Do You Have to Be Crazy to Go Into Full-Time Ministry? (An Overdue Conversation)

SurpriseYou’ve heard of someone Going Postal? Maybe we should be more concerned about them Going Pastoral.

Ministry is not for the faint of heart. The stats mount up every day about how hazardous it can be for our emotional, financial, even spiritual health.

But, according to Forbes magazine, it may not be that ministry makes you crazy, as much as it attracts people who are crazy.

In the 2013 article, The Top 10 Jobs That Attract Psychopaths, Kelly Clay cited two lists that should give us all pause. 

Take note of #8 on the first list. This is – I assure you – totally real.


Jobs that attract the MOST psychopaths

1. CEO
2. Lawyer
3. Media (Television/Radio)
4. Salesperson
5. Surgeon
6. Journalist
7. Police Officer
8. Clergy person 
9. Chef
10. Civil Servant


Jobs with the LOWEST rates of psychopathy

1. Care aide
2. Nurse
3. Therapist
4. Craftsperson
5. Beautician/Stylist
6. Charity Worker
7. Teacher
8. Creative Artist
9. Doctor
10. Accountant


We’re More Psycho Than Who!? 

No, I don’t expect pastors to start becoming ax murderers. And I’m also not discounting the possibility of a bias against clergy from the original researchers, although I don’t know enough about them to say one way or another.

But I don’t think we should be too quick to shrug it off, either.

Does anyone else find it a little… I don’t know… disturbing that there are only 7 jobs worse than ours on the psycho scale? We’re two steps more likely to be loony than Civil Servants – a category that includes postal carriers, DMV workers and multi-term members of Congress!

This might not be a bad time to have a long overdue conversation. And ask some hard questions. Questions like, “why is the position of Clergy so closely associated with the favorite mental disorder of people on death row?” And “what else do we have in common with the other professions on the list?”

Especially when you consider…


We Kinda Saw This Coming

When I was a young minister-in-training, more than one mature minister told me, “If you can be fulfilled doing anything with your life other than full-time pastoral ministry, do it. The only reason anyone should ever be a pastor is if you are so compelled to do it that you can’t possibly see yourself doing anything else with your life.”

Most ministers I’ve talked to were told something similar. If you weren’t, consider yourself informed now.

No, it’s not as ominous as it sounds. This isn’t like a “get out while you still can!” horror movie cliché. But it’s too close. And too true.


What is Psychopathy?

According to Eric Barker, who wrote the original article that Forbes drew from, psychopathy is defined as

a personality disorder that has been variously described as characterized by shallow emotions (in particular reduced fear), stress tolerance, lacking empathy, coldheartedness, lacking guilt, egocentricity, superficial character, manipulativeness, irresponsibility, impulsivity and antisocial behaviors such as parasitic lifestyle and criminality.

Uh huh. Glad I’ve never met anyone in ministry with any of those characteristics. Right…?


What Traits Do the People On Each List Have In Common?

I’ve been looking at the two lists and here’s what I see:

The professions MOST LIKELY to attract psychopaths rely on

  • Power
  • Systems
  • Information
  • Skill
  • Self-Promotion
  • Sales

The professions LEAST LIKELY to attract psychopaths tend to be about

  • People
  • Art
  • Emotion
  • Serving
  • Humility
  • Compassion

An aside: As someone who has spent a lot of ministry hours visiting people in the hospital, I find it interesting, but not at all surprising, that Surgeons are on the first list, while Nurses and Doctors are on the second one.


Let Me Know What You Think

I also noticed how most of the jobs on the first list match the hats a pastor wears when we’re in Rancher/Manager/Church-Growth mode, while most of the roles on the second list align with the Shepherd/Pastor/Small-Church mode. That’s not a judgment, since we all have to operate in each mode at various times, just an observation.

What do you think about this? Does it tell us something about the current state of pastoral ministry, or does it say more about the way people perceive clergy? If so, where do those perceptions come from? Are they correct? And perhaps most importantly, if these lists are accurate, what can we do to change it?

I’d like to hear some friendly opinions.

Obviously, I’m not worried that we have a bunch of psychopaths pastoring our churches. Serving on deacon boards, maybe. So please don’t use this an excuse to slam any churches, pastors or leaders or worship styles. Or deacon boards. That was a joke. If you didn’t get it, remember that psychopaths tend to be humor-impaired.

Am I completely off-base in bringing these lists up? Or are they worth a moment of thought and conversation?


So what do you think? Is there something we can learn from these lists?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
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(Surprise photo from Jesse Wagstaff • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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12 thoughts on “Do You Have to Be Crazy to Go Into Full-Time Ministry? (An Overdue Conversation)”

  1. My thought after reading the first part of the article is are CLERGY the psychos? OR is it the people WE attract? Seeing the list would make me consider that line of thought instead of the profession being the one with a problem.

    1. That is part of the question, I have Mark. The profession of clergy attracts a higher percentage of psychos. What are they seeing in us? Is it a vibe we’re putting out there that convinces them that being a pastor would fulfill their psychosis? Do they see fellow-travelers in us? And, if so, do they find that psychosis fulfilled, denied or healed? (I think I just hurt my head a little bit with that one).

      1. Hopefully Karl they see Jesus and feel a peace when they are around clergy. My opinion is they are searching for that peace that only Jesus can give them. If its the clergy that is psycho…then I’d say it must be the people we deal with that makes us that way! lol!

  2. When I was told and when I have told others “don’t go into the ministry if you can do anything else” is not talking about psychy, its talking about the call of God on your life. Forbes magazine may not be the best source for understanding that. I still say, if God hasn’t called you into ministry, don’t do it. If He has, you can’t be happy anywhere else. I can’t count how many people told me, back when I was a missionary to Africa, that they had a call when they were younger and how they have always regretted not doing it.

    1. I agree Derrill. I only used that to point out that we’ve been sort of warning ourselves for years that going into ministry without a calling can make you crazy. Like I said in the post, the Forbes magazine article comes at this (the issue of craziness in ministry) from the other side. It isn’t reinforcing or even dealing with the issue of calling at all.

  3. I followed the links and ended up with a citation from a book written by a British psychologist. Not having read the book and so lacking access to the research results, methodologies etc, I checked Amazon reviews where I found some reviewers stating that the book was based on psycho-babel while other reviewers lauded the author’s research methodology. Not caring enough to spend the $25 to actually buy and read the book, my thoughts are 1) British psychologist so probably British research subjects. Would there be a difference in people going into ministry in the UK vs the US? 2) When I was in Grad school pursuing my Masters in Counseling, I discovered that the ‘average’ PhD Counseling Psychology candidate was very high on the Sociopath scales of various tests. However, the indicators of sociopathy were the very things that predicted success in Counseling. Not all Sociopaths are created equal! I wonder if some of the indicators of psychopathy are also things necessary to survive and thrive in ministry? For instance, shallow emotions, including reduced fear, might be useful in facing Deacon Boards, preaching difficult topics, entering building programs knowing that finances might be effected by the move of the one well to do family ion the congregation and so many other situations. Likewise, high tolerance for stress. The reduced empathy responses might well come from a studied ability to continue ministry when faced with overwhelming family dynamics etc in one’s congregation. In my time as a Counselor, and as a Pastor, I learned I can only emotionally identify with the person(s) I’m working with to a limited extant before their problems, emotions, overwhelm me. I have to carefully and intentionally cast my cares, including my concern for those I’m trying to help, on Jesus or I can’t keep operating. some of the other characteristics, including manipulativeness, parasitic lifestyle, and criminality, are certainly bothersome and have no place in a Pastor’s life or character. Before the blog, if someone had asked me “do you think Pastors tend towards psychopathy?” I would have replied “probably not, but possibly sociopathy..” I’d have to actually see some pretty good research before being convinced otherwise.

    1. You made some interesting points, Ken. I also take this list with a grain (or tablespoon) of salt. Like I said in the post, I don’t discount the possibility of bias by the original authors. I know this isn’t an academically sound, peer-reviewed study. And, though I didn’t mention it, I also wondered how psychologists stayed off the first list, since I’ve heard a lot of the same stats you.

      This was never intended as a serious assessment of the issue, the article or the book. Thus, the levity in the post. I’m just using the article as a touchpoint for a conversation, that’s all.

  4. Pingback: Wednesday Link List | Thinking Out Loud

  5. Ian Ridgway (psychologist)

    On an important side issue, surely we have got beyond regarding ‘full-time ministry’ as working as a pastor, assistant pastor, ordained clergyman or woman! We need to go back to Magisterial reformers’ words which declared that all the legitimate vocations and stations of life are part of Christian ministry or service. All Christian believers are in ‘full-time’ service for the Lord not just the clergy.

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