What Should We Make of Personality Disorders?

What does the average pastor do when confronted with someone who exhibits troubling behavior that disrupts relationships and creates bedlam in the church? Unfortunately, because training for these types of issues is minimal, the response can create more problems. These types of inflexible thinking and behaviors have been placed into a modern category called Personality Disorders.

What is a personality disorder? Here is a definition from Chuck DeGroat’s book, Toughest People to Love:

Experts define a personality disorder as an "enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectation of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment." In theological terms, personality disorders reflect that long-term and chronic relational pattern Martin Luther describes as "homo incurvatus in se" – "people turned in on themselves (p. 46)."

Another way of defining these patterns is found in Allen Frances’ book Essentials of Psychiatric Diagnosis: Responding to the Challenges of DSM-5:

Our characters strongly influence our fate. How we see the world and respond to it very much determines how the world sees and responds to us. “Personality” is an enduring pattern of thinking, feeling, interacting, and behaving that is who we are; it provides the texture of our relations with other people. Personality Disorders cause vicious cycles of negative expectation and self-fulfilling prophecies. Normal personality traits become Personality Disorders when they are inflexible and make people unable to adapt to the needs of the moment. The diagnosis of a Personality Disorder is made only if the resulting problems cause clinically significant distress or impairment (p.131).

Note the emphasis on inflexible and unable to adapt. For someone with a personality disorder, their normal personality has been geared to see and do life through a single lens (schemas) which incapacitates them from thinking and behaving differently according to the situation. The cause is not fully known, but most say that it is a combination of biological and situational factors. Situational factors can include some kind of childhood trauma.

Frances offers a very simple but helpful diagnostic question to determine if you or another person suffers with a Personality Disorder:

“Do you have a style of doing things and relating to people that gets you into the same kind of mess over and over again?”

The DSM-4-TR has 3 clusters that I find more helpful than the more current DSM-5:

  • Cluster A. Odd/Eccentric: paranoid, schizoid, and schizotypal personality disorders.
  • Cluster B. Dramatic/Emotional/Erratic: antisocial, borderline, narcissistic, and histrionic personality disorders.
  • Cluster C. Anxious/Fearful: avoidant, dependent, obsessive-compulsive personality disorders.

These were classified as Axis II disorders along with the developmental disorders. The most recent DSM-5 offers 12 different types of Personality Disorders:

  1. Borderline Personality Disorder
  2. Antisocial Personality Disorder
  3. Narcissistic Personality Disorder
  4. Histrionic Personality Disorder
  5. Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder
  6. Avoidant Personality Disorder
  7. Dependent Personality Disorder
  8. Paranoid Personality Disorder
  9. Schizoid Personality Disorder
  10. Schizotypal Personality Disorder
  11. Personality Disorder Due to Another Medical Condition
  12. Unspecified Personality Disorder

Allen Frances also provides a basic definition and description of each that is worth considering. The ultimate goal is not to find labels for people but to understand them so that you might engage in skillful ministry.

The Implications for Local Church Ministry

It doesn’t take long to serve in a leadership capacity in ministry to see these traits in certain congregants. Statistics reveal that about 10% of the population fit the various categories of personality disorders. That means that leaders need to be exposed to and aware of these various forms of struggle. It is necessary to be aware of these issues because, unfortunately, it is not uncommon for these individuals to do great harm in churches, either as leaders or attenders.

In DeGroat’s book, he highlights four of the personality disorders that are most troublesome and are often the reason many leave the ministry (p. 46-47). They include Narcissistic, Borderline, Obsessive-Compulsive and Histrionic Personality Disorders. Below are DeGroat’s descriptions of each:

Borderline Personality Disorder: the volunteer who spent years praising and supporting you, only to viciously turn on you, sending critical emails to everyone in the church.

Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder: the nagging parishioner who gives a lot but pesters you with daily emails asking for specific details about the organization’s accounting. She is unable to see her own obsessiveness or to realize that her emails cause you anxiety and give you heartburn.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder: the power broker who intimidates you after you challenge him in a marital counseling session, demanding to see your notes from each session and threatening to get a lawyer to investigate you and the church.

Histrionic Personality Disorder: the leader who seems to ooze drama and is a magnet for each and every crisis in your church.

To these four, I would add one more:

Antisocial Personality Disorder (psychopath/sociopath): We typically relegate this category to serial killers but antisocial congregants often do their “killing” in other ways. These individuals are very adept at pairing off with others to breed suspicion and mistrust within a church in an effort to “kill” a leader.

Wisdom and Love

The call of every leader is pastoral care that incarnates the love of Christ. This is to be combined with great wisdom. In Matthew 10:16, as Jesus prepares the disciples to go and do ministry, he says, “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” In other words, as you go about your work as a pastor be aware that troubled people are in your midst. Don’t be paranoid but wise. Don’t be antagonistic but be wise in the way you interact with everyone.

Finally, as pastors and spiritual leaders encounter troubled people, be aware of the fact that some are uniquely challenging. Mark Yarhouse has this to say in his helpful resource Modern Psychopathologies: A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal:

The pastoral or leadership team also needs to be fully informed about problematic behaviors so there will be no manipulation or conning (Miller and Jackson 1995). Processing (debriefing and defusing) strong feelings of ambivalence and confusion, even anger and intense frustration, is often necessary. Further education about personality disorders, coupled with good professional consultation, can also be helpful. Ideally, they can help the pastoral or leadership team attack the problem(s) rather than the person (which would alienate or isolate those directly affected). In the long run, such an approach is much more helpful than to spiritualize the problem or to offer religious interventions that are misinformed about the painful realities of rigid, inflexible patterns of relating (p.285).

In short, pastors, elders, deacons and leaders in local churches need to find those who can help them grow in wisdom as they pastor and shepherd the flock. This is a short blog raising big issues and questions. What would you add to this conversation? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Copyright © 2015 Timothy S. Lane


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Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.

Who Can Help You Love Your Family?

Who can help you persevere in your relationships with your family? Who can enable you to change the way you relate to them?

Jesus said some surprising things about how we are to relate to our families. Listen to these startling words:

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:25-27)

You might be thinking, “How can this passage help me love my family? It seems like Jesus is encouraging me to do what I naturally want to do!”  But Jesus isn’t saying that we are to actively hate our parents or siblings—that would contradict other places where Jesus calls us to love our enemies, and it would be a violation of the fifth commandment where we are called to honor our parents and provide for our families (1 Timothy 5:8). So what does he mean?

We get some help by comparing this passage to what Jesus says on the same subject in Matthew.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”(Matthew 10:37-39)

Notice that Jesus is using comparative language (more than) to contrast our love for him to our love for family. He is not saying we should actively hate our families. Instead he is saying something quite radical—you can’t be his disciple unless you treasure him above everything else.  Our love for him must far surpass our love for anything or anyone else including family. Our devotion to him should be so unique that all other loves will look like hatred by comparison.

We all grew up in families where parents and siblings sinned against us and disappointed us. When our need for their approval is more important to us than our love for God, it’s easy to hold grudges and be angry and bitter for them not treating us the way we think we ought to be treated. But when God is first in our hearts, we can put their failures and sins into a bigger context of our primary relationship with God, and we won’t be eaten up by bitterness and disappointment. This won’t be automatic or easy—remember, Jesus said to “take up your cross daily” (Luke 9:23). You must die to yourself every day by finding your identity in what Jesus has done for you in his life, death, and resurrection.

 

 

For more on this subject, read Family Feuds: How to Respond  Copyright©2008 by Timothy S. Lane

 

Comment

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.

Home For the Holidays: Are You Prepared?

Contrary to popular sentiment, the holidays are not full of cheer for everyone. They can be a reminder of a lost loved one, a difficult season of life, a lack of resources to buy things for others or past hurts in one’s family of origin. If the latter is true, how can you think about the coming holidays in ways that are guided by the grace of Christ?

Broken Families and the Bible

Read almost any Bible story and you will realize that God is very familiar with flawed family dynamics. King David, one of the greatest heroes in the Bible, was the father of a dysfunctional family.  His son, Absalom, conspired to murder him and take over as king, and David had to fight for his life against his own son.

The Perfect Family Does not Exist

None of us grew up with perfect parents or perfect siblings and none of us were perfect children or siblings. This truth is not meant to excuse or minimize the evil and abuse that takes place in some families, but it does remind you that every family has “baggage.” God is able to redeem family relationships that are broken by sin, and give you the grace to respond to your parents and siblings in ways that are wise and loving.

Your Family of Origin Does Not Determine Who You Are

Not only are family sins redeemed by God’s grace, so is your family background.  We often assume that those who grow up in a “good” family will turn out “good,” and those who grow up in a “bad” family will turn out “bad.”  It’s true that we are shaped by our family of origin, and we can see their mark on us in good and bad ways. But your identity and future is not determined by your family of origin. Your new identity as a member of God’s family will make it possible for you to change the way you relate to your family.

Do You Have to Love Your Family?

The simple answer is yes. But if you have grown up in a very difficult family where parents and siblings have actively sought to harm you and where harmful behavior was the norm, the answer becomes more complicated but it does not change. God takes your suffering seriously and can identify with the hurt and sorrow you feel.  He is not distant, silent, or passive. He wants to redeem your troubled family relationships, and he is calling you to be a part of that redemption by loving your family.

Be encouraged, there is someone who can help you. We will discuss that in our next post.

 

For more on this subject, read Family Feuds: How to Respond  Copyright©2008 by Timothy S. Lane

Comment

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.

A Transformed Community

In the post “What Are You Seeking to Produce,” I stated that individual growth was a goal in shepherding/equipping. In addition to this, the second goal is a transformed community.

Corporate Maturity

You can’t think of the Christian life in purely individualistic terms. We are part of a new family and that family is to nurture one another as we all grow up into the likeness of our elder brother, Jesus. Hebrews states explicitly that this kind of growth happens in the context of redemptive, mutually edifying friendships.

Hebrews 3:12-13

12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

Hebrews 10:24-25

24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

It is important to stress that this does not happen automatically, nor without a lot of work, and sometimes it can possibly not happen at all.

One final passage that provides a picture of life in the body of Christ is Colossians 3:12-17:

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Here are a few practical questions for reflection:

  • Do I have friends like this in my life?
  •  Am I that kind of friend?
  • Is the church I am part of functioning like this?
  • Does our pastoral staff and leadership resemble this kind of redemptive, mutually-edifying friendship?
  • How can I grow in this way over the coming year?

In Ephesians 4:15-16, the apostle Paul says that when we are living in these kinds of relationships, we will all grow in maturity.

 

Copyright © 2013 Tim Lane. All rights reserved.

Comment

Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches. For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.