No doubt Americans faced a bevy of mental health and relationship challenges before the COVID-19 pandemic. But the coronavirus, mounting political drama and escalating racial tensions have dragged the quality of well-being and relationships even lower for lay people and clergy alike.
So says Barna Research Group in a new survey conducted in partnership with the Boone Center for the Family at Pepperdine University.
“Now, a new layer of complexity and challenge has been added as couples are quarantining and working at home, singles are isolating alone and friends are thinking twice about meeting for coffee. Relational strain has had much more potential to increase in recent months, perhaps exponentially,” Barna said in a summary of its study, “Restoring Relationships: How Churches Can Help People Heal and Develop Healthy Relationships.”
The gravity of the trend is documented by the Centers for Disease Control, which reported that American adults have experienced “considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions associated with COVID-19.”
The Barna survey compares pre-pandemic measurements of relational, mental and emotional health to levels of well-being as measured through frequent surveys conducted since the spring. The research unfolded “with an eye for how the pandemic has amplified stressors to relational health in the church, including its pastors.”
In fact, the data on clergy is “both sobering and concerning,” Barna said.
The data on clergy is “both sobering and concerning.”
When questioned in May, 26% percent of pastors said they were struggling within their relationships, while 31% reported difficulties with emotional health.
When surveyed again in August, 31% of pastors rated their own well-being as “average” while 20% described it as “below average.”
Barna said the numbers raise serious questions. “How can pastors be expected to tend to their churchgoers’ relational, emotional and mental health struggles when they are wrestling challenges of their own?”
The answer is by focusing on self-care, suggested Emily Holladay, pastor at Village Baptist Church in Bowie, Md. “I do struggle with anxiety, and something like the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates that.”
When necessary, Holladay said she uses therapy, coaching, spiritual direction and ministry cohorts to address her mental health challenges. “They are tools in my toolbox. Each one performs a different function.”
Being up front with her congregation also helped, she added. “Very early in the pandemic I preached a sermon in which I said these words: ‘I have anxiety.’”
But many pastors are reluctant to seek outside help for such issues, a fact that therapists know all too well.
“I wish clergy would know it’s OK to get help, but there is still a strong stigma against talking to people about personal matters,” Georgia pastoral counselor Doyle R. Hamilton III said during “Maintaining Mental Health During a Pandemic,” a webinar hosted by BNG in September.
An August BNG opinion piece by Pastor Jakob Topper — which has become the third-most-read piece on BNG’s website across all time — demonstrated just how difficult it can be for ministers to confront their own mental health issues. Churches are often no help, either.
“Leading anxious congregations amidst a pandemic, a hyper-partisan culture, a civil rights movement, and an upcoming election is destroying the lives of our pastors. Literally,” Topper wrote.
“What is true in the pulpit is also true in the pew when it comes to flagging emotional well-being and relationships.”
But what is true in the pulpit is also true in the pew when it comes to flagging emotional well-being and relationships, Barna reported.
In April, pastors told the research group that emotional, spiritual and relational well-being were among the leading needs of congregations. The urgency was higher when the next survey was taken in August.
“Barna research indicates that challenges to emotional, relational and mental health tend to aggravate one another — that is, if someone is struggling in one of these areas, it’s statistically more likely that they will be struggling in the other two areas as well.”
While feeling they have a strong sense of their congregants’ needs, many pastors “shared that they were largely not talking about mental or emotional health during their Sunday sermons,” Barna said.