Introduction to Pastoral Counseling

Introduction to Pastoral Counseling

by Loren Townsend

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Grounded in empirical research and richly illustrated with case studies, this introduction continues the theoretical, practical, and theological expansion of Pastoral Care and Counseling. Because of increasing cultural diversity and the fact that more training is done outside of seminaries in non-seminary related colleges and universities, there is fragmentation in


Grounded in empirical research and richly illustrated with case studies, this introduction continues the theoretical, practical, and theological expansion of Pastoral Care and Counseling. Because of increasing cultural diversity and the fact that more training is done outside of seminaries in non-seminary related colleges and universities, there is fragmentation in the discipline. This makes a coherent orientation to pastoral care and counseling as a ministry increasingly difficult. To address this confusion, author, Loren Townsend, calls us to readdress basic understandings. He also makes the case that pastoral identity can function as a unifying concept.

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Introduction to Pastoral Counseling

By Loren Townsend

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2009 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-4619-2


Pastoral Counseling: A Genealogy

The Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling defines pastoral counseling as a twentieth-century phenomenon. It emerged among North American Protestant pastors who incorporated new psychological information into their ministries, and by midcentury it had become a ministry specialty requiring distinctive training. However, pastoral counselors claim a genealogy anchored in ancient Hebrew and Christian understanding of care, expanded through the history of the Western Christian church and the Protestant Reformation, and later focused in the confluence of modern theology and behavioral sciences in late nineteenth century Europe and North America. This genealogy highlights contemporary pastoral counseling's Euro-American characteristics and the dominant Protestant, clerical interpretive tradition that anchors its identity. It also shows that pastoral care and counseling were central factors in shaping congregational life and clergy practice in American history. Equally important, historical review helps us appreciate what practices, traditions, and people are marginalized or excluded by the particularity of this genealogy.

Context: Judeo-Christian Care of the Soul

In his Introduction to Pastoral Care, Charles Gerkin noted that structured care and counseling extends "back as far as the collective memories of the Christian community can be extended." This foundation has sustained care and counseling for nearly two millennia. He observed that the oldest Judeo-Christian model of care rests on a threefold tradition. Prophets, priests, and wise women and men were responsible for helping God's people organize life effectively. Each had a unique focus—prophets assured continuity of tradition, priests organized worship, and wise men and women provided practical guidance in daily life. The constancy of these three elements through history led Gerkin to conclude that care of God's people always rests in a "trialogical tension and interaction" among these three central elements of care. This tension was consolidated in Jesus, "the good shepherd." Central to the Gospel of John, this metaphor depicts Jesus' ministry as the unified expression of wisdom (parables), prophetic action (cleansing of the temple), and priestly leadership (relationship with his followers). It was a metaphor so compelling that "shepherd of the flock" became the prototypical image of a pastor in the early church.

The Synoptic Gospels contain details of Jesus' ministry that anticipate pastoral counseling practices. In A History of the Cure of Souls, John McNeill observed that synoptic writers emphasize Jesus' difference from other scribes, rabbis, teachers, and masters of wisdom. While he was sometimes called Rabbi (and may have had rabbinic training), Jesus appears most often as a healer of souls who conversationally engaged male and female disciples, public leaders, and moral outcasts. Unlike other religious leaders, his ministry was marked by a clear focus on human need and God's care for those who suffer. Instead of gathering large crowds intentionally, Jesus seemed to prefer transformational conversations with individuals or small groups. These were often structured to encourage lively dialogue that led others to discover important truths, or to offer spiritual renewal and rest. McNeill pointed to gospel stories such as the rich ruler (Mark 10:17-22), Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), Jesus' encounter with the Syrophoenecian woman (Matt 15:21-28), his conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-10), and his encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4:7-14) as characteristic of Jesus' personal, conversational approach.

Jesus' example as "good shepherd" was carried into the early church by pastors who responded personally to human need. Their interventions nurtured and protected Christian faith and offered guidance for living. The Apostle Paul expressed this through his "anxiety for all the churches" (2 Cor 11:28), which motivated him frequently to provide practical—and sometimes very personal— guidance to congregations and individual church leaders. His letters are rich with examples of pastoral responses to specific problems. These included, for example, questions of sexual ethics (1 Cor 7:1-9), decision making in situations of personal difference (Rom 14:2-12), personal failure and depression (2 Cor 1:8, 11), marital problems (Eph 4–5), divorce (1 Cor 7:10-16), self-destructive lifestyles (1 Cor 5:4-6; 2 Cor 2:5-11; Gal 6:1), and mutual support within the community of believers (Rom 14:7, 15, 19; 1 Thess 5:11). Paul's personal greetings expressed care for individuals and showed that he often knew the cast of characters in an unfolding drama. His interventions addressed specific personalities and interpreted the local context of specific problems.

In their analysis of pastoral care, Clebsch and Jaekle note that through most of Christian history, pastoral has described a specific constellation "of helping acts, done by representative Christian persons, directed toward the healing, sustaining, guiding, and reconciling of troubled persons whose troubles arise in the context of ultimate meanings and concerns" (italics in original). Care begins when an individual experiencing an insoluble problem that exhausts personal resources turns to a person who represents the resources, wisdom, and authority of religion. This person need not be clergy or an official representative of a faith tradition. However, pastoral does specifically require one who offers care to be grounded in the resources of a specific faith tradition, to have access to the wisdom generated by the heritage of Christians' experience, and to be able to claim the authority of a "company of believers." This foundation allows a pastoral carer to engage troubled persons at the point of deepest meaning. Deep religious meaning and ultimate concerns are often hidden or unconscious. Pastoral carers must have skills to respond to ultimate concerns that are expressed implicitly through problems in living.

Clebsch and Jaekle identify four basic functions of pastoral care that emerged in the early church (healing, sustaining, guiding, and reconciling) and trace how these are variously emphasized through eight "epochs" of Western church history. For instance, while examples of all four functions can be found in records of care from the period of church persecution (and again in Reformation years), pastors were more often concerned with reconciliation than with healing, guiding, or sustaining. On the other hand, guiding took a focal role in the period of church consolidation after Constantine and during the Dark Ages. The medieval church codified care in a sacramental system to emphasize illness and healing. During the Enlightenment, care was organized around sustaining souls in a treacherous world, and care in post-Christendom (late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) emphasized pluralism, voluntarism, and guidance toward personal value systems and norms. Charles Gerkin appropriates this epochal story of Western Christian history to develop his thesis that pastoral care is always formed in a specific social location that must balance four tensions. Care must attend (1) to the foundational tradition that grounds faith and practice within the Christian community, (2) to the life of the community of faith itself, (3) to the needs and problems of individuals and families, and (4) to the "issues and concerns of the contemporary cultural context." Pastoral care, Gerkin asserts, is always culturally situated and shaped by the interaction of these factors in particular times and places. American history provided a unique context that helped shape pastoral counseling into a twentieth-century specialized ministry and professional practice.

Context: Care and Counseling in American Religious Life

In A History of Pastoral Care in America, Brooks Holifield charted the genealogical heritage of twentieth-century pastoral care and counseling. His analysis describes pastoral counseling as a ministry specialty that emerged more than three hundred years ago as the American Protestant church focused its mission in pastoral care. This was part of a larger interactive sociopolitical story that included changes in American culture and economy, chan ges in how the church and ministers were seen in society, profound advances in medicine and psychology, and theologians' efforts to interpret these shifts and integrate them into a vision for American religious life. Holifield notes that American pastors

brought to their tasks conflicting traditions, clashing temperaments, disparate methods of "pastoral conversation," and differing views of theology. Indeed, to trace the changing styles of "pastoral care" in America is to tell a story of transformations in theology, psychology, and society.... If one listens throughout a period of three centuries, one can trace a massive shift in clerical consciousness—a transition from salvation to self-fulfillment—which reveals some of the forces that helped to ensure "the triumph of the therapeutic" in American culture.

In practice, this meant that the central focus of care in the church shifted from concern with salvation and church membership to personal counseling. Rapid evolution of psychological and clinical sciences was central to this changing vision of the central needs of the human person. While theology and ministry had always interacted with the psychologies of their day, Holifield sees America as a special case. American religious thought coalesced around introspective piety that required pastors to know something of parishioners' inner world. This influence was powerful enough for him to claim that "America became a nation of psychologists in part because it had once been a land of Pietists." This basic relationship between religion and psychology, nurtured by the trajectory of American social and political life over three centuries, created a context from which pastoral counseling emerged as a Protestant ministry specialty.

Holifield's text is a foundational document for chaplains and pastoral counselors. I strongly encourage pastoral counselors to read the complete text. My purpose here is to summarize central dimensions of his historical account and to develop several themes that help us understand how pastoral counseling became a specialized practice.

Care in Early American History

Early American pastoral care reflected social and theological issues of the time. Though approaches to care were embedded in four separate Christian traditions—Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, and Reformed—all were anchored one way or another in helping parishioners manage sin in their internal life. The purpose of care was to foster spiritual growth. Pastors were expected to be expert on inner experience, equipped to help people become sensitive to sin, and able to map personal progress toward religious growth. How pastors understood this was firmly grounded in the American intellectual context. Seventeenth-century pastoral manuals showed a dynamic interplay between pastoral activity, changing social conditions, and innovations in American theology, philosophy, psychology, and ethics. The result was not so much a systematic theology of care as it was a "complex of inherited ideas and images subject to continued modification in changing social and intellectual settings." Care during this period reflected the hierarchies of a colonial social order, most clearly seen in a theological dichotomy between body and soul. People experienced problems in living because they defied established order, especially supernatural authority. This was an internal problem since defiance expressed failure of "higher" mental and spiritual functions to control "lower" dimensions of physicality. Pastoral care most often was wise counsel to support an internal life of obedience. One grew spiritually by learning to subject bodily life to the rule of the spirit, and by obeying God, the highest of all authorities.

The Great Awakening of the mid-1700s added complexity to this hierarchical notion. In the light of revivalism, "Old Light" and "New Light" religious leaders debated how emotion and rationality should be balanced in spiritual growth. New Light revivalists called for primacy of emotional experience while Old Light pastors challenged the effectiveness or appropriateness of emotion unbridled from reason. This struggle pressed disagreeing pastoral theologians such as Charles Chauncy, Jonathan Edwards, and Gilbert Tennent to examine philosophical, psychological, and theological interpretations of human affect and rationality in religious experience. Holifield points to Jonathan Edwards as a master of integration who turned to critical analysis to evaluate the concerns about human will and motivation raised by revivalism. Edwards used John Locke's psychology to raise important theological questions about the human person and to revise Puritan understanding of internal religious life. The result was a forceful, theologically and psychologically balanced position on human volition, emotion, and behavior that helped stabilize care in a revivalist context. This integration was given life by the fact that Edwards also provided a practical model for care. He frequently invited troubled persons, some of whom traveled great distances to consult with him, into his study for conversation and encouraged other pastors to be "easy of access ... compassionate, tender and gentle."

The Great Awakening raised significant questions in American religious life. How should rationality and sentiment be managed in the internal life of the soul? How did right behavior and belief relate to feelings and convictions? These questions "popularized a psychological vocabulary and hence a way of thinking about society, politics, and piety. It was that vocabulary and that way of thinking that would shape the cure of souls in America for half a century." This focus inspired pastoral theologians to observe the struggles of spiritual growth, consider classification systems of spiritual maturity, and develop guides for pastoral listening. Counseling consisted of firm advice giving (most often related to effective moral living), finding the religious source of true happiness, and preventing parishioners from pursuing wrong ways of living.

Nineteenth-century life in America shifted away from agrarian roots and toward urbanization, privatization, industrialization, and social segmentation. By midcentury, economic life began to organize loosely around hierarchies of owner and laborer. Factory and merchant trade replaced the home as the center of economic production. Work and family—now separate spheres—organized around more sharply defined gender roles. Men worked away from home in private industry while women guarded the private domestic retreat insulated from the concerns of economic production. Religious life paralleled social developments. The second Great Awakening solidified the priority of evangelical Protestantism in American towns and cities and normalized religious life as voluntary and private. Theologians began to encourage privatization and segmentation.

By the mid-1800s the church's role in American life had changed. Churches, particularly in towns and cities, were no longer primary representatives of a community's identity or arbiters of social values. Instead, they became private communities consisting of volunteers. Pastoral emphasis turned from defining community values and controlling congregants' beliefs and behavior and toward fostering voluntary personal conversion and nurturing individual spiritual life. Clergy became shepherds of a private congregation that could, like a private business, grow and prosper or fail and die. On the one hand, this change signaled a significant loss of ministers' central role in a community. On the other hand, ministry gained status as a career endowed with advancement possibilities similar to vocations in private industry. Pastors were expected to "speak the truth," but also knew that if volunteer congregants were offended, they could leave one congregation for another. Church became a private sphere with congregational life focused on devotionalism and personal experience. According to Holifield, privatization was also stimulated by turmoil over the abolition of slavery. This conflict "prompted many Protestant congregations to define themselves as 'sanctuaries,' centers of devotion secure from the outside world." As social and religious life segregated, pastors turned their attention almost exclusively toward parishioners' inner lives. Pastoral now stood in contrast to public. These influences marked a transition to what Holifield calls a religious culture of the self. This new religious culture required pastors to experiment with new forms of care and stimulated intense pastoral interest in the psychologies of the nineteenth century.

Holifield offers Ichabod Spencer as a prototype pastoral innovator. Conscious of his diminished pastoral authority, Spencer published A Pastor's Sketches in 1850, which modeled a new form of pastoral intervention. Spencer was well acquainted with the psychologists and mental philosophers important to nineteenth century education in ministry (Francis Bacon, John Locke, David Hume, Thomas Upham, and Dugald Stewart). They offered few methods for counseling, but provided a broad vision of the inner world of the human mind. By understanding internal states, emotions, and motivation, a pastor could help parishioners make the sentimental conscious and reach deeper levels of selfunderstanding. If care focused on self-knowledge, it could open a pathway for parishioners to act on pastoral advice and carry out important duties. Together self-knowledge and ethical action would produce a harmony of intellect, volition, and sentiment. Spencer advocated "pastoral conversation" as a way to encourage self-knowledge and to guide "anxious enquirers" in the problems of daily life while also sustaining their connection to a worshiping faith community. Spencer's case studies show that he gave specific attention to parishioners' feelings and "sentiments" as a central organizing factor for his pastoral counseling. Though controversial, his method was influential.


Excerpted from Introduction to Pastoral Counseling by Loren Townsend. Copyright © 2009 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Loren L. Townsend is Henry Morris Edmonds Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

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