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Friday, May 2, 2014

The Church of England's Personality Test Disorder

The Church of England uses the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test pretty widely. This is a psychometric test designed to probe your decision-making processes and to help you reflect on how you come to decisions and what that tells you about your personality. Which all sounds perfectly reasonable. Part of the process of "formation" - i.e. the training which clergy go through - involves developing self-awareness, reflecting on one's practice and how this impacts on leadership style, group dynamics and so on.

To be honest, I had assumed the MBTI was something which must have been and gone (I remember hearing it being derided back in the early 90s by psychology students when I was at university) but it seems that it has since continued to build itself up as quite a brand, beloved of human resources departments, business leaders and management consultants. Somewhere along the line, the CofE bought into it and invested heavily in it. So we now have a widely-used test which the majority of our clergy will have had to undergo at some point. But there are several shortcomings with both the test itself and how it is often used by test subjects themselves and by some parts of the Church of England.

How it works
The MBTI seeks to discover a person’s preferences using four pairs of personality variables: two basic attitudes / sources of personal energy (Extroversion or Introversion), two kinds of perception (Sensing or Intuiting), two styles of seeking order (Thinking or Feeling), and two kinds of orientation towards the outer world (Perceptive or Judging). This produces sixteen possible combinations (personality types) which are expressed in shorthand by a four-letter code. The contention is that, while everybody uses all of the eight preference-poles at some time or other, each of us will tend to prefer one of each of these opposites for each of the four pairs depending on what kind of personality we have. The objective of an MBTI is to identify these preferences. All the questions are presented in a forced-choice format so that the respondent must choose between two mental functions or attitudes each time.

Self-knowledge is actually a good thing
The Positive Side of the Process
What is good in the process of undergoing a Myers-Briggs test is the act of reflective thought. We gain insights into ourselves and others when we are encouraged to step back and consider our thought processes and become more self-aware and conscious of how we approach problems and mental processes. As the Spirituality and Worship tutor of one clergy-training course puts it, ordinands undertake a Myers-Briggs test as "part of that process whereby we grow towards God, inwardly to our deepest selves and outwards to other people...  Clearly, this is a process that begins long before training and continues for life. While we will always remain a mystery to ourselves, it’s especially vital for those entering ordained ministry to desire and discern self-awareness, without which a relationship with God and others is impaired."

Self-understanding is indeed a Biblical concept in the context of recognising oneself before God. Paul speaks of this journey into self-knowledge in 1 Corinthians 13: "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."   But this reflective process has to be done with humility and in recognition that our self / soul / person is fully knowable by God alone. It is God who is the key to self-knowledge: to knowing our personhood. We are a sacred mystery which defies simplistic description. Psalm 139 recognises that God alone knows us fully, better than we ever know ourselves; who knows us even at the most primal level before we have articulated our thoughts or our responses to the world around us. The Psalmist acknowledges that we do indeed have a self - since God knows us as individuals - and should therefore strive toward a similar knowledge of self.  And it is God to whom the Psalmist turns at the end for help in transformation: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."

However, it is not the act of reflection, nor the quest for self-awareness which is the problem with MBTI but rather what is surmised from the data collected as a result. The science and the theology of Myers-Briggs are both cause for concern.

The Science Bit
Appreciating one's own abilities and limitations is an
important part of formation for the priesthood.
The science of the MBTI is dubious on several counts. In terms of its scientific usefulness in measuring personality, it fits neatly alongside horoscopes and Facebook quizzes such as "Which My Little Pony Are You?" Both horoscopes and the My Little Pony Quiz offer a fixed set of categories as outcomes which people find useful and which seem positive. The MBTI is of course more useful than either, simply because the act of considering the decision-making questions which form the test is obviously a useful piece of reflection on one's mental processes. However, its outcome (the 4-letter personality type) is arguably no more useful than knowing that I am a Scorpio. But then, us Scorpios are deep and intense types, so you'd expect me to say that, wouldn't you? 

The Myers-Briggs test gives an output of 4 letters which denote a personality type. These are strictly either-or outcomes. The test does offer a more nuanced, individualised set of results to show how far one way or the other you are between each of the pair of poles on average, but the fact remains that one of sixteen 4-letter personality types is the output of the test.

A big concern with Myers-Briggs is that it implies a rigid and inflexible approach to personality that, in the field of clinical psychology, would normally only be associated with individuals with severe psychological and emotional difficulties, for example, individuals diagnosed with so-called ‘personality disorders’.  These individuals are so-described due to the rigidity and poor adaptability of their beliefs, thinking styles and behavioural patterns which often lead to extreme distress and dysfunction. Please tell me that the Church of England does not assume its clergy to be similarly afflicted as a matter of course? 

Modern theories of personality stress the importance of psychological flexibility and adaptability to changing circumstances as a feature of a healthy personality.  However, the bimodal (yes/no) response style of the Myers-Briggs assumes that people rigidly respond in only one way or another in all situations (e.g. I prefer to be alone/I prefer to be with others) rather than recognising that healthy individuals have a range of cognitive and behavioural responses to adapt to different situations.  When people are then ‘diagnosed’ with their personality type, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: “Well, of course, I’m an INTJ so I will be doing X”.  Even more worryingly, people start to judge each other on the basis of their diagnosed personality types: “Oh, you’re such a typical ESFP…”.   This is similarly heard in discussions about astrology. “Of course I did that, I’m a typical Gemini”, or “She’s always such a Capricorn”.  These comparisons between astrology and Myers-Briggs are too strong to ignore.  They are both pseudo-science and neither have a place in the Church.  In the words of the mental health service user movement: labels are for jars, not for people.   And probably the most damning indictment of an alleged psychometric assessment is that psychologists do not use it within their own profession.

Everyone's a winner with MBTI
Incidentally, this self-affirmation is partly how the whole MBTI system works. Any disconnect between what we actually see and what we think we see is explained away if it does not fit our paradigm of thought. In the case of the MBTI test, subjects are likely to self-fit into categories which they are predisposed to think they belong to, using cues from the questions themselves. We "feel" the result is right: we have been asked to consider how we respond and think in specific situations, are told this is to help us identify how we respond and think, and get a result which states how we respond and think. Basically, we have told ourselves what we want to hear about ourselves. Everyone's a winner in their own minds. So where is the prophetic voice in this? Where is the voice of God challenging us about how we perceive ourselves? Psychometric testing offers static reflection, not the dynamic, challenging transformation demanded by encountering and responding to the risen Christ.

Is the MBTI fit for purpose as a psychological test?
Professor David Pittenger, a professor of psychology who has undertaken a survey of statistical and other research on MBTI, comes to the conclusion that: “it appears that the MBTI does not conform to many of the basic standards expected of psychological tests. Many very specific predictions about the MBTI have not been confirmed or have been proved wrong. There is no obvious evidence that there are 16 unique categories in which all people can be placed. There is no evidence that scores generated by the MBTI reflect the stable and unchanging personality traits that are claimed to be measured. Finally, there is no evidence that the MBTI measures anything of value.

The Theology Bit
Isabel Briggs asserts that Jung’s theory of psychological types (and therefore MBTI) will be helpful for clergy (see the preface to Briggs & Meyers 1980). Romans 12:4-8 is cited (Briggs & Meyers 1980 p211) so clearly the authors believe that the test is compatible with scripture and see these eight preference indicators as a means of helping the individual, made uniquely and in the image of God, find their place in the Body of Christ.

However there is a fundamental problem with attempts to measure the personalities of human beings. To be fair, Jung himself rejected this idea: "the very concept of personality is so vague and badly defined in common usage that hardly two minds will take the word in the same sense. I should like to consider everything that I say… as a mere attempt to approach the problem of personality, without making any claim to solve it" (Jung 1940 p281-2). Later in the same chapter, Jung also writes that it is only our actions which reveal who we are, and in this we can see the echo of Matthew 7:15-29 in which Jesus points out that our actions reveal us to be his followers (and conversely, that false prophets can be judged by their fruits). Myers-Briggs goes far beyond Jung's intentions for his system of psychological types and seeks to define personality in terms of decision-making preferences alone.
Myers-Briggs is frequently used to guide clergy, readers and
pastoral workers in developing their team-working

As humans, we have the unique ability to be in fellowship with God as well as with each other. As followers of Jesus, we continue the Incarnation: this is what it means to be the Body of Christ. We don't commune with God, we commune with each other and God. That is why we have the Peace: we come to the Lord's Table corporately. Personality type is only one factor which influences our behaviour and decision-making as humans, and it certainly does not define our personhood as part of the Body of Christ. Myers-Briggs does not claim to assess anything to do with interpersonal or team working styles. Worrying, then, that within the Church of England, we frequently see the use of MBTI as the basis for workshops on leadership or team working styles. In some Dioceses, clergy, readers and pastoral workers are required to undergo this assessment in order to promote team working in churches.  One Diocese even ran a prayer event last year based around Myers-Briggs types.  Clearly, the huge investment made by the Church of England in this system is leading to its use in areas it was never designed for and in which it has never claimed competence. Myers-Briggs could almost be said to have the status of a cult within the denomination: we use it because... we use it. To question its use is often equated with a reluctance to be self-reflective at all. While it may be the case that some clergy are averse to any kind of self-reflection (and this is indeed a problem where it occurs), my observation of discussions involving clergy in social media settings indicate that it is concerns about the misuse of Myers-Briggs by the CofE together with its dubious scientific value which are far more common reasons for disquiet. Lloyd's analysis of Christian opposition to Myers-Briggs "showed five principal areas of concern: misuse of personality typing in spiritual formation; personality typing as a simplistic analysis; personality typing as a restrictive pigeon‐holing; unethical use of personality typing; and the Jungian derivation of personality type theory." (Lloyd, 2007)

Our inter-relationships with other members of the Body of Christ and with people outside the Church are far more revealing of our personality and leadership styles than anything in the realm of psychometric testing.  MBTI is an individualistic test and says nothing about the way our personality expresses itself communally. 

Personality Types should not be confused with personality itself as the latter is connected to our personhood: our soul, our being, our reflection of the image of God. If MBTI is presented as a personality type indicator which in any sense defines or underpins our personality, I question whether this is appropriate for a Christian context at all. And, despite being misapplied to the field of team development and group dynamics (including leadership styles), it is an individualitic view of personhood which completely overlooks the communal nature of our being. As humans, we are a communal creation: created for communion with our Creator, with each other, and with the whole of creation. This is something which defines what is is to be human and therefore defining of what personhood and personality are. MBTI ignores this fundamental aspect of our being.

Individual, or part of something?
Being a Christian means doing things with 
other people. It's a "Church" thing.
Since the mid-twentieth century, Western society has, according to Küng and others, experienced increasing individualism alongside a decreased sense of community (see Küng 1996 p763). Some have sensed that individual identity is undergoing a crisis in confidence alongside this (see Kirkpatrick 1995 p11). This has created a cultural paradigm for the western church in which the quest for personal meaning has taken centre stage. Church has, in some contexts, become a lifestyle choice with its members thought of as consumers and styles of liturgy and worship as a product to be marketed. The Church of England's embrace of psychometric testing is another such echo of the wider culture's quest for personal, individual validation.  This means that the MBTI types, which are all presented as optimistic, fit neatly into this quest for assurance and validation (see Long 1992 p294). MBTI is actively encouraging a worldview in which Christian leaders (remember that clergy were explicitly identified as target consumers of the MBTI product) embrace these familiar values of the world. The 16 types all resonate with thought and behavioural patterns which are familiar and seem acceptable to most people. This means that the test falls foul of the Forer (Barnum) effect: i.e. the tendency of people to consider statements about their personality as highly accurate, even though these same statements could apply to almost everyone else. This is also generally true of astrological readings.

The assumption that our personality type is fixed is also dubious theologically. Throughout scripture and Church history, we see personal transformation as the norm: those who follow Jesus receive new life, become a new creation in Christ, changed. When Briggs & Myers quoted Romans 12 (see Briggs & Myers 1980 p211), had they looked a few verses earlier they would have also read "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Rom.12:2).  Renewed minds, open to complete transformation by God to conform to the Divine Will is what we should be about. Our culture around us changes us profoundly, as do our experiences, our companions on life's journey, and indeed the Holy Spirit as we are transformed into the likeness of the Lord. (2 Cor.3:18)

Black's foreword to Briggs & Myers (1980) states that career, marriage and the very meaning of life itself are affected by MBTI-defined personality types. This is similarly problematic. The concept that personality types are unchanging, can be measured, and are innate is not one I recognise and seems incompatible with scripture. I am reminded of the world of Blakes 7, in which the Terran Federation categorise their subjects with terms such as Alpha grade (used of Blake himself) or Delta grade (used of Vila, a member of the criminal underclass) to categorise, utilise and control the population*. Interestingly, Vila claimed to have faked his personality test to avoid being drafted as a spaceship captain - so even in the futuristic world of the Federation, psychometric testing is not infallible! A church which categorizes its members in similarly unchanging and limited terms is not taking sufficiently seriously the transforming power of the Holy Spirit among the people of God.

*For the uninitiated, Blakes 7 was a piece of dystopian sci-fi, not a blueprint for church organisation.

Myers-Briggs can be misused as a kind of
"sorting hat" for leadership styles
My Management Structure is Not of This World
The Church of England spent well over a year probing and testing me to check whether they agreed that God was calling me to be a priest. Among other things, my ability to develop as a leader was looked at as one key factor. I am now being trained with a view to eventually becoming a deacon and priest. Somehow I now find myself in danger of being labelled with a secular management category which is seen by some within the CofE as defining of my personality, my leadership style and my likely role and abilities within teams. I truly fear carrying 4 letters as an albatross around my neck for a future colleague, Archdeacon, Bishop or Diocesan Advisor to latch onto as a label to prejudge my likely calling, performance or role in a given situation, context or team.  Even if an MBTI outcome gives data which its subject finds useful, then the fact that subsequent retests may give quite different outcomes even after a short period should make its use in management generally questionable. Even after just five weeks, there is a 50% chance of one's personality type changing between tests. And in terms of the Body of Christ, to rely on such a blunt instrument of discernment would be a mistake. Can we not look to more Biblical models of leadership, of teamwork and of discipleship? And I repeat: where is our vision of the God who transforms, who equips, in whom we seek revelation, rest and knowledge of ourselves and our calling? And where is our vision of the Body of Christ - our Christian brothers and sisters being part of a shared journey of self-discovery, of growing into the image of Jesus together? Can we turn the commendable motivations behind using blunt instrument psychometric tests into something more flexible, more useful and more open to the transforming nature of life in Christ?

So what is the alternative?
Dr. Ruth Sutherland, a clinical psychologist who laments the Church of England's reliance on MBTI in clergy training, offers a way forward:
There are, however, alternatives.  For trainee priests, this should start with the recognition that they are starting a journey of developing a new identity (self-as-priest), and that this needs to be supported, both in terms of their own self awareness and development, but also within the context of their family, friends and community.  They need to be supported in developing resilience, self care and personal wellbeing, and in understanding the potential obstacles to these developments.  Personal therapy might be one option – an opportunity for exploring the life experiences that have already shaped them, the beliefs and thinking styles that inform their behavioural choices and emotional responses, and how these might impact their development as priests.  An all-too-obvious example is the preponderance of perfectionist beliefs and high expectations of the self among priests.  The impact of this can be catastrophic, especially when combined with the expectations of parishioners.  Physical and mental health problems are far too common among the ordained.  But this could be avoided with better preparation.  I don’t see any evidence that Myers-Briggs is doing anything useful for our priests and lay leaders.  It’s time for change.

I believe Dr Sutherland's approach reflects existing good practice in training establishments. Certainly I recognise that my current training as an ordinand puts a high emphasis on developing self-awareness and reflective practice, including lectures encouraging this, collaborative work in small groups and reflective tutorials with personal tutors.  Myers-Briggs is offered as merely one element among a wider programme which encourages the ongoing development of such practices. I question the wisdom of using Myers-Briggs at all, though. Its scientific shortcomings risk the Church of England inviting needless ridicule for using it. Its theological shortcomings call into question its suitability as a tool for the formation of Christian leaders.

Thinking about ordinand training more generally, perhaps some form of mentoring akin to that of a Spiritual Director, but which includes a strong element of personal therapy focussed on the areas Sutherland suggests (though with a focus which takes account of the theological issues of self- and communal-identity outlined above)  might replace reliance on this, and other, dubious forms of psychometric testing which are, when all is said and done, little more than an affirming, self-fulfilling form of horoscope dressed as science.

Note: The Myers-Briggs Type lndicator and MBTI are Registered Trademarks of Consulting Psychologists Press.

I am indebted to
Dr Ruth Sutherland for her insights from the world of professional clinical psychology
Clergy friends who have been willing to share their concerns and experiences of MBTI as used in the CofE
Anglicanmemes.com for most of the images used in this article.

Bibliography used in preparing this blog post:

Black, J.  Publisher’s Foreword in Isabel Briggs Myers and Peter B. Myers. Gifts Differing (Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc., 1980)

Briggs, I. & Myers, P. Gifts Differing. (Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc., 1980)

Francis, L. J. Psychological-type theory and Christian theology: a conflict between implicit and explicit religions? (Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 2013, Vol.16(9), p.964-974)

Jung, C. Psychological types (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, Ltd, 1938)

Jung, C. The integration of the Personality (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co, Ltd, 1940)

Kirkpatrick, T. Small Groups in the Church (New York: The Alban Institute, 1995)

Küng, H. Christianity, Essence, History and Future (New York: Continuum, 1996)

Leech, K. Myers–Briggs. Some critical reflections (Croydon: The Jubilee Group, 1996)

Lloyd, J. B. Opposition from Christians to Myers-Briggs personality typing: an analysis and evaluation. (Journal of Beliefs & Values, 28(2):111-123, 2007)

Long, T. Myers-Briggs and Other Modern Astrologies (Theology Today 49(3):291-295., 1992)

Pittenger, D. Measuring the MBTI... and Coming Up Short  http://www.indiana.edu/~jobtalk/Articles/develop/mbti.pdf

ed. Rozensky, R.H. et al Psychology Builds a Healthy World: Opportunities for Research and Practice
(Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 2004)

Tucker, A.R. An assessment of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator from a practical theological perspective (South Africa: Acta Theologica 2011, 31(2): p 295-314)

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