Psychological concerns are an inextricable part of ministry.  Members of the clergy support and guide people through major developmental events such as marriage, the birth of children, and death. And they are front-line responders for people suffering from trauma, addiction, and serious mental illness — issues rarely resolved by spiritual counsel alone. 

“Two out of five pastors reported that their congregations included individuals with severe mental illnesses,” wrote Michelle L. Thomas in Pastoral Psychology in 2012. “Over 50 percent of the respondents said that they worked with substance abusers and suicidal individuals in their congregations and counseled individuals whom they considered to be dangerous to others.” 


Pastors are often the first — and sometimes the only — professionals whom people with a mental health crisis contact for help. Without training, clergy can develop compassion fatigue, burnout, and even secondary trauma. Moreover, the on-call nature of pastoral work can make it difficult to maintain healthy physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries. Adding to their own anxieties is the fact that many ministers also carry substantial educational and personal debt.


One way to help stressed-out pastoral leaders is to make sure they have the right tools. To that end, some theological schools are formally incorporating the discipline of psychology to better equip students to fulfill their vocations. Psychology offers students and pastors both the means to help people with mental illness and a vocabulary to talk about ordinary human experience.


The spectrum of these efforts includes:

  • Seminary-based programs in psychology leading to professional licensure.

  • Campus-based public clinics that train providers and offer faith-informed counseling.

  • Outreach to churches and communities.

  • Self-care and psychological assessment opportunities for students. 

  • Psychology courses in the theological curriculum.

In various settings, students may learn core psychology concepts applicable to their role as ministers as well as strategies for recognizing when a parishioner needs professional psychological help. They may learn how to collaborate with mental health providers and how to protect their own mental health and well-being. 


Professional psychology in Christian life

Fuller Theological Seminary, an evangelical seminary based in Pasadena, California, offers clinical and non-clinical Ph.D. degrees in psychology, the doctor of psychology (Psy.D.), and the master of science in marital and family therapy (MFT) through its School of Psychology. Fuller’s School of Psychology was founded in 1965, less than 20 years after the seminary itself opened its doors. Trustee C. Davis Weyerhaeuser and his wife, Annette, contributed $1 million to launch it. 

 Mari Clements

From the beginning, board and faculty members were determined that the psychology program be credible on its own merits rather than relying on any benefit that a seminary affiliation might bring. Fuller’s was the first seminary-based program to be accredited by the American Psychological Association.

According to Mari Clements, its dean, the School of Psychology was established to meet a need for psychologically-informed care for Christians. Clements also believes the School of Psychology enhances the seminary’s evangelical mission. When confronted with issues like the race bias that African Americans experience, the discipline of psychology leads seminarians to “move beyond good thoughts and compassion to ‘what can we do?’” she says. Students in the Psy.D. and MFT programs are expected to be theologically informed, so they also take core theology courses, including Bible and ethics.


The psychology program’s graduate interns complete supervised training at Fuller Psychological and Family Services (FPFS), a clinic that extends the psychology program’s influence beyond the campus to the church and community. 


Ted Cosse, chair of the Psy.D. program and director of the clinic, explains that Fuller Psychological and Family Services has evolved dramatically from its initial focus, which was “to reach an audience of Christians that historically may have thought that psychology was anti-religion.” Many of the current clients are not Christians, he says. However, providers have the theological foundation to serve Christians struggling with faith, those who have been hurt by church communities, and those who want to explore faith more deeply. 

Ted Cosse


In keeping with the seminary’s intercultural emphasis, the clinic provides treatment in five languages: Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. To maintain their clinical capacity, faculty members from the School of Psychology sometimes fill in to see clients and supervise interns. Interns are supervised in the same language in which they practice.


M.Div students in the School of Theology can take a battery of assessments in the clinic to learn about the personality strengths and challenges they bring to their vocation. They leave with a 10-page report that summarizes and interprets the results from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF), and other projective tests.



Teaching skills for loving others

Seminary of the Southwest, an Episcopal theological school in Austin, Texas, offers its master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling under the auspices of the Loise Henderson Wessendorff Center for Christian Ministry. Unlike Fuller’s, Southwest’s program is not separately accredited by any psychological association, but the degree meets the academic requirements for licensure as a Licensed Professional Counselor in Texas. The Wessendorff Center also offers master’s programs in spiritual formation and in chaplaincy and pastoral care. 


Counseling students must take core theology courses, but counseling courses are not required for theological students. Nevertheless, courses in trauma, addiction, crisis, and grief are popular electives for M.Div. students.


Gena Minnix, assistant professor of counselor education, says M.Div. students working in parishes often come with questions about identifying the need for a referral, making “warm handoffs” to appropriate professionals, and building solid relationships with the mental health community. “If we are to love God with our heart, strength, and mind,” psychology can help in “figuring out what love really looks like,” Minnix says.  When relating to other people, clergy can use the lens of psychology to ask, “Is my way of trying to love this person in the spirit of Christ effective?”


In 2014, Seminary of the Southwest launched a program focused explicitly on student self-care: Comprehensive Wellness for the Ministry. Micah Jackson, associate professor of preaching, directs the program, which addresses interrelated aspects of students’ vocations — physical, financial, spiritual, and relational — through seminars and guest lectures. 


Funding from the Economic Challenges Facing Future Ministers project, an initiative of the Association of Theological Schools, pays for the financial literacy component of the program. A grant from a private donor pays for students and their family members to receive psychotherapy if they need it. Jackson explains that seminaries need to do more than just get students into ministry positions. He wants the program to set them up for success in their ministries. Like Ted Cosse at Fuller, Jackson has observed that seminarians do not anticipate the pressures that clergy experience. 



Partnering across departments at an embedded theological school

At Boston University, students can pursue a master of social work (M.S.W.) degree in combination with either a master of theological studies or an M.Div. In the School of Theology itself, students can take numerous courses in pastoral psychology and psychology of religion, including theories of human development and pastoral psychology of the self. Boston University’s department of psychology and brain sciences has courses open to graduate students as electives. 

Steven Sandage

The relationship between departments benefits students like Elizabeth Glenn Ruffing, a clinical psychology doctoral student in psychology and brain sciences, who first earned a master of theological studies at the university. Her psychology studies incorporate theological concepts like humility in the clergy and self-forgiveness in couples’ therapy.

The university is also home to the Albert and Jessie Danielsen Institute, where Ruffing is an intern. Once a part of the theological school, the institute is now an independent center for treatment and research that offers sliding-scale therapy to the public. Steven Sandage, the Albert and Jessie Danielsen Professor of Religion and Theology, is research director for the institute. A licensed psychologist, Sandage’s work combines private practice and scholarship, with special interest in the areas of intercultural competence and humility. Besides foundational skills in managing conflict, and creating effective therapeutic alliances, clergy need to be able to help parishioners navigate an increasingly complex and diverse society, Sandage says.


Trey Witzel, one of Sandage’s former students, is pursuing an M.Div. at Boston University while already serving as a pastor of a United Methodist congregation. He did not formally study social work and says he has limited time to take advantage of the abundant elective course options in social work and psychology. Nonetheless, Witzel feels fortunate to have been paired with social work students in one of his pastoral counseling courses.


“My main responsibility is to people’s well-being,” Witzel says. “That can mean helping them get on food stamps or find affordable housing, or it can mean making periodic check-ins with a congregant who is under a therapist’s care to make sure her faith life and support systems are keeping her in check.” 


Witzel appreciates that the theological school’s community promotes a holistic view of the relationship between spiritual health and mental health and also supports self-care for ministers — practices explicitly tied to the theology of Sabbath rest. 


Addressing psychological maturity in clergy formation 

Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago does not have a psychology program, but that doesn’t mean that mental health is ignored. The school enrolls about 300 students, about half of them affiliated with Catholic religious orders. 

Kevin McClone, a licensed clinical psychologist and certified alcohol and drug counselor, who also holds an M.Div. degree, is a member of the adjunct faculty who teaches courses in pastoral ministry. McClone says that pastoral care courses communicate the clear danger in confusing the "presence and accompaniment" pastors provide with professional psychological counseling. 

 Kevin McClone

McClone directs the Institute for Sexuality Studies (ISS), which offers workshops, retreats, and support for independent study geared toward seminarians, clergy, and lay ministers. McClone says that teaching future ministers about crisis, trauma, and addiction are important, but he believes that an additional fundamental area of psychological health is often neglected in theological education — “forming the student in terms of their own personal integration around sexuality and compulsive behaviors” like overeating and addiction. 

Sharing tools for living

Still at the beginning of his career, Trey Witzel at Boston University strongly believes he has benefited from “untangling preconceived notions about psychology.” He’s learning his limits as a counselor and gaining clarity about his calling. Academic exposure to psychology and the psychological assessments that his denomination requires in the ordination process have improved the quality of his work.


Speaking of himself, his current and future congregants, and his colleagues, Witzel says: “We need lots of help in being whole, healthy people.”    

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