Pastors, Congregations, and Major Mental Health issues of Parishoners


Welcome to the inaugural post of Waco Partnership for Psychological and Spiritual Care.  If you’d like to receive notice when we publish a new summary of work relevant to ministry, please subscribe using the options at the top right column.

Note: Dr. Matthew Stanford, the lead author of the study referenced below, will be monitoring this blog entry, and has generously offered to respond to your questions and comments.

If you are a pastor, odds are that you serve at least a few parishioners who struggle with significant mental health challenges.  Knowing how best to support these persons can be very difficult given the often complex set of factors that underlie their pain.  Most pastors work hard to educate themselves on mental health issues, yet a recent study suggests some disturbing trends are in play.

Medical News Today reports on a study led by Dr. Matthew Stanford, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, which found that some clergy struggle to know how to respond to mental illness. (Dr. Stanford’s work was also discussed in this Waco Herald-Tribune story)

Here’s a very basic summary of the findings.

  • 293 Christians who approached their local church for assistance in response to a personal or family member’s diagnosed mental illness were surveyed.
  • Over 32 percent of these church members were told by their pastor that they or their loved one did not really have a mental illness.
  • Additionally, these members were told the cause of their problem was solely spiritual in nature (ie, personal sin, lack of faith or demonic involvement).
  • Women were more likely than men to have their mental disorders dismissed by the church.
  • Some parishioners were told by clergy to stop taking medication.
  • A follow up survey found that the dismissal or denial of the existence of mental illness happened more in conservative churches, rather than more liberal ones.
  • Persons whose mental health concerns were dismissed are less likely to continue attending church and report a weakening of faith.

While there’s no question that diagnoses of mental illness and the use of medication can be used to avoid facing spiritual issues, it appears that some ministers find it difficult to recognize those mental health challenges that are driven by legitimate physiological problems.  Nonetheless, I was surprised by the survey results.

In my work as a pastoral counselor, I find that many of my clients long for help in bringing their faith to bear on their struggles with mental health.  The majority of my clients are wrestling with anxiety and depression, but some also contend with more severe forms of mental illness.  I would have never guessed that nearly 1/3 of those seeking support from pastors for mental health issues would feel dismissed by those they depend on for spiritual guidance.

We obviously have no idea what exactly happened in each of these situations.  For instance, it could be that some of the parishioners misunderstood the pastor’s fumbling words or hesitant reactions as dismissal.  I’ve talked with pastors who, out of their fear of saying the wrong thing, say nothing, or express ambivalence.

Nonetheless, it seems clear that at least some of you who minister in these difficult situations would appreciate some help.  So my question is:

What sort of help do you need?

For example, would it be helpful to have the name and number of a mental health professional whom you could contact with questions?  Would it be helpful to sit down with a group of your peers and ask a psychiatrist about diagnoses and medications?   Would you like access to books and articles that can explain mental health issues without all the psychiatric and medical jargon?

Rod and I would like to hear from you.  What questions do you have of Dr. Stanford, or of me and Rod?  What sort of help would truly support your ministry?  Also, what resources have you already discovered on this issue that you can share with your colleagues?

Please respond using the comments section of the blog.  We look forward to hearing from you.