The biggest open secret in the church today is that clergy struggle with mental health, even when they often seem well to most parishioners. Articles in recent years from the New York Times to the Huffington Post have reported on this very issue. Throughout the United Church of Christ (my beloved denomination), Committees on Ministry across the nation meet more often than they’d like to about a clergy person who is facing serious mental health issues.
In any given moment, most clergy are doing okay, but a quick Google search will tell you a lot about the stresses clergy face:
Setting aside the searches for Ministry of Sound (which is a fun dance club and music label, IMO), even Google knows about the challenges facing clergy.
A few months ago, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion published a Duke University study, “The Glory of God is a Human Being Fully Alive: Predictors of Positive Versus Negative Mental Health Among Clergy” about mental health of clergy. In particular, this study focused on attributes that contribute to both positive mental health (PMH) and negative mental health (NMH) for Christian clergy. Because of the funding for the study, researchers focused in-depth on United Methodist clergy in North Carolina. As a result, there are some factors that are specific to Methodist polity (e.g. clergy appointments) and to the makeup of Methodist clergy in North Carolina today (i.e. majority white and male). Still, researchers suspected strongly that what they found applied to locations and denominations beyond the scope of their work.
This research found that, as with the general population, clergy have three common predictors that indicate either positive or negative mental health: social support, social isolation, and financial stress. The study tracked this by asking respondents to address three questions:
1) “How often do you get the social and emotional support you need?”
2) “How socially isolated do you feel?”
3) “How stressful is your current financial situation for you?”
Depending on the responses to these questions, researchers could predict the degree of positive or negative mental health the clergy in question were experiencing.
The researchers did, however, find four clergy-specific factors that indicated either positive or negative mental health:
1) Experiencing the presence of God in daily life
2) Congregation demands
3) Thoughts of leaving ministry
4) Life unpredictability
Each of these factors were related to both positive and negative mental health among clergy. In other words, if a clergy person reported that she often experienced God’s presence in her daily life; that her congregation had reasonable and manageable expectations; that she rarely found herself thinking about leaving ministry; and that her weekly routine was fairly predictable; then the researchers could reasonably conclude that she would have positive mental health. Likewise, the opposite would predict negative mental health.
I was intrigued to learn that this same study also found four factors that were related to PMH but not to NMH:
1) Positive congregations
2) Congregational support
3) Church appointment considerations
4) Being pleased with one’s last appointment
If a clergy person reported that he served a local church with an overall positive spirit; that he felt supported by his congregants; that he was satisfied with how his bishop and district superintendent (D.S.) handled his appointment to his current church; and that he was pleased with the last church he served; then researchers could reasonably predict that this clergy person had positive mental health. Still, the opposite experience was not an inherent predictor of negative mental health. That pastor might just be having a tough run of difficult churches in a conference with unresponsive leadership.
Lastly, the study found no factors that were related only to NMH outcomes.
Why does all this matter, you may ask? It matters because across all denominations, clergy mental health is crucial to the present and future of the church. First, if we understand what makes for positive mental health, then we can offer better support for folks who seek to be ordained – support that may serve them well far into their ministry. Imagine, for example, if denominations took the financial stress of potential clergy so seriously that they found a way to graduate pastors with no student loan debt. What might that free clergy to do on behalf of God and the church?
Second, an accurate understanding of clergy mental health helps those who are already ordained to get the support they need. What would happen if part of the search process for finding a new pastor included connecting her with pastors in the neighborhood, including clergy from other denominations? Likewise, a pastor’s annual review by a church or conference might inquire about how well they’ve made friends outside of church in the past year. I wouldn’t want to make salary decisions based on what someone does outside of their job, but based on this research, I think it’s clear that clergy who have deep and supportive relationships outside of the local church are far more likely to perform better when serving the local church.
Third, a good understanding of clergy mental health helps our congregations be their best. Churches don’t always know just how much of an effect they can have on their pastor’s mental health. Consider the following from the Duke study:
“[T]o bolster PMH optimally, congregations need to show support of their pastors to their pastors. Clergy who perceived their congregants to be highly critical and to make too many demands reported higher levels of NMH and lower ministerial satisfaction and quality of life … Congregants may be unaware of the effect they can have on their pastor’s mental health. Church committees might consider how to buffer these negative interactions, paired with ways to show appreciation for their clergy.”
Clergy are responsible for their own mental health, but their mental health is deeply connected to their experience in the congregation and denomination they serve. Clergy and laity really are, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, co-workers in God’s service.
Rev. Dr. David Lindsey currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia, in the Central Atlantic Conference.