The Religious Leaders on the Mental-Health Front Lines

The Rev. Edward Cardoza estimates that the volume of calls, messages and texts from members of his St. Mark’s Episcopal Church increased 20-fold over the past year. Most read something like this: “I’m sure you’re really busy and don’t have time, but if you do, would you have time for a conversation?”

People who had been sober for 10 or 15 years worried they might start drinking again. Some mentioned suicide. Couples who rarely argued were yelling at each other.

When the church resumed in-person services June 13, a new tension emerged: surprisingly angry reactions from some members to any pandemic-related safeguards that remained in place. Other clergy he talked to have seen similar levels of acrimony.

About one in four people with mental-health concerns turn to a clergy member before seeking help from clinical professionals, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, giving faith leaders a unique window on the mental health of many Americans.

Priests, pastors, rabbis, imams and deacons have witnessed waves of anxiety, depression, fear and grief. People who never sought help before reached out needing more than spiritual support and pastoral care. In response, some churches created mental-health ministries, hired clinical social workers and held town halls staffed by professionals.

The Hope and Healing Center and Institute, a nonprofit affiliated with St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, expanded training to teach clergy how to recognize mental illness and make referrals. The Presbyterian Mental Health Network posted a one-page guide encouraging clergy, among other things, to listen to people who are afraid without dismissing their fears.

Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, which fully reopened July 1, recently hired a director of its new mental-health center. Among other duties, the director will create Covid-re-entry groups to support people who are anxious about returning to work, temple or school.

“There’s a lot of emotional confusion,” says Nicole Guzik, a rabbi at the temple. People want to go back to worship, but haven’t been in the building for so long and are afraid. Masks are again required.

Ed Shoener, a deacon at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Scranton, Pa., and a founding member of the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers, found that people suffering from depression and anxiety were becoming accustomed to the isolation.

The association, which has about 200 mental-health ministers in about 25 of the church’s 194 dioceses nationwide, encourages people to seek professional help if needed. Most have direct mental-illness experience with a family member. Mr. Shoener’s daughter, Katie, suffered from bipolar disorder and died by suicide in 2016.

The Rev. Russell Levenson, pastor of St. Martin’s in Houston, has discerned three chapters of the pandemic so far.

At the start, when the shutdowns began, people were anxious about how to live through it. “I’m a workaholic. How am I going to do this?” was something he heard from members.

“In the middle, foundations began to crack,” Dr. Levenson says. He received calls from people who said they thought they loved their spouses, but after eight weeks in the same house were “ready to bolt.” Others found themselves drinking more than usual.

Now he sees anxiety about re-entering the world. When issues go beyond pastoral care, he and other members of his staff walk parishioners over to the Hope and Healing Center on the church grounds.

The Rev. Darryl Roberts, pastor of Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., convened a town hall, moderated by four church members who are also mental-health professionals, early in the pandemic to talk about available mental-health resources and coping skills. He plans to have another in the fall to address anxiety around returning to work, school and church.

Dr. Roberts says some members—not many, and usually the young people—are angry with God about missing milestones. Others deferred dreams—buying a house, going back to school, getting a degree, getting married—and are afraid to pursue them. His big concern, he says, are those who lost loved ones and grieved largely alone.

Along with depression, anxiety and grief, clergy are also navigating the splits within their congregations over masks, vaccines, crowd size and the significance of the pandemic. A divisive election season also fueled anxiety, as did racial-justice issues.

“I’ve been yelled at more over the last year than ever before,” says the Rev. Dan Milford, pastor of the politically diverse 300-member Covenant Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, which reopened in March and began making masks optional in early June. Dr. Milford, who is moderator of the Presbyterian Mental Health Network, says the anger reflects anxiety.

He adds that about 90% of his congregation struggle with some level of anxiety right now, compared with 10% pre-pandemic.

Tending to those needs has taken a toll on clergy, too. One in five pastors ranked their mental and emotional health as below average, according to a survey by Barna Group, a research firm, compared with 2% in 2015.


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Jinah Yoon, a Seattle-based psychotherapist with a master’s degree in divinity, counsels clergy. “It’s very hard for church clergy to say they need help,” she says. “There’s a lot of shame. They feel like their faith is not strong enough.” She expects mental-health fallout from the pandemic will last for years, with people suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

At St. Mark’s in Massachusetts, Father Cardoza says at times in the past year he couldn’t keep track of church members who got sick and moved from rehab centers to relatives’ homes. He had to triage calls and requests for help from people who couldn’t pay for prescriptions and gas bills, and from couples with marital problems.

“As a clergy, your obligation is to take care of people,” he says. “There were times when I felt a lot of shame and guilt and like I failed as a pastor.” He created compassion circles, comprised of volunteer parishioners, to reach out to church members to see if they needed anything.

Members of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Foxborough, Mass., began gathering in-person for Sunday services last month.


Simon Simard for The Wall Street Journal

He says he also received more handwritten notes of thanks and appreciation in the past year than he has in his entire priesthood. People were grateful for his keeping the congregation connected and helping them navigate the pandemic’s toll on their emotional and mental health.

When a woman with 38 grandchildren died, not everyone in her large extended family could attend the funeral. Instead, they went to the cemetery—each family staying in their cars—opened their windows and sang “Amazing Grace.”

“That memory will never, ever leave me,” he says.

Write to Clare Ansberry at

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