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Synod of the Covenant and Science for the Church team to offer webinar on tending to clergy mental health

Dr. David C. Wang of Fuller Theological Seminary shares what he’s learned working with clergy and other church leaders

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. David C. Wang

LOUISVILLE — During the second of three webinars offered by the Synod of the Covenant and Science for the Church, this one held last week on the mental health and well-being of clergy and church leaders, Dr. David C. Wang of Fuller Theological Seminary laid out the reasons — many related to Covid — that church leaders are impacted by more mental health challenges than they were just three years ago.

Wang, the Cliff and Joyce Penner Chair for the Formation of Emotionally Healthy Leaders at Fuller Seminary, said this about his experience offering trauma training to pastors: “What brings them to the room is [they] have trauma survivors in the church. We tell them, ‘Let’s train and equip you to care for these trauma survivors in the church. I know you have a heart for them.’”

“You can see the shift in their eyes” soon into the training, Wang reported. “’I’m here for the church,’ they say, ‘but I’m actually here for me.’”

Watch Wang’s hour-long discussion here.

Wang shared work he’s undertaken funded by the John Templeton Foundation in which researchers studied 1,500 seminary students attending 18 theologically diverse seminaries, including Princeton Theological Seminary and Fuller Seminary. The survey includes six timepoints between fall 2019 and spring 2022.

By about six months into the pandemic — fall 2020 — more than half of those studied qualified for clinically significant depression, Wang reported. Forty-three percent suffered from anxiety. The same number reported experiencing a traumatic, life-threatening event.

He asked those attending online what they thought of the numbers.

“I’m not that surprised,” said one woman who recently completed seminary. “There was a lot of anxiety and depression on my campus.”

“I wonder for many of us if our call to ministry is actually shaped by trauma,” Wang said, adding that some seminarians may be thinking, “We went through this ourselves and we don’t want other people to have to do that.”

“We are also seeing some trends in data that show seminary is disorienting from a spiritual perspective,” Wang said. “A lot of people struggle with their faith — in seminary, ironically.” Some of the struggle “comes from reading other perspectives [as part of their coursework] you haven’t considered before. That was certainly the case for me.”

Among the predictors for lower levels of depression from the fall 2020 research was forgiveness of others, appreciation for others’ strengths, teachability and humility, Wang said.

“We need to get serious about cultivating humility,” Wang said. “We graduate students who know theology and how to exegete. But they’re pompous and arrogant, and I don’t know if you can trust the shepherding of souls to them.”

In further studies, Wang has been working with about 100 leaders in 25 African American churches in Texas. More than 80% reported experience at least one occurrence among the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), with the “vast majority” reporting more than one. Among the most common was the separation or divorce of parents, a household member was a problematic drinker or used street drugs, or the person was depressed, mentally ill or had attempted suicide.

In addition, 52% reported moderate to severe traumatic stress, along with 30% anxiety and 14% depression. The World Health Organization says that worldwide, 80% of people have been exposed to trauma, and in at-risk urban areas of the United States, it’s closer to 90%, Wang said, more than the rates of war veterans and children who went through the foster care system. The percentage for incarcerated people is similar, Wang said.

Wang also does research on the emotional challenges and emotional wounds that Christian leaders face. Conflict with other members of the ministry team “is one of the greatest sources of ministry wounding and the number one source of missionary attrition,” Wang said. A big contributor is poor mental health, including personality disorders.

“When we look at burnout data, we can’t just respond with, ‘Let’s give people a break.’ It could be a larger systemic problem, and we might need to do more investigation into the root cause,” Wang said. “We often have no one to talk to about feelings of being hurt by leaders.”

Southern Baptist research shows that pastors who have at least one trusted friend to share with saw their burnout rates decreased by more than half.

Clergy and others have good reasons to feel like they shouldn’t share their challenges, Wang said, including fear of getting kicked out of a church or organization, being judged as lacking in faith or losing financial support. “As a result, we isolate, hold our pain and press on,” Wang said. “In private practice I work mostly with clergy and church leaders … I have heard it all. It is mind-boggling and very hurtful.”

A good place for clergy and other church leaders to start is looking outside the church for “someone who is safe to be vulnerable with,” Wang said. “You don’t have to be vulnerable with everyone — just one or two or three individuals. Know when to hold your cards.”

“A lot of this in clinical practice has to do with internalized expectations, which are often unrealistic,” Wang said. “A lot of the work I do ends up being self-compassion work. As ministers, we can be attuned to other people’s suffering, but not very attuned to our own suffering. We tend to judge ourselves.”

Church leaders are also encouraged to “do things you enjoy. Have hobbies that aren’t productive,” Wang suggested.

The Rev. Dr. Chip Hardwick, executive for the Synod of the Covenant, thanked Wang for his helpful work and his presentation. “It’s important to know,” Hardwick said, “and it’s also hard to hear.”

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