Crisis of Support for Clergy: Steps Forward



Crisis of Support for Clergy:  Steps Forward

The role of the professional clergy person is, perhaps, more demanding today than at any time in modern history.  At one level, this may seem like a gross over-statement (Doesn’t everyone think their own time is more challenging than any other time?); but upon deeper reflection, it is clear that the expectations of the clergy role have grown to quite unrealistic proportions.  It is true that clergy, today, do not live in quite the glass house they once did; and, unrealistic, un-human moral standards have become a little more forgiving (though such always lurks around corners of renewed judgmentalism).  At the same time, the job demands for clergy have moved far outside the realm of preaching, visiting the sick, and crisis response, toward entrepreneurial expectations more common to the CEO and Board Room than to the church.  Pastors are expected to demonstrate results proving their effectiveness (and worth).  This means increased income to the church and increased membership in the pews as the litmus test for clergy effectiveness.  In this way, the burden for the health of the church shifts away from the community as a whole and on to the paid professional pastor/fundraiser/vision-caster/motivator-in-chief/”walker-on-water. What this has created is a scenario ripe for burnout and dysfunction, the undermining of marriages and families, and mental illness and distress. 

The incidences and frequency of mental illness and dysfunction among the clergy are becoming staggering.  Lifeway Research, an evangelical research organization reported in a 2014 study that pastors diagnosed with depression is double the national average.  Further, they found that nearly one-quarter of the clergy acknowledged having personally struggled with mental illness.  Forty-five percent admitted seeking help from a doctor to deal with undue, work-related stress.  These numbers have reached crisis proportions.  This is also seen in the frequency with which clergy engage in sexual misconduct, which studies have shown are often rooted in either the presence of personality disorders (mental illness) or high rates of stress (Brewster, 1996).  When such event occur, clergy are ostracized as predators rather than “treated” as human beings with mental health issues.  Certainly, such occurrences represent legitimate violations of ethical boundaries, but the church response is often to “cut such ones out as a cancer” rather than make an attempt to restore such a one to wellness and functionality.  In such case risk management takes priority over human personhood. 

What, then, is the solution?  This is difficult inasmuch as the true solution is to realistically reimagine the role of the clergy, which would allow for sufficient clergy self-care, non-stigmatizing mental health treatment and interventions, and freeing the pastor to express his or her call in his or her unique ways.  Unfortunately, any such vision seldom comes from the local church who has bought into the church-as-business model.  Similarly, such a vision will not likely come from judicatory representatives who are under their own pressures to fund the organization/denominational structures and to become risk managers viewing pastors suspiciously as potential liabilities.  This means that it is for the clergy themselves to establish such reasonable boundaries and to advocate for their own mental health. 

In the short-term, what can the clergy practitioner do to begin addressing her or his own needs?  First, recognize the he or she is a tri-partite being of body, soul, and spirit (I’m speaking phenomenologically, not ontologically—so I’m not trying to launch a debate about this aspect of human personhood).  As such she or he, in addition to dealing with physical and spiritual concerns (which the church has down pretty pat) must not overlook psychological and mental health issues.  Our social stigma against mental health issues is doubly unrealistic for clergy, for whom it is clich√© that lack of mental health is a symptom of spiritual deficiency.  This is absurd.  Seeking mental wellness is a critical piece in one’s holistic approach to balance and health.  In fact, seeking mental wellness to avoid mental illness should be a priority for every clergy person.

Second, one should seek professional support outside the structure of one’s church or denominational system.  This is easier done than it used to be.  Fortunately, the 2010 Affordable Care Act (if it stands in the current political climate) requires insurance carriers to treat physical health and mental health with parity, so many insured clergy are covered with respect to mental health.  Still, they often do not avail themselves of mental health care, likely because the value of such a resource has not been presented to them or encouraged by their leaders, who themselves were formed in the false belief that mental illness and spiritual deficiency go hand-in-hand.  If denominational leaders would encourage pastors to seek professional mental health care as loudly and often as they do accountability (there is another word indicative of the mistrust and blaming leaders can inadvertently direct toward the pastors they supervise) groups, then, perhaps the tide can begin to turn away from burnout, dysfunction, and mental illness among clergy and toward mental wellness and whole personhood.

The reality is, however, that many denominations have simply responded to this mental health issue among the clergy by advocating for involvement in in-house (within the denomination) peer support groups (informal, not those lead by a mental health professional).  While this is cheap and relatively easy to assemble, the jury is out on their effectiveness.  Citing their 2012 study of clergy support groups as a mental health intervention, Duke University’s Miles and Proeschold-Bell found that the efficacy of such interventions was questionable.  Even if clergy can gain some benefit from such groups (anecdotally, I have found that they do), this is an irresponsible approach on behalf of religious and denominational leaders to use this singular tool to address a major crisis.  True to the business model churches have adopted, clergy find themselves not in groups of peers with whom they can be vulnerable, but with competitors and possible future supervisors who can, consciously or unconsciously, allow their perceptions of their colleagues to become tainted and prejudiced.  Many peer support groups can work very well, when done well, but they cannot carry all the water for clergy mental health.  Clergy must seek support from trained mental health professionals. 

Third, one should advocate for one’s profession.  The current trend and condition will not change until clergy organize and begin advocating for just and reasonable support structures for total and whole wellness.  The myth of the perfect clergy person was always an illusion, one propped up by the supposed “shock” and “moral outrage” exhibited by denominational leaders when human clergy, with little emotional support, mess up and get caught.  Leaders must begin speaking realistically and honestly about reasonable ethical standards and expectations within the realistic framework of our humanity, not against a phony ideal which has never been and is not true for anyone.  This move toward systems of emotional and psychological support will not happen until clergy insist that it does and remember this when these same clergy are promoted to positions of denominational management.   It is my hope that those representing every sphere of organized church life—local churches, clergy, and denominational leaders--can begin to take this need seriously.

Works Cited

Brewster, A.B. (July 1996).  “Clergy sexual misconduct:  The affair everyone remembers”.  Pastoral Psychology,44 (6), 353-361.
Miles, A., & Proeschold-Bell, R.J., (2012). Overcoming the Challenges of Pastoral Work?: Peer Support Groups and Mental Distress Among United Methodist Church Clergy.  Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review.  Retrieved from http://socrel.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2012/11/01/socrel.srs055
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Study of Acute Mental Illness and Christian Faith:  A Research Report.  (2014).  Lifeway Research.  Retrieved from http://lifewayresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Acute-Mental-Illness-and-Christian-Faith-Research-Report-1.pdf

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