Saturday, September 23, 2017

The pressure of the therapeutic Gospel. . .

Longer ago than I would care to admit, while on a vicarage (internship) within a then very large congregation, I served under a pastor who saw one of the most significant roles of the pastor as counselor.  Indeed, he came to the parish after I arrived and immediately began seeing individuals and families as a Christian therapist.  It took up a great deal of his time and I was not privy to who or what went on (as it should be).  But this was a parish of some 700 people in worship over 5 services a week, with over 100 in each catechism class, 200 or more in the preschool, and with a full-time staff of only a pastor, vicar, secretary, and custodian (with some part-time preschool staff, organists, and a choir director).  For good or for ill, it made a big impact on me.  On the one hand it appeared to me that people were hungry for this and in need of good, Christian counseling.  On the other, it frightened me since I knew little to nothing about how to do it -- just enough to be dangerous.

A couple of stints with the proverbial dysfunctional family systems you find all over the place and in the church as well and I found myself doing a fair bit of counseling.  Though to be fair, I was never sure of my role or skill or whether this is what I ought to be doing.  Then a wise older member came to me in private to talk.  He said in the gentlest of terms that I was not called to be chaplain to families but as pastor and he reminded me that my primary roles were preaching and teaching the Word, catechizing young and old, baptizing, presiding at the Lord's Table, absolving the penitent and admonishing the impenitent. . . you know the stuff printed on most Lutheran call documents.  I listened in awe both at his ability to describe, from the perspective of the pew, who the pastor is and what he is to do and how it cut against what I had been gradually easing into.  I remain forever grateful to him for his kind, wise, and sage words.  I have not forgotten them.

As modernity has pushed the church to the margins and fringes and Christians both lament their diminishing place and are frustrated by what is happening, the Church and her ministers have searched for ways to make a difference.  In the press of it all, both pastors and the Christians themselves have forgotten what the church is for, what the teachings of Jesus Christ require, and, indeed who the Church is.  So, on the one hand, both clergy and lay have been attracted to the appearance of meaningful and relevant place, purpose, and position -- from the gurus of self-help to people seeking everything from happiness to ease to the entertainment which distracts us from the things we cannot change.  But the Church cannot be the Church nor can she recover her rightful place and purpose until her people abandon their complacency and their timidity and confront the world and the direction of culture.  It is the requirement that the Church not become mere apologist (meaning "I am sorry") for God or for the appearance of irrelevance nor succumb to the temptation to find relevance in a therapeutic chaplaincy to the prevailing liberal order (justifying the progressive viewpoint on everything from sex to marriage to the environment to technology).

Listen to the prescient words of an Episcopalian sage speaking to a the role of Church in the world some 75 years ago: 
When the Church at last comes out from the valley of a deserved humiliation, it will find that it is held in small esteem, that it is poor and despised; but such an approach to a worldly world is the only one by which to persuade that world that there are better things to live for than the current wisdom has revealed. Such humiliation, embraced and not resented, is required if one is to draw mankind to God. That is the meaning of the crucifix, whereon hangs One whom Christians are at least supposed to worship. He died for truth, for God, to rise again in power. In the end men listen to Him, understand, worship Him; but to bring that about in the world of tomorrow Christians, like Christ, must again be willing to lay down their lives in defiance of the mores of the world. The future of the Church, under God, lies in no other hands than its own.
In every generation the saints, believing the demand to be from God, have devoted their lives to renouncing and denouncing, as basic poisons, those things upon which mankind today would feed. The Church, these later years, has forgotten how to renounce and denounce them. Instead it has sought to soothe a sick mankind with ointment of sentimental piety plus injections of a superficially optimistic geniality. 
The prophetic role has not gone away but it has chosen to speak the word that mirrors its surroundings and offers, at best, feelings, instead of the Word of God that speaks forgiveness to the sinner, new hearts to evil, and life to the dead.  There is little prophetic value in listening to the complaints of a people whose biggest gripe is that they are not happy -- unless it is to convict them with the Word of God and offer an answer to the guilty conscience and the constant pursuit of feelings over truth.  I am not despairing of real therapy but only of those who presume that this is the real domain of the Church and the pursuit of her ministers.  We are preachers and teachers, priests and intercessors, confessors and catechetical instructors and, when the Church realizes this, the Church no longer can be cowered into the fringes or edges of the world but can speak with confidence the only Word that does what it promises.


Anonymous said...

And to think we have seminaries to prevent newly minted pastors from going off the reservation and chasing after their own hobbyhorses. Would more ecclesiastical supervision help? Nah, a seminary and it's overseers are only as orthodox as the faculty. The Church needs to be counter-culture, not fit into the culture, not be comfortable blending in. The Gospel loses its meaning when the theology of the cross is not held up in stark contrast to "your best life now" nonsense. With God's help, it's up to us do church the right way and not allow it to be turned into moralistic therapeutic deism.

Anonymous said...

A parish pastor will be involved in pre-marital counseling as well
as helping married couples who request his help when they have serious
problems. No pastor can avoid family counseling sessions when he is
requested to do so.

The astute pastor will know when to refer his members to professional
counselors when the need arises. Obviously, a parish pastor does not
have the time for counseling which involves weekly appointments over
several months.

Anonymous said...

I have known several pastors/priests who were so drawn into the counseling role that they eventually abandoned the priesthood. I'm thinking of one in particular who gave up his position as Rector of a thriving ECUSA parish to go into full-time counseling.

I have puzzled about this, and finally concluded that the attraction is the two-fold:
(1) There is a definite sense of power in being a counselor. "I (as counselor) can send this person down this path or down that path. They are putty in my hands." That sort of thinking.
(2) There may be a more definite sense of accomplishment when the counselor sees progress with a person he is guiding as opposed to the more nebulous progress of the parish as a whole. When the priest fills only his proper role, he may go for a long time with no definite sense of progress, no sense that there is any growth in holiness, no increase in faith. The specific, identifiable progress may be a very important piece of feedback.


Anonymous said...

Is it also possible that the sense of power is a failure to obey the 1st commandment? Is it far more than that the person doing the counseling not only holds the course of the lives he counsels? Perhaps it is the feeling that the counselor knows better than God; in fact is in the place of God.

I am not discounting counsel. The Scriptures speak of wise counsel. The advice of the Proverbs is counsel. St. Paul gave counsel in his letters. However, the counsel so often seen in Scripture is the counsel of father, mother, superior, owner, king. Lutheran pastors are well equipped to counsel from Scripture. Their realm is sin and grace, Law and Gospel. They may hear confessions, give counsel to the sinner, and pronounce Christ’s forgiveness. If a family is well beyond this, or a parishioner has serious mental (and/or physical) issues, the wise person will suggest seeking those whose profession fits the issue.

Unknown said...

Wow. I have asked pastors for counseling in regard to family issues. I did this because I wanted a spiritual opinion vs a worldly opinion. I thought it was a fellowship thing. After reading this I won't be doing that again! As for the pastor who left to go into full time counseling, perhaps that is because counseling was the gift God gave to him. I don't agree that it had to be a power thing.