Restoring Relationships

Restoring Relationships

A Barna Report Produced in Partnership with Boone Center for the Family


By Sharon Hargrave, LMFT

In a world where trauma, emotional pain and relational disconnection are pervasive, healing can seem unattainable. However, I am convinced that even in the most poignant suffering, there is a way to transformative healing. I know because I have experienced it firsthand.

When I was three, my father died by suicide. My oldest brother, Bruce, died suddenly of acute leukemia when I was four. My second oldest brother, David, and his date were murdered when I was 13. Bipolar disorder runs rampant in my family, and addiction is present in every generation. Yet in my adult years, I have lived a somewhat normal life: happily married for 40 years with two adult children who love to come home. Since we know trauma is a disrupter in stable, loving relationships, what makes my story different?

For me, it was the combination of church and therapy. When I was young, my home church held my family and me close. We had men who fathered us and families who gathered around us. Organizations like Navigators and Young Life taught me deep, biblical truths and how to enjoy a life following Christ. A Christian camp near my hometown made every summer a three-month reprieve when “family” surrounded me and gave me identity.

When I was older, my studies to become a marriage and family therapist taught me about relational attachment, the importance of defining myself outside of my trauma and why it was difficult for me to commit to marriage and having children. In the early years, I would have told you the problems in my marriage were because of my husband. I didn’t understand that the childhood trauma I had experienced was creeping into my adult life.

In my journey as a Christian and as a therapist, I have watched these two perspectives seem to drift apart. The therapy world has told us to have strong boundaries and to get rid of toxic people in our lives—contributing, I think, to the highest rates of anxiety, depression and loneliness ever recorded. The Church, on the other hand, has told us to forgive everyone, leaving people in destructive relationships that crush identity. Both perspectives offer some truth. We do need to have the strength to get away from extremely damaging relationships. However, we must also realize that everyone in our lives will make mistakes—as will we—and cutting everyone out of our lives doesn’t solve the problem.

Do Christians understand that it is okay to make mistakes, to have family problems, to struggle with anxiety or fall into an addiction? What if these trials enter my family system? Does it make me less of a Christian for me or my family to struggle?

As executive director of the Boone Center for the Family at Pepperdine University, and as a person committed to helping Christian leaders live well, I think a lot about what Christians and mental healthcare providers can do to help people connect and build strong ties. In commissioning this study with Barna, our team wanted to know how churches are doing both in helping people deepen relationships and in supporting those who are struggling with relationships and mental health concerns. We wanted to know whether practicing Christians as well as non-Christians see the Church as a place to receive hope and healing. We wondered if pastors feel prepared to help relationships heal and to give guidance to those dealing with mental health problems. How can our center help leaders deal with their own issues related to marriage, parenting, singleness and healthy intimacy, while also coaching them to help individuals and families through the pain of issues like pornography, addiction, anxiety and depression? How can churches and mental healthcare providers work together?

One of the many significant findings in this study indicates that people who address their relationship concerns and mental health struggles at church experience greater spiritual growth. Bearing one another’s burdens, it seems, does lighten the load (see Galatians 6). Whether we are church leaders or mental healthcare providers, our common goal should be to help people lay aside destructive, damaging ways of coping (in Christian terms, the “old self”) and live into connecting, constructive, life-giving relationships (“new-self” living).

My prayer is that this research shows us how to bring hope and healing to those who need help. Individuals and families are struggling. But there is help to be found! I know, because church and therapy helped me cope with pain, learn to experience joy and live in the family and community God used to make me whole.


SHARON HARGRAVE is executive director for the Boone Center for the Family at Pepperdine University and Founder of RelateStrong. She is also an affiliate faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary and a licensed marriage and family therapist in California and Texas. Sharon and her husband, Terry, speak nationally and internationally on issues related to couples in ministry, marriage, intergenerational relationships, parenting and the Restoration Therapy model. She is coauthor with her husband of 5 Days to a New Self.

Study Overview

Phase 1: Qualitative Interviews

Researchers sat down with counselors, pastors and other experts with a handful of open-ended questions, which were designed to get them talking about what they’re seeing in their ministries and counseling practices when it comes to people’s relationships. The findings from this phase helped researchers design hypotheses to test using quantitative surveys.

Phase 2: Survey Design & Fielding

Based on qualitative findings, researchers created two surveys that were then administered online to more than 2,000 U.S. adults and 600 U.S. pastors and priests.

Phase 3: Analysis

Data analysts combed through the data to test and verify survey results, then ran statistical analyses to uncover significance. Deeper analysis was completed over several months.


Relationships are under pressure. This pressure is new, and it’s unique in human history. Squeezed between massive changes in communication technologies, diminishing religious influence, hyperindividualized morals and sexual ethics and extreme cultural and political polarization, the strain on our everyday relationships is mounting—and it’s not always clear to people where they can turn for help. For that matter, it’s not always clear to those in the thick of relational crisis—whether because of trauma, isolation, mental illness or just the everyday challenges of life—that they are not alone. (Loneliness is at epidemic levels, and experiencing it magnifies otherwise manageable challenges.)

Relational crises are no respecter of persons—that is, they happen to just about everybody at one time or another: women and men, younger and older, single and married, Christian and non-Christian. Any relationship can face problems (if we’re not in a relationship of any kind, that’s an issue all its own!) and anyone can experience challenges to their mental, emotional or relational health. It’s just a fact of life.

On the whole, the Church’s record on helping people through crisis is strong. Historically, pastors and other church leaders have been uniquely positioned to walk alongside people through their hardest seasons in life: death of a loved one, job loss, illness, divorce, unwanted singleness, childlessness, abuse and so much more. With the rise of human psychology as a scientific discipline, however, people have options beyond their local church or parish. Church leaders, for their part, have not always been enthusiastic supporters of mental health science . . . especially when therapeutic professionals and approaches deny a spiritual dimension to human well-being.

Between the upsurge in non-pastoral helping professions and the rapid secularization of younger generations, what’s a pastor to do? Just relinquish their traditional role as relational counselor and spiritual coach?

The answer is a resounding no.

Restoring Relationships unpacks the implications of data gathered from more than 2,300 U.S. adults and 650 U.S. pastors and priests— and the overwhelming takeaway is that churches have a supremely important role to play in helping people grow through their relational challenges.


Barna’s president, David Kinnaman, often says that people want to know that Christianity is both true and good. This is particularly true for Millennials and Gen Z, age cohorts that collectively tend toward a holistic view of human flourishing that includes mental and emotional health. At the same time, many of them (and people in older generations, too) report dealing with anxiety, depression, addiction, marital problems and other issues that negatively impact their relationships.

What an incredible, wide-open door for the Church! Christ makes all things new, transforming us and our relationships. People’s longing for true and lasting transformation from the inside out is an opportunity for the Church to bring good news where people want to hear it: in the places where they’re hurting and most in need of healing.

Mental health professionals have an important role to play, too. Whether it’s helping pastors better understand the brain science of addiction, bringing clinically sound tools to a marriage that’s in trouble or coaching parents through the heartbreak of a child’s mental illness, trained and licensed counselors are specialists in the hardest parts of being human. Imagine the powerful partnership that pastors and Christ-centered mental health pros can create to help people restore their relationships through the power of God’s Spirit.

In Restoring Relationships, you’ll find not only brand-new data on the state of relationships in America today, but also profound insights from both pastors and professional counselors on how churches can help people heal. In some ways, this report is a reference guide for what’s going on in your congregation—and how people wish you and your church could help.

Let’s dive in.

Key Findings

Relationships are Where Real Life Happens

If the good news of Christ is new life for all who believe, what does that mean for relationships? For the Church, this is where the rubber of the gospel meets the road of everyday life.

In partnership with Pepperdine University’s Boone Center for the Family, Barna interviewed more than 2,000 U.S. adults, including 1,523 practicing Christians, to find out where people are feeling the most relational pressure and where they turn for help. In Restoring Relationships, you’ll find:

  • An inventory of people’s most significant relationships and the problems they’re facing
  • Pastors’ views on where their congregations are struggling, and how they are trying to help
  • Analysis of who people trust to help them navigate relational issues, and what kind of help they are hoping for
  • Charts, graphs and infographics
  • Interviews with counselors, pastors and other experts about how churches can be most effective

In addition to all-new research and analysis, Restoring Relationships offers ministry practitioners actionable insights for making your church a place where restoration is an everyday fact of life.

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