Why Denominational Leaders Need to Address Clergy Mental Health Issues

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Since I was forced to retire from ministry in the CRCNA in 2007, I have been thinking about what could be done to prevent this from happening. Because such situations are usually faced in stressful times, it would be helpful if elders and pastors could refer to denominational protocol and resources that could guide them through a very difficult process.

The article “Mental Health Issues Among Clergy and Other Religious Professionals: A Review of Research”, published in The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling (2002), is compiled by mental health professionals and has several helpful observations and recommendations. One observation is that occupational stress appears to be a source of family stress among Protestant clergy — a factor which clergy and their spouses believe the denominational leadership should address. Today’s clergy face many demands on time and energy. One statistic found in their research is that United Methodist clergy spend, on average, 56.2 hours per week in ministry and 12 evenings a month away from home on church duties. I’m not sure if this is also typical of CRCNA clergy, but I have no reason to think that we are an exception. Also, although clergy rank in the top 10% of the population in terms of education, they are only 325th of 432 occupations in terms of salaries received.  It is well known that pastors are often the primary mental health counselors for tens of millions of Americans. They are frequently the first persons approached for a marital problem or personal crisis.

Protestant clergy had the highest overall work-related stress and were next to the lowest in personal resources to cope with the occupational strain. One in six clergy showed signs of serious distress with their levels of isolation, loneliness, fear, abandonment, anger and boredom.

Furthermore clergy and their families are in highly visible positions and are often expected to meet numerous and sometimes unrealistic expectations of their congregations.  Researchers  found that almost one in three pastors leaving ordained ministry had family difficulties, and clergy ranked third in percentage among professionals who are divorced.  The most often cited areas of discord were: inadequate time with spouse, lack of affection, financial problems, not enough time with children, and sexual relations. The research also identified decreased life satisfaction as related to increased occupation-related moves, time demands, intrusiveness, and low levels of financial compensation and social support. One study concluded an average of 212 married clergymen of the UMC had been married 21 years, served in ministry 19 years, and had moved five times. The annual income of these families in the early 1990’s was $34,911.

The authors of this study made five recommendations in light of their survey: 

  • Theological students need to gain self-awareness and understanding of the issues that arise in ministry. 
  • All persons seeking ordination would benefit from Clinical Pastoral Education. (CPE)
  • Experts in psychological assessment should be used by religious bodies to screen persons who are seeking ordination for potential problems.
  • Ordained ministers should have professional consultations and CPE made available to them.
  • Measures for adequate self-care and spiritual growth such as spiritual direction from a trusted mentor, support group and counseling need to be made available.

Denominations need to carefully reappraise policies that affect the morale of clergy families, such as frequent relocation and low salaries.The Alban Institute found that mainline Protestant clergy younger than thirty-five are scarce. More research is needed to find out why so few of the next generation are becoming clergy and what can be done to improve the situation.

Does any of this apply to the CRCNA of 2015?

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     I would answer, yes, this does apply and have implications for the CRC in 2015. Healthy boundaries are needed, all kinds, boundaries that protect family time, and allow for good self-care practices, etc. In many denominations, clergy are required to attend a boundary training workshop, every three years or every five years. Here they are reminded of the importance of self-care and setting good boundaries. They have opportunity to discuss issues of concern with other pastors and church leaders in a helpful, facilitated process. Healthy boundaries are key for making work more effective and satisfying. Clergy also need to have "safe spaces" where they can honestly and confidentially address issues and concerns in their lives. Where can clergy go when they are struggling? If we don't have a good answer to that question, then we're in trouble.

     It's a scary thought that clergy act as "primary mental health counselors for tens of millions of Americans". That's a dual relationship that's bound to lead to problems. In some denominations a pastor may only see a church member up to three times for counseling, and then is required to refer to a mental health professional. That seems a good boundary; if the issue can't be adequately handled after three sessions, perhaps it's serious enough that a referral to a trained professional is a good idea. It makes me think of how many difficult congregational situations could have been avoided if that healthy boundary had been maintained. And it also makes me wonder how much of clergy stress results from the expectations of others, and how much is the result of clergy who put it on themselves, believing that they must be the one to handle this or to do that. Perhaps clergy have a role in setting those unhelpful expectations and can also have a role reducing them to a more manageable level. Referring to others, and empowering others, must be a significant role for clergy. That and remembering that this is God's work, not ours.

    There are some wonderful organizations that provide mental health help for clergy and for congregations. No reason to re-invent the wheel, or keep this only within the CRC. One helpful organization is Shalem Mental Health Network, in Canada -  http://shalemnetwork.org/. Another is The Samaritan Network, with centers all over the US offering various options for mental health care for congregations - http://www.samaritaninstitute.org/

 

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Thank you, Larry, for this important article.

Guide

Larry, thanks for this. We finally have done that. Christian Reformed and Reformed Church in America Disability Concerns, working with CRC Pastor Church Resources, chaplains, and pastors have produced a Guide for a Clergy Leave of Absence for Mental Health Reasons as well as supporting materials to present the guide to groups. Church leaders often have a good idea how to respond if pastor has a serious physical illness or accident, but they are much less sure what to do if pastor has a serious mental health crisis. We hope and pray that this guide will help churches and pastors navigate these difficult waters with grace. 

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