The basics of psychological assessment

The basics of psychological assessment

HORIZON interviews Donna Markham, OP, Ph.D.

Are there certain psychological traits that vocation ministers should be looking for in a candidate?

Yes, there are three requisites vocation ministers should evaluate when considering accepting a candidate for entry to a community. The first concerns the capacity a person has to form healthy attachments to other people. That is, he or she must be appropriately able to depend on other people. Second, that he or she has the capacity to separate from others—to take leave from others. In other words, a candidate should be appropriately independent. Third is the capacity for interdependence— to rely on a consistent sense of self, trust other people, and be trustworthy him or herself.

What will you see when someone doesn’t have one of these requisites?

When the capacity to form healthy attachments with others is lacking, individuals often manifest a history of manipulative or exploitative relationships with others. They don’t have close friends and typically have serious difficulties sustaining friendships over time.

If persons lack the capacity to be appropriately independent, they often come across to others as having an insatiable emotional hunger. That is, they are quite needy, clingy and demanding, and repeatedly have affective crises. These emotional ups and downs, even outbursts, command significant disruptive attention from others and have the effect of draining others who are in relationship with them.

In determining the capacity for interdependence, it is important to examine the person’s history of consistent interpersonal relationships. Individuals who manifest inconsistent relational patterns often become quickly and intensely involved with others but cannot sustain these relationships because they frequently end up in ruptures of one sort or another. These persons have unclear needs and often experience confusion about their sexual identity. Without a developed sense of self, there is a strong likelihood that the person will spend more energy focused on the “distressed self” rather than directing their efforts wholeheartedly toward mission. Religious life thus becomes a means of getting one’s own needs met, rather than an avenue for responding to the needs of the mission of Jesus in our world today.

It’s important to note that when we see a significant failure in one of these three requisites, we should always become alerted to the presence of a personality disorder. And, fundamentally, we ought to rule out the acceptance of people with personality disorders.

Can’t vocation ministers tell candidates who fail one of the requisites, “Work on these issues, repair them, and come back to us”?

These are lifelong struggles; these incapacities are part of them, embedded in their character, built into their personality, and they’re not going to be fixed in the context of a formation program, nor are they going to be “cured” in short-term psychotherapy. The older the candidate, the more difficult it is to remedy these kinds of conditions. It is unrealistic to think that there will be major personality restructuring in mid-life. The focus of treatment with these persons is to assist them in contending more successfully with interpersonal demands, but they remain very vulnerable to entrenched behaviors, especially when they are in stressful situations. Given this, they really are not good candidates for religious life.

What about situations in which the vocation minister is unsure if the person has these requisites?

If vocation ministers have any questions about these capacities, they should ideally be consulting with an experienced clinician qualified to make an assessment. These deficits will certainly show up in the psychological evaluation, but you may not want to move the person toward that step of the process if you’re already seeing red flags. It’s best not to prolong the process when you are reasonably certain it is not going to culminate in the acceptance of the person. Also, it is important that psychological evaluation is not used as the sole reason for not accepting a person. Testing should simply confirm or clarify what vocation personnel have already observed.

Besides evidence that someone doesn’t meet the three requisites, are there other behaviors or characteristics that should automatically stop the process of considering a religious community?

Yes, there are some other clear indicators that the process should be stopped. One is any indication that the individual has difficulty monitoring his or her affect and impulses in the context of their interviews with vocation personnel. If the person is argumentative or devaluing— either of the congregation, the church or the interviewer—those are clear reasons to stop the process. We would assume that in the interview process, persons are putting their best foot forward. If they are unable to manage that situation with appropriate maturity and social propriety, it strongly suggests they will not be able to manage interactions well when their guard is down. The vocation minister might want to suggest that the person get some professional help, but that it seems inadvisable to proceed with the application. It’s appropriate to refer someone with interpersonal difficulties for therapy and to suggest to them that they deal with the pain these inner issues cause in relating with others.

What if the vocation minister thinks it could just be a personality conflict with him or her?

I would be very cautious about rationalizing the situation in this way. Fundamentally, you’re seeing how the person functions in a stressful situation, and they’re not functioning well. Religious life is stressful. Arguing and put-downs are a clear indicator that the process should stop. First of all, our vocation ministers are among our finest members. They are selected because they are healthy, whole and committed people. They are not chosen because they have a history of personality conflicts. As a consequence, I would be quite reluctant about giving a candidate the benefit of the doubt if he or she can’t relate to the vocation minister.

Any other unequivocal signs that the process should stop?

The other thing I recommend is to listen throughout the interview for incidents of blaming others, putting responsibility on others for difficulties they may have experienced in their lives. A history of commonly projecting responsibility for problems onto others is an indication of a fairly underdeveloped psychological organization. Mature persons know how they have contributed to problems, conflicts, and mistakes.

Additional objective criteria that indicate the process should be terminated include a history of hospitalization for mental illness; untreated addictions; less than three years of sobriety; a criminal record or trouble with the law. Further, I believe the process should also be slowed down if it’s been less than three years following the breakup of an intimate relationship. The three-year period is really important for re-stabilization of the psyche. So, for example, it would not be advisable to encourage someone to enter who’s been divorced a year.

What if it was a breakup with a long-term boyfriend or girlfriend— same thing, a substantial period for integrating the ending of the relationship?

It does depend on the intensity of the relationship. Another related issue is that people should have lived celibately for at least a year or two before they start seriously exploring a religious community.

Are there some common dilemmas vocation ministers experience that should be red flags?

There are four statements, should vocation ministers find themselves saying, that give strong indication they should terminate the process. The first is, “Let’s just give him or her a chance.” This frequently happens when vocation ministers really don’t want to hurt the candidate’s feelings, but they don’t feel very good about accepting the person. That’s a very clear red flag. Ambivalence is really a “no.”

Another is, “Maybe we should just send him or her to counseling.” Religious formation is about the community’s mission, and new entrants need to be as psychologically healthy as possible so they can devote all of their energy toward the process of formation and not on the inner struggles of trying to resolve intrapsychic conflict. Sending a person to counseling in the midst of accepting them is really not a good idea. It is better to encourage the person to obtain some counseling and then afterwards to revisit the possibility of religious life.

A third red flag is, “Maybe this is just a personality conflict with me, the vocation minister,” which we have already spoken about. If a candidate is having difficulty with someone who has been chosen for their validity and helpfulness and genuine goodness in relationship to the community, then there is something terribly wrong.

The fourth red flag is not a statement but a situation. If the leadership team ends up in conflict around a prospective candidate or, worse than that, if there is a conflict between the leadership team and the formation director or vocation director, or if there is conflict within the formation team around this individual, what you’ve likely got is someone with a personality disorder of some type. When this kind of disagreement arises, those involved are usually not aware that the candidate has traits of a personality disorder. They’re just all having arguments around whether or not to take the person. If the question of acceptance causes that much conflict, there’s something wrong, and the community should not accept the candidate. Again, a “maybe” is really a “no.”

Should vocation directors assess younger and older candidates differently?

When you’re dealing with a person in mid-life, the dynamics you see are fairly entrenched, and the person is not going to change markedly. So, know that this is who the individual is and accept the person for who they are. Don’t expect that you’re going to make major changes in their personality.

Younger people in their 20s are more malleable in their personalities, more open to adapt and change. Nonetheless, I emphasize again that if there is evidence of a personality disorder at any age, admission is inadvisable.

Let’s say somebody says, “Well, I’ve been working with a therapist and I’m taking medication for depression, and I feel like I have it under control.” Because of that history, is that person not a good candidate for a community?

It depends what kind of depression it is: whether the person is being treated for bipolar illness and the condition is well managed on medication; or a biological depression that is also perfectly responsive to medication; or whether it’s a chronic dysthymic condition. Dysthymia is a form of depression that deeply affects personality style. Good consultation with a clinician is enormously helpful to the vocation minister in these situations.

Any kind of psychological condition that people are up front about and can say, “I’m on medication for this” or, “I’ve been treated for this” is both a healthy sign of the applicants’ candor and a signal for the vocation minister to have a conversation with an experienced clinician.

Any final words of wisdom?

Well, I think the most important thing is that if you have doubts, don’t proceed— even if the person has all kinds of wonderful characteristics. Vocation ministers should trust their instincts. I find that vocation directors have very, very good instincts because they’re such fine people. They’ve been selected because of their wisdom and dedication and they know when something is right and when it’s not. They should rely on their judgment. They shouldn’t discount their own judgment too quickly and turn to outside consultation.

The old adage—which I think is valuable even though it’s a cliché—is would you want to live with this person? I think there’s a lot of value to asking one’s self that question.

Donna Markham, OP, Ph.D. is an Adrian Dominican and the CEO of the Southdown Institute near Toronto. Southdown is a multidisciplinary mental health facility for treating church professionals. She has 27 years’ experience as a clinical psychologist and has directed a large part of her energy toward leadership development, organizational transformation, community formation, and group analysis.


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