Exploring race differences in the relationship between social interaction with the clergy and feelings of self-worth in late life.

Author:Krause, Neal

Ever since sociologists began to study religion, they placed a major emphasis on social relationships in the church. In fact, for some, church-based social ties were the very essence of religion itself. Simmel (1905), for example, went to great lengths to underscore the social foundation of religion. More specifically, he argued that, 'The individual feels himself bound to a universal, to something higher, from which he came and into which he will return, from which he differs and to which he is nonetheless identical. All these emotions, which meet as in a focal point in the idea of Cod, can be traced back to the relationship that the individual sustains with the species..." (Simmel 1905:371-372). Similar views emerged in the early work of psychiatrists as well. This may be seen, for example, in Alfred Adler's (1956) research on social interest. Adler defined social interest as a community feeling, a sense of solidarity with others. Sounding much like Simmel (1905), he argued that, "The primal energy which wa s so effective in establishing regulative religious goals was none other than that of social feeling. This was meant to bind human beings more closely with one another" (Adler 1956:462).

More recently, a growing number of studies have focused on empirically evaluating social ties in the church (Taylor and Chatters 1986). Some of this research has focused on the relationship between church-based social ties and physical (Krause 2002a) as well as mental health (Krause, Ellison, and Wulff 1998), while other studies have explored social relationships in formal church groups, such as bible study and prayer groups (Wuthnow 1994).

Two key issues that have emerged from research on church-based support form the focal point of the present study. First, research indicates that it is important to take the source of support into consideration when examining church-based social ties (Krause, Ellison, Shaw, Marcum, and Boardman 2001). This means that the social role of the support provider may influence the amount as well as the effectiveness of assistance that is given. It makes sense to think about the source of support when studying social ties in the church because the religious institutions are complex formal organizations consisting of people who occupy a number of different roles. For example, some are members of the clergy, others hold important lay offices in the church (e.g., they are elders or deacons), while most are rank-and-file members. Consequently, the prescriptions associated with these roles may affect the amount as well as the efficacy of support that is provided by people at different points in this hierarchy. But of all t he roles played by people in religious institutions, the role of the pastor may be especially important because members of the clergy occupy the most authoritative and prestigious position in the church (Stark and Bainbridge 1987). As a result, support provided by members of the clergy may be especially beneficial. It is for this reason that the analyses that follow focus specifically on support provided by the pastor.

The second trend that has influenced the research provided below has to do with the potentially important influence of race. More specifically, there is some evidence that African Americans receive and provide more support in church than whites (Krause 2002a). But it is especially important to point out that this study further reveals that blacks receive more support from their ministers than whites. Since church-based support has been shown to be an important source of psychological well-being (Krause et al. 1998), we need to know if receiving pastoral support is associated with well-being, and whether the effects of support from the clergy are stronger for African Americans than whites.

The purpose of this study is to examine the relationship between social support from the clergy and an important marker of psychological well-being: Self-esteem. The discussion that. follows is divided into three sections. First, the theoretical underpinnings of the study are developed in greater detail. Following this, the study sample and survey measures are presented. Finally, the results are reviewed and discussed.


The theoretical rationale for this study is developed below in five sections. First, the critical nature of support provided by the clergy is discussed in greater detail. Second, potential race differences in the relationship between pastoral support and well-being are examined. Third, a rationale is provided for why clerical support may be associated specifically with self-esteem. The emerging theoretical rationale is elaborated and extended in section four. Finally, because the data for this study were provided by a nationwide sample of older adults, the link between pastoral support and self-esteem in late life is examined briefly.

Social Sup port from the Clergy

There are two reasons why social support provided specifically by the clergy may be especially important. First, as Stark and Bainbridge (1987:101) point out, members of the clergy occupy a highly prestigious position in the church, and as a result, they, "... share in the psychic rewards offered to the gods, for example: deference, honor, and adoration." In addition, the minister, more than any other church member, is supposed to embody the core elements of the faith (Lenski 1961). This includes expressing empathy and concern for others as well as being deeply committed to assisting fellow church members. This is important, because the successful provision of social support depends, in part, upon the properties and characteristics of the relationship that is shared by the provider and recipient. More specifically, as Reis and Collins (2000) argue, social support is much more likely to be effective if it is delivered in relationships that are characterized by high levels of trust, commitment, and respect.

Second, one of the formal responsibilities of the clerical role involves tending to the needs of church members. In fact, this duty has become so central to the pastoral role, that a separate journal (Pastoral Counseling) has been devoted to research in this field. The fact that support from the clergy is often provided in a more formal way may have important implications for its effectiveness. Research in the secular literature on social support suggests there are risks inherent in asking for help. More specifically, as Eckenrode and Wethington (1990) point out, people sometimes feel uneasy about asking for support from informal network members because they fear their request for assistance may be rejected. In addition, some people feel that asking for help exposes their inadequacies and their inability to deal with problems and challenges on their own. Seeking help from formal sources (e.g., the clergy) who are officially charged with providing assistance should help alleviate these concerns. The basic prin ciple that is at work here is captured in Frank's (1961) classic study of why psychotherapy is effective. Frank (1961:115) argued that, 'The therapist's power is based on the patient's perception of him as a source of help ..." This perception arises from the sociocultural role of the therapist, including his or her formal training. Although Frank was concerned solely with psychotherapists, the same issues appear to characterize the pastoral role as well.

In addition to the insights provided by Frank (1961), seeking help from the clergy may be especially effective because it provides assurances of confidentiality. An extensive program of qualitative research was initiated in order to develop the measures that are used in the present study (see Krause 2002b). Part of this item development program involved conducting a detailed series of indepth interviews that were designed to learn more about how people view religion and try to implement their faith in daily life. One of the open-ended questions that was administered in these in-depth interviews focused on how support from the pastor might differ from assistance provided by rank-and-file church members. An older black woman captured the confidentiality issue succinctly when she said, "... and then there is the issue of confidentiality too. When you talk to your friends you don't know where the information is going to go from there...but the minister, he's bound to... confidentiality."

In view of the issues discussed above, it is not surprising to find that members of the clergy are consulted frequently for help with personal problems. In fact, there is some evidence that the clergy may even be preferred over other formal sources of support. For example, the widely cited work of Veroff, Kulka, and Douvan (1981) reveals that when personal problems arise, people are more likely to seek assistance from a member of the clergy than from a mental health professional (see also Chalfant, Heller, Roberts, Briones, Aquirre-Hochbaum, and Farr 1990; Neighbors, Musick, and Williams 1998). Based on this research, it is hypothesized that greater support from the clergy will be associated with greater feelings of self-worth.

Research on social support in secular settings reveals that contact with others is not always pleasant and, at times, social interaction may become distressing and conflicted (Rook 1994). This negative interaction may involve criticism, rejection, or the lack of reciprocity. In addition, ineffective helping or excessive helping are also subsumed under the broad rubric of negative interaction as well (Rook and Pietromonaco 1987). Negative interaction is important because, as research conducted in secular settings reveals, it tends to exert a greater effect on health and well-being than the beneficial things that social network members provide (e.g., Pagel, Erdly, and Becker 1987; Rook 1994).

Given this compelling body of literature, it is surprising to find that virtually no one has examined...

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