Need for Clergy Consultation Services

in an Age of Spiritual Interest

but Waning Religious Structures:


A Case Study


by Robert H. Clark, STM


The feeling of isolation and aloneness that I found in my colleagues and experienced myself as the Associate Pastor of a large, suburban church led me to think creatively about how to meet the need for consultation, information, and referral services for clergy serving on the front lines of North American religious organizations. I had learned about Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) to assist managers and employees within the corporate environment, and this suggested a possible model for clergy.


While different factors attract professional clergy to their calling, high on the list is the desire to be supportive and creative in their interactions with people and their life concerns. Intrinsic to this task is the clergy's need to connect with high-energy resources of tradition and ritual, including a network of social service and mental health providers. A major problem for those in the profession is the need for support for themselves; resources and options to avoid becoming "burned out" by the daily stresses of their own lives.

It became evident that clergy and their families often had no place to call their own. They had no one to confide in about their concerns, their families and their congregants. They could not talk to colleagues because of perceived issues of privacy and confidentiality. They could not go to their superiors for fear that personal, emotional, and social issues would hinder their upward movement within their religious organizations. They were often frustrated by the fact that they had no confidential source to discuss medical, sexual, mental health, organizational, relational, or referral issues. So, after considerable deliberation about options, in 1987 we focused on creating a telephone based, mental health-pastoral care organization, which we called the Clergy Consultation Service.

Issues that Surfaced

A vast plethora of concerns, issues, conflicts, and needs have tested the skills of staff members over the past 12 years and shown the need among clergy for the provision of consultation services. Some of the situations have been so horrendous as to lead to physical/psychological illness, suicidal/homicidal ideation, or a severe case of burnout. Despite fluctuations in statistics, the ten most consistent problems of clergy families have been: depression; relation/marital; anxiety; parenting adolescents; stress; isolation; adult children; sexual issues; congregational/denominational conflicts; pastoral care supervision issues. The following examples are based on a composite of actual cases we encountered.

In this era of managed care, clergy are being called upon to do more for people than ever before. In a recent Gallup poll, 55-65% of the lay people questioned preferred to consult with a therapist who could also provide spiritual sensitivity. Estimates indicate that 40-50% of those who eventually end up in the mental health system begin with sessions with their clergy. Depression alone costs $43.7 billion annually in absenteeism and lost productivity just within the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. However, theological schools do not provide in-depth psychological training for their clergy. The National Council of Churches estimates that there are more than 300,000 clergy in the USA, many of whom lack proper mental health training and the confidential sources to assist them with their congregants' problems.

Compounded with this is the fact that clergy live and work in a stressful world, where they often feel isolated and trapped by their own public roles of self sufficiency, and being held to a "higher standard" than other members of society. Often they must confront the problems of relocation, which can undermine a family's coping mechanisms, causing serious emotional and physical difficulties. Depression results. Clergy often find it difficult to admit they need someone to listen and support them! However, knowing they are able to connect with another empathetic and compassionate soul offers hope and encouragement for those feeling depleted and confused.

Marital Relationships.
Pastoral relationships are the gristmill of the religious profession. However, when it comes to individual clergy families, something often goes askew. Clergymen and women work 70-80 hours a week, often unaware of the toll it is taking on their personal life. They rationalize their own predicament, and the cries of their spouses with a resigned, "I am doing the Lord's work." They ignore identical symptoms in their personal life that they would rush to seek help for with any one of their congregants. Hesitant to seek the services of therapists, these people do welcome the opportunity to speak in privacy and anonymity with a trained pastoral counselor.

Clergy families are exposed to the vicissitudes of life like every one else. All families experience intense losses: the death of a loved one, the first child leaving home, a family's relocation. The resultant pervasive feeling of anxiety becomes indistinguishable to the mind, but symptoms such as panic attacks, breathing difficulties, restlessness, binge eating, and sleeping difficulty emerge. Work begins to suffer when the symptoms extend to internal stresses such as focusing difficulties and continued frightened feelings. These all eventually result in physical complaints such as headaches, tachycardia, heightened blood pressure, stomach distress, etc. requiring more frequent visits to the family doctor. Without specific diagnosis the patient returns home, and enters into the same cycle again. Consultation leads to specific recommendations and mental health profession referrals.

Parenting Adolescents.
Preachers' kids often experience a difficult adolescence. They are regularly taunted and teased. They are considered defiant or abnormal if they test the waters of rebellion, a normal function of individuation. The public image of family perfectionism places undue guilt and shame on them when they fail to live up to their own perception of expectations. The "fish bowl" is a stressful place in which to grow. Their parents are super sensitive to public exposure of their behavior, and so when problems arise, everyone does his or her best to keep the problems within the family. A telephone call for advice has saved many families from undue self-inflicted harm.

"Clergy-killer" Stress.
One of the most devastating causes of stress comes from "clergy killers." These are congregants who, unhappy with a clergy's work, collect other dysfunctional families to try to have the person removed. They usually resent any newness within the congregation, and begin a vigilante-type disruption, which they hope would eventually lead to the clergy's removal. To get to this point they circulate petitions based on erroneous and false allegations. Continual defensiveness against minor and major charges makes the accused frustrated, angry, disgusted and left with an intense feeling of helplessness. If unchecked, these circumstances can -- and have -- lead to the destruction of a clergy's career and even personal self worth. An experienced voice helps the accused avoid the dangerous pitfalls before damage is done.

A young clergyman recently sought our counsel because he felt isolated within his community. Assigned to a rural community, the single, well-educated man became despondent when he was recovering from a broken leg. After a freak accident -- he fell off his favorite horse -- his congregants, with whom he had not established any standing friendships, offered little consolation. His isolation and inability to find ways to nurture outside interests were given high priority in his telephone counseling sessions, with positive results becoming apparent within a short time.

Adult Children.
Conflicts arise when distance prevents clergy from physically assisting their adult children in a time of crisis. One case where our services gave clarity and support was to a veteran, Pennsylvania clergyperson whose daughter in California was going through the trauma of marital distress. Worried and frustrated because they could not be with their daughter, the parents found solace and peace in ongoing exchanges with a counselor on how best to find resources in California to help her. The knowledge that they were doing something specific helped the couple through this dark period in their lives.

Sexual issues.
Unmanaged sexual feelings result when people have no way of working out the basic causes of discontentment within a marriage. Such was the case of a young couple who were experiencing problems of intimacy after the birth of their third child. A beautiful secretary, who was constantly pleasant and understanding, was becoming more and more attractive to our client, who called before he acted on his impulses. He recognized the danger in becoming involved, but was afraid to discuss the problem for fear of judgment among his peers. The situation was handled with delicacy that helped him reinforce his own marriage.

Congregational/Denominational Conflicts.
Many calls into our offices deal with normal strife existing within the work place, but those confined by the nature of the clergy profession offer great challenges. Such was the case of the new clergyman who underwent therapy during his internship to help work through an apparent difficulty in dealing with authority. In his new assignment, he needed a letter of recommendation from the committee person who had suggested his need for therapy. When it did not come immediately, and he could not get a straight answer, he worried that his therapy had made him very vulnerable. A counselor assisted him in devising ways to overcome his fears, to speak with the committee person, and to find a way to trust his new congregants to accept him as a healthy and whole person.

Pastoral Care Supervision Issues.
Dealing with dependent congregants can be a long and frustrating ordeal. Take the case of Mrs. S. who appeared at the clergy's office frequently. Seemingly she dropped by at inopportune times, when the clergy was stressed or rushed. Refusing to take no for an answer when he tries to escape without attending her, she left him with the feeling, "I pay your salary, you should be available to me." She was a constant visitor since the death of her husband three years ago, and because they were considered pillars of the church, she believed her need for attention was warranted. Re-balance was in order, and became easy once the clergyman was given creative ways in which to deal with her dependency needs.


I have reviewed a few of the many scenarios heard daily in the homes and offices of clergy throughout the varied religious organizations of America. How these issues are addressed makes the difference between an effective, professional clergyperson and a tired, depleted, discouraged one. Our mission has been to provide support, encouragement, consultation, information, and referral to clergy of all faiths. Just being able to connect with another compassionate and highly trained soul renews hope and dispels confusion. From a purely monetary point of view, hundreds of clergy families have been helped before expensive diagnostic tests or procedures were required. Suicides have been prevented, sexual misconduct avoided, and fewer illnesses have been somatized. We have also discovered that the utilization rate for these services is double or triple those in the corporate world. Corporate EAP programs have a top utilization rate of 5-6 %, our service ranges from 9-18%. One denominational leader remarked, "If this service saves one life per year, its cost is well worth it monetarily, because it would cost our self-insured fund more than that to pay out a life insurance policy.