Why Are So Many Religious Leaders Facing Stress and Burnout?

Many people who experience trauma or mental health challenges turn first to religious leaders in their community for help. But assuming the role of spiritual and psychological care provider can take a toll on clergy and chaplains, causing high rates of stress and burnout. The pressure on religious leaders has only worsened during the pandemic. In a recent poll of US pastors, the faith-based research company Barna Group found that 38 percent had considered quitting full-time ministry in 2021.

Steven Sandage, the Boston University School of Theology’s Albert and Jessie Danielsen Professor of Psychology of Religion and Theology, has observed this in his own research. “We did a couple of studies with clergy where we found their rates of posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms were at an alarmingly high level-in fact, at a level that would be higher than postdeployment military personnel,” he says.

Sandage, who is also research director at the Albert & Jessie Danielsen Institute, which conducts research and provides clinical care at the intersection of spirituality and psychology, wants to help change that. He and his research team have received a $2.19 million grant from the Peale Foundation, which will allow them to explore ways to address the mental health needs of spiritual leaders and therapists in a five-year project. It’s the largest gift ever awarded by the foundation, which was founded by Norman Vincent Peale (GRS’24, STH’24, Hon.’86), a minister who was interested in religion and psychology.

The Brink spoke with Sandage-who has also studied humility in religious leaders-about clergy burnout, current gaps in care, and how he hopes to provide new resources to support mental health.

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