Chapter 29: Seminary Training in Mental Health for Parish Clergymen by Wayne E. Oates

Community Mental Health: The Role of Church and Temple
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr., (Ed.)

Chapter 29: Seminary Training in Mental Health for Parish Clergymen by Wayne E. Oates

Theological seminaries began in the 1930s to involve both students and faculties in the actual life situations of the mentally ill as a way of educating clergymen in the ministry to the mentally ill and the prevention of mental illness. This was no new fad nor a departure from the basic claims of the Christian faith. The concern of the prophets and the Lord Jesus Christ for the epileptic, the demoniac, the anxious, and the fear-ridden provided both model and motivation for this effort to teach ministers about the contemporary ministry to people in mental illness. The anointing of rabbis and ministers to "heal the broken-hearted" in the tradition of Isaiah and Jesus is involved here. The minister or rabbi actualizes his own unique destiny as a minister or rabbi when he does this.

World War II threw clergymen of all faiths into the maelstrom of a world-wide catastrophe. Clergymen learned to work with other clergymen of all faiths. The lines between the other helping professions of medicine, psychiatry, social work, and psychology ceased to be walls. They became moving lines of creative collaboration between the clergy and men of other faiths and men of other professions. The training of clergy in mental health, which began after World War II, was an ecumenical and interprofessional endeavor. Human suffering knows no barrier, nor does the love of God. The work of the clergy is to communicate the love of God to people in times of developmental and emergency crises. Here they must not indulge in racial, denominational, national, and creedal conflicts. They are concerned with matters of life and death of persons, regardless of these differences.

Some specific guidelines for churches and temples in their efforts to train clergymen in mental health are as follows: first, intensive workshops in suicide prevention, the convalescent care of mental patients, mental retardation, personality disorders in children, and so forth, could be financed and provided by the church or synagogue. I recall being a part of such brief three-day workshops for clergymen of all faiths provided by the First Baptist Church of Greenville, South Carolina. Second, the churches and synagogues can participate together in the development of chapels and chaplaincies in public institutions. Sick people with "all manner of diseases" are cut off from the natural community. In our city, for example, the large charity hospital has a fine chaplaincy program, but worship is held in the medical school amphitheater or in a medical school classroom. The churches and synagogues have yet to do something about building a chapel, although they do supply the whole salary of two chaplains. Training the clergy in hospitals is made more distinctly pastoral if a chapel is available. Third, a synagogue or church can re-think what its youth needs. Our most common assumption is that the church should provide them with recreation and parties. The generation gap could be closed somewhat if the people over thirty would enter a planned collaboration with middle and late teen-agers in their interest in cars, in driver education, earning money for themselves, and in "consumer education." When a church asks a young theological student to be an assistant minister, a young rabbi to participate in the leadership of young people, these activities could be part of his assignments rather than "leading recreation."

The unique contributions of the theological schools and churches to the training of clergymen in mental health is reflected in the kinds of things we expect the minister, priest, or rabbi to know and to be able to do in this area. First, we expect him to know the basic evidences of psychopathology as it appears in religious garb. To do this, at our seminary we have an intensive twenty-four-hour-a-week course in psychiatric information for ministers and religious workers taught in another hospital where the students function as ministers alongside the chaplains. They are trained to deal with the specific distortions of religion that appear among the mentally ill. They are taught to collaborate with a psychiatrist in the care of the mentally ill in the hospital. They are taught what the convalescent mental patient needs from his parish clergymen and fellow parishioners when he returns home from the hospital. They are taught the principles of preventive psychiatry.

Another important contribution of the theological school to the training of the clergy in mental health is direct experience in small groups. Students themselves are being taught the dynamics of small groups by being members of small groups with one another. They are taught how to become effective leaders of groups of lay persons. More emphasis needs to be placed upon the difference between the function of the purely voluntary group, such as one finds in a church, and the controlled and not so voluntary group found in the classes of a theological school. For example, the motives of a theological student in a required course in school are very different from those of a person not being rewarded with professional status and a way of earning a living for participating in the group -- that is a lay person.

One of the most significant forms of education in mental health the minister, priest, or rabbi of today receives is in participating as a clergyman with mental health professionals. This involves the clergymen in seeing their own work as being both a profession and more than a profession. They are professionals in that (1) they are trained for their work, (2) they operate according to basic principles and not merely according to the ad hoc expectations of disturbed and anxious people, (3) they follow a specific and defined code of ethics in relation to other ministers, rabbis, or priests, as well as in relation to their communicants and to other professional persons, (4) they have a specific body of data or information in which they are informed authorities -- i.e., biblical knowledge; knowledge of the history of the churches and synagogues; knowledge of ethical and moral teachings; knowledge of theological beliefs in their variety, similarity, and unique contribution to mental health and well-being, and (5) they have a specific symbolic meaning to people as ministers, as representing God.

In theological school, the task of education is to enable the students to lay hold of the resources of the just-described professional identity and to overcome any major impediments that prevent them from assuming this identity with courage and dignity. Learning about mental health alongside other professionals in training has a way of helping to sharpen and clarify their own identity. The student is steadily pushed into a decision to function or not to function as a minister. In a hackneyed phrase attributed to Harry Truman, he is expected to get out of the kitchen if he can’t stand the heat. In a much less blunt statement, which nevertheless is not so clear, the student is encouraged to find the kind of profession to which he can give himself wholeheartedly from internal and not external motivation.

This points to probably the most important work going on in the training of the theological student in mental health. Real attention is being given in theological school to improving the student’s own mental health as a part of his education. This is being done through several different channels. For example, the Theological Student Inventory developed by the American Association of Theological Schools and the Educational Testing Service is being used more and more to enable students to assess and reappraise their motivations for entering the ministry. If they are responding to undue expectation of parents and home community, to the more intense religious zeal of a wife (in the case of minister or rabbi) , or to the opportunity for evasion of the military draft, these motives are being surfaced and dealt with positively more often now than formerly because of the teaching of mental health values in the curriculum. If the student himself has brought with him specific pathologies, a more therapeutic and less moralistic approach to them has been developed in the modern theological school. If the student simply comes to the conclusion that he is in the wrong calling, he can do so now with somewhat less social pressure, rejection, and isolation. He is more often encouraged to find the thing that he is "with" and that does have durable meaning for him.

Another example of the way in which the mental health of the minister is being fostered in theological school is the way in which Protestant seminaries are at last giving some ordered attention to the education and care of wife and children of the theological student. Prior to World War II, the theological student was ordinarily -- eight out of ten times -- a single man. The ratio now is just reversed. By the time they graduate, theological students are more often than not married, and many of them are parents of children. On our campus, for example, we began by starting an effective nursery-kindergarten program for the children of students. We moved toward a second objective of providing a "mini-curriculum" for the working wife. Thus she could become acquainted with a telescoped version of her husband’s education and meet personally some of the persons who teach him. We continued by developing pre-marital and post-marital counseling and guidance on a group basis for the husbands and wives together. At this time we are exerting an influence to encourage as many wives as possible to participate in the classes with their husbands at whatever level their own preparation and obligations permit. We are convinced that the best way to communicate mental health is through contagion. If these people whom we graduate are relatively healthy people, then maybe health, and not disease, will be "catching."

The most important thing we have discovered, however, was in a research project we conducted with a group of twenty-two students who were in a clinical pastoral education program. We learned many things about these students’ life situations that will enable us to help the succeeding student generations to be more effective ministers and to function as creative agents of mental health. Through intensive psychological testing, careful interviews, the writing of personal autobiographies, the use of interpersonal interaction groups, and other ways of getting to know them better, we discovered that the students tended to think in a continuum on a power-person scale. Some of them did their work on the predominant motivation of the political influence -- power, prestige, and so forth -- which would accrue to them. This was not their exclusive or conscious motivation. Others moved more in terms of personal values in relation to their involvement with the people to whom they ministered as persons. Like the other group, this was not their exclusive or conscious motivation. All twenty-two were strung out along this continuum.

We were not so concerned with this continuum as we were with where and how the men became this way. We discovered the key to this was that the persons who had first influenced them to think about entering the ministry had much to do with their concept of the ministry. Also, the persons with whom they continued to identify and like whom they most surely wanted to become were sources of these patterns of motivation. Consequently, the valuable thing here to suggest to synagogues and churches is that each synagogue or church should give systematic, ordered, and careful attention to persons planning to enter the clergy. These persons should be led by person-centered, not power-oriented, leaders. Projects could be developed in the preparation of candidates for ordination and in maintaining a durable and lasting relationship to the aspirant for the ministry throughout his education.

But the main thing we discovered about this group of students was a sort of built-in timidity and inarticulateness about their own religious life. The issues of effective prayer, creative religious fellowship as such, expression of religious concern, and implementation of religious resources -- these were available strengths and assets the student was reluctant to use. The most important function of theological education, then, would be to encourage and effectively reinforce the student’s confidence in the "gift of God" that is within him. As Goethe said, the truth that is his must be made his own.