Resolving Pastoral Care and Missions

I am a Evangelical Christian Missionary serving in the Philippines. I also serve as an administrator of a pastoral care center (www.bukallifecare.org) and serve as the registrar for a certification program for clinical pastoral education. There are at least three big concerns that seem to come up in the realm of pastoral care that can cause conflict with Evangelical missions. I feel comfortable with where I have gotten to with regards to two of the issues. The third, I feel comfortable, for the most part, with the (creative) tension.

The three issues are:

  • Is Pastoral Care Christian? After all, many in the pastoral care movement utilize “non-Christian” methodologies. Some people who call themselves pastoral care providers are not even Christian.
  • Can one actually do pastoral care for non-Christians? Some argue that pastoral care is meaningless unless the other person is already a Christian.
  • (Bringing the two former points together) Pastoral Care generally does not involve evangelism. Often, practitioners are advised to not evangelize (especially if not asked regarding their faith). Is that a violation of Christ’s teaching?

Issue #1.  Is Pastoral Care Christian? The quick, and fairly obvious to most, answer is “YES.” But let’s take it further.   Pastoral Care has the classic image of shepherd and sheep, and its roots are as deeply embedded in the Bible as the concept of shepherding as a metaphor is similarly embedded. Pastoral Care has had the functional definition of “cure of souls.” The term soul here is not really as it is commonly used today. It is far more holistic. It could be translated at least as well as ‘cure of lives.” Its roots here are deeply embedded within church history. Clebsch and Jaeckle have described the basic functions of pastoral care as “healing, sustaining, guiding, and reconciling.” Others have added other functions such as nurturing, liberating, and empowering. All of these are well grounded in both the Bible and Christian history.

All this is good… but pastoral care has certainly broadened. In recent years, pastoral care has become more dependent of psychology. Psychology is seen by many Christians as a “godless” secular science. As such, it has no place for Christians.

The problem here is that there is an unnecessary and misleading dualism here.  As an Evangelical Christian, I take the following stand.

Christian Theology         interprets          the Bible             which is        God’s Creation

Psychology               interprets            the Human Mind         which is        God’s Creation

The problem is not God… who is integrated and consistent. The problem is not the objects of study of Christian Theology and Psychology. The Bible and the Human Mind, as God’s Creations, are consistent. At the same time neither is a substitute for the other. There are things about the human mind that are not mentioned in the Bible, and there are things in the human mind that are transcended in the Bible. As such, they are each valid objects for study.

The problem is our limitations. Our own perspective, finiteness, and basic ignorance mean that:

Christian Theology interprets correctly the Bible sometimes, and incorrectly at times.

Psychology interprets correctly the Human Mind sometimes, and incorrectly at times.

I believe that the Bible and the Human mind are both valid objects of study and are the work of God, but our interpretations of each through that study are potentially flawed. Therefore, we gain from healthy, and cautious, integration of these. Such integration can, sadly, lead people astray… but assuming one subject is completely correct and another is completely incorrect is hubristic, and is at least as likely to lead one astray. I do believe that many who are Christian pastoral counselors have fallen too much in love with psychological methods. They have at times, it seems to me, used psychology as an interpretive paradigm for the Biblical. This, I believe, is flawed. As Christians, our priority and specialty is God’s written revelation to us. But we are also souls (lives), God’s creation… and we cannot ignore the value in understanding this as well.

With this basic understanding, I think things become clearer.  Psychological methodologies are methods built (usually) off of empirical or theoretical underpinnings. As such, they can be useful or non-useful (or even destructive) to the extent that they correctly or incorrectly interpret the human mind… God’s creation. A pastoral care practitioner should be careful in any tool he or she uses. In fact, some methods that may be considered “Christian” may be based on a poor interpretation of the Bible as well. SOME in the Biblical Counseling movement and the Deliverance movement have done a poor job of Biblical interpretation by assuming that all problems come from far too limited number of sources (such as personal sin, or demon oppression). Such reductionism can be unhelpful, or even destructive, as well. A sound pastoral care provider must be cautious both theologically and psychologically.

Non-Christians sometimes describe themselves as pastoral care providers. That may annoy some Christians. However, there is no copyright on the term. Frankly, the use of the term by others is a bit complimentary since it suggests that the basic historical teachings and methods of pastoral care are seen a beneficial, even by non-Christians.

Summarizing the first point, I find as a missionary that pastoral care is a valid ministry, but must be dealt with intelligently, ethically, and cautiously, since it has tools from both the Christian and Psychology side that may have flaws due to improper interpretation of the Bible or the human mind.

<I will look at the other two questions in Part 2 and, I suppose, Part 3.>

A Healthy Mind, and the God Who Is

Although I do missions work, and teach missions in seminary, my primary day-to-day job is as an administrator of a pastoral care and counseling center in the Philippines. As such, I read more books on counseling and pastoral care than most in missions. A recent one I have been reading is “Theology & Pastoral Counseling: A New Interdisciplinary Approach” by Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger. Chapter 4 speaks of the issues of Theological Adequacy and Psychological Functionality. The chapter depends considerably on another book (that I have not read): “The Birth of the Living God: A Psychoanalytic Study” by Ana-Maria Rizzuto.

I thought I would adjust some of the materials to be more useful (to me at least) from the perspective of missions.

psychology and Theology 2The above chart would make a bit more sense as a 3-dimensional chart (cube), and would include more options (for example a person with correct views about God that are at odds with the religious environment that he or she resides within). However, the chart here appears to be adequate for most cases.

The X-axis has to do with a persons understanding with regards to God. There are three choices shown:

  • The God Who Is. The individual’s understanding of God conforms closely to the God who is (God as actuality, not projection).
  • Heterodox. God Who Is Not. The individual resides within a faith community that teaches about God, and that teaching conforms closely to the God who is. However, the individual’s own projection of God differs from his or her own faith community (and the God who is). This the person would be  thought of as heterodox within his or her own faith community.
  • Orthodox. God Who Is Not. The agrees with his or her own faith community/religion, and agrees with their beliefs. However, the teachings of that group are of a god that does not correspond well with the God who is. The individual has false beliefs but would be viewed as orthodox beliefs with respect to his or her own faith community.

The Y-axis has to do with the psychological well-being based on the individual’s understanding of God. There are two choices listed:

  • Healthy/Edifying. The individual’s beliefs about God support a healthy mind and emotional state (and social life) allowing the person to grow as a person.
  • Unhealthy/Destructive. The individual’s beliefs about God create an unhealthy mind and emotional state (and social life) creating stunted or regressive development as a person.

These axes and options covered create six options.

  1. “X”: I put an “X” through one of the options. This is, admittedly, a faith position. However, I believe that a healthy understanding of God as He truly is, will help promote a healthy holistic life. This does not deny problems… but rather assumes that a correct understanding of who God TRULY is is a key factor towards healthy mind and relationships. Since we were created by God and created to have a healthy relationship with God… it seems doubtful that a correct understanding of God would promote problems.
  2. “A”: This category is the IDEAL situation. The individual has a belief system about God that closely conforms to God as He truly is. That belief promotes a healthy mind, emotional state, and relationships. This is aided by being in a faith community that has an understanding of the God who is, and appropriate nurture, conversion, and sanctification/discipleship within that faith community.
  3. “B”: This category is covered in two squares but both involve having an unhealthy psychological condition that comes from a projected god, rather than knowing God as He is. The person may be in a faith community that teaches the truth or a faith community that does not. Regardless, correcting the falsehoods is key. The difference is to what extent one utilizes the structure of their own faith community. If they are “heterodox” within their own community (believing what is false, but in a community that believes what is true) it MIGHT be easier than if they are in a community that believes and teaches what is false.
  4. “C”: Things are more difficult here. The person has a belief system that “works” at least at a psychological level. The goal is to move them to the box marked “A”. However, careless (and uncaring) work may push them to one of the boxes marked “B” or “D”. In fact, it is quite common. People sharing faith may lead a person to question their own beliefs, but that may only open themselves up to new thoughts and allegiances that our farther from where they need to be. In this category, “C”, they are in a faith community that teaches what is true, so gently working with them and utilizing the support structure within that faith community is important.
  5. “D”: This is, perhaps, the most difficult. The person is in, and accepts, a faith community that believes what is not true about God… but the belief system “works” for the individual, at least psychologically. Again, it is important not to do damage where the person shifts into a “B” box. But then the question comes as to whether one can utilize the support system in the faith community that they reside in. In Pastoral Care, it is assumed that healing can occur in the faith community a person is in, even if the beliefs within that community are false. I think that this can be true, but some groups have beliefs that are very unhealthy and it is uncertain that they can be utilized to help the person. One may focus on getting them to change allegiance fast… to a group that teaches the truth. That may, however, move them to a “C” or a “B” box… not necessarily an improvement. Those in a “D” category box will be hard to change because their belief seems to work for them. Gentleness and understanding is important here.

No real answers in this post… just some things to think about. Looking this over… I can see now that the 3-dimensional graph may have important insights that are lost with this simplified one. But as a tentative, preliminary look… I think it works.

By the way, I am not suggesting that psychological well-being is only a function of having “Right Thoughts.” Far from it. I am simply noting the relative importance temporally of knowing God as He is in the lives we live.