Formation of the shadow sides

Illustrations by Dadu Shin

It was towards the end of that most depressing of all months – January – when the beloved Sesame Street character Elmo sent out a seemingly innocent tweet. “Elmo is just checking in! How is everybody doing?” the official “X” (formerly known as Twitter) account for the furry red monster queried the social media sphere. Hours and tens of millions of post views later, thousands of respondents had let it be known that they were not all right. Such was the level of articulated despair that later the same day the Sesame Street account shared a link to resources for emotional well-being.

One could argue that Elmo ought not to have been surprised. According to the World Health Organization’s 2022 World Mental Health Report, we are amid a global mental health crisis. Experts closer to home concur. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness, while Statistics Canada reports similar numbers with more than five million Canadians (18 percent of the population) aged 15 and older meeting the criteria for a mood, anxiety, or substance use disorder in 2022.

It might be tempting to think that seminaries could somehow be communities that are exempt from such distress. But that kind of thinking would be a mistake, says Stephen Greggo, Psy.D., department chair and professor of counseling at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) in Deerfield, Illinois. “It’s local in the seminary as well. It really is.”

He says evidence of mental and emotional health struggles can often be discerned in students as early as the application stage. “You read a little bit about why they want to come to seminary. I will often hear a story about a personal or family mental health crisis. And when I’m sitting with M.Div. students, it doesn’t take too longbefore they self-disclose, or shareabout a friend. So, this is their life. They are experiencing these things, and they are bringing them into the seminary.”

Indeed, says Greggo, emotional and mental health concerns can contribute to what stirs a person’s interest in coming to seminary. Seminary education has expanded in recent years, he explains. “It is, of course, to train clergy to go and serve churches, but students are also here for a spiritual quest, for development of their spiritual life. And sometimes, that’s been motivated by a person languishing or coming out of a mental health crisis. They’ve re-evaluated their life, they want to set a new direction …and that decision to come to seminary is part of the way that they do their own recovery, their own repair.”

At Ambrose Seminary in Calgary, Alberta, Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology Mark Buchanan says he’s noticed a growing emphasis culture-wide on authenticity and vulnerability, one that has produced a willingness in students “to look at their shadow sides.”

“I teach in the area of spiritual formation,” he explains. “I do an annual course that’s required for all our program students. I’ve seen a growing candor in the papers that they write. … Students are more willing to talk about their dark nights of the soul.”

For years, the language of spiritual formation in the seminary context has been commonplace. “But the language of mental health is still something the church is getting more familiar with,” says Angela Reed, Ph.D., director of spiritual formation for Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas. Indeed, it is not just the language “but also the emphasis on and response to mental health,” she adds.

Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, David Wang, Ph.D., agrees. He has been doing social science, empirical, theological, and theoretical research on spiritual formation for eight years through a series of grants funded by the John Templeton Foundation. (The results of that research, which drew together 17 partner seminaries representing Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Mainline Protestant, and Evangelical backgrounds, are available at As principal investigator, Wang says the project has found that distinctions between spiritual and emotional health, and spiritual and human maturity are “quite arbitrary, and in reality, fairly interconnected.”

The Seminary Formation Project collected three years of longitudinal data (from 2019-22) on the spiritual practices, relationship with God, character dispositions and virtues of just over 1,500 seminary students, says Wang. According to one of the research papers to come out of the project, co-authored by Wang and published in Frontiers in Psychology in September 2022, “seminarians were found to have higher rates of anxiety and depression when compared to the general population.”

Through the Seminary Formation Project, Wang and his team also learned that dispositions and practices like humility, gratitude, forgiveness, church attendance, and spiritual community were longitudinally predicted with how depressed or anxious a person was in the middle of the pandemic. A person’s ambiguity tolerance was also strongly co-related to mental health: the higher the ambiguity tolerance, the lower the depression and anxiety. And one of the most robust predictors of clarity of a student’s sense of vocational call was emotional regulation.

Formation of the shadow sides

Caring for seminarians’ mental health at Fuller, Wang draws on these and other learnings in a newly endowed chair position – the Cliff and Joyce Penner Chair for the Formation of Emotionally Healthy Leaders. In a dual position that serves both the School of Mission and Theology and the School of Psychology & Marriage and Family Therapy, Wang says his goal is to help the seminary think about how it can best prepare people for ministry – from an emotional standpoint.

We’re learning both anecdotally as well as through research that there’s a good number of our graduates leaving the ministry prematurely,” says Wang. “The reason isn’t because they didn’t know their theology or the Bible well enough; it’s because they’re running into relational challenges, relational conflict, emotional challenges, marital challenges, and they are experiencing burnout.

“And we’re realizing that traditional models of theological education don’t really touch on those enough. So, as a matter of fulfilling our mission – to prepare Christian leaders for a lifetime of ministry – we created this endowed chair position to rethink what theological education might look like if we were to take seriously the emotional formation of the Christian leader as importantly as their intellectual or spiritual preparation.”

Fuller is preparing an online certificate that for many students will be the final academic units they complete prior to graduation. This certificate includes seven courses on emotional health and the emotional life of the pastor. Practical topics, which pastors encounter regularly like trauma, addiction, sex, and grief will be covered.

At Truett, Reed says every student has access to the free services offered at Baylor’s counseling center. In addition, all students participate in three semesters of spiritual formation plus a closing retreat in the fourth semester. “Ideally, they stay with the same small group throughout that time, they stay with the same local minister or advanced student who serves as a mentor to that group, and in the context of this, while the focus of that program is spiritual life, there are so many components that overlap with mental health.”

An entire semester is devoted to sabbath keeping and well-being. “We incorporate a rule of life, which involves all kinds of elements of tending to one’s relationships with God, with others, with one’s own self. Here’s where we talk a lot about, ‘What are the activities that you do to care and tend to yourself? Are you seeking therapy if this is something you need?’” The university also has what she describes as “a care team that will support any student in crisis.

“Every faculty and staff member knows about the care team,” Reed explains, saying that information about it is publicized widely. “We can reach out to the team when we notice there’s a student who is struggling. Mental health concerns are an important part of every person’s life. It’s perfectly appropriate for you as a minister to know that you might need that kind of help at some point in time, and that you seek it for yourself.”

Ambrose Seminary is the only Canadian school that partnered in the Seminary Formation Project. Professor of Practical Theology Arch Wong, Ph.D., says, “We wanted some empirical information about character and spiritual formation, and this provided a nice way to do that. Integrating that [information], discerning its implications for our students and also for curriculum and program planning has been very helpful for our faculty.” One of their key takeaways, says Wong, is that “a stable connection with God is really essential for overall well-being.”

Counselors are available for student counseling sessions on campus, and the first five sessions are free. After that, sessions are highly subsidized. Monique Verhoef, vice president for student life at Ambrose, reports they’ve seen an increase in the number of students accessing those services; she has just completed a proposal to move the counseling office into the main university building.

Meanwhile, mental health evaluation of seminary students is happening at a whole new level. Thanks in part to funding provided by an In Trust Center Resource Grant, a yearlong pilot project (that began in Fall 2023) is allowing for in-depth psychometric and spiritual evaluations to take place in the context of spiritual formation classes. “We’re working with a number of registered psychologists,” explains Buchanan. “They do a pre-interview with the student and then administer five evaluations and produce an extensive report. And they do a longer debrief with the student. Arch (Wong) and I are working with the lead psychologist to do a longitudinal study.” To date, not a single student has refused to participate in the optional testing.

Buchanan says they applied for the grant and put the program in place after seeing “enough students who were unprepared, unready, unfit” for the vocational role of ministry. “My concern is where the students end up after they’ve graduated,” he says. “What is the role of a seminary in that vocational discernment, settlement and placement? I would love to see it beefed up a bit more.”

At both Ambrose and TEDS, differences in attitudes toward mental health have been observed among international students. Verhoef, says that within that group, stresses – related to such things as housing, finances, obtaining visas, and bringing family into a foreign country – can be greater for these students, and the stigma of seeking and receiving assistance also is also magnified. She says that cultural factors may contribute to the reluctance of international students to seek help for mental health concerns.

Looking outward, Greggo says that TEDS has seen a “tremendous increase” in international students who want to come to study counseling in a seminary.

“They’re aware of the needs in their community, and they know that if they’re going to be serving in a church, they’re going to be doing mental health care,” he says. “They’ll encounter addictions and deep trauma. They’re sophisticated enough to know that yes, they need to learn how to preach and do all the things you learn at a seminary. But they’re aware of this crisis as well.”

Every seminary In Trust approached for this article reported that mental health training is part of the pastoral care curriculum. And many seminaries are looking for ways to fortify such training.

At Truett, for example, Reed says faculty have been discussing how to ensure that every master’s student leaves seminary with some kind of training in mental health care. “The university provides access – for any faculty, staff member, or student – to a nationally recognized mental health first aid training course,” Reed says. “We’re looking for a place in our curriculum where every single one of our master’s students would do this kind of training and receive a certificate in mental health first aid, so that we would know that every graduate has some introductory training on how to respond in a helpful way.”

Further, in a December 2023 news release, Truett announced that Baylor had been awarded a $1.25 million grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc., to help establish a project focusing on helping congregations embrace young people with disabilities and mental health challenges. The project will address aspects of church life from worship to small group ministry, to pastoral care, crisis response, and more. Reed says they want to give attention to the experience of knowing a loving, healing God amid mental health concerns. “How does somebody who reads passages in Scripture about not being anxious, or finding joy in all things, see God when they suffer from clinical depression or an anxiety disorder?” she asks.

Whether it is the mental health resources being made available to students; the training and equipping they are receiving in preparation for ministry; or the special projects focusing on external communities, these are encouraging signs that point to the hard work being done in North American seminaries to address the mental health of a suffering world. Every one interviewed for this story said there is more work to be done, and done at a time when seminary resources may be increasingly limited.

“Seminary education is changing so dramatically as we move from more residential-based programs to distance ed programs and the notion of spiritual formation mediated by technology,” says TEDS’ Greggo.

“We’re all going to say it works, and we’ll give the anecdotal responses that point to how it’s going well. That’s our party line right now. But it’s going to take us being creative and intentional, to take our learning from the past and apply it to new modalities today. Mental health needs have not changed, they’ve only intensified.”

Elmo – whose social media query provoked an avalanche of despair –would concur. A day after his original post, he demonstrated what can only be described as a trauma-informed response to address the angst: “Elmo is glad he asked! Elmo learned that it is important to ask a friend how they are doing. Elmo will check in again soon, friends! Elmo loves you.”


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