Mere humanity: Clergy who are humble, accessible may boost their own health as well as the congregation's

It is the rare sermon that has a shelf life much past Sunday dinner.

But one that still stands out for humility scholar Peter Hill of Biola University and other members of his Southern California church is when their pastor first stepped up to the pulpit two years ago.

The new clergy leader spent the first half of the sermon identifying his weaknesses and areas where the church can minister to him.

What made this humble gesture remarkable is that it is not always easy for clergy to admit their human sides. They worry that they will be judged less fit to guide the congregation. They often feel compelled to live up to unrealistic standards of spiritual perfection.

But several studies suggest it may be helpful for pastors to recognize their own human needs and shortcomings even as they attempt to be a personal model of holiness.

For one, new research indicates people value pastors who are approachable, and share their humanity in a way that gives hope to others struggling to live up their faith.

Perhaps of greater concern, however, is the debilitating toll the pursuit of spiritual perfection can take on the health of clergy.

In a separate, in-depth study of 12 priests, participants reported that they felt pressure to be models of the divine. They also said that they and many of their colleagues would only seek mental health assistance as a last resort.

Alone in the crowd

Clergy can face outsized expectations, from both members of their flocks and themselves, to be on-call 24-7 in often emotionally stressful situations. There is usually little time to separate their professional role from their personal needs.

But setting themselves too far apart from non-clergy can be unhealthy.

A sense of social isolation was one of the strongest predictors of symptoms of depression, anxiety and emotional exhaustion, according to one study analyzing data from nearly 1,500 United Methodist clergy.

In the study of 12 diocesan priests ages 32 to 75 in Poland, clergy who had been told from their seminary days that they were the “chosen from among the chosen” felt they had to be models of virtue beyond reproach in their daily lives.

And that is a great, almost unbearable burden, priests reported.

“A priest should just eat, breathe, celebrate Holy Mass, listen to confessions, and pray. He does not have the right to drink beer, socialize, or take a walk with a woman. I once walked with my sister through a village and could hear people bad-mouth,” one priest said.

Another revealed, “Priests make a decision to be alone, but are often unaware of the consequences. Life goes by and brings disappointments . . . I meet people during the day, but when I come home in the evening, and sit down . . . then I realize this emptiness. I miss contact with another person. There is no one to talk to. I don’t think I will ever be able to tame this loneliness.”

Yet even as they realized their mental health needs, the priests were reluctant to seek help, concerned that seeking outside assistance would reflect poorly on the church and themselves.

“You become ashamed and see yourself as a loser,” one cleric said.

In discussing the implications of their study, researchers from the psychology faculty at the University of Social Sciences & Humanities in Katowice suggested:

• Starting at the seminaries, future priests should be encouraged to build friendships that would help them open up and share their hopes and concerns. Seminaries also should have psychological workshops where seeking help is encouraged.
• Priests should be encouraged to establish their own networks of social support and to use professional services when needed. Seeking mental health care “should be promoted as an intelligent way of self-care and not the last resort, when problems or symptoms might be overwhelming and beyond control.”
• Counselors and psychotherapists treating priests should develop an awareness of the issues facing clergy, including understanding the cleric’s background, work environment, established networks, and obligations.

What many clergy may find is that being open and honest about their limitations benefits both themselves and their communities.

Mere humanity

The United Methodist study found that, indeed, social isolation could be debilitating. But clergy who served flocks that supported them in their times of need and let their pastors know how much they mean to them were much more likely to be satisfied in their ministry and have a higher quality of life.

And a new study of megachurch pastors finds that many laypeople appreciate pastors who are approachable and willing to share their own flaws.

Researchers from West Virginia University and the University of Washington analyzing data from 282 attendees in 12 megachurches found that people in the pews valued both the extraordinary and ordinary qualities of their senior pastors.

Many respondents said it was important that the senior pastor does not speak down to them, treats others as equals and is willing to share personal flaws.

One lay leader said when the senior pastor behaves in ways he should not, “he steps back and submits to the Lord. And that just really garners a lot of respect from us. … He’s very self-aware of how he’s wired and (his) limitations.”

Another lay leader said their pastor “will be the first one to stand up and say where he’s wrong from the pulpit. I mean that’s always impressed me.”

Pastors being willing to share their human side may in turn benefit congregation members, research suggests.

Several studies in areas from mental health to addiction have urged clergy counselors to help people who face debilitating fears of sin and divine judgment become more aware of aspects of their faith regarding God’s love, mercy and capacity for forgiveness.

Having the pastor herself or himself admit weakness can be a particularly effective teaching moment.

“I don’t think there is a more powerful gift they can give to their congregations than admit their own limitations,” Biola’s Hill said.

And perhaps not a more valuable gift clergy can give to themselves.

Test your knowledge of religion and mental health with this quiz.

Image by Leszek Kozlowski, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]
Image from National Archives and Records Administration, PD US Government

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