Chapter 34: Research on the Churches and Mental Health by John M. Vayhinger

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

Chapter 34: Research on the Churches and Mental Health by John M. Vayhinger

The goal of research is to discover information through the application of scientific procedures. (Claire Selltiz, et al., Research Methods in Social Relations [New York: Henry Holt, 1959] , pp. 1-5.) Research begins with a problem or a question, to which techniques of observation or experimentation may be applied. The question may be either intellectual (simply the desire to know) or practical (for the sake of being able to do something better or more efficiently) Both would seem appropriate reasons for research on the churches and mental health.

Research into the role of the churches in community mental health may take two directions: (1) statistical studies, empirically designed, as to the effect of religious beliefs, membership in, and activities of, members of churches and synagogues, and (2) the effects of training in mental health principles and skills of clergymen and laymen in improving their effectiveness in religious behavior.

Since research in confined to "empirical" data mainly, any person carrying out research in this area of experience should keep in mind that scientific research "can tell us nothing about the truth, validity or usefulness of religious phenomena" though it may be very enlightening and useful when it furnishes "information about the conditions under which people become religious . . . the influence of religion itself on other dimensions of behavior: . . . and the empirical laws governing religious behavior may help in understanding phenomena which are the causes of undue concern."( Michael Argyle, Religious Behavior (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1958) , p. 3.)

Gordon W. Allport reinforces this concept when he writes that "neither religion nor mental health . . . (is) a discrete, measurable thing. Each has many factors and aspects, and one must . . . talk about things that are related to essential trust or things related to constructiveness of personality or other concepts into which one might be able to break down religion and mental health."( Academy of Religion and Mental Health, Research in Religion and Health, 1961 [Bronx: Fordham University Press, 1963] , p. 32.)

The goals of research on mental health and the churches are, necessarily, at this point vague and indistinct, mainly because of problems of definition and instrumentation. Many studies (some to be referred to later) have relative and situational validity, but few useful instruments or techniques have as yet been developed.

One report summarizes general goals which are usable for direction:

The objectives are stated as: (a) increasing the awareness of mental health professionals and the clergy of their common interest in helping people, (b) exploring the ways in which these groups could assist each other in dealing with mental health problems in the community, and (c) stimulating the development of a framework and atmosphere of cooperation which would lead to an ongoing program of education and communication.( J. Levy and R. K. McNickle, eds., A Clinical Approach to the Problems of Pastoral Care[Boulder, Colo.: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, 1964] , VII, 250.)

A major research direction, then, might well develop a design for research in which pastors would develop psychological skills in aiding parishioners in the development of wholesome (as part of "holy"), mature personalities, and in assisting persons in developing meaning and purpose in their lives, as well as dealing therapeutically with specific emotional problems which cripple their functioning. The design would include pastors’ application of psychological insights in the total range of pastoral activities and relationships, with training presented through classroom teaching; clinical supervised involvement; and personal counseling and/or psychotherapy to prepare them better to use their theology, the formal rituals of the church, and the religious faith they transmit in living relationship with their people.

In the definition of any goals, the theologian and clergyman must have first priority in formulation. The psychiatrist’s preoccupation, arising out of his professional training, with the causes and treatment of mental illness; (Richard V. McCann, The Churches and Mental Health[New York: Basic Books, 1962] , pp. 133-34.) the preoccupation of the psychologist with purely human behavior, its description, and development; the preoccupation of the sociologist and cultural anthropologist with the forms and development of society, make these mental health professionals unable to define the function of the churchman, though their professions may well be of immense importance in providing information when the clergyman thinks through his unique and necessary role as pastor to persons.

Practically, psychologists, statisticians, and the rest of the research teams must be involved in these research designs, but the hidden goals and preconceptions of both clergymen and psychologically trained professionals must be articulated before the designs are firmed up. In designing studies, for instance, which would seek information on how the religious community could produce a "healing fellowship" for the emotionally disturbed and a healthy atmosphere for developing children, the scientist and the religious leader must both keep in mind that "that which frees man from moral evil is not mental health but God’s grace." (Robert G. Gassert, SJ., and Bernard H. Hall, Psychiatry and Religious Faith [New York: Viking Press, 1964] , p. 43.)

This section will select individual research designs which seem productive of further research implementation. Selected studies are suggestive of the general field and not representative of all potential research.

1. The National Institute of Mental Health, Religion and Mental Health Project

Three related projects were funded by the NIMH in 1956 to construct extended programs for training seminarians in mental health skills. The programs were designed to bring together professionals and materials in psychiatry, psychology, anthropology, medicine, and sociology and to relate mental health information to the theology of the three major religious traditions. (Vincent Herr, S.J.: "Mental Health Training in Catholic Seminaries," Journal of Religion and Health, January 1962, p. 127.) The Academy of Religion and Mental Health, under the direction of the Rev. George Christian Anderson, as well as the churches involved, encouraged this research in improving their pastors’ and rabbis’ mental health skills. The curriculum developed from this project is available to other seminaries.

A. Loyola University of Chicago was chosen to develop a curriculum for Roman Catholic priests. Under Father Vincent Herr’s direction, materials were prepared to cover (1) the psychodynamics of normal personality and religious development; (2) "small group" dynamics, particularly of the family; (3) problems of personality maladjustments; and (4) interviewing and counseling techniques. At the time of the first report by Kobler, et al.,( F. J. Kohler, et al., "Loyola University NIMH Project on Religion and Mental Health," Pastoral Psychology, Feb., 1959, pp. 14-46.) some 740 seminarians and priests from five seminaries had participated.

B. Rabbi I. Fred Hollander of Yeshiva University directed the development of training courses for rabbis. Not simply to enlarge the clergyman’s store of secular knowledge, he declared, and not to train him to be a professional psychotherapist, the project was rather "to prepare him for the practical task of fulfilling his pastoral responsibilities more effectively" (I. F. Hollander, ‘Mental Health Teaching Materials for the Clergy," Journal of Religion and Health, April, 1962, P. 273.) and to increase his ability to help people who turn to him as rabbi in their time of need. This ability is an integral part of his function as a minister of religion. While religion’s importance to people transcends its healing value, Rabbi Hollander reports, its primary value lies in defining every phase of man’s existence -- describing his condition, his place in the universe, and his role in the shape of things.

C. Hans Hofmann at Harvard Divinity School probed the literature of the world for instances of "religious behavior." Believing that "the rigidity inherent in orthodox theories has fostered mere shadow boxing between ministers and psychiatrists," (Hans Hofmann, Religion and Mental Health [New York: Harper, 1961, p. xv.) he deliberately sought human experiences which (1) in their complexity were "true to life," (2) that touched directly on problems of religion and mental health, and (3) that encouraged free and independent thinking. He encouraged experimentation with pastoral counseling which went beyond an exclusively supportive conception of counseling, because he believed that "within the Christian tradition in which we believe [is] the power of the Holy Spirit to regenerate people through merciful judgment and a loving challenge to grow through suffering into a stronger and deeper faith." (Ibid., p. 15.) So he suggests that studying historical expressions of religious awareness should suggest challenging hypotheses which may well find that mental health in the Western "Christian" civilization cannot be achieved without the confrontation of the religious aspects of culture.

2. Institutional Experiments in the Churches and Mental Health.

A. The Church of the Savior, Washington, D.C.

In addition to orthodox research design composed of experimental controls and statistical analyses of the data, an experiment set in a parish began when the Rev. Gordon Cosby returned from military service to involve a small band of persons (seventy) in total commitment to a disciples’ way of existence. Intense training prepares the members for "ministry" in a mission group, each strengthened by spiritual discipline. "Dayspring" is a 175-acre farm in Maryland within which a retreat was built as a renewal center for the emotionally and spiritually disturbed. The Rev. Joseph W. Knowles describes the goals of the Renewal Center Mission as (1) developing the Life Renewal Center through small "groups," (2) giving attention to the use of present structures to focus the whole life of the church as a healing community, (3) developing a program of supervised clinical pastoral education for theological students, and (4) maintaining a Residential Center halfway house for twenty men and women who have been previously hospitalized for mental illness.( Elizabeth O’Connor, Call to Commitment[New York: Harper, 1963] , pp. 135-44. Also, personal communications with the Rev. Joseph W. Knowles, 70CT68.) Continuous therapy groups are carried on as well as individual counseling and Adult Intereducational Mission Groups, which combine sensitivity training and the development of skills in writing devotional materials. Research with such churches as this will clarify the general role of religious institutions in developing the mental health of involved persons.

B. The American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry.

This center for the training of clergymen in counseling was founded in 1937 as the Religio-Psychiatric Clinic in Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Its purpose, as described by Paul E. Johnson is to enable persons to "come for psychiatric help where ethical and religious values will not be overlooked and religion thus aids in the acceptance of psychiatry." In this center, clergymen and psychiatrists are joined in treating psychiatric patients and in carrying on research on healing on cooperative levels by the two professions.(Samuel Z. Klausner, Psychology and Religion [New York: Free Press, 1964], pp. 197-255.)

C. Pastoral Counselors Serving in Psychiatric Settings.

In 1964, the federal government, in developing comprehensive community mental health centers, insisted that:

equally important is the fact that in addition to family physicians, the clergymen of the community, . . . and the other guardians of mental health can consult with the center’s professional staff to aid in serving individual patients about whom they share concern, as well as to add to their own knowledge of mental health and mental illness through formal and informal classes and meetings presented by the center’s staff.( "Comprehensive Community Mental Health Centers, U.S. Dept of Health, Education and Welfare. Service Publ. No. 1137. April, 1964 P. 6.)

Centers already involving clergymen are as widespread as Fort Logan Mental Health Center in Denver, Colorado, where ministers serve as therapists in the Division of Alcoholism, and the Oaklawn Psychiatric Center, Elkhart, Indiana, and San Mateo County Mental Health Center in the San Francisco area which employ pastoral counselors.

D. Cooperation Among Psychiatric Personnel and Clergymen in Referral and Training.

While Becker probably overstates the case when he claims that the unity of aim of religion and psychology has brought clergymen and psychiatrists "into a contiguity and interlacing of work where it is no longer possible to distinguish neatly the psychologist from his religious colleague," (Russell J. Becker, "Links Between Psychology and Religion," American Psychologist, 1958, 13, pp. 566-68.) it certainly seems accurate to say that cooperation is increasing, and many persons turn to clergymen for help in emotional disorders. One study revealed that in a representative sample of 2,460 Americans, persons with more education were more likely to seek out a clergyman, and regular church members were also quicker to call on their pastor (54 percent among Protestants and 52 percent among Catholics) (Gerald Gurin, Americans View Their Mental Health, p. 335.) The same study indicated that church attenders were somewhat happier and had less worry, and infrequent church-goers and non-goers had a more negative evaluation of their overall adjustment. In short, "low church attendance is associated with a somewhat higher level of distress in the general adjustment measures, a more negative self-percept, less happiness on the job, and strikingly less marital happiness." (Ibid., p. 245.)

E. Influence of Religious Observance in the Home.

Fein reports that home observance of religious customs contributes to the mental health of persons involved,

Normal adult samples can be distinguished from mentally and emotionally sick adult samples better than 99 out of 100 times on the basis of the degree of religious observance in the childhood home . . . the degree of religious observance in the childhood home plays an important role in the maintenance of mental health.( Leah G. Fein, "Religious Observance and Mental Health," a note, Journal of Pastoral Care, 1958, 12, p. 101.)

3. Suggestions for Research.

Here follows a necessarily limited set of suggestions for further study:

A. Training of clergymen and laity in mental health skills:

Seminary training in special psychological skills for pastoral counseling, leader-trainer roles in groups

Identification of pastoral and psychological roles of hospital chaplains

In comprehensive community mental health centers, the role of the staff pastoral counselor, and his acceptance by staff colleagues and the community

Referral patterns among clergymen to and from psychiatric clinics

Changing attitudes toward the clergyman’s role and image, by clergymen and laymen

B. Pastoral situations, effects of congregational structures on persons:

Effects of denominational environment on mental health of constituents, including administrative structure and religious beliefs of the group

The place of the church as a therapeutic and redemptive community (a) on the mental health of the members, (b) as a referral source for post-treatment patients, (c) for persons under situational stress -- e.g. vocational, family, bereavement, etc.

Effects of "group belongingness" in religious experiences in worship services. Therapeutic and disruptive effects of small groups, study, Bible, prayer, etc.

"Binding" and "supporting" effects of congregational sharing in times of grief, life decisions, depressions, etc.

C. Types of individual religious experiences:

Ernest Bruder: "the distinctive contribution of religion is to present God adequately to the patient, using the basic, common resources of religion";( Quoted in 0. Hobart Mowrer, Morality and Mental Health [Chicago: Rand-McNally, 1967] , p. 351.) compare this with simple psychological counseling care of patients.

The effects of the Judeo-Christian faith, as expressed through church and synagogue, as a moderating factor in the competitive-ness of American culture

Effects of individual religious sacred acts -- e.g. confession and penance, conversation, communion in times of crisis, etc.

The "integrating effects" of personal religious experience, especially in adolescent years

Theoretically, there should be no competition between professionals trained in religion and those trained in psychotherapy, for "the hitherto existing chasm between religion and psychology is somewhat unusual because . . . both concern themselves with human nature and behavior." (Herman Feifel in ‘Symposium on Relationships between Religion and Mental Health: Introductory Remarks," American Psychologist, 1958, 13: 565, 566.) But there is a vital need for valid research into the effects of religious belief and behavior on individual and group mental health.

Much needed is research beyond that already completed which will develop guidelines for improving the church’s many roles in community health -- from meeting the existential crises of being human and belonging to social groups and facing anxiety and dread, to providing more efficiently the "learning atmosphere" for a religious style-of-life. The assumption is made in most congregations that these things do happen. Now we have the tools for investigating and improving these mental health functions of churches.

Even though we recognize and accept the fact that some of the most crucial problems of man and his existence (e.g., death, destiny, and divinity) are all but unresearchable by science’s tools, it is still true that well conceived and developed research designs are useful in the area of mental health and religion. They will sharpen the expectations by mental health professionals of the church’s proper role in community mental health, and they will increase the church’s and synagogue’s already considerable functional role in the mental health of the community.


For additional reading

Academy of Religion and Mental Health. Religion in the Developing Personality. New York: New York University Press, 1960.

--------- Religion, Science and Mental Health. New York University Press, 1959.

--------- Research in Religion and Health. Bronx: Fordham University Press, 1963.

Argyle, Michael. Religious Behavior. New York. Free Press, 1959.

Eister, Allan W. "Empirical Research on Religion and Society," Review of Religious Research, Spring, 1965, pp. 125-30.

Godin, A., S.J. "Belonging to a Church: What does It Mean Psychologically?" Scientific Study of Religion, Spring, 1964.

Gurin, Gerald, Veroff, Joseph, and Feld, Sheli. Americans View Their Mental Health: A Nationwide Interview Survey. New York: Basic Books, 1960.

Herr, Vincent V., S.J. "The Loyola National Institute of Mental Health Seminary Project: A Progress Report," American Catholic Sociological Review, Winter, 1960, pp. 331-36.

Hofmann, Hans., ed. The Ministry and Mental Health. New York: Association Press, 1960.

Hollander, I. Fred: "Mental Health Teaching Materials for the Clergy," Journal of Religion and Health, April, 1962, pp. 273-82.

Klausner, Samuel Z. Psychiatry and Religion. New York: Free Press, 1964.

Kobler, F. J.; Webb, N. J.; Herr, V. V.; Devlin, W. J. "Loyola University NIMH Project on Religion and Mental Health, Report on Research Procedures," Pastoral Psychology, Feb., 1959, pp. 44-46.

Lenski, Gerhard: The Religious Factor. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961.

Lowe, C. Marshall and Braaten, Roger O. "Differences in Religious Attitudes in Mental Illness," Journal of Scientific Study of Religion, Fall, 1966 5(3) , pp. 433-45.

McCann, Richard V. The Churches and Mental Health. New York: Basic Books, 1962.

Menges, Robert J. and Dittes, James E. Psychological Studies of Clergymen, Abstracts of Research. Camden, N.J.: Thomas Nelson, 1965.

Srole, Leo; Langner, Thomas S.; Michael, Stanley T.; Opler, Marvin K.; Rennie, Thomas A. C. Mental Health in the Metropolis: The Midtown Manhattan Study. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1962.