For decades, researchers have been interested in studying the effectiveness of the collaboration between mental health workers and clergy. After all, both professions—although appearing differently on the surface—may both deal with individuals who are in a crisis, and perhaps working together can create a useful dialogue for individuals in both professions. That said, however, very little empirical research has explored the effectiveness of such a collaboration.
Last year, a study was published in the journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice that explored this exact question. (Although the nature of the study was qualitative rather than quantitative.) The researchers looked into the collaboration between mental health workers and clergy after the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster in rural West Virginia.
The researcher’s findings were interesting.
Researchers found that clergy would find it optimal to work with mental health workers under four conditions. They are:
Pre-established professional relationships
Mental health professionals’ sensitivity to religious/spiritual issues
Clergy members’ training in disaster spiritual and emotional care
That said, however, although these four conditions remain tenable, after being interviewed, clergy also expressed what concerns they thought would impede collaboration with mental health workers. Put simply, those concerns are:
Cultural mistrust and suspicion
Perceived ulterior motives
Differences in service delivery expectations
Zooming out a little, these types of studies are important because they identify possible opportunities as well as barriers to mutual collaboration between clergy and mental health workers—especially after a traumatic event such as the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Additionally, qualitative studies remain valuable because they move beyond numerical data and can tell a deeper story.
“[T]his study provides insights that can help guide effective post-disaster collaboration between clergy and clinicians,” the researchers write. “We hope clergy and mental health professionals draw on these insights and experience the myriad ways that clergy– clinician collaboration can benefit both parties and more importantly improve the emotional and R/S well-being of disaster survivors.”
Unfortunately, because natural disasters such as hurricanes and large-scale traumatic events have become somewhat commonplace in the United States, perhaps the collaboration between mental health workers, who take an evidence-based secular approach, and clergy, who often look after the spiritual needs of their constituents, would be an effective combination to help those who have been impacted by disasters.
As this study shows, it remains possible for mental health workers and clergy to work together, albeit there still remain challenges in bridging these two professions in post-disaster contexts. As noted above, clergy are concerned that mental health workers may think they have ulterior motives (such as religious conversion) when collaborating in post-disaster contexts as well as other concerns. Finally, in order to overcome these perceived barriers, it may be helpful for mental health workers and clergy to start a dialogue in order to help those who need it most: their constituents.
Curtis, J. B., et al. (2017). Collaboration Between Clergy and Mental Health Professionals in Post-Disaster Contexts: Lessons from the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 4(3), 193 – 204.