How can Christian leaders make sense theologically of assessment instruments and personality analysis? After all, we are not primarily CEOs of ourselves, but are members of the body of Christ, writes Jason Byassee.

Assessment instruments are ubiquitous in the world of leadership. I challenge you to find a leader in any sphere who has not submitted to Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, 360-degree feedback, Enneagram personality types, or any of their derivatives or competitors. These assessments are also brand new in the scope of human history. They could not exist until management theory started to come along in the early 20th century, and did not proliferate until much more recently.

Why not?

Peter Drucker argues in his classic essay “Managing Oneself” that for most of human history workers did not have to figure out what sort of work they would do. They were assigned to a line of work by others, most often by family or social class. But today, our line of work is no longer fixed with our birth. We “knowledge workers” do not toil in fields, artisanal workshops or even factories, but in offices, pushing paper and ideas. We also work with other people. It is vital to know not only ourselves, but also our colleagues -- how they work, what they value and what their strengths are. Drucker writes that “managing oneself demands that each knowledge worker think and behave like a chief executive officer.”

That’s why we so desperately need these assessment instruments. If we’re going to manage ourselves, we have to know who we’re working for (that is, us). And we’re terrible at figuring out our strengths and weaknesses. “Most people think they know what they are good at,” Drucker writes. “They are usually wrong.” Even if we figure that mystery out, we often make the mistake of trying to improve areas in which we’re mediocre, rather than working to hone our strengths.

The good news is that those of us who do what he calls “feedback analysis” have enormous room for growth. His two examples are, strikingly for us Christians, the Calvinist Reformation and the Jesuit Order. Their “steadfast focus on performance and results that this habit produces explains why the institutions these two men founded…came to dominate Europe within 30 years.” The Calvinists and Jesuits institutionalized attention to their people’s strengths and weaknesses and so gained converts by the million, across Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Feedback analysis, strengths indicators and the whole industry of getting to know oneself by secular means are helpful and have their place. But how do Christian leaders make sense of the instruments theologically? For over against Drucker, we are not primarily CEOs of ourselves. We are members of the body of Christ, physically inseparable from one another and from Christ, our head.

Sinner and graced

There is a deep and wide heritage of Christian teaching on psychology, which these modern instruments present in a secularized fashion. St. Augustine may be the most subtle teacher of this heritage. His famous “Confessions” marks a sea change in Christian views of the human being. Before him, with Origen, Christians argued that their pagan neighbors should seek baptism because Christianity makes the best people. Origen roars against Celsus that Christians don’t just feed and shelter and visit the imprisoned among the baptized -- they take care of those on the margins who are non-believers as well. Augustine politely demurs from Origen. Christianity is not first true because it makes the best people. It’s first true because we have the most forgiving God. To use what is in danger of becoming a cliché but still captures an Augustinian truth: the church is not a club for saints but a hospital for sinners.

There was only one problem. If you read “Confessions,” you get very little sense that Augustine might have committed a sin or two after baptism. By the middle ages a church council mandated that people confess to a priest once a year (suggesting that, until then, they did no such thing). This tended to fall around Easter, since confession was meant to precede communion, which happened once a year on the feast of the Resurrection. So the church would be full, and, as historian David Steinmetz likes to say, you knelt in “private” confession with your whole village kneeling beside you. Your neighbor might even help you out a little by mentioning to the priest things you forgot to confess.

The Protestant reformers all thought the lifting of this requirement would bring about more practice of confession rather than less. (James 5:16) The result, of course, is that no Protestant ever confesses to anyone other than God. Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. Precisely when we think ourselves most without sin -- when we think we can take our readings and work hard to do better -- we’re most in danger of doing worse. Only sinners know they’re forgiven, as Karl Rahner says: Ask who the biggest sinner in the room is and Mother Teresa raises her hand first.

Alan Jacobs, author of the book “Original Sin,” has argued that believers in original sin -- those who hold that doctrine most firmly -- are often the most cheerful, least morose people around. He argues that Calvinists, far from their grim reputation, traipsed across America building institutions to improve the place. Those who believed in predestination, like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, often preached at revivals at which people up and converted by the thousand: “What, I’m eternally predestined in God’s mind? OK, I’ll change.” GK Chesterton called original sin the most “cheerful” of Christian doctrines.

Theologian and preacher Tom Long speaks of an ordination examination committee in his own (Presbyterian) church. The eldest member would save his only question until the end. He would then point to a passerby out the window and ask the candidate to “describe that person theologically.” Some would answer, “Why, that’s a sinner depraved and in need of grace.” Others: “That’s a creature beloved of God, precious in his sight enough to shed blood for.” Both are true answers. But the examiner found that those who answered the latter way first tended to make better ministers. It’s a trick for any Christian, let alone a leader, to balance human identity as both sinner and graced. But in Christian parlance generally, “mercy triumphs over judgment.” (James 2:13)

Interpreting communally

I might argue with Long just a bit. I’m not sure it’s an iron-clad rule that the emphasis on our created beauty is always right. There are times when our brothers and sisters need to name our deficiencies, not just our gifts. That’s what indicators such as 360-degree feedback does at their best: seek out feedback from others, both what we do well and what we could do better.

Perhaps we could say these indicators can point us toward our giftedness without fully determing it. Paul’s words can’t be about “What I should do for a living?” (If our great-grandparents had no choice in what to do as a profession, first-century Jewish Christians in the Mediterranean hardly did.) Nevertheless those passages in Paul might help us know where to put these instruments theologically. Are our gifts those of prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading, spreading cheer? (Romans 12:6-8) Secular sources such as Drucker are right to encourage us to hone those gifts. In fact, they can put a much finer point on our giftedness for leadership than reading Romans alone could. What are our weaknesses, or more to the point, sins? Naming them can keep us from harming others in the community, and seeing where our strengths tip over into weaknesses.

One theological guideline for our use of these instruments is to interpret them as communally as possible. Assessments that offer feedback from others, and not just self-interpretation, are most helpful in this regard. Another is to respect those that leave a place for self-deception -- especially when we think we know ourselves best. (The Enneagram’s emphasis on ways we get in our own way is helpful here.) Human beings, Christianity teaches, are deep wells of mystery, reflective of the Mystery who created us all. These tools are like ropes and hooks that help us spelunk a little deeper into ourselves and others.