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Home > 2014 > February Web Exclusives > The Self-Aware Leader

Author and psychiatrist Scott Peck wrote that one of the ways you can divide the world up is to put everyone in one of two categories: either a "neurotic" or a "personality disorder."

This is the mental health version of the doctrine of total depravity.

Neurotics are prone to think everything is their fault, even when it's not. "Everything" includes dull meetings, failing churches, and the conflict in the Middle East. They may suffer from anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive issues. They generally have an acute need to please other people.

Personality disorders are prone to think nothing is their fault, even when it is. "Nothing" includes angry outbursts, messed-up relationships, and showing up late. Their lives would be okay (they think) if everyone around them just straightened up. They generally have an acute need for other people to please them.

Churches, and church staffs, are no more free of this dynamic than any other organizations. People who try to serve God are as human as anybody else. It's in the Bible.

Elijah, who ran away from Jezebel and was certain his life was a failure and was pretty sure he didn't want to live, was a neurotic. Non-biblical neurotics include Felix Unger, Vincent van Gogh, Meryl Streep, and (he wrote with remarkable openness about his depressive episodes) Charles Spurgeon.

On the other hand, Samson, who was a walking collection of impulse control issues and way into his hair and once pretty much destroyed all the groomsmen at his bachelor party, was a personality disorder. Non-biblical characters on the personality disorder category include Bart Simpson, Diamond Jim Brady, and a disproportionate number of the governors of both Illinois and California.

Some jobs appeal disproportionately to one sort of person or the other. The helping professions tend to draw people who are acutely sensitive to others, and the downside of this gift is an overactive need to please them. Jobs with a high element of wielding authority or taking risk (law enforcement, trapeze artist, wedding coordinator) lean the other way.

The prognosis for change is more likely for a neurotic than a personality disorder. This is because neurotics carry their pain with them. Anxiety or depression brings with it an intrinsic desire to do something to get rid of it. Personality disorders, on the other hand, view the problem as "out there." They need pain from the outside to motivate change.

Most pastors tend to be neurotic. This isn't a problem, as long as their church doesn't actually have any real live people in it.

The challenge gets greater when it comes to managing other people. Many of us went through seminary but never actually had a class on how to supervise someone well; how to develop their gifts or give them deeply honest (sometimes painful) feedback that they will not like. Every supervisory relationship will involve one of four combinations:

  • A neurotic managing another neurotic. In this case, both people will tend to avoid painful conversations. If they are self-aware, they can overcome this, but it will require willingness to endure discomfort.

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John Ortberg is editor at large of Leadership Journal and pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California.

Posted: February 10, 2014

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