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Resilient Church Leaders, Part 2: Clinically-Related Thoughts

A panel during the GC2 Summit allowed for a discussion of these topics with several members of the Wheaton College School of Psychology, Counseling, and Family Therapy.
Resilient Church Leaders, Part 2: Clinically-Related Thoughts
Image: Photo by Marjan Apostolovic on Unsplash

Question 1: Is there a simple inventory to screen for personality disorders in potential staff or board members?

This is related to something called “secondary prevention.” In health-related fields, such as psychology, there are three types of prevention, including primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention. Primary prevention is when someone or an organization is attempting to prevent people from getting sick. Secondary prevention is concerned with quickly noticing when people are becoming sick and trying to prevent it from getting any worse. Finally, tertiary prevention is concerned with trying to improve the quality of a person’s life who is already living with the sickness.

Simply put, church staff, board members, pastors, and/or church leaders are not qualified to partake in secondary prevention practices—the detection of sickness and trying to prevent it from worsening a person’s quality of life. Assessment and diagnosis of psychological disorders, including personality disorders, is reserved for mental health professionals only.

However, this does not mean that pastors and church leaders cannot assist in the other two aspects of prevention—primary and tertiary prevention. For example, although pastors and church leaders cannot assess for psychological disorders, they can encourage potential staff or board members to engage in intentional self-care (primary prevention) and seek a mental health professional’s help if they are struggling with a preexisting and voluntarily disclosed psychological disorder (tertiary prevention).

It is important to note that if pastors or church leaders suspect any psychological disorders in potential staff candidates, that they must not violate the anti-discrimination laws of their state (i.e., the Illinois Human Rights Act).

Churches can avoid discriminatory acts by making their hiring process identical across candidates. In other words, a church cannot discriminate against specific candidates by forcing them to participate in a mental health evaluation because of suspected psychological difficulties.

However, churches can require that all potential staff candidates undergo psychological evaluations that are handled by a qualified, third-party mental health organization to help them decide if candidates are recommended for the job.

Question 2: What are some tips on providing mental health accountability in a non-threatening way?

This is related to a similar question: “How do you give feedback in a nonthreatening way?” Feedback—defined as any information you receive about yourself—can be a tricky thing for people. There is a time, space, place, and way to communicate feedback effectively so that the receiver can best hear it or accept it with as little resistance and pain as possible.

After all, at the core of accountability is holding someone responsible for his or her actions or decisions. And confronting a person’s actions and decisions with your thoughts and contrary feelings about him or her could get you into hot water.

To assist you with navigating such conversations, it would be helpful to learn about and practice some basic communication skills. For example, a feedback giver could benefit from brushing up on his or her listening and conflict resolution skills.

As previously mentioned in the first part of this six-part series, when trying to keep someone accountable for mental health, a person needs to listen for health or unhealth in three areas: physicality (i.e. the body), psychology (i.e., thoughts and emotions), and sociability (i.e., interactions with others). For example, if you hear from the person that you are trying to hold accountable that he or she is struggling in any of those areas, you will be able to address those specific areas appropriately.

Having the skill to listen specifically for physical, psychological, and social struggles will help guide the feedback you are giving so that it is not so vague or ambiguous. Vague or unclear feedback is easily interpreted as threatening and often evokes reactions like, “What do they mean?!” “Huh?! “They don’t know what they are talking about!”

For example, instead of saying, “Hey friend, your mental health seems like it’s been taking a turn for the worse lately. How are you going to address that?” you could say, “Hey friend, I have noticed that you haven’t been spending as much time with your family lately and I’m worried about your social self; what’s up?”

The latter is much more specific and could be interpreted as less threatening. Therefore, this feedback is more likely to facilitate a meaningful conversation about your friend’s mental health as it relates to their work-life balance.

More coming in Part 3 of this series.

Carson A.M. Tabiolo, M.A., is a doctoral candidate from Wheaton College's Clinical Psychology program. She will complete her doctoral internship at the University of Alabama Birmingham - Veterans Affairs Medical Center Clinical Psychology Internship Consortium in Birmingham, Alabama.


Amy J. Smith, M.A., is a doctoral candidate from Wheaton College's Clinical Psychology program. She will complete her doctoral internship at Pine Rest Christian Psychological Services in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Dan Barnhart, M.A., is a doctoral candidate from Wheaton College's Clinical Psychology program. He will complete his doctoral internship at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii and is entering the U.S. Army as an active-duty clinical psychologist.

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Resilient Church Leaders, Part 2: Clinically-Related Thoughts