Who pastors the pastors?

Mind and Soul helped recruit participants for a research project looking at how church leaders understand and process the emotions of those they pastor. Below are the findings – its quite a dense read, but highlights the loneliness many leaders feel and also the vital role of training [which many had not had], boundaries [which clinicians have and pastors feel they don’t] and also friendship and support. 

How do religious leaders experience the psychological distress of their congregation?

An Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis - Dr Amanda Brown-Bennett CPsychol

Study findings suggest that religious leaders perceived their religious identity and occupation to be one which encompasses great expectation. The participants described this expectation as multidirectional, deriving from congregants, religious organisations and doctrines, the wider community and their families. A number of participants also described having high expectations of themselves. Whilst the participants acknowledged the obligations attached to their professional role, they reported the expectations to exceed their job description, and managing these expectations had presented a challenge for the participants.

The participants in this study identified the benefits, competencies and limitations of their role, and were also able to assess the appropriate interventions in regard to their engagement with congregants’ psychological distress, which they acknowledged at times to require external professional input. This theme shed light on the complexities of deciphering the boundaries of the professional remit for the participants, and their sense-making of the wider religious community. The role of religious leaders in the psychological distress of their congregants was reported by the participants to be dependent on a number of factors: the congregants seeking out their support, the religious leaders perceived level of competency and organisational assistance.

Irrespective of any tensions between the provision of psychological support and religion, the participants corresponded in believing religion and psychology to be fundamentally interwoven. The overlap of the two entities was acknowledged by the participants in terms of theological doctrines, organisational duties, community understanding and through their own subjective experiencing. The interconnectedness of religion and psychology was explored by the participants in one of two ways: as a means of accepting the place of psychological distress within our human condition, or through identification of the negative associations and stigmas attached to psychological distress.

Whilst comparatively unexplored, some studies have identified a correlation between the religious leadership role and psychological health. Existing research acknowledges the role of religious leadership to entail both beneficial and undesirable implications for one’s psychological well-being. However, owing to insufficiency and a prominence in the implementation of quantitative methodological analyses, the experiences of the religious leaders remain unexplored. The participants’ accounts supported this notion, with one participant stating that the psychological needs of congregants had received considerable attention and brought about the necessity of a shift in focus on to the experiencing of the religious leader. The participants’ discourses shed light on the complexities of their vocational identity and its affect upon their personhood. Whilst the interviews yielded much exploration of congregants’ psychological distress and the religious leaders’ management of this, the most prevalent theme across the accounts alluded to the psychological coping and distresses faced by the religious leaders themselves.

This study sheds light upon the complexities experienced by religious leaders who within their vocational duties believe it to be their obligation to provide psychological support to their congregations. This study extends the discussion further by considering the particular experience of ‘psychological distress’ owing to the prevalence of these encounters for religious leaders and the findings within existing literature which proposed these professionals to receive greater exposure to those suffering psychological distress than the clinical profession. Whilst participants believed their vocation to include tending to the psychological needs of their congregation, the participants had not felt equipped to deal with the level of involvement, nor the insurmountable expectations and extensive job description. The participants in this study all supported the belief in external psychological intervention for issues bordering beyond their area of expertise, although they admitted to being emotionally drawn in and experienced inadequacy when incapable of providing assistance.

Whilst accepting the responsibility to serve and care for others, the participants reported feeling unsupported and as having nowhere to turn for their own psychological needs. Clinicians who also provide support are safeguarded through provisions such as supervision to support their self-care and the care for their clients; such provisions may require further consideration for the religious leaders' helping profession. The study yielded no definitive conclusion, but highlights the difficult position of a religious leader, particularly in regard to their engagement with psychological distress. The study emphasises the need for collaboration between religious leaders and the field of counselling psychology.

Are you struggling as a leader?

You can engage with Mind and Soul to find out more. In particular, the talks from our recent conference will be helpful - available to download throughout the Autumn of 2018 from our podcast.


Amanda Brown-Bennett, 05/10/2018
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