The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology


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It allows room also for ethical as well as theological reflection, brings into relief questions of divergent values and cultural beliefs, and forces the pastor to confront "the problems of pluralism and relativism in contemporary society" Gerkin , Subroles of Pastoral Counseling Counseling is one of the many roles of the pastor. The power of narrative can play an important part in fulfilling that role, although this power need not be dependent on the sometimes excessive claims made on behalf of narrative such as the following: Our need for meaning originally expresses itself in the narrative mode.

Storytelling implies an intelligible, coherent, and meaningful existence. Stories of God affirm the conviction that order prevails over chaos and that reality is intelligible. The world is, in the end, understandable; the absurd does not have the final say. Reality is story. Reality cannot be reduced to a concept or thing; reality is dynamic. This includes drastic changes in being and irreversible movements in time. Reality encompasses trivial and magnificent stupidities, comical and tragic disparities, and mysteries beyond solution.

Reality, that plot with a meaningful conclusion, is usually full of surprises and mystery Eberhardt , Although Eberhardt goes on to provide valuable guidance for the telling of and listening to stories, the passage cited is the kind of overstatement unfortunately characteristic of some of the writing on narrative in relation to theology and pastoral care.

One wonders whether someone who writes that "stories of God affirm the conviction that order prevails over chaos and that reality is intelligible" could ever have read the Book of Job, attempted to reconcile the commentary of the Hebrew prophets with the actual lived history of Israel, or reflected deeply enough on the passion of Christ; one wonders why the internal contradiction of saying that "reality is intelligible" on the one hand and "full of surprises and mystery" on the other has escaped his notice. If the history of the novel since Henry James, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and William Faulkner tells us anything at all, it tells us that both plots and meaningful conclusions are difficult to come by in the modern and postmodern world, and at the very least will require a hermeneutic of such complexity, irony, suspicion, and comprehensiveness as are not likely to be found in pastoral encounters, nor accommodated in the abbreviated pastoral visit that is the norm in church ministry today.

We mustn't let such overexuberant claims for narrative deter us, however, from discovering the utility of narrative for pastoral counseling. Within the context of narrative theology we can perhaps identify subroles of the pastoral counselor, three of which may be witness, story guide, and theologian. The pastor as witness Using scriptural warrant, Nigel Robb proposes the figure of the witness as a model for pastoral care and counseling, and, building on his understanding of Paul Ricoeur, he identifies four aspects of the pastoral caregiver as witness: 1 Pastoral caregivers are called i.

Yet the witness is a person who is honest and open, refusing to take the option of Job's comforters when the sufferer experiences the absence of God. The pastoral caregiver as witness uses "reflective listening skills" and demonstrates "empathy and understanding. For the person receiving care, the purpose of the pastor as witness "is to aid the development of a realistic view of themselves and others, and an acceptance of the present situation so that they can function appropriately and still have long term goals and visions" Robb , As witnesses pastors will guard against the temptation to assert that empathizing with the other implies that they experience the actual pain of the suffering person.

As true witnesses, the pastor is simply "called to watch. Finally, the pastor as witness will accept a role as advocate, the "public role in questioning the moral, ethical or legal systems which in his or her experience, inflict pain and unnecessary suffering on others" Robb , 8. While being sensitive to the individual pain of the sufferer, the pastor as witness can help her or him see the experience in the larger perspective of systemic forces, whether they be just or unjust, nurturing or neglectful.

The pastor as story guide As noted above, Culbertson provides a seven-step process for the pastor to assist the individual in framing a personal narrative and in refraining various reinterpretations and revisions Culbertson , Capps elaborates a story model in contradistinction to the prevailing systems model for family therapy to raise up the importance of self-determination and self-differentiation of the individual over against the equilibrium of the family system. He emphasizes the minister's role as an interpreter of the story of the person seeking counseling, and likens this activity to what happens in an adult Bible study group.

Wimberly has also provided a framework for the pastor to use narrative as a guide toward personhood, and sees the role of the pastor — "or what the writer calls the 40 minister as 'story guide'" — as "helping others to visualize their hope" The pastor will first take note of the six components that Wimberly identifies as narrative content: 1 self identity, or clues to the person's self-perception; 2 social contexts, or where the person is located in the larger society and how she or he experiences it; 3 interpersonal relationships, including family members, friends, and others in community, work, church, school, and other settings; 4 life events, both positive and negative, arising out the various social contexts and interpersonal relationships in the individual's life, and including those that are cause for celebration and those that bring hardship, suffering, or grief; 5 life meanings, or the significance that the individual attributes to events, people, and themes in their lives, and the questions he or she has about life's direction and purpose; and 6 story plot, or how the individual chooses to act over time, reflecting or not the basic themes that run through the narrative.

Wimberly proposes that we see faith issues as an integral part of our examination of the content of narratives and as part of any process for guiding hopeful stories. It is important to give credence to religious meanings intertwined in personal narratives.

This emphasis is also important when we are dealing with a process focused on hope because hoping, at its core, is deeply theological For work with what she calls "growth groups," Wimberly articulates a four-phase process of "story-linking," each phase consisting of several specific activities. Participants are invited to link their stories with a particular Bible story or text, and of particular note are the points where participants are asked, "Where is God at work in your life?

First, he counsels us to attend to the power of language and the texture of words to transform the human heart. Next, he recommends skillful listening, through which we integrate the stories we hear into our own story and by which we convey a sense of presence to the storyteller.

Thirdly, he warns us not to moralize, and to allow the multiplicity of meanings that a story can generate. Finally, he advises us to attend to the attitude of the teller and reminds us that "quality storytelling demands integrity, trust, and vision" Eberhardt , The pastor as theologian In and amidst the programmatic activity of pastoral ministry, as Michael Purcell argues in "Pastoral Ministry as Theology" , we need to clear spaces "within which theology can emerge," for "pastoral ministry opens on to theology, and theology draws its inspiration from the pastoral life of the Church.

Purcell draws on the existentialism of Heidegger, the liberation theology of Boff, and the cultural critique of Gramsci to indicate how the practicing pastor 1 listens for the "life of God in his people" breaking into the life of the Church; 2 responds to the grace of this in-breaking by allowing theology to arise reflectively out of praxis; and 3 acts as the organic intellectual who does not call the people to an orthodoxy of belief faithful to scripture and tradition, but who rather assists the people in recognizing "that 42 tradition itself is organic and continuing, and that God still speaks in the lives of his people" As pastors We are already organic intellectuals" The practicing pastor, then, is a practicing, constructive theologian, and not merely a purveyor of theology that has been absorbed in seminary.

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We strive to see the face of God in every suffering person we meet, and to see the story of God in every person's story, and in the end, perhaps, our striving makes it so: these human stories are God's unfolding story, and we are called to enter into them in the compassionate, Christ-like ways that God has described for us. Krug offers some down-to-earth examples of how we can read our story into God's story, and God's story into ours. Lynch and Willows debate whether the theological task "is to make God's story fit with the story of our lives" or "to find ourselves narrated into God's story" Lynch and Willows , However we as pastors understand which story comes first — and there are undoubtedly traps in both understandings — hearing the human stories of our parishioners can help us to develop our anthropology along with our theology.

For, I would contend, if the central historical fact of our faith is the incarnation, the injection of God into human history by Godself becoming human, then, in addition to a developing theology, in addition to continually imagining who God is, we need also a developing anthropology. We need to 43 work continually on our idea of what being human is.


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Only then are we working toward a theology of the incarnation in all its fullness. Applications of Narrative Counseling in Pastoral Care Several applications of narrative approaches to pastoral situations have been reported in the literature. The following examples address specific populations and issues that will be of concern to ministry across a variety of settings.

Stories allow pastors a more complete view of the person, and thus to treat the whole child and not just the condition. It is important for pastors to develop an awareness of one's own stories, "how our individual narrative influences and shapes our world view, our understanding of the human condition, and how we hear, interpret, and respond to the narratives of others" Theologically, the pastoral caregiver using story provides "a chance to guide the child or adolescent to listen to the truth of the master, sacred story that they've inherited from their community of meaning.

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Listening to the sacred story of the religious community provides necessary guidance in making it through what often appears to be the amoral, ambiguous dilemmas ofourage" Drawn from experiences in chaplaincy and pastoral counseling, this pastoral counselor argues that in stories "we see virtues unfold that make good work possible — patience, dedication, compassion, courage, gentleness. We discover complex spiritual practices that prepare the worker's soul" Theologically, "we sense the healing and redeeming activity of God mediated through daily work routines.

We re-member our broken off fragments of self and world and become centered in what makes us whole. We remember ourselves, reassemble our souls, and feel for a moment a sacred wholeness. We know that some small labors of our lives are linked to the Great, on-going Labor of the Creation 38, Here again, we are reminded of the theological move of imitatio dei as an antidote to narcissism. The narrative model does not begin in categorical judgment, but "requires listening to the individual's story in order to determine merit and to provide support for her or his needs for wholeness" Theologically, through the pastoral use of narratives, "the lesbian or gay individual is allowed space to free herself or himself from the pathology of self-denial or self-hatred.

In these narratives, the individuals moved beyond the feelings of shame and guilt and low self-esteem to a state of peace, experiencing God's love, care and presence in her or his life" In particular, allowing poor persons to tell their narratives combats the diagnostic and objectifying oppression of labeling them as "the poor," with the automatic attribution of all the socially undesirable traits that such labeling entails.

The poor person, "through re-authoring her life. Theologically, "as we enter into each other's stories, we reduce the tendency toward distance and moral detachment which, when divorced from experience, substitutes cognition for pathos and defends the vested interests of middle-class 'absentee advocates. There in the food pantry, the workers are genuinely, and actively engaged in Christ-like loving of their neighbor" Summary of Pastoral Applications of Narrative Theology Lynch and Willows provide a useful summary of the ways in which narratives can be used in pastoral care: The qualities, skills and boundaries utilised by pastoral practitioners will have a significant influence on the degree to which their clients feel able to narrate their experience openly in those relationships.

At the same time, however, pastoral carers and counsellors may sometimes feel it is necessary to engage actively with the stories that their clients tell in order to enable truer, or fuller, or more constructive narratives to be developed. For example, it may be helpful to focus on recurrent themes or story-lines which dominate the way in which a client describes their experiences and which exclude other possibilities.

Alternatively, drawing on narrative approaches developed within family therapy, pastoral practitioners may wish to try to help their clients to 're-author' their stories, deconstructing versions of events which are unhelpful or hopeless and reconstructing new stories which offer the client more hope and meaning.

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The pastoral carer or counsellor might also wish to attend to the wider cultural stories whether religious or not which influence the individual stories told by their client, and to 46 challenge these wider cultural narratives where these are oppressive or damaging. In actively engaging with clients' narratives, pastoral practitioners can understand their work in psychological terms as the uncovering and narration of previously unexpressed experience.


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Or in political terms, this process can be seen as the challenging of accounts of existence which deny or distort experience. Alternatively, this engagement can be understood in theological terms as a process of helping clients to tell their stories in a way that is closer to the truth and meaning that lies at the heart of our existence Lynch and Willows , It will be noted that only the first of the specific applications discussed above involves a situation that would be reflected in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV.

Many of the situations a pastoral caregiver will encounter, in fact, have nothing to do with psychopathology or family dysfunction. Thus, in so far as narrative therapy is proposed as a alternative paradigm to those deriving from classical psychodynamic theories and their successors, it may provide a more appropriate lens and a more effective set of tools to deal with the variety of counseling issues that today's pastor might face. Moreover, especially in creatively synthesizing understandings such as Gerkin's, narrative allows us to integrate attention to the spiritual dimensions of our parishioners' lives, to support them in their project of soul-making, and to deepen their personal relationship with God.

In the final chapter, I suggest how this might be done in a specific area of pastoral concern: the care of those who are dying or those who are bereaved. For the survivors, death disrupts our lives, stresses our physical and emotional coping systems, and may leave us vulnerable to depression and illness.

For Christian believers, it is naturally a time when they turn even more faithfully to God for guidance and support. But for believers and nonbelievers alike, this time of disruption can be an opportunity to deepen and enrich our relationship to God; it can also be a time when that relationship is severely tested and even damaged.

In the course of human development, there are milestone events, such as a child's starting school, or reaching puberty, or graduating from high school or college, or leaving the house to start an independent life. The death of our grandparents and parents are also normal developmental milestones.

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Unanticipated death, such as the death of a child, or death by violence, are violations of the expected progression of time, and are therefore not milestones in the same sense. They violate our sense of life's natural progression; we cannot see them coming, nor do we ordinarily plan ahead for them. But in the relationship with God that is continuously woven for each of us as the fabric of our lives, death itself — whether anticipated or unanticipated — along with the grief it brings, should always be considered an inevitable part of life.


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As such, every death is a milestone, a learning moment, an invitation to bring the divine into clearer focus. This final chapter of my essay on narrative theology is a reflection on some of the ways in which the experience of death, loss, and grief, for both the dying person and the loved ones, can function as a milestone in our relationship to God. With the insights of narrative theology and narrative counseling as context and prologue, I hope to show how this set of normal human experiences can provide opportunities to explicate the text of our lives in relation to God.

I posit that the encounter with God can be during any of four phases of the process of loss and grief: 1 the time while the beloved person is in the process of decline and death; 2 the reminiscence by the survivors of the beloved one's life; 3 the period of grief and mourning; 4 and the period of reintegration, when grief has subsided, and the bereaved have come back to something like their "normal life. The approach taken here shares an objective with an interesting and useful article by Reisz , who develops a pastoral theology for the ministry to the dying by "reflecting upon the psychological-emotional stages of dying in light of their expression of a person's relationship with God and God's presence with and for them" 1 By correlating the stages of grief, or emotional states, proposed by Kiibler-Ross with Paul Tillich's principles of new being awareness, freedom, relatedness, and transcendence , Reisz provides practical guidelines for pastoral ministry that support Tillich's principles for "what is necessary to be meaningfully human and living" Might the person pull through after all?

Will the person last long enough to attend the grandchild's wedding or see the new baby? Will the person's suffering increase before the end? When outcomes are unclear and there are specific things we want, we may begin to test our relationship to God. I've led a good life for you, and, if you're really up there, you'll come through with the outcome I need.

We bargain for recovery, for a peaceful and painless death, for survival just long enough to see some major event. Like Moses, Gideon, and others in scripture, we ask that God perform some specific tricks to show that God really exists, that God has power, that it has really been worthwhile to believe in God. We may threaten, consciously or not, to withdraw our belief if God does not "come through.

Hope is as necessary as oxygen to a life fully lived. James Cone tells us, "Without hope you die, and there are a lot of dead people walking around out there" quoted in Richardson , Life-threatening illness or injury is a major turning point in an individual narrative, and a growing body of medical and nursing literature indicates that at these junctures "hope enhances the quality and even the quantity of life.

The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology
The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology
The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology
The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology
The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology
The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology The Skilled Pastor: Counseling as the Practice of Theology

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