Chapter 26: Continuing Education to Release the Mental Health Capabilities of Clergymen by Reuel L. Howe
A Christian minister is an agent in individual and corporate human relations. What he is as a person is indispensable to the performance of his functions. He needs emotional and intellectual maturity to maintain and sustain himself in the work of the ministry.
1. The Situation. What is the prevailing state of the clergy’s capabilities in mental health? Some diagnosis should precede prescription. Generalizations are not safe, but the data permit some guarded generalization.
The Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies (hereafter in this article referred to as LAPS) during eleven years has had a teaching relationship with three thousand clergy from more than forty churches and from many parts of the world. Prior to attendance, each one completed and sent back a questionnaire designed to describe the respondent’s needs and areas of interest. The study of these returns correlated with the insights about these same people during the conferences. They revealed the following:
A. They lack clarity about their own self-identity. Many clergy feel conflict between being a man and being a minister which confuses and blocks their personal and professional relationship.
B. They do not know how to deal with the hostility in themselves and others.
C. They feel a sense of loneliness, based on their fear of others and their fear of themselves, that makes them cautious and servants of the status quo.
D. A sense of personal inadequacy is strong among ministers. They lack discipline in the organization of their activities and study. Impatience and psychological impotence often make a joint appearance.
E. The conditions just described naturally cause conflict between ministerial duties and family relations.
F. A sense of apprehension about a rapidly changing society with little knowledge and understanding of the dynamics, structures, and uses of power in that society produce in clergy a crippling anxiety.
G. Many of them have not been helped to make a working correlation between "secular" and "theological" insights. The knowledge and technological explosion makes demands on their theological understanding and interpretations that they cannot meet.
H. They lack training in educational and program design whereby the church might address community issues and problems creatively.
These conditions drain the mental health of ministers and decrease their usefulness as leaders, teachers, and priests. Systems of defense develop that stand between them and the people they serve. They become closed to feedback from those whom they serve. In turn, this tends to make them more and more monological, increases their defensiveness, and causes a growing narrowness and rigidity of outlook and operation.
The situation of thousands of ministers at this time is desperate. For many other thousands the situation is not so bad. Their problem is that they are not beginning to live up to their potential. They could have more peak experiences of living and ministry.
Here is the challenge to continuing theological education. Before discussing what continuing education can do to release the mental health potentialities of ministers, we should look at the process of theological education. For generations theological education was associated with the three years of seminary training or its equivalent. We now have a much more comprehensive view of the process.
2. Three Phases of Theological Education of Ministers That Could Promote Their Mental Capabilities. We now see that theological education is a lifelong process that has several phases: indigenous theological learning; seminary or pre-ordination education; and post-ordination education. The whole process should be called continuing theological education in which there are three phases or punctuating periods.
The first phase, indigenous theological learning, occurs mostly before seminary training begins. It is acquired from parents, church, and church school, from friends and companions, formal education and reading. It is made up of precepts, insights, superstitions, hunches, fears, and defensiveness. These learnings are indelible, hard to change, and tend to stay with a person all his life. An insightful wag referred to it as "bastard" theology because it was of doubtful parentage. Its most outstanding characteristics are moralism and the dependence of the individual on self-justification. The effect of indigenous theological learning on mental health is dubious at best.
The second phase of continuing theological education is experienced usually in the disciplines of a seminary career. The emphasis in this phase is apt to be more on the subject matter of theological learning. It customarily ignores the powerful indigenous learnings the students bring to their formal studies, so that they are neither assimilated nor corrected. The students themselves may be ignored in favor of the academic objectives of the institution which is not concerned with them as whole persons. Students, consequently, learn to cerebrate the gospel and derogate themselves because their senses and feelings and convictions are not educated with their intellects. Many products of formal theological education learn to substitute being a minister for being, with the result that they are frustrated in all their professional functions and in their personal relations.
Acknowledging without reservation that substantive learning is an indispensable part of theological education, I must nevertheless raise the question here about the effect of theological education on the total person. The educational methods and processes too frequently do not relate the subject to the meanings the students bring to their learning experience.
The third phase of continuing theological education is post-ordination training. Some continuing education enterprises tend to preserve the academic stereotype of seminary training. Other programs are working experimentally with the training of ministers. Need for experimentation is great, because the needs of ministers are distressing and acute.
One thing has become clear. Post-ordination education needs to be partly based on previous learning, and especially on ministers’ experience in their work in order that they may discover how to learn from their experience, and to correlate these learnings with their more academically centered knowledge.
Several miscellaneous things need to be said at this point about post-ordination education. It must always expect to be re-education, no matter how adequate the preceding phases of education are. It must be designed to promote in students capacities for new experience and for learning from new experience. And it should promote in students capacities for realized wholeness and achievement of mental health for themselves and others in the context of a society that is complex, changing, and always in conflict.
3. Contributions of Post-ordination Continuing Education to the Mental Health Capacities of Clergy. An evaluation of conditions found in the lives of clergy, discussed earlier in this chapter, produces three areas for focus that are relevant for the promotion of mental health.
First, post-ordination education should focus on the relational needs of ministers, because their capacities for personal and interpersonal relationships are indispensable to their ministry.
Second, post-ordination training should focus on the technical needs of ministers. Clergy are often frustrated because they do not know how to communicate, to educate, and to design resources to meet situations.
A third area of focus for continuing education is therefore topical or subject matter competence. This area of need has much to do with the mental health of clergy. They need to know what they are supposed to know, and have the ability to correlate their theological training with other fields of human knowledge. The technological explosion has compounded this problem.
These three focuses in post-ordination continuing education — the relational, the technical, the topical — would meet the needs of clergy in contemporary society and contribute therefore to their mental health potential.
I will now discuss each focus and try to illustrate it from the program and experiences of IAPS.
Relational. As stated earlier, the questionnaire returns and the responses of the conferees indicate clearly strong relational needs — personal, interpersonal, individual, and societal — involving all the structures of life and society. A part of our program, therefore, is focused on the area of the relational.
When a group convenes on the first evening, it is made up of twenty men and a few women who are usually strangers to each other; who come from different parts of the country or even of the world; who represent the doctrine and tradition of from eight to twelve different churches, Protestant and Catholic; and who are engaged in different kinds of ministries — education, local church, seminary leaders, denominational executives, and others. These individuals bring all kinds of personal identity and meaning to this gathering. There is present fear for oneself and fear of others, fear of change and the pain of it. Each person comes with his own defensive system which be uses at home and which he will employ in the conference as it gets underway. What happens among the members of the group is significant. It will reveal the patterns of behavior at home and will therefore constitute a part of the curriculum for the conference. They also bring to the conference their respective personal educational and experiential resources which they may contribute or be helped to contribute to the process and purpose of the enterprise. Actually, many of them are unaware of their resources and often do not know how to use them. A part of the leader’s responsibility is to help the conferees become aware of their resources and learn how to use them so that they may return to their home situations with a sense of liberation and new powers that are essential to mental health.
The conferees come also out of an education that seeks to educate their minds but generally ignores their feelings, with the result that they tend to intellectualize problems that have an emotional base. They need, literally, to come to their senses and then to achieve an integration and correlation of feeling and intellect, a condition essential to mental health.
Recognizing all these conditionings and needs, the program begins with introductions that are focused on being rather than doing. Instead of introducing themselves in terms of the position they hold and some suggestion of their achievements, they begin by saying, "I am who I am and my name is ——. And I feel ——-" (They state whatever they feel — fear, friendliness, excitement, eagerness, etc.) After each statement a leader of the conference steps forward and says to the person: "Your name is ——-, and what you are gives meaning to your name. We all here hope to find and know the meaning that you are. Each person in his turn also repeats the names of all the people who preceded him, and at the end of the introductions they all know one another by name.
The next stage of introduction and organization is also focused on the personal and interpersonal, and the establishment of relationships. Each of the twenty-four persons chooses another person to be his partner. After reflection on why they chose each other, each pair sets up a criterion by which they will choose two other couples. After negotiation, four groups are formed of six people each who now have become fairly well acquainted. Each group reflects on the process of its formation and on what the members have learned about one another. These four groups now choose another group of six and, after negotiations, two groups of twelve people each are formed. Thus, the two working seminars are created through a process of communication, verbal and nonverbal, that promotes personal introduction and knowledge and understanding of one another. During the first evening, in the space of two or three hours, the group learns one another’s names and acquires a considerable understanding of the persons behind the names.
Much of the anxiety with which many of them began the evening has gone. Everyone has participated and discovered that he is essential to the conference and to the formation of the community. Here is an experience that begins the transformations necessary to the achievement of mental health.
The next day after a period of Bible study and an introductory session on the nature of communication, its difficulties, and its principles of breakthrough, the two groups of twelve meet in what is called a decathon — a continuous seminar from 2:00 P.M. to midnight. The purpose of the decathon is to provide the conferees with a structure for encounter with one another at some depth. Here a concerted effort is made to deal helpfully with the relational concerns of the conferees. This is done early in the conference in order that they may experience release from relational preoccupations and be freed to address themselves to the task concerns of the ministry. Obviously, dealing with the relational cannot be completed even during the decathon, so that there is reconsideration of it whenever the issues of the conference require it. This capacity to deal with the meanings and feelings of what happens while men work and play together is a major contribution to mental health. During the decathon the members of the group become more honest with one another and develop a sense of trust.
Technical. A second area of focus for continuing education that is relevant for the achievement of mental health is technical concern that is necessary to the work of the ministry. Many ministers are frustrated, hostile, resentful, depressed, and uncreative because they do not know how to be ministers.
Basic to this technological incompetence is a naïveté about communication itself. Understanding and use of the dynamics of communication underlies all the functions of ministry and is indispensable to the initiation and maintenance of human relations. Training in the use of the principle of dialogue in all methods of communication is provided. Application of these principles is then made to preaching, teaching, pastoral care, worship, and the relation between church and world. The switch that most conferees are able to make from monologue to dialogue in the course of the conference they will be able to apply in their practice at home, because the change becomes a part of them. The personal characteristics of the change are to be seen in a sense of liberation from old rigidities and fears, a lessening of defensiveness, more openness and courage for human relationship, and experimentation in meeting old and new situations.
They are also given opportunity to participate in the design of their own conference and to understand the rationale and techniques of the parts of the conference they did not help to design. In this way an attempt is made to give them training in designing educational resources to meet different situations, an ability that many ministers lack with frustrating and depressing effects. The mental health of ministers requires that they have a sense of potentiality for coping creatively with the problems and tasks in their areas of responsibility.
Still another need of clergy in the area of technological training is to know how to engage people who are different and whose responsibilities and disciplines are strange. The "self-image" of many clergy is so shaky that they are not secure and free enough to risk engagement with others. Furthermore, their "closeted" training for the ministry estranged them from the world outside the church. Many of them admit that they do not know how to talk to men except about church and religion, and even then only on the level of program and operation and not on the level of the meaning of the gospel for their lives. They do not know how to talk with them about their interests, purposes, and meanings. They further admit that they are timid in relation to men who wield power and influence. They confess that they feel more at home with women and children and the sick and dependent. Something needs to be done to strengthen them for dialogue with the strong, responsible, and creative people of the world.
One answer is to provide clergymen with opportunities for engagement with industrialists, labor representatives, scientists, artists, and educators. The Institute, for example, arranges such engagements for its conferees. They visit men in their offices or places of work for the purpose of asking them questions about what they are doing, what it means to them, what part, if any, their faith plays in their work. The method of the engagement makes possible full participation of everyone in the discussion. After an introductory session, the conferees meet individually or in pairs with members of the organization for a discussion of the problems and issues of the enterprise under study. As a result of these field trips the conferees discover how possible and how significant it is for them to meet with men on their own ground. Many of them return home with a new sense of self and of resourcefulness in relation to the men in their communities and churches. They also acquire a way of becoming acquainted with the life of the world outside the church as institution, with its structure, its dynamics, and its ways of operation. Such knowledge and understanding frees the clergy for a more versatile way of life and mission which, of course, has tremendous positive implications for their mental health.
Still another example of continuing education’s possible contribution to the technological training of clergy is in the area of preaching with emphasis of the importance of the preacher securing feedback from the congregation to his preaching. Too much of the clergy’s communication is one-way, that is, from clergy to people and very little from people to clergy. In fact, many clergy are closed to feedback. They are afraid of criticism and respond defensively to it, a symptom of immaturity and deficient mental health. Such one-way communication does not renew the clergy, and without renewal they become more rigid and ingrown.
The design of this part of the conference demonstrates how they might provide feedback in their home situation and make their communication more dialogical. Where these suggestions are carried out, clergymen develop a new sense of excitement for preaching, they experience a new sense of relationship with their congregation in which they, perhaps for the first time, become recipients of grace. The healthy effect of these changes on their attitudes toward themselves and others and toward their responsibilities is noticed by both them and their congregations.
Topical. A third area of focus for continuing education that is relevant for the achievement of mental health is concerned with the meaning of religion in relation to the meanings of the other disciplines of human thought. Such interrelation or correlation is appropriate for religion since it is concerned with ultimate meaning of everything, but for some reason a vast number of clergy are lacking in the capacities for correlation. They have their religious understanding locked up in a closet with the result that they hold and teach it rigidly and defensively. It is something they have to protect and defend. It is as if their God cannot stand alone, but must be held up by them. This means that instead of being the beneficiaries of their faith they are its saviors. What a drain this is on their well-being! Many secessions from the ministry are due to a sense of the irrelevance and ineffectiveness of religion as a viable position for creative approaches to contemporary problems.
Instead of being worried about religion and its fate in life, clergymen may be helped to a more adventuresome and dynamic understanding of religion’s role in contemporary life through participation in the dialogue between questions and answers, between the meanings of the contemporary and those of tradition, and between religion and the other fields of thought. Continuing education can help clergy learn how to stand alongside men, rather than over against them, with the treasure that men have already forged out of past dialogues. The sharing and shaping of the question is as important a task for religion as is giving an "answer." Actually, the insight of religion gives a capacity for hearing men’s questions more profoundly. This kind of sense of adventure and possibility is available to clergy; and continuing theological education that is responsive to both contemporary challenge and the treasures of tradition may guide them to a new life and work. A sense of relevance is indispensable for mental health and can transform the clergy’s helplessness, resentfulness, and defensiveness into resourcefulness, love, and courage, for both their living and their task.