When you start out at seminary with an eye toward entering the ministry, the first thing they want to know about you is not whether you believe in God, or pray, or go to church. The first thing they want to know is whether you are a loony-toon. And so, in a move that may or may not make sense, they bustle you off to a psychological evaluation to find out.
This is mildly irritating to someone like me who believes in God, prays, goes to church, and wonders how much sanity has to do with any of it. For the record—and for those who place great import on childhood baggage—I a) get plenty of positive attention from my dad, b) approve of my mom’s taste in clothes, and c) adore my one brother whose only flaw is having learned to play on me all the tricks I played on him when he was smaller than me. But my well-adjusted smile was not enough to convince the People In Charge that I was too healthy to spend an hour in a shrink’s office. Instead, I got a whole day there. Before that, though, I had to take a whole battery of tests.
If I wasn’t tending toward loony-toonity beforehand, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory was nearly enough to trigger it. There is something ethically fishy about that test. The MMPI is approximately 567 true-or-false statements that, in their effort to detect whether one suffers from paranoia or hysteria, effectively induce those very conditions. Here are some sample statements (drawn from memory, since the MMPI is kept safely out of the hands of civilians like me): “I vomit a lot. I have a terrible fear of rats. Sometimes I think someone’s out to get me. I am possessed by evil spirits. I enjoy being hurt by those I love.”
I am pleased to report that I quickly answered false to all of these. (Besides, if I really were possessed by evil spirits, do you suppose they’d tell me so?) But the one that really got me was: I am fascinated by fire. It all revolved around the interpretation of the word “fascinated.” Sure, in one sense, I’m fascinated by fire—isn’t everybody?—but if I answered “true,” they’d probably think I was a pyro. The candidacy committee would have visions of the headline news announcer saying, “Last night a local pastor allegedly charged through the town center wielding a lit paschal candle like a lance and crying, ‘Fiery death to the infidels!’—and that would be the end of my vocational prospects. It took me a solid ten minutes to talk myself into lying (a very unministerial thing to do, alas), reasoning that I’d rather commit a venial sin than lose my chances over a stupid psych exam.
The other tests were a walk in the park by comparison. Everybody loves the Myers-Briggs because it reports no negative information on the test-taker, just preferences toward one style of operation over another. I personally hated the Thinking/Feeling questions that make you choose between “head” and “heart” because I think it’s a false dichotomy and the source of all Western philosophical ills; however, that probably proves I’m a Thinker beyond any shadow of a doubt. The Campbell interest survey ranks your skills and interests to help you figure out a suitable career. (The fact that I was taking this test while in direct pursuit of a chosen career is, apparently, a matter of indifference to the People In Charge.) You just tick off your level of interest in various occupations like tax consultant, Mary Kay vendor, botanist, or fireman. Later they tell you what you told them. It gets high marks for accuracy.
More creative are the “sentence completions.” They give you an opening phrase, and you take it wherever you want to. So you get about forty totally open-ended possibilities like these: “I like it when . . . Sometimes I wonder . . . I wish that . . . Sea anemonae remind me . . . (Just kidding. Nothing that suggestive here.) My favorite memory . . . I often think . . . Fire-swallowers at the circus make me feel . . . I used to . . . ”
The potential for sarcasm here is truly awesome. I mostly restrained myself, again for fear of headline news fantasies, but after so much soulful introspection I just couldn’t take it anymore: When I stop . . . breathing, I turn blue. (“This just in! A local pastor has been hospitalized after a series of self-induced fainting spells.”) There was a vocabulary/deductive reasoning test too, but as that was basically objective, there’s not much in it worthy of comment.
All that, of course, was just preliminary. The real excitement came on Evaluation Day itself. The plan was to spend the morning with the master’s-level counselor and the afternoon with the Ph.D.-level counselor, all for the bargain price of $600. I must admit, though, that there are worse things in this world than spending an entire day talking about myself to utterly rapt strangers. It was fun to diagnose and dissect myself as if I weren’t even there in the room, saying with absolute authority, “Oh yes, this is just like me,” or “Oh no, I would never act like that.” Parts of it were fairly enlightening. Other parts were not.
Take, for instance, the chat about my Myers-Briggs profile (ENTP, for the record). The very kind and likable lady who counseled me explained that like most ministerial sorts, I was a strong N (intuitive/abstract thinking), whereas most laypeople are S’s (sensory/ practical thinking). “So you mean,” I said slowly, trying to take it all in, “that I, as the pastor, will be more interested in theology than the church council, whose main goals will be meeting the monthly expenses, arranging to have the boiler repaired, and organizing a potluck now and then?” Well, gosh. The lady went on to express her concern that I had low self-esteem. I opined that there must be an error in the tests, but she showed me on the little chart that I consistently rated my interest in my favorite areas (religion, teaching, philosophy, etc.) higher than my skills. Therefore I must be underrating myself. It’s hard to argue with that kind of reasoning, so I didn’t.
Don’t get me wrong—the morning was by no means wasted. I discovered, to my great relief, that even in this day and age a little theology goes a long way, even where psych evaluators are concerned. Luckily for me, the nice lady was also a “diaconal minister,” the phrase my church uses because for some reason it can’t bring itself to say “deacon,” so she was excited by any evidence of orthodoxy. My first indication of this was after her speech about how my inner sense of call was sacrosanct, and her intention was not to threaten or question it in any way; she just needed to determine whether I’d make a good match with the kind of people the synod was looking for. After a moment of respectful silence, I said, “Actually, I don’t think there’s anything sacrosanct about my sense of call. I could be wrong. The church is supposed to discern whether the Holy Spirit is calling me to ordination, so I’m happy to leave the decision in their hands.” She looked at me in genuine astonishment. “Oh, how wonderful!” she exclaimed. “You just can’t guess how many people walk in here and demand that we give them full rein in the church as if they were the only ones who counted in the process.” I thought I probably could guess if I tried.
The next time theology saved the day, it was a narrower escape. We had been reviewing my interest survey. The nice lady and her assistant confronted me, in a very sweet and loving manner, with the fact that I had not rated counseling very highly on my interest list. (I began to squirm.) In fact, according to the test, I seemed to have almost no desire to help people at all. Did I realize, she whispered, that according to the statistics most pastors rate higher in interest in the helping professions? Did I really have no interest in being a therapist, psychiatrist, health care professional? Isn’t that why people go into the ministry? At last I bit the bullet and said, “I don’t believe that I can help people.” Audible gasp. “I believe that Jesus Christ can help people, and my job is to lead them to him and his healing.” Contented sighs. The lady was beaming again, and she thanked me. At that point even I couldn’t help but like her, despite my firm resolve to be suspicious of her ilk. By the end of the morning, our common appreciation of solid doctrine made me feel like we’d spent an evening chatting in front of a cozy fire instead of under the glare of the fluorescent lights.
Unfortunately, the treatment wasn’t over yet. I still had to see the doctor. My McDonald’s lunch was sitting none too well in my insides as I pondered what sort of horrible secrets he would try to get me to blurt out. When I finally sat down in his office and introduced myself, I felt myself blushing fiercely—and immediately panicked at how he would interpret it. Maybe he’d think I was hiding something. Worse yet, maybe he’d think I had a crush on him.
“Hi,” he said. “How was your morning?”
“Fine! It was fine,” I replied quickly. Why did he ask? Was he going to tell the nice lady what I said about her?
“Good,” he said blandly as he started rustling papers around. “All we have to do is look over the results of your MMPI.”
The MMPI! My old nemesis was back. I tried to focus while he explained in a monotone about the threshold line on the charts, which means, in lay terms, that as long as you’re below it, you’re not a psycho.
“But I’m over the line on that one,” I said, pointing to the column labeled Bizarre Mentation. “What does that mean?”
“Oh, that,” said the doctor dully, waving it away like a fly with his hand. “Don’t worry about it. All religious people score high on that one.” He went on to explain that if you mark “true” for statements like “I believe there is an afterlife” or “I think angels exist,” the test chalks it up to potential mental illness. I didn’t know whether to be insulted or strangely comforted; either way, the doctor didn’t care and proceeded with the results.
After droning on for a while, lulling me into a false sense of security, he asked me, “So, did you have a happy childhood?”
It was too quick and sudden, the sneaky jerk. I wasn’t prepared for the question and he knew it. I almost just said yes. But I caught myself in time, looked him square in the eye, and said, “I had such a happy childhood that I’ve never even been to a psychologist. I don’t expect you to believe me, though. I’m sure if I said so you’d think I was hiding nasty secrets or something.”
“I’ll believe whatever you tell me,” he said calmly.
“I had a happy childhood,” I said defiantly.
“Great,” he said, and started to pack things up. “We’re all through here. Do you have any questions or comments before we quit?”
I thought a moment. I looked at him. And I blurted out, “I lied on the fire question!”
Sarah E. Hinlicky, a former editorial assistant at First Things, went on to study at Princeton Theological Seminary.