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Which Black Church Leaders Are More Likely to Suffer?

What makes a leader vulnerable and what can help?

Key points

  • Black church leaders are vulnerable to both burnout and secondary traumatic stress.
  • Church leaders who experienced more adversity as children are more vulnerable to mental illness.
  • A leader's style of religious coping can make them more or less vulnerable to secondary traumatic stress.
  • The relationship a leader has with their church can also effect their vulnerability to trauma symptoms.

The disproportionate amount of deaths in the Black community, combined with the viral videos of the killing of Black bodies during 2020, placed a tremendous emotional burden on Black persons who have made it their life goal to care for the well-being of the Black community. This has been and continues to be true for leaders within the Black church. Many Black persons report their preference for sharing their emotional pain with a religious leader over going to a mental health professional when suffering from mental illness (Adofoli & Ullman, 2014; Hays 2015).

As a result of justifiably high levels of medical mistrust in the Black community, Black pastors have long been the first responders to Black mental illness. One study revealed that close to two-thirds of Black pastors were engaged in pastoral counseling with persons suffering from suicidal thoughts (Payne, 2014). Given that most Black clergy and other ministry leaders (e.g. deacons, bible school teachers, choir directors, etc. ) have jobs outside of the church, caring for persons who may be struggling with mental illness can be exhausting and may result in not only burnout but secondary traumatic stress (Roggenbaum).

Which Leaders Are Most Vulnerable?

In a study of 124 Black clergy and ministry leaders, we found that over half of these African American church leaders endorsed experiencing moderate to severe levels of secondary traumatic stress. We also discovered that 28% of these leaders endorsed moderate to severe anxiety symptoms, 12% endorsed moderate to severe depressive symptoms, and 26.5% endorsed experiencing at least one of five symptoms of PTSD. Moreover, we found that these leaders report having slightly higher levels of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in their past than the average person in the Black community. ACEs describe 10 different childhood experiences that, if they occur between birth and age 18, may have a detrimental effect on one's physical and mental health well into adulthood. We found that church leaders with higher rates of ACEs (4 or more) were much more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, PTSD, burnout, and secondary traumatic stress.

We also found that for church leaders with a higher number of ACEs, those who suffered from high levels of negative religious coping (i.e. questioning God’s love, or believing God is punishing them) during times of hardship had even greater chances of suffering from trauma and other mental illness. In other words, ministry leaders who wondered whether God had abandoned them or felt punished by God because of their lack of devotion were significantly more likely to suffer from trauma symptoms. This indicates that despite one’s public theology (i.e. what one preaches or teaches about God), one’s intrapersonal theology (i.e. what one believes in their heart and mind about God relating to them) has a more significant effect on one’s emotional wellbeing.

A second predictor of traumatic symptoms, for those who suffered from childhood adversity, was feeling as if their church was not emotionally supportive of them. In fact, negative religious interactions (e.g., feelings that the congregation either made too many demands of you and/or were critical of you or the way you do things) significantly predicted whether a ministry leader suffered from higher rates of secondary traumatic stress. Not surprisingly, the relationship that a leader has with her congregation has significant implications for her well-being.

What we do not know at this time is whether ministers who perceive less emotional support from their churches do so because their church is in fact less supportive, or if their previous childhood adversity may cause them to not perceive the emotional support that may be offered. Similarly, what our study did not account for was whether leaders who experienced negative interactions within their congregation was a result of their members lacking relational maturity, or the leaders themselves relating to members in a way that may incite more negative interactions, or a combination of the two.

What Can Be Done To Help

What we do know is that the relationship one has with their congregation has the potential to be healing despite one’s suffering from ACEs. Those who felt their congregations were emotionally supportive were less likely to suffer from traumatic symptoms despite experiencing painful events in childhood, even when they suffered from negative religious thoughts such as believing God was punishing them for their lack of devotion. In other words, perceived emotional support from the congregation may be helpful in reducing the effects of ACEs on trauma symptoms—especially among clergy who engage in more negative religious coping.

Conversely, ministry leaders who engage in positive religious coping (i.e. believe in God's love for them in the midst of suffering) tend to suffer less trauma, even if they have suffered numerous childhood adversities. And yet for leaders who had lower levels of positive religious coping, the perception of their congregation's support was an even more significant predictor of their mental well-being. Finally, we found the practice of positive religious coping was so significant that it had the potential to compensate for the lack of emotional support from the congregation.

What this all means is that leaders with higher rates of ACEs can benefit from healthier intrapersonal theologies as well as positive relationships with their congregations. If a leader does not have both, they are less likely to suffer from trauma symptoms if they have even one of the two. Those who feel as if they lack emotional support from the congregation and have doubts concerning God’s love and care for them are most likely to suffer from mental illness.

Church leaders are often trained to serve congregants without the expectation of being served or supported in return, beyond an occasional pastor appreciation service. Churches need to cultivate systems where the religious leaders can also receive holistic support from their congregations that encompass not only instrumental or financial support but also support that is emotional and spiritual in nature as well.


Brown, E. M., Chin, E. G., Wang, D. C., Lewis, B. A., Fort, C., Captari, L. E., Crabtree, S. A., Sandage, S. J. (2024). Adverse childhood experiences, religious coping, and congregational support among Black clergy and religious leaders. Religions, 15: 396.

Park, C. L., Holt, C. L., Le, D., Christie, J., & Williams, B. R. (2018). Positive and Negative Religious Coping Styles as Prospective Predictors of Well-Being in African Americans. Psychology of religion and spirituality, 10(4), 318–326.

Roggenbaum, L., Wang, D. C., Dryjanska, L., Holmes, E., Lewis, B. A., & Brown, E. M. (2023). Secondary traumatic stress, religious coping, and medical mistrust among African American clergy and religious leaders. Religions, 14, 793.

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