Unprepared: Seminary grads ill-equipped to deal with mental handicaps, study shows

A survey of 70 seminaries revealed a lack of preparation in dealing with mentally ill congregants. Photo Illustration by Carlye Thornton
A survey of 70 seminaries revealed a lack of preparation in dealing with mentally ill congregants.
Photo Illustration by Carlye Thornton
By Rebecca Flannery
Staff Writer

Graduates from seminaries aren’t prepared to help mentally ill congregants, according to a study by Dr. Matthew Stanford, professor of psychology and neuroscience.

A survey of 70 accredited seminaries in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico helped identify one reason for the lack of preparation and the answer was a lack of counseling courses offered to seminary students.

“Some ministers graduating from seminaries say they feel inadequate when dealing with those who seek help past what they were trained to give,” Stanford said.

Despite this lack of preparation, people in psychological distress still tend to go to a clergy member before they seek help medically, Stanford said.

“Even if someone isn’t a member of a church, they will still seek out members of the clergy for help,” Stanford said. “The mental healthcare system is less approachable than a church.”

According to the study titled “Training and Education of North American Master’s of Divinity Students in Relation to Serious Mental Illness,” the problem is when congregants struggling with mental health issues seek help from pastors, the pastors are often unable to determine if they should refer them to seek medical help.

Dr. Dennis Tucker, Jr., interim dean of George W. Truett Theological Seminary, said Truett aims to help students recognize when they need to refer individuals who needs go beyond their own skill set.

“We surely don’t expect our pastors to walk out of here knowing how to do everything,” Tucker said. “We don’t want to give them a false sense of security by sending them through one class on mental health and saying ‘OK, you’re ready.’”

Although Truett doesn’t have a class specifically geared toward helping those who are mentally ill, there are opportunities to learn about mental health concerns through courses that address pastoral conflicts. Tucker said this course helps fill some of the gap created by a lack of medical expertise.

“We prepare them,” Tucker said. “Students at Truett are taught best practices on referring people with needs, including mental health needs, to specialists trained in that area. A single class on mental health issues would likely not be terribly helpful.”
Part of Stanford’s study points toward the idea that ministers are taught to encourage congregants to exercise prayer instead of referring them to a doctor’s care.

The study states, “Many people in congregations continue to suffer under well-meaning pastors who primarily tell them to pray harder or confess sin in relation to mental health problems.”

“No student at Truett would ever be instructed to make such a ludicrous statement,” Tucker said. “We believe ministers need to create a network of care in their congregations to address the variety of issues.”

Ron Cook, director of the center for ministry effectiveness at Truett, said the reason for a lack of counseling classes in this age of seminary could also be the result of the decrease in hours required to graduate from some schools.

“With seminary requirements for the foundational degree, the Master of Divinity, declining from nearly 100 hours to 72 hours in many places, pastoral care courses and training in pastoral counseling have been among the pieces of curriculum dropped from many seminaries,” Cook said. “However, that is not the scenario at Truett.”