Thursday, July 16, 2009

Temporary Autism

Autism is defined in Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary as:
A variable developmental disorder that appears by age three and is characterized by impairment of the ability to form normal social relationships, by impairment of the ability to communicate with others, and by stereotyped behavior patterns.
In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell lauds the merits of "rapid cognition," something we sometimes know as "intuition." However, he also points out that it can often go astray. One example he gives is what he calls "temporary autism."

Gladwell is focusing on our ability to assess the emotions of others by "reading" their faces, an ability that people suffering from autism appear to lack. Gladwell says that when those of us who are not suffering from autism becomes sufficiently stressed, we become temporarily autistic, losing our capacity to read in the emotions of others.

I went to the MFC presentation at the General Assembly in 2007 in Portland. A then member of the MFC said that he knew that ministerial candidates were stressed by the MFC interview, but he didn't think that the MFC members were all that scary a bunch and that the candidates would face much greater stresses when they became ministers.

I would have to agree that the MFC members are not all that scary a bunch. In fact I find them to be hard working, talented, dedicated, and well-intentioned. But the former MFC member's assessment did not take into account the situation in which the candidates find themselves when they are facing the MFC.

When working as a chaplain in medical center emergency rooms and critical care, medical, surgical, and psychiatric units, there are people and situations that are more frightening than the MFC and its members. Yet no single interaction has the foreseen capacity to postpone or even derail one's call to ministry.

In the parallel situation of a job interview, you know that if you don't get this job, you are likely to get another. You may also know that there are discrimination complaint and other review procedures if you believe you have been treated unfairly.

None of these options really apply to the MFC interview. If you're UU down to your bones and you're not fellowshipped as a UU, it's not likely that you're to become a candidate for fellowshipping in another religion. Furthermore, there's no review process outside of the MFC for its preliminary fellowshipping decisions.

The pressure therefore is enormous. When I listen to the stories of aspirants and candidates who "froze" in their interviews, it sounds an awful lot like temporary autism.

What do I recommend?
  • Put less emphasis on the interview in the fellowshipping process;
  • Create a review process outside the MFC; and
  • Increase interview training for aspirants and candidates.

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