As the minister for care ministries at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Tiffany Wright’s job is to support people who are experiencing crises in their lives.
A year and a half ago, however, Wright’s father died and it was her turn to receive care. Cards and letters poured in. People called and visited. Many provided meals. Some of these expressions of love and concern came from Wilshire members she didn’t know very well.
Most powerful of all, Wright said, was that she was being treated as a person, a member of the congregation, not as a staff member.
“Here I am feeling like I’m the care minister, I’m supposed to be the one supporting people in crisis,” Wright said. “It was special and very healing.”
And according to a new study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the congregational embrace Wright experienced is a key component of what researchers call Positive Mental Health, or PMH, for ministers.
“People with positive mental health tend to feel content, feel that they’re growing as an individual and feel that they belong to a group and are contributing to society,” according to a summary published by the Duke Global Health Institute.
The study, “The Glory of God is a Human Being Fully Alive” and funded by The Duke Endowment, uncovered several factors that contribute to PMH among clergy. It also presents actions ministers and congregations can take to reduce future episodes of anxiety, depression and even physical ailments related to pastoral stress.
“I’m so excited about this,” said Gloria Martin, a licensed professional counselor and marriage and family therapist in Dallas.
So excited that Martin said she’s been sharing links to the study with ministers far and wide, including those she sees in her practice.
The usefulness of the study is that it backs up with research what has long been intuitively known about the relationships between ministry and mental health, Martin said.
Key among the findings is that clergy are more likely to experience PMH when their congregations are actively engaged in the wider community. Such churches also tend to be open to new ideas and people, researchers found.
Clergy mental health is greatly enhanced when congregations care for them as individuals, not just pastors — much as Wilshire did for Wright when her father died.
The results are much more than theoretical, according to the study.
Ministers with strong PMH, researchers found, “are less likely to experience a new case of anxiety or depression, be hospitalized or develop a chronic disease in the next year.”
Positive mental health also decreases a minister’s bias toward her own congregation, making her better able to work with people from different backgrounds, races and genders, the study discovered.
Martin said she has seen these trends, or the lack of them, at work in the lives of her friends and clients in ministry.
“This is where self-care comes in.”
Pastors and other ministers are responsible for taking the actions that can help them weather the anxiety, burnout and depression that clergy face.
A first step toward positive mental health is to create or join a peer group of ministers outside the church, she said. Another can be to seek counseling, even though this is often frowned on by congregations and even ministers themselves.
Martin, also a Wilshire member, said she moderates an interfaith women’s clergy group that meets monthly in her office.
If the issue is toxicity in the congregation, it can help to seek an outside expert to help navigate the church through its troubles.
And exercise, time with family, vacation taking and Sabbath periods also are vital to PMH, Martin said.
“You have to look at ‘what’s filling my tank,’” she said.
“It all comes down to clergy being in charge of their own mental health,” she said.