Tests for assessing applicants to religious communities

Tests for assessing applicants to religious communities

By Eric, Eric Haas, c

IN HIS PASTORAL EXHORTATION, Pastores Dabo Vobis, Pope John Paul II emphasized the need for the harmonious integration of four key elements of formation: human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral (John Paul II, 1992). The Holy Father emphasized the human dimension as the foundation of all formation. While Pastores Dabo Vobis was written with priestly formation in mind, the document’s insights contain truth for all church vocations: for both men and women, ordained and vowed. All of these vocations, then, merit an emphasis on human formation.

From a psychological perspective, human formation encompasses several areas: individual identity development, affective maturity, and the capacity for empathy and interpersonal sensitivity. Careful attention to each of these characteristics, among others, is crucial in evaluating a potential candidate for religious life.

The assessment process

In the assessment of religious candidates, psychologists are typically asked to assist in determining personality characteristics that represent areas of personal strength and weakness for religious life, as well as whether any significant psychological factors exist that could be impediments to a healthy religious vocation. Depending upon individual circumstances, such factors could include major mental illness, intellectual limitations, personality disorders, substance abuse or other addictions, or a lack of psychosexual integration. While there are limits to the ability of psychological tests to definitively predict whether a candidate will ultimately succeed in religious and community life, psychological evaluations can be valuable to formation teams when used for screening out the above difficulties (Malony, 2000). Early identification of areas for needed growth can assist formation teams and the candidate in seeking appropriate intervention or assistance prior to final vows.

Competent psychological assessment incorporates a thorough clinical interview (often supplemented by written history questionnaires completed by the candidate), behavioral observations, and the administration of a comprehensive battery of psychological tests. (The way the psychologist’s data builds on information gathered by the vocation director is treated in an article on page 35, “When the vocation minister assesses: seeking consistent belief, word, action,”by Sister Cindy Kaye, RSM.) The use of a multimethod approach to gathering data is recommended. This approach involves integrating history and interview data, collateral information from vocation and formation teams, and the use of both the selfreport and performancebased psychological tests. Given the tendency of individuals who are being evaluated for “employmentrelated” decisions to present themselves in an overly favorable manner in their self-report, the inclusion of projective personality tests (such as the Rorschach Inkblot Method) is advised to provide data that is less susceptible to self-report bias.

In the hands of qualified professionals experienced in evaluating candidates for religious life, a number of psychological tests can be valuable tools in the assessment process. This article provides an overview of the typical elements of a comprehensive psychological evaluation of a religious candidate, the most commonly used tests that assess these areas, and the basic advantages and limitations of these particular instruments.

Validity and multicultural factors

Since a psychological evaluation relies heavily on what individuals are willing to reveal about themselves, it is important to understand the style in which the person responds to the questions on self-report inventories and questionnaires. In testing situations such as in the screening of religious candidates where the results have an impact on vocational decisions, the tendency for individuals to present themselves in a highly positive or socially desirable manner increases. This type of defensiveness is often referred to as “impression management.” Fortunately, many psychological tests have specific scales that measure the degree to which one responds to the questions in an overly favorable or unfavorable manner—minimizing or exaggerating their problems or faults. Scores on these scales are used to determine the validity and interpretive usefulness of the test results. Impression management is influenced by both conscious and less conscious factors, and measures are available to psychologists that help differentiate between an individual who is responding favorably primarily due to the circumstances of the evaluation versus a more potentially problematic form of self-deception that is associated with poor self-awareness and narcissism (Paulhus, 1998).

An even more basic validity issue in psychological testing involves the capacity of the candidate to comprehend the test questions. While the large majority of psychological tests are written at an eighth grade reading level or below, candidates with intellectual limitations or learning disabilities may not fully understand certain questions. Comprehension can be a factor, too, in the evaluation of candidates from other cultures, particularly those whose native language is not English. Since the number of foreign and Hispanic candidates is increasing (McGlone, et al., 2009), psychologists who evaluate candidates from other cultures need to be particularly sensitive to language and cultural factors during testing. Many of the commonly used psychological tests have at least Spanish language translations of the items. It is ethically responsible to ask the candidate which language he or she prefers. While multi-language translations of tests are helpful, they do not replace the need for culture-specific norms, which would allow an individual candidate’s responses to be compared to others of similar ethnicity. Unfortunately, such norms are rarely, if ever, available, so psychologists must use clinical judgment in adjusting their interpretation of test results as necessary in these situations. (The article “Assessment with cross-cultural candidates,” by Father Gerard J. McGlone, SJ and Fernando A. Ortiz, page 24, explores issues related to psychological testing and minority candidates.)

Components of the evaluation

Cognitive Assessment Psychological evaluations of religious candidates often include an assessment of intellectual functioning. This is accomplished through the use of a standardized intelligence test. While a variety of such tests are available, survey results (NCEA, 2010) have indicated that the large majority of evaluators utilize either the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-IV) (Psychological Corporation, 2008) or its shorter version, the Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (WASI) (Wechsler, 1999). These tests are comprised of different sub-tests and provide measures of intellectual ability in four domains: 1) verbal (i.e. Verbal Comprehension Index), 2) non-verbal (i.e. Perceptual Reasoning Index), 3) attention/concentration (i.e. Working Memory Index), and 4) information processing speed (i.e. Processing Speed Index), as well as a measure of overall intelligence (i.e. Full Scale IQ).

The WASI and the Kaufman Brief Intelligence Test (K-BIT2) (Kaufman & Kaufman, 2004) are shorter tests of intellectual functioning that require less administration time, although they provide less comprehensive information about cognitive functioning. Another, even briefer measure used is the Shipley - 2 (Shipley & Zachary, 1987); however, it is a screening test designed to provide a quick estimate of intelligence and should not be considered equivalent to more comprehensive measures of intellectual functioning such as the WAIS-III.

These tests can provide information about a candidate’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses in skills such as vocabulary, fund of general knowledge, abstract reasoning, visual-spatial perception, social judgment, attention/ concentration, and speed of information processing. Since tests of intelligence have been shown to be predictors of potential for academic success, results can help determine whether a candidate possesses a sufficient aptitude for meeting the academic requirements of formation. Intelligence test results can also guide decisions about the type of ministry duties that would best match the abilities of a particular candidate. Finally, intelligence tests can help detect cognitive problems or learning disabilities that may warrant more extensive neuropsychological or psycho-educational testing.

Assessment of Emotional Functioning and Personality Psychological testing can provide a wealth of data to vocation and formation ministers about a candidate’s current mental health and personality characteristics. This information can aid in decisions regarding the candidate and can help shape the formation process. The test results section in a good psychological evaluation report should provide information about signs and symptoms of psychopathology and major personality dysfunction, as well as a thorough description of a candidate’s coping and personality style and how it is expressed in behavior. Through the use of clinical interviews and testing, a psychological evaluation can determine the presence of a mental health condition that could interfere with a candidate’s formation and personal development. Examples of the most commonly diagnosed conditions are mood disorders (e.g. major depressive disorder, dysthymic disorder, bipolar disorder, etc.) and anxiety disorders (e.g. generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessivecompulsive disorder, etc.). Personality disorders, addictions and sexual disorders can have significant implications for both acceptance and formation, and they should be thoroughly assessed.

Personality is complex and multi-faceted. Psychological testing can provide information about many aspects of how individuals view themselves, view others around them, process their emotions, and cope with stress. Several elements of personality have particular relevance for candidates entering religious life. First, formation teams are strongly encouraged to be attuned to a candidate’s sense of identity. Psychological testing can assess a candidate’s capacity for introspection and self-awareness, or essentially, how well a candidate knows him or herself. The ability to acknowledge areas of vulnerability and weakness, as well as personal strengths, and one’s openness and flexibility to growth and change should be considered. Test data can provide a window into a candidate’s self esteem, self image and any distortions in that view of the self. A candidate’s sense of how firmly rooted he or she feels in his or her identity has important implications in regard to relating to others in ministry and in communal life.

Managing stress and emotions

Psychological testing can also provide important information about how a candidate deals with his or her emotions and with various stresses. Specific test instruments and scales can determine individuals’ ability to recognize their feelings when they experience them, the degree to which they use their feelings in their decision making and how effectively they manage and regulate their feelings. Certain psychological tests can offer insight into the degree to which strong emotions cloud a person’s perception and thinking and provide a sense of one’s overall reality testing. Test data about a candidate’s ability to tolerate stress and frustration and the amount of resources available for coping can offer a sense of the resiliency of a candidate in the face of obstacles.

Interpersonal skills

Finally, psychological testing can offer insight into a candidate’s interpersonal skills, which should be an area of great importance to formation teams. Personality tests can measure an individual’s level of comfort in social situations, capacity for empathy and intimacy in relationships, and a general sense of how the applicant perceives people and social interactions. Interpersonal boundaries and social skills, particularly the ability to read nonverbal cues, are critical areas to assess. The tendency to distort or misinterpret interpersonal situations is a capacity that can be formally assessed and has implications for interpersonal relatedness and successful integration into a community of peers. Vocation ministers should be particularly concerned about personality disorders, which are enduring patterns of inner experience and behavior in which these aspects of interpersonal functioning are disrupted (American Psychiatric Association, 1994).

Types of personality tests

Two main types of psychological tests are used to assess psychopathology and personality: objective tests and projective tests. Objective tests are self-report inventories and symptom questionnaires in which the examinee answers various questions designed to elicit symptoms, characteristics, and behaviors that indicate a particular syndrome or personality style. Since these measures rely on self-reporting and many of the items are face valid (i.e. the subject can easily determine what the question is measuring), they are to some degree limited by the person’s degree of self-awareness and willingness to self-disclose. Hence, the other type of psychological test, the projective test, can be useful. Projective tests are performance-based measures that are less structured and less face valid. These tests are based on the premise that an individual reveals his or her personality when responding to an ambiguous stimulus, such as inkblots or more openended type questions. Since objective and projective tests gather information about an individual via different means, a combination of both methods is often used.

Survey results have indicated that among evaluators of religious candidates, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory -2 (MMPI-2) (Butcher, et al., 1989) is by far the most commonly used objective test to assess psychopathology (NCEA, 2010). In addition to its well-established research base, the MMPI-2 offers evaluators of male religious candidates the advantage of a seminary norm group. Thus, if desired, a particular candidate’s responses can be compared to those of a large group of applicants to the seminary to note how the results compare with a group of individuals who may more closely reflect the candidate’s demographic type than the general population. With its numerous scales and subscales, the MMPI-2 provides information about signs of depression, mania, anxiety, bodily concerns, antisocial tendencies, paranoia, thought disturbances, social discomfort, and personality characteristics that correspond with certain diagnostic groups. The MMPI-2 is also respected in the field of psychology for its validity scales, which include measures of defensiveness, socially desirable responding, and response consistency and infrequency.

Other objective personality tests used in the evaluation of religious candidates are the Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI) (Morey, 1997) and the Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (MCMI-III) (Millon, 1994). Both of these instruments have validity scales and provide information similar to the MMPI-2, with the addition of specific scales that measure personality styles and personality disorders. The MCMI-III has numerous scales designed to measure the various DSM-IV personality disorders, as well as other personality styles. While these instruments have fewer questions than the MMPI-2, thus take less time to administer, there is a recently reconfigured and briefer version of the MMPI-2 now available, the MMPI-2-RF, which may become increasingly popular in years to come. Brief symptom checklists, such as the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI-II) (Beck, et al., 1996), Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI) (Beck and Steer, 1993) and the Symptom Checklist-90 (SCL-90-R) (Derogatis, 1983) are also commonly used to provide a quick overview of a candidate’s current level of emotional distress.

As for projective measures, surveys have indicated that the Rorschach Inkblot Test is the most commonly used among psychologists who evaluate candidates for religious life (NCEA, 2010). While the Rorschach is not without its critics (Wood, et al., 2003) and like other psychological tests, it has its limitations, its clinical utility is supported by a wealth of research over several decades. The development of a comprehensive scoring and interpretative system (Exner, 1991) for the test was a tremendous advancement, and the use of this system has become standard among Rorschach users in the field. The advantage of including the Rorschach in a test battery is that, through a means other than directly asking the person, it adds unique information that other tests do not provide. Rather than determining a specific diagnosis, the Rorschach is designed to provide information about an individual’s cognitive and emotional processing style. It includes measures of cognitive processing and reality testing, mood and affect, self-perception, interpersonal functioning, stress tolerance, and impulse control.

Other projective techniques involve having the individual comprise stories in response to pictures (Thematic Apperception Test (Murray, 1943), draw pictures (House- Tree-Person and other projective drawing tests), and complete open-ended sentences that begin with certain prompts (Rotter Incomplete Sentences Blank) (Rotter, et al., 1977). While these tests can be useful additions to a test battery and yield information about a candidate, their lack of norms and their mostly unstructured and subjective interpretation makes them most valuable as adjunctive tools to confirm hypotheses derived from more formal measures.

In addition to screening for psychopathology and personality disorders, testing can provide information about characteristics that are assets for someone entering religious life. An evaluation that assesses a candidate’s strengths and liabilities can identify building blocks for potential growth during formation. Tests such as the NEOPI- R (Costa & McCrae, 1992), the 16 Personality Factor (16PF) (Cattell, 1989), and FIRO-B (Schutz, et al., 1978) measure characteristics such as introversion/extroversion, assertiveness, agreeableness, and needs for affiliation and inclusion. These tests can also offer data regarding a candidate’s leadership capacity and style, as well as his or her needs for autonomy, independence and control. This information can be helpful in understanding how a particular candidate may adjust to religious life and in matching him or her to an appropriate ministry. Finally, these types of tests can help determine how a candidate’s personality may mix with others in a particular community.

Emotional intelligence tests

Emotional intelligence, which includes the ability to sense and understand one’s own feelings and the feelings of others, is a set of skills considered as important for success in life, if not more important, than cognitive intelligence (Goleman, 1995). These skills, which are the building blocks of empathy and intimacy development, are particularly important for those entering a communal life of service to others. Recent developments in psychological testing have resulted in instruments designed to measure emotional intelligence. One such test is the BarOn Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i) (BarOn, 1997), which provides measures of inter and intrapersonal awareness, the capacity for adaptability/ flexibility and the ability to manage daily stress. However, the self-report format of this instrument means its results may not be entirely accurate, as candidates are motivated to present themselves as sensitive to the feelings of others regardless of the reality.

Perhaps a potentially more useful tool in evaluating emotional intelligence is the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT) (Mayer, et al., 2002). The MSCEIT requires the respondent to actually demonstrate skills of emotional intelligence rather than rating his or her capacities in this area. Structured in a manner similar to other ability-based tests, the MCSEIT requires the examinee to judge the emotional tone of faces and pictures, discern how a person may feel in certain hypothetical scenarios, and decide how emotions can be used to solve interpersonal problems. The performance-based format of this instrument makes the results less susceptible to bias by candidates who are managing the way others perceive them. Since the concept of emotional intelligence is akin to “affective maturity,” these newer tests represent a potentially useful addition to evaluations of religious candidates and seminarians.

Tests for specific areas of concern

Substance Abuse and Other Addictive Behaviors In addition to careful clinical interviewing, measures are available to assess drug and alcohol related difficulties. In a recent survey, 96 percent of psychologists indicated that they screened for drug and alcohol problems in their evaluations of religious candidates (NCEA, 2010). The Substance Abuse Subtle Screening Inventory (Miller, 2003) is a self-report instrument that assesses both the obvious and more subtle indicators of drug or alcohol problems and provides a probability estimate for the likelihood that the individual has a substance dependence problem. The Alcohol Use Inventory (Horn, et al., 1990) is another instrument with a more structured way of sampling drinking patterns and problematic use.

A sometimes overlooked but important area to assess in religious candidates involves spending patterns and other money issues. Evaluators are encouraged to carefully question candidates about any compulsive buying habits, credit card use and significant debt. Inquiring about a candidate’s family financial situation can be important, as some families may be relying heavily on income generated by the candidate. At times significant debt may indicate a compulsive gambling problem. Formation teams may want to consider credit checks on applicants as part of the initial screening process.

Psychosexual Development and Sexual Disorders Taking a detailed sexual and relationship history is an essential component of a psychological assessment. Through the use of clinical interviewing and sexual history questionnaires, the evaluator attempts to understand a candidate’s chronological psychosexual development, starting with influences and experiences during childhood, and progressing through the various life stages (Coleman, 1996). This information, along with a candidate’s awareness of and comfort with his or her sexual orientation, views on chastity and celibacy, understanding of appropriate interpersonal and sexual boundaries, and capacity for intimacy in relationships are key areas to assess. Along with sexual history questionnaires, the Personal Sentence Completion Inventory (Miccio-Fonseca, 1997) is a projective measure that can be useful. Special attention should be given toward identifying any unusual or deviant sexual interests, childhood sexual abuse, or extremes in sexual development, such as hypersexuality or asexuality.

With the age of the Internet, problematic use of computer pornography has become increasingly common. In fact, in a recent survey of psychologists who evaluate men seeking seminary admission, 80 percent reported that they assess for pornography-related issues (NCEA, 2010). Other potentially compulsive uses of the computer can involve Internet chat rooms, “cybersex,” and—particularly among the younger generation—fantasy role-playing and other video games. An instrument that can be useful to clinicians in assessing these problems is the Internet Sex Screening Test (Delmonico, 1999).

Whatever tests a psychologist uses for evaluating a candidate, clearly, a psychological evaluation plays an important role in the admissions process. In addition to the information gleaned from clinical interviews, behavioral observations, record reviews, and reports from collateral sources, psychological testing provides an objective and standardized means of understanding the personality and mental health of an applicant to religious life. While the selection of specific tests varies among evaluators of religious candidates, as shown in this review, several measures are used almost universally. With a test battery that uses multiple methods, a competent evaluator who is familiar with religious life can screen for potential psychopathology, as well as determine areas of strength and weakness. The needs for growth can then direct a candidate’s ongoing formation. When combined with information that the vocation minister gathers, a psychological assessment is a valuable tool in the application and entry process.


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Eric D. Haas, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who has been serving the needs of clergy and religious for the past seven years. As a staff psychologist at St. John Vianney Center, he conducts psychological evaluations, individual and group psychotherapy, and consultations with dioceses and religious orders throughout the country. Dr. Haas has extensive training and experience in psychological and neuropsychological assessment. He is an adjunct assistant professor at the Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology of Widener University and maintains a private practice in Wilmington, DE.


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