Addressing Clergy Mental Health

Addressing Clergy Mental Health

There are approximately 243,900 clergy employed in the USA.(1)

They are the spiritual and administrative leaders of faith-based organizations: congregations, churches, non-profits, denominations, etc.

They oversee funerals and weddings, visit ill and homebound congregants, provide spiritual direction and pastoral counseling to their congregants, engage in social action, supervise staff, provide education, and, according to the Pew Research Center (2018), lead worship services for one-third of the US population. (2)

These obligations result in most clergy working 40-60 hrs. per week, with up to 25% of clergy working more than 60 hrs. per week.(3)

The importance of maintaining and improving the health of this essential workforce is self-evident, yet the research indicates that clergy health is less than optimal.

This has detrimental implications for clergy and the entire ecologies in which they are situated, including their families, ministry contexts, denominations, and the constituents they serve.

 

MENTAL HEALTH

Mental health includes emotional, psychological, spiritual, and social well-being.

It affects how we think and feel, and how we experience the experience of our lives.

It is a major factor in our capacity to experience joy in life, work, and relationships.

Our mental health determines how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.

 

Positive mental health allows us to realize our full potential, cope effectively with the stresses of life, work productively, and make meaningful contributions to our communities and relationships.

Detrimental challenges to mental health affect our thinking, mood, and behavior.

Factors contributing to mental health problems include biological factors, such as genes or brain chemistry, life experiences, such as trauma or abuse; and family history of mental health problems.

 

CLERGY MENTAL HEALTH

Challenges to the mental health of clergy commonly involve stress and burnout, marriage and family adjustment, and emotional and functional impairment.

Work-related stress and burnout among clergy have been the focus of many studies.

Some research suggests that burnout results from systemic factors including bureaucracy, poor administrative support, and difficult work conditions—ministry is hard, and getting harder. Other intrapersonal-related factors include religious idealism, Type-A personality factors, narcissism, and perfectionism.(4)

In addition, one research found that clergy experience excessive guilt and issues with their families of origin more frequently than other groups.(5)

As a group, pastors also experience social isolation, often extending even to their professional peers.

One study revealed that ministers have higher levels of occupational distress and depression when compared to national averages.

“Ministers in this study show higher levels of occupational distress and depression when compared to national averages. These findings should raise a general concern about the mental health of and support for clergy.”(6)

Another study of clergy in North Carolina found that the percentage of clergy with depression was significantly higher than in the general public in the state, 8.7% vs. 5.5%, respectively.(7)

In another study, the percentage of clergy reporting a diagnosis of depression was 12.7% far exceeding the most recent estimate of 6.7% of US adults with depression.(8)

Regardless of the contributing causes of burnout, it is clear that there is a substantial demand upon a clergyperson’s time and energy as he or she is expected to be the administrator, teacher, preacher, counselor, staff supervisor, facilities manager, and fundraiser all at once. There is rarely a time when clergy are not on call.(9)

It is not a surprise, then, that clergy are prime targets for experiencing stress, depression, and burnout.

 

WARNING SIGNS

As with others in the helping professions, clergy often ignore the warning signs of mental health issues even as they attend to the needs of others. Experiencing one or more of the following can be an early warning sign of a problem:

 

The first step in being able to seek and get help with mental health issues is to be aware of one’s own emotional and psychological experience of stress and anxiety and of one’s symptomatic behaviors. For clergy, especially as those impact their relationships in family and work.

 

OBSTACLES TO GETTING HELP

However, even when clergy becomes aware that they need help, there are often obstacles to getting the help they need.

According to ministers, these are the top obstacles to accessing mental health services and support: financial limitations that make getting help unaffordable, difficulty in taking time off work, concerns about confidentiality, lack of awareness of available mental health services, fear of reprisal by denominational leaders, lack of denominational support for the mental health needs of pastors, feeling shamed by congregational members and peers a lack of denominational knowledge of the mental health issues affecting clergy, being perceived as dysfunctional among others.

Other surveys confirm and agree with earlier research in which clergy reported a lack of lay leaders (volunteers), lack of financial resources, and lack of interest from congregants among the barriers to providing health resources for their congregations.(10)

 

WHAT CLERGY SAY IS HELPFUL

A survey by Trihub and others identified what clergy said was most helpful for their mental health.

In rank order of most helpful, here is what they said:

  1. Sabbaticals
  2. Prayer/support groups
  3. Individual counseling
  4. Referrals for counseling
  5. Clergy retreats
  6. Family Counseling
  7. Educational mental health seminars.(11)

 

MINISTERING TO MINISTERS OFFERS HELP AND SUPPORT

The Ministering to Ministers program (MTM), part of the Pastoral Excellence Programs at Columbia Theological Seminary’s Center for Lifelong Learning seeks to address the mental health challenges of clergy.

The program focuses primarily on providing support to clergy, and their spouses, who have experienced a forced termination due to conflict in their ministry settings.

This is a traumatic hidden epidemic, recently exacerbated by the long COVID-19 impact on congregations and clergy.

The trauma experienced by clergy, and their families, due to a forced termination has no shelf life.

The effects of the trauma can linger for years.

One pastor said, “I had been in ministry for 19 years. When I left I reached out to local pastors for encouragement and help. In the past three years, I’ve spiraled into bitterness, hatred and even rage. This is against the church, me, and even God.”

Through MTM clergy are provided support and resources that help address mental health challenges during the crisis of congregational conflict and its aftermath.

The program offers two Wounded Ministers Retreats for clergy and theory spouses twice a year, paid therapy sessions, consultations with attorneys to deal with severance and employment issues, and a Friends for the Journey relationship for those wanting a conversation partner.

Gifts and donations support the services and resources of Ministering to Ministers.

Donations to support the Ministering to Ministers program can be sent to Columbia Theological Seminary.

Designate gifts to “Ministering to Ministers,” or through the Columbia seminary website.

 

 

 

 

 

To learn more about the Ministering to Ministers Program, click here.


Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.

His books on education include Academic Leadership: Practical Wisdom for Deans and Administartors, Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).


SOURCES:

1 Bureau of Labor Statistics 2017.

2  Pew Research Center 2018.

3 Carroll, Jackson W. 2006. God’s potters: Pastoral leadership and the shaping of congregations. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

4 Grosch, W. N., & Olson, D. C. (2000). Clergy burnout: An integrative approach. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 56(5), 619–632.

5 Rickner, R. G., & Tan, S.-Y. (1994). “Psychopathology, guilt, perfectionism, and family of origin functioning among Protestant clergy.” Journal of Psychology and Theology, 22(1), 29–38.

6 Martin Shaw,  Roy Lukman, Linda Wright, Ramona Reynolds. “Clergy Wholeness Study: How Occupational Distress, Depression, and Social Support Inform the Health of Clergy.” Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling 2021, Vol. 75(1) 23–32.).

7  Proeschold-Bell, R. J., Miles, A., Toth, M., Adams, C., Smith, B. W., & Toole, D. (2013). “Using effort–reward imbalance theory to understand high rates of depression and anxiety among clergy.” Journal of Primary Prevention, 34(6), 439–453.

8 National Institute of Mental Health 2016. Webb BL, Chase K. “Occupational Distress and Health among a Sample of Christian Clergy.” Pastoral Psychology. 2019; 68(3): 331-343.

9 Weaver, Andrew J., Kevin J. Flannelly, David B. Larson, Carolyn L. Stapleton, and Harold G. Koenig. 2002. “Mental health issues among clergy and other religious professionals: A review of research.” Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling 56(4): 393-403.

10 Benjamin L. Webb and Scherezade K. Mama. “The Provision of Clergy Health Resources by Faith-Based Organizations in the USA.” Journal of Religion and Health.  January 1, 2020.

11 Trihub B. L., McMinn M. R., Buhrow W. C. Jr, Johnson TF. “Denominational support for clergy mental health.” Journal of Psychology & Theology. 2010; 38 (2): 101-110.

 

 

 

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