Disciple Syndrome

We may at times observe in the professional or academic world the phenomenon of the so-called “disciple syndrome” where the trainee, formant, student establishes a psychological  relationship  and allegiance with a particular teacher or mentor, imitates him or her, does his or her ‘dirty work’ for the mentor, tries to impress him or her, and ultimately proselytizes on his or her behalf. This all takes place innocently enough–not to discount its malignancy, however. The scenario is most often an institutional environment, an environment where the mentor–in a particular and reserved space– calls most or all of the shots and the student is at his or her pleasure–literally.

Let’s now briefly turn to the mentor and the so-called “hubristic syndrome” which I like to call the “eclipse-of-humility syndrome.” Here the mentor, supervisor, teacher is so entrenched in his or her ego and in his/her dynastybuilding activities that all sense of humility, of discipleship, of servantship, leadership is lost and the supervisor becomes self-centered, self-important, the guru, the ineffable teacher. It is at this point that the supervisor loses all genuine leadership and effectiveness and assumes merely an archetypal, symbolic character–and in the process divests himself of authenticity–and is appropriated by those suffering the “disciple syndrome,” while being travestied by the more objective, less needful observers, or even taken advantage of by his more opportunistic minions. The supervisor suffering the “eclipse-of-humility” syndrome will surround himself with minions, sacrifice all to obtain the adulation of those around him, and existentially supress any criticism or opposition. It’s an almost narcissistic sociopathy, in effect.

So, too, will those needful and fawning souls who are suffering in the grips of the “disciple syndrome.” They have lost all self-awareness and have become their needs. The guru aknowledges and affirms them; they pledge allegiance to the fulfilling guru. The paramount need in many cases is the need to be accepted or the need to belong. So the “disciple syndrome” and the “hubristic syndrome” feed off, parasitize each other.

The “hubristic syndrome” has its victim assuming the role of the ineffable teacher, always sublimely providing wisdom clichés, always in demand, always on his way to an important meeting, to a speaking engagement. Always with an anecdote underscoring his importance, vital to his program and to the welfare of the minions. He’s become the queen bee, the key to survival of the colony.

And the disciple listens adoringly, starvingly, absorbingly, obediently. and the syndromes and the cycles are auto-actuating, autoregenerating, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Everyone is happy-happy, well fed, and grinning idiotically. “It’s our special little world…our love fest. Ours alone.”

These syndromes are, I believe, especially observed in the helping professions’ training and formation programs that we find in ministry and pastoral-care programs, especially those that are characterized as being “interfaith” and where a particular formation or academic program makes the training a requirement for ordination or for a particular degree, such as a clinical pastoral education (CPE) requirement for ordination or a degree in divinity. I see the seminal pathogen here in the fact that when one enters such a program s/he generally has a rather well-established system of beliefs, a tradition, generally also a rather firm–or already shakey–faith which brings the student to the program in the first place. In the worst case scenario, the student is seeking selfish fulfillment of needs or affirmation of a damaged personhood–in extremis s/he aims at being a Messiah or a disciple. Then, once in the program s/he is put in the situation of having to shelve that established system in favor of a non-specific, acme system that is “unoffensive,” non-directive, non-judgmental, safe, or the sterile, politically correct environment provides room to extravagate.  This invokes either resistance or dissonance in the student,or in the case of extravagation, wanton saving or fixing activity. Worse still is the situation where the tradition of the so-called supervisor is at odds with that of the student; this can have a disastrous outcome; the learning environment becomes a virtual minefield.

Accreditation and oversight organizations are apparently unaware of these pitfalls, or ignore them. Indeed, even the sufferers are unaware of their conditions. The poor or absent oversight of supervisors, especially, is a big problem, since in the course of supervising without peer supervision, the supervisor is subject to spiritual, psychological, psychical change that may adversely affect not only his efficacy as a supervisor but may have adverse effects on the students.  Many would rather not be aware, especially if their deviant depraved needs are being satisfied. Most are unwilling to accept that they have the syndromes, and lash out should the suggestion be made that they need to examine themselves and make some critical and vital assessments and corrections.

We’d like to know what you think of this hypothesis. Please leave a comment and share your thoughts.

Addendum: I am very grateful to a colleague who has pointed out that the above posting appears to have a predominantly “negative” take on discipleship. I would respond that in and of itself, particulary as conceived in the Christian doctrine of discipleship, discipleship or servitude is an overall positive attitude and calling but it is in that form a balanced and generally altruistic, outreaching, compassionate attitude. Once we attach a “syndrome” to any concept it tends to become something that requires corrective.

That same colleague took issue with the use of the word “frequently” in the original statement. While in her reading she makes a reasonable point but I do want to point out that “frequently” does not mean “commonly” or just “is” and the situation described is more frequent, I believe, than if I were to have written “rarely” or no qualifier at all.  While I continue to believe that it  is “frequently” observable, though perhaps not in the extreme manifestation,  and fortunately may even be quite rarely observed by the insensitive observer. That notwithstanding, I have edited that “misleading” phrase to read “especially”.

Read our postings on Hypocrisy, another theme.


2 responses to “Disciple Syndrome

  1. My sense is that this dynamic is usually at play on some level whenever there is a power differential in a learning situation: CPE, academia, senior and associate ministers, etc. This dynamic goes by many names and it is something we carefully attend to in our CPE supervisory learning process: We name it as the interplay between dependence, independence and interdepence; transference and counter-transference; differentiation and connection. On all levels, it is the responsiblitiy of the supervisor or teacher to have eyes to see when the dependency is forming, and then to use it as a springboard for furthering independence and growth in the other. The other common form of this dynamic is resistence which is the flip-side of same coin, and is also a form of entanglement. As I see it, dependence and resistence are the bread and butter of CPE learning.

  2. Please say more about “dependence and resistance are the bread and butter of CPE learning.” Thanks.

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