03 Where Do People Turn For Support & How Can Churches Help?

Where Do People Turn For Support & How Can Churches Help?


Households of Faith, Barna’s study on how people who share the same living space strengthen each other’s spirituality, found that people who interact on a spiritual level—whether through prayer, Bible study or some other activity—are more likely than those who don’t to turn toward one another during a personal crisis. In other words, there is at least “some correlation between sharing spiritual interactions and having each other’s backs.”12

Both inside and outside the Church, respondents to the Restoring Relationships survey say they are most likely to look to a family member or close friend (53%) for help with a relationship problem, whether the issue involves their spouse (56% all adults vs. 53% practicing Christians), their child (50% both), their parent (60% vs. 61%) or another loved one (61% vs. 62%).

Yet as the chart shows, practicing Christians are more likely than the national average to reach out to others for support. They are more likely to seek help from a professional counselor than are U.S. adults overall. They are also much more likely, as we would expect, to turn to their pastor or priest. On the other hand, adults from the general population are more likely to turn to internet resources for help.

where do you turn for help, us adults vs practicing christians

The lion’s share hold optimistic expectations of church help. Three-quarters or more say leaders in their church “definitely” or “probably” truly care (86%), help people develop healthy relationships (76%), can be trusted with private or personal issues (78%), can be trusted to genuinely help with personal issues such as a relationship problem (76%) and are available to help with such issues (77%).

When researchers ask senior pastors who members of their congregation turn to for relationship help, church leaders tend to put themselves at the top of the list, rather than members’ close friends. (This is probably less a case of thinking of themselves too highly than of not always knowing when they are being left out of the loop.)

where congregants turn for help, according to us pastors priests

When it comes to trust, pastors and priests have a fairly accurate sense of their parishioners’ response: Three-quarters (74%) believe their congregants “definitely” or “probably” trust their church leaders to help them navigate a relationship challenge. As their tenure grows, so too does their perception of congregational trust. Although still a majority, fewer pastors (63%) who have shepherded their congregation for one to three years are confident of their congregants’ trust compared to pastors with a tenure of four to nine years (74%). And those who have been with their congregation for a decade or more are most likely (81%) to say their congregants trust them.

Most pastors report counseling a significant number of parishioners, with more than one-third (36%) estimating that 10 percent or more of their congregation sought them out for relationship help in the past year, and more than one-quarter (28%) estimating five to 10 percent. Among pastors of fewer than 100 congregants, half say that 10 percent or more of their congregation requested pastoral support for their relationships (51%), compared to about one-third of midsized congregations (35%) and one in nine large-church leaders (11%). These percentages shake out to about the same level of counseling burden in absolute numerical terms, but small-church pastors are helping a larger proportion of their whole congregation.

Emotional Health & Spiritual Formation

A Q&A with Mike Boland

Mike Boland is an assistant pastor at City Church Eastside in Atlanta, Georgia, and has trained in the Seattle School of Psychology and Theology. He grew up in a children’s home before receiving a football scholarship from The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, and beginning a life in ministry. Mike, Jennifer and their four kids love their neighborhood and enjoy gathering with friends and neighbors around the dinner table. Mike enjoys playing most sports and journeying with people as they investigate their own stories and questions of faith.

Washing the Wounds of Racial Trauma

with Chris Williamson

DR. CHRIS WILLIAMSON is the founder and senior pastor of Strong Tower Bible Church, a multiracial fellowship in Nashville. He is author of two books, Making Disciples Who Make a Difference and One But Not The Same: God’s Diverse Kingdom Come Through Race, Class, and Gender. Pastor Chris is a pioneer in “The Fuller Story” initiative in Franklin, Tennessee, to include the agonies and accomplishments of African Americans through historical markers in places of equal nobility around the city’s Confederate monument. He and his wife, Dorena, live in Franklin and have four children.


People turn to a range of sources for help with a relationship problem, and often seek help from more than one source. These sources can be grouped under three main headings: professional (a professional counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist), spiritual (a pastor, priest or other church leader) and relational (a family member or close friend). Grouping these kinds of support can help analysts better understand their overall effectiveness.

well-being among those who have sought help

Turning to a spiritual source of support consistently correlates with more positive reports of satisfaction with relationships, of satisfaction with life and of feeling loved. (This section focuses mainly on practicing Christians, but these trends are also observed in the general population.) Satisfaction rates of those who turn only to professional help are lowest by comparison, with relational support falling between the other two types. A caveat: We want to caution against concluding that professional help is less effective. What does seem clear is that a holistic approach—one that accounts for the spiritual dynamics of relationships—is often more effective than one-dimensional help.

Many people turn to more than one type of help, and the same trend of satisfaction correlated to spiritual support holds in various combinations. Practicing Christians who turn to relational and spiritual (but not professional) help are most likely to “always” be satisfied with their relationships (36%), satisfied with life (30%) and feeling loved (61%). By contrast, those with relational and professional (but no spiritual) support are least likely to report “always” being satisfied with their relationships (21%), being satisfied with life (13%) or feeling loved (23%).

Additionally, practicing Christians who turn to spiritual sources of support are less likely to distance themselves from a church during a personal crisis (71% “never”), compared to 57 percent of those with relational help and 43 percent with professional help.

This seems like a good time to remind us all that correlation does not imply causation. That is, seeking relationship support from a church leader doesn’t necessarily cause greater relational satisfaction. What we can say, however, is that spiritual help plays an important role in subjective relationship satisfaction, a role that is sometimes overlooked by the wider culture.

Let’s take a closer look at the kinds of help churches offer.

Pastoral Teaching & Counseling

How often are relationship topics raised at church? Four out of five practicing Christians say they received at least some teaching about marriage (86%) and parenting (81%). Seven in 10 say they heard teaching on addiction (70%), relationship crises (68%) and loneliness (67%) at church, followed by three out of five who heard about anxiety (63%) or depression (62%). Significantly fewer recall hearing about singleness (53%), pornography (47%) or sexual intimacy (42%); more than half say they have “never” heard church leaders talk about pornography (53%) or sexual intimacy (58%). This is a missed opportunity to speak into people’s lives about issues that impact their everyday realities and relationships.

Six in 10 practicing Christians whose church leaders talked about sensitive topics say that those conversations were helpful (60%). About one-quarter (23%) says it was neither helpful nor harmful, and 16 percent say the church’s discussions were a mixed bag—sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful. If more pastors can learn biblically and relationally sound ways to talk about tough topics, this represents a real opportunity to engage more with struggling churchgoers.

Congregants’ reports align fairly well with what pastors say. Of the topics included in the survey, marriage and parenting are most often covered in their teaching. Eighty-six percent of pastors address marriage at least once a year, including 55 percent who did so more than twice a year. Eighty-one percent address parenting at least annually, and 50 percent more than twice annually. Pornography, healthy sexuality and singleness, topics pastors address less frequently, are also the issues congregants report hearing about least. Singleness is least likely to be addressed by a pastor (41% at least once a year, including 10% more than twice a year) and most likely to be omitted altogether (22% never). (Many single Christians attest to this omission.) Again, this gap represents room for churches to stretch into areas where people would like gospel-centered help for their everyday lives.

how often do you teach on each topic

Pastors’ choice of topics is linked to their awareness of congregational needs. Pastors who discuss sensitive topics frequently with their church also more often report believing their congregants struggle with those sorts of things. For example, those who talk about marriage, singleness, parenting and healthy sexuality at least once a year are more likely to perceive marriage problems (62% vs. 43% pastors who address marriage less often), parenting problems (65% vs. 42%), issues with sexual intimacy (30% vs. 17%) or unwanted singleness (24% vs 19%) among their congregants. Pastors who teach on anxiety and depression at least once a year have a greater tendency than those who seldom or never address these issues to see anxiety (62% vs. 39%) or depression (53% vs. 29%) as common problems.

Feedback from congregants plays at least some role in shaping a pastor’s perception of their congregation’s needs. Marriage (70%) and parenting (67%) are the topics most pastors report being “encouraged to discuss,” followed by anxiety (61%) and depression (56%). Pastors are most likely to be “discouraged to discuss”—whether directly or indirectly— topics related to healthy sexuality (5%) and pornography (6%).

Recall that practicing Christians report anxiety and depression as the top issues that impact their relationships, followed by loneliness, unwanted singleness, grief and sexual intimacy. Marriage and parenting problems are less frequently identified as causing problems, beating out only pornography and addiction. This mismatch between congregants’ personal struggles and what they’d like to hear about from their pastor suggests that people are willing to be vulnerable about some needs more than others.

Also a factor is a pastor’s sense of adequacy and preparedness to help people with certain issues. Barna’s The State of Pastors study found that “counseling / people problems” is the top area of ministry for which pastors wish they had been better prepared.13 Except for a death in the family, a majority in the Restoring Relationships pastor cohort says they feel only “somewhat equipped” to help someone navigate their relational difficulty. One in five reports feeling “not at all equipped” to handle unwanted prolonged singleness (21%), issues with sexual intimacy (21%) and addiction (19%). When it comes to churchgoers’ struggles with anxiety and depression, two-thirds of pastors say they feel “somewhat equipped” to help. There is a correlation between feeling equipped to navigate depression or anxiety and talking more frequently about mental health. One-quarter of those who talk about mental illness at least once a year (25%) feels “very equipped,” while just one in 10 of those who seldom talk about depression or anxiety (10%) feels the same confidence.

Overall, non-mainline pastors feel more equipped to guide people through relationship difficulties than mainline leaders. This is a particular area of strength for evangelical and charismatic pastors, whose theological traditions emphasize the personally transformational aspects of the gospel—and whose witness is worth celebrating!

And here’s some additional encouragement for church leaders: Among practicing Christians who have sought out a church leader for help with a relationship problem, a large majority (83%) says he or she handled the knowledge of their trouble “well” or “very well.”

Given that pastors and priests are typically seen as responsible for pastoral care, it is encouraging and appropriate that the overwhelming majority (94%) has received some kind of training in this area. Formal coursework is the most common means, with almost two-thirds (64%) having received class training; most pastors with seminary degrees say counseling coursework was part of their degree program (70%), indicating that seminaries recognize the need to equip their graduates to serve in this area. Slightly more than half of senior pastors and priests (55%) have received on-the-job training in therapy, counseling or congregational care. A small minority has completed supervised clinical work (11%), earned a master’s degree in therapy or counseling (6%) or obtained a therapist license (1%).

how well equipped are you to address each topic

Most senior pastors say they and other ministry leaders participated in some kind of training for relationship counseling at least once in the past three years. Books and media about fostering healthy relationships and / or mental health are by far the most common resource: Three-quarters of senior pastors and priests (78%) and one-third of other church leaders (35%) have turned to a book or other media for training. Half of senior pastors and (49%) one-quarter of other leaders (27%) attended a conference within the past three years. Local training through one’s church is utilized by 43 percent of pastors and one-quarter of other leaders (24%).

Healthy Ways to Help the Opposite Sex

A Q&A with Thema S. Bryant-Davis and Cameron Lee

THEMA S. BRYANT-DAVIS, PhD, is professor of psychology at Pepperdine University and is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

CAMERON LEE, PhD, is professor of family studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he has taught since 1986. He is author of nine books, including three on the life of pastors and their families, and serves as a teaching pastor himself. As a Certified Family Life Educator, he regularly conducts marriage and relationship workshops in congregations.


Pastors whose churches offer in-house counseling—whether pastoral or professional—are more likely to say they feel “very equipped” to help their congregants navigate each of the relational issues (an increase of eight to 20 percentage points, compared to churches without inhouse counseling). Seventy-one percent of senior pastors say they offer pastoral counseling themselves; one in five says another pastor on staff offers pastoral counseling (19%); and one in 10 says a professional counselor is available at the church. Two-thirds say they refer to professionals outside the church (64%). A small minority (6%) says they offer no counseling services at all.

When churches offer some kind of in-house counseling services, practicing Christians show greater confidence in the trustworthiness of their church as a source of support. These congregants are more likely to say their church can “definitely” be trusted with private or personal issues than those whose church offers no counseling services (60% vs. 27%). They are also more likely to say their church can be trusted to help with such issues (57% vs. 49%), that their church “definitely” cares about people (70% vs. 59%) and helps people develop healthy relationships (51% vs. 39%), and that their church is available to help with personal issues like a relationship problem (57% vs. 50%). They are also more likely to say it’s helpful when church leaders address sensitive topics related to relationship problems and to credit their church with strengthening their faith “a lot.”

Unsurprisingly, practicing Christians who have a personal relationship with their pastor are more likely than those who don’t to also respond positively in these areas. Both in-house counseling and a personal connection with a pastor bolster the reputation of the church as a safe haven.

Drawing Close to or Backing Away from Church

More often than not, practicing Christians’ relationship with their church deepens during relational difficulty. Among those who remember their relationship with the church moving in one direction or another, seven in 10 say they have grown closer to a church because of a personal crisis (69% vs. 31% who have not). This positive indication of effective support, however, is tempered by also noting that one-third recalls having distanced themselves from a church during a personal crisis (33% vs. 67% who have not).

Pastors are aware of both outcomes. Almost all pastors know of someone who has gotten closer to the church they shepherd because of a personal crisis (95% vs. 5% who say they do not know of someone for whom this is true). On the other hand, more than eight in 10 can recall someone who has distanced themselves from the church they lead as the result of a personal crisis (83% vs. 17% who say they do not know of someone for whom this is true).

Sadly, the top reason given by practicing Christians who have distanced themselves from a church is “I felt I couldn’t be honest about myself and my life” (35%). Other reasons center on relational discord, including disagreement with church teaching (17%), disliking treatment by church leaders (15%) and disliking treatment by other congregants (16%).

A closer look at those who have distanced themselves during a personal crisis—a group that tends to trend lower in age—reveals a population with numerous relational challenges. They acknowledge having difficult childhoods that negatively impact their present-day relationships (32% vs. 14% those who have not distanced themselves from church). They are less likely to have always felt loved (49% vs. 63%), safe (47% vs. 65%) and understood (17% vs. 29%) while they were growing up, and more likely to have felt lonely (28% vs. 12%). At present they are also less likely to presently feel loved always (44% vs. 58%), satisfied with their relationships (70% vs. 81%) and satisfied with life (65% vs. 82%). They are more likely to have been touched by trauma related to divorce (43% vs. 38%), infidelity (56% vs. 28%), depression or anxiety (73% vs. 43%), addiction (42% vs. 19%) and pornography or sexual addiction (28% vs. 15%).

Hearteningly, separating from a particular church does not necessarily mean people give up on church altogether. One in five says they looked for another church after leaving the one where they didn’t find the support they were seeking (20%).

In many cases, pastors can have enormous influence on churchgoers’ relationship to the church during relational crises. Consider this: If a church leader is honest and forthcoming about his or her own struggles, “I felt I couldn’t be honest about myself and my life” is less likely to be an inhibiting issue for congregants! So often, good leadership means leading by example—and that includes healthy, godly ways of dealing with problems. The more pastors honestly talk about the real stuff of relationships, the more people will know that honest talk is the way forward.

Previous Section

How are Relationships Under Pressure?

Read Section
Next Section

Conclusion: Partners in Restoration

Read Section