deny that the original author highlights some interesting questions vis-a-vis psychological testing, several things need to be kept in mind: 1) Unless the applicant is a trained psychologist himself, how he THINKS certain questions might be answered may not, in fact, be the same as how a professional trained in test interpretation might read the data.  I can tell you from my own experience with this, that while my examiner didn't ask certain questions specifically, I was stunned later about her ability to piece the data she DID receive into an accurate portrait; 2) The applicant has, apparently, not yet completed the whole application process, so he has no idea if the questions he is raising will simply be part of subsequent testing or additional interviews; 3) The applicant himself is not himself experienced with the ministry of (at least in this case) the diaconate, which means that he has to make certain assumptions about what he BELIEVES ought to be included.  Now, I'm not saying he doesn't raise valid concerns!  However, it would also be wrong to extrapolate from one man's partial experience in one diocese (out of 196!) to make judgments about the processes followed throughout the country.  So, let's take a closer look.

First, psychological testing is only one part of the overall application process.  If you look at the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, you'll find that Chapter Four deals with "Vocation, Discernment, and Selection."  The chapter is divided into five sections: 1) Promotion and Recruitment, 2) The Mystery of Vocation, 3) The Discernment of the Call, 4) Admission and Selection Procedures, and, 5) Admission into the Aspirant Path in Formation.  I list all of these to put the specific issue of psychological testing in perspective.  Notice that the process of assessing the suitability of applicants begins long before we get to the administration of psychological tests, and that we begin with the far more fundamental issues of vocation and discernment of God's presence and action witnessed in the applicant's life by all of those around him: his family, friends, church community and so on.  We try to make sure that, unlike a "job application" for a secular position, the process of discerning a possible vocation to ordained ministry is interested in the whole range of human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral elements of a person's life and character; the psychological is only one aspect in making such assessments.

Second, let's turn to Section IV in more detail.  There, we find information about the role of the pastor, the parish and the diocesan staff in reviewing a person's suitability, and the means of doing this involves a series of interviews by and with a variety of people, and these interviews usually involve the whole family of the applicant to some degree.  In paragraph 177, we read that "appropriate psychological consultation may be included as part of the application process, but always with the written consent of the applicant.  Those selected as psychological consultants must use psychological methods in harmony with Christian anthropology and Catholic teaching, particularly with respect to the theology of the diaconal vocation, the various states of life of the deacon and the basic human qualities expected of a mature deacon."

Third, notice what is NOT included in that paragraph: a required list of the psychological tests to be conducted!  In earlier drafts of the National Directory, such a list was offered; however, further research indicated that the resources available around the country varied greatly, as well as the professional opinions of psychologists about the best instruments to use.  This means that what one applicant might experience in one diocese will undoubtedly vary from what is used in the neighboring diocese.  As a result, those of us who are involved in this process are constantly assessing the psychological test batteries in use.

Just a final note: People should realize that, in a process as complex as this is, only rarely is a person rejected from the formation process based on a single issue alone.  Obviously, if it is discovered that a person has a serious psychological, medical or other issue; that's one thing.  But what we most often discover is a pattern of issues that need to be addressed.  Ultimately, decisions about whether or not to accept a person into the formation process, and leading all the way to decisions about whether or not to ordain a person at all, rest with the bishop and his assessment of the common good of the diocesan Church.  No one is ordained simply because they're a good and holy person (we hope!); a person is called to orders only when the bishop is convinced that the People of God can be served, and served well, by a particular person.  Psychological testing can be one important tool in that overall process, but it is never the only one, nor is it necessarily the best one.


  1. Brother Bill, thank you again for your insight. It was a pleasure having you in the Diocese of Charleston recently.
    God Bless, Deacon Dick Murtaugh.

  2. Very insightful, Bill. It's funny at our recent deacons' retreat a couple of us were talking about our experiences in this regard early on in our formation. What struck me was how positive we all were. Like you, after taking the required battery of tests, when meeting the psychologist, I was struck by how accurate the portrait was. I was also struck by what a good spiritual director I had, who had helped me surface a lot, but not all, of what this showed. In addition to aiding our bishop's discernment, it was a great help to me personally.

    The battery we chuckled at the most was the one in which you were given two options and HAD to chose one of the two, while my example is exaggerated, it is not much: Would rather watch a pornographic movie or kill a pet. I guess I "passed." I use quotes because I know your post is about how these tests work as part of the overall formation process.