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PC(USA) ministers are not reticent to talk about mental health

Minister Survey affirms need for training to recognize and respond to mental health challenges

by Jashalund Royston and Dr. Susan Barnett, Research Services | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The eight-part series on a survey of nearly 5,000 ministers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) began Sept. 20.

LOUISVILLE — On the 10th anniversary of the adoption of “Comfort My People: A Policy Paper on Serious Mental Health,” the 223rd General Assembly (2018) funded a mental health initiative based in the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA). The mental health questions in the Research Services minister survey were designed in collaboration with PMA staff and are part of a larger study of mental health across the PC(USA). The questions focus on four areas: awareness, training, ministry, and self-care.

What happens when mental health is the topic of conversation?  In some environs, the conversation stops. Fortunately, for this survey, some ministers wrote at great length about the topic. They expressed challenges, concerns, fears, failures, and successes. Specifically, ministers currently in a call and retired ministers wrote about mental health awareness, their capabilities, training and resources, stigma, and personal experiences.

Forty percent of ministers describe their mental health as very good. However more than a third, 36%, state that they are less than capable of responding to mental health challenges that they themselves face.

A significant number of ministers have concerns about their abilities to recognize and respond appropriately when confronted with an issue related to mental health or substance abuse. Forty-four percent report that they have not been trained to recognize mental health concerns. Even more, 54%, view themselves less than capable to respond effectively to a colleague who shows signs of a mental health concern or substance abuse.

When asked about training they have received, 44% of those that answered the question report that they have not received any training in mental health awareness. Twenty-two percent report learning on the job; they have had no formal mental health training.  Eighteen percent report taking a college or seminary course in mental health.

Ministers affirm their need for more training. When asked to rank order their most important need to address mental health concerns, ministers ranked “Training in recognizing and responding to mental health issues that arise in pastoral situations” as most important.

For those who participated in any form of mental health training, 61% report the training improved their skills and increased their ability to respond effectively in most situations.

Stigma about their own mental health makes some ministers reluctant to seek help. Ministers are afraid of risking their positions or being ostracized if they discuss their mental health issues or the needs of their family members with congregation members and colleagues. There is often reluctance to mention the mental health struggles within their family. They say that not all congregations were supportive when they shared a personal or familial mental health concern. This often leads to operating on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Photo by Visual Stories by Micheile via Unsplash

Ministers shared their personal mental health experiences of depression, bipolar disorders, anxiety, grief, loneliness, and stress from their job. Some share that they seek counseling. For some, this counseling is regular and ongoing. For others, it is just a check-in.

Retired ministers express how since their retirement, their need for mental health care is not as great. Some share how the stress of the job pressed them into an earlier retirement. Others shared that, now that they have retired, they feel forgotten, on their own, and lonely.

Ministers also shared the struggles of caring for mental health concerns within the congregations where they pastor or worship. Some feel equipped to face these challenges while others do not.

Pastors make referrals to mental health service providers, when possible, but these services are not available in every community. In the absence of other community-based professionals, the pastor carries the stress of caring for this person, caring for themselves and the congregation that they serve. For some pastors, mental health concerns of a congregation member may become a security concern when a person becomes disruptive or violent during services.

Suicide is devastating. Ministers expressed a need and desire for more training around suicide prevention and its aftermath.

Ministers want the churches to know that they experience the same deep emotions, illnesses, joys, and sense of loss as do the members. Some days are good; some are challenging. They have both physical and mental health concerns.

While some questions around mental health were personally difficult for some ministers to answer, they said thank you for asking.

Now that we have this data, what might we do with it? Congregations and other employers might consider these results as they relate to ministers. Mid councils may find ideas in the results for caring for ministers and for continuing education events. Seminaries and colleges may find ideas for course offerings.

The Presbyterian Mental Health Ministry and the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses (NAMI) offer resources to help understand and address mental health concerns.

Want to learn more? The findings in this article come from the PC(USA) Minister Survey Mental Health Report available in English, in Spanish, and in Korean. This report is based on data from the PC(USA) Minister Survey, a massive 110-question survey which fielded from September to November of 2019. Invitations were sent by postcard to all ministers for whom the Office of the General Assembly had an address. The survey was also one of the Board of Pensions’ Call to Health challenges. This partnership contributed to nearly half of all responses. Twenty-three percent of the denomination’s 19,243 ministers (n=4,495) responded to the survey.

The survey was completed prior the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s not related to a consultant’s visioning process report for released Sept. 16 on recommended changes to the Presbyterian Mission Agency. The challenges and stresses of the pandemic impacted all of life — ministers and ministries included — and may have resulted in different responses in some instances had the survey occurred during the pandemic. The results, nonetheless, provide insights into the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of PC(USA) ministers.

This is the second in a series of eight articles on the survey results. Those articles, being published every Monday, are:

  • Demographics
  • Mental health
  • Finances excluding educational debt
  • Finances — educational debt
  • Wellbeing
  • Discrimination, Opportunity, & Struggles of Leadership
  • The call to ministry
  • Summary

Join “Coffee with Research Services” on each Thursday from Sept. 23 to Nov. 11 from 4 p.m.– 4:30 pm Eastern Time for a conversation about the survey and reports. Use this link to register for any or all of the sessions of Coffee with Research Services.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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