Christians Struggled with Relational Health Prior to the Crisis—So What Has Changed?


Articles in Faith & Christianity in Leaders & Pastors • September 23, 2020

It’s no surprise that relationships drastically impact our lives. Whether talking about connections to our spouse, family or friends, our ties with others carry weight in our daily lives and inform who we are. Healthy relationships are supportive and life-giving, contributing to our resilience during challenging times (especially among young people), spurring us to grow in faith together and even allowing us to be better parents. Unhealthy relationships—or even a lack of relationships—can leave us feeling drained, lonely and dissatisfied. During the COVID-19 crisis, these negative impacts have been felt even more prominently.

For a recent study on relationships within the Church, Barna partnered with the Boone Center for the Family at Pepperdine University to learn more about where practicing Christians feel pressure in their close connections and where they can turn to for healing and help. The findings from this study are outlined in Restoring Relationships: How Churches Can Help People Heal & Develop Healthy Connections. This new report sheds light on some well-known relational pressure points, including how practicing Christians navigate their nearest relationships, how they stay connected with others and how relational well-being can affect mental health—all topics we’ll take a look at below, with an eye for how the pandemic has amplified stressors to relational health in the Church, including its pastors.

Further analysis of these issues will be presented during Barna’s Restoring Relationships digital summit, a free virtual event taking place on September 30, 2020.

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Half of All U.S. Adults and Practicing Christians Report At Least One Issue Affecting Their Relationships
The relational well-being of Americans was already strained prior to the pandemic. According to data collected for Restoring Relationships, more than half of all U.S. adults (58%) and practicing Christians (54%) say they have at least one relational or emotional / mental health issue that impacts their relationships. Younger generations were also already reporting higher levels of loneliness and a longing for connection. Now, a new layer of complexity and challenge has been added as couples are quarantining and working at home, singles are isolating alone and friends are thinking twice about meeting for coffee. Relational strain has had much more potential to increase in recent months, perhaps exponentially.

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In the early days of the crisis, Barna began conducting weekly pastor surveys to check in on the pulse of Protestant church leaders and their people during the pandemic. Just a month into tracking (April 14-20, 2020), Barna asked pastors about the immediate needs of their congregants. Emotional well-being (34%), spiritual well-being (25%) and relational well-being (23%) topped the list, and these concerns held steady throughout the summer. When Barna asked again (August 13-17, 2020), church leaders responded in higher numbers than before for two of the three needs (28% emotional, 35% spiritual, 27% relational).

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Barna research indicates that challenges to emotional, relational and mental health tend to aggravate one another—that is, if someone is struggling in one of these areas, it’s statistically more likely that they will be struggling in the other two areas as well. Prior to the pandemic, U.S. adults and practicing Christians alike noted anxiety and depression as the most commonly faced challenges to relational satisfaction, with 40 percent of all U.S. adults and 34 percent of practicing Christians saying this is true.

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Currently, One in Five Church Leaders Ranks Their Mental & Emotional Health as Below Average
Practicing Christians are generally confident that their pastor can help them navigate relational struggles. Among those who have experienced a relational hardship, one in three practicing Christians (34%) is likely to turn to a pastor or priest for help.

Per a Barna pastor survey taken early in the pandemic (April 7-13, 2020), a vast majority of U.S. church leaders (89%) says they at least somewhat (65%) or definitely (24%) understand the immediate needs of their congregations regarding mental and emotional health. Even so, during that same survey pastors shared that they were largely not talking about mental or emotional health during their Sunday sermons—while two in five (39%) had broached this topic within the past month, a greater portion either had not (58%) or cannot recall (3%). These percentages did not statistically shift even four months later, when Barna asked the same question of church leaders.

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Congregants, however, are not the only ones feeling relational strain during the crisis: As of mid-May 2020, one in four pastors (26%) says that their relational well-being is a part of life that they’re struggling with the most right now, second only (and, we can assume, intimately tied) to emotional well-being (31%). Pastors  are also struggling with mental health and burnout during the crisis.

As of August 13-17, 2020, while half of U.S. pastors rated their mental and emotional well-being as excellent (12%) or good (38%), a significant amount noted this area of health as average (31%) or below (20%). Contrasted to earlier in the pandemic (April 7-13, 2020) and research from The State of Pastors (2016), these numbers are both sobering and concerning. How can pastors be expected to tend to their churchgoers’ relational, emotional and mental health struggles when they are wrestling challenges of their own?

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Half of Pastors Report Their Church Is Rethinking the Way Congregants Connect with One Another
In early May, Barna asked U.S. adults what they have done differently, if anything, as a result of the pandemic. While practicing Christians report more intentionality in maintaining close and healthy relationships during the crisis (48% vs. 37% non-practicing Christians and 39% no faith), nearly half of all U.S. adults (47%) say their time online or on social media has increased since the pandemic began—a percentage that exceeds the proportion of those who say they are being intentional about staying connected to people they care about (40%).

Generally, faith and church community correlates with stronger connections to loved ones. People naturally seek comfort and support from their closest connections, and recent Barna data (May 2020) show that this is especially true of practicing Christians, who are more likely than other faith segments to say that, in crisis, they feel connected to friends and family and have people to count on, no matter what.

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Four months later, practicing Christians may also be experiencing a bolstered sense of communal support as churches reopen: As of Barna’s most recent pastor survey (August 27-31, 2020), a large proportion of churches is currently open to the public (67%), though 65 percent have social distancing measures in place—precautions that are also widely implemented across the country right now. With personal interactions still significantly altered, half of pastors (55%) say their church is rethinking the way congregants connect with one another. How is that working? What about those outside the church? And even if connections are being facilitated, are those relationships also being strengthened and healed?

On September 30, 2020 Barna will host a free virtual event, in partnership with the Boone Center for the Family at Pepperdine University, to take a deeper look at these issues and more from Restoring Relationships. Throughout the digital summit, data from this new research report will be analyzed with a fresh lens for the current moment and paired with more recent findings to offer pastors and faith leaders valuable insights that can help round out their approach to caring for the relational health of themselves and their people, even in the midst of crisis. Register today!

If you’re interested in learning more about leadership and mental health, check out this interview with therapists Sharon Hargrave and Kelly Haer. 

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About the Research
Restoring Relationships data:
The research from this study includes a total of 2,307 online interviews with U.S. adults ages 18 and older, including 1,003 interviews with all adults in the general population and an additional 1,304 interviews with practicing Christians. Combined with the number of adults who qualified among the general population (n=219), the total number of interviews among practicing Christians is 1,523. Interviews were conducted between March 27 to May 3, 2019. The margin of error among the general population sample (n=1,003) is ±2.9 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level. The margin of error among the practicing Christian sample (n=1,523) is ±2.3 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level.

The research also includes 656 interviews among U.S. clergy, including 604 interviews with Protestant senior pastors and 52 with Catholic priests. Interviews were conducted between March 19 and April 26, 2019. These pastors were recruited from Barna’s pastor panel (a database of pastors recruited via probability sampling on annual phone and email surveys) and are representative of U.S. Protestant and Catholic churches by region, denomination and church size. The margin of error among pastors is ±3.7 percentage points at the 95-percent confidence level.

COVID-19 Pastor Survey data: Barna Group conducted these online surveys among Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–August 31, 2020. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size. 

Data Collection Dates
Week 1, n=222, March 20-23, 2020
Week 2, n=212, March 24-30, 2020
Week 3, n=195, March 31-April 6, 2020
Week 4, n=246, April 7-13, 2020
Week 5, n=204, April 14-20, 2020
Week 6, n=164, April 21-27, 2020
Week 7, n=167, April 28-May 4, 2020
Week 8, n=165, May 5-11, 2020
Week 9, n=184, May 12-18, 2020
Weeks 10 and 11, n=191, May 19-June 1, 2020
Week 12, n=203, June 26-29, 2020
Week 13, n=256, July 9-14, 2020
Week 14, n=285, July 24-26, 2020
Week 15, n=336, August 13-17, 2020
Week 16, n=315, August 27-31, 2020

Caring for Souls in a New Reality data: The statistics and data-based analyses in this study are derived from a national public opinion survey conducted by Barna among 1,000 U.S. adults. Responses were collected online between April 28-May 5, 2020, using a nationally representative panel. The rate of error for this data is +/- 2.2% at the 95% confidence level.

The State of Pastors data: This research was conducted on behalf of Pepperdine University. A total of 900 Protestant senior pastors were interviewed by telephone and online from April through December 2015. Pastors were recruited from publicly available church listings covering 90 percent of U.S. churches that have a physical address and a listed phone number or email address. Churches selected for inclusion were called up to five times at different times of the day to increase the probably of successful contact. The sample error for this study is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.

Practicing Christians are self-identified Christians who say their faith is very important in their lives and have attended a worship service within the past month.

Featured image by Dustin Belt on Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2020

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