Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What Is a Pastor to Do? (Get Out of Counseling!)

            My wife, Irene, is a couples and sex therapist. Her practice is full. There is no shortage of people who seek her out in order to get some direction or help for their relationship.

            One thing that constantly amazes me about my wife’s work is just how difficult it is. I can see the difficulty from several perspectives. For starters, in order to earn her professional qualifications, Irene had to get a Master’s degree in social work. Supervisors—master therapists—monitored her progress, and even now continue to work with her through difficult cases, give her tips on the procedures she uses in different counseling situations, and suggest areas for further education and study.

            But formal education and supervision are only the beginning. Irene has worked hard to earn specialized certification in two specialized areas, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing for trauma victims, and Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples. Both certifications involved more supervision, study, and conferences. And, I can’t help but notice that Irene uses a lot of her leisure time poring over training videos, reading books and articles, and taking courses. In the meantime, Irene has herself become a supervisor for other couples therapists.

            All this, and sometimes, at dinner, Irene will look me in the eye and still say something like, “couples counseling is so hard!”

            I think of my wife a lot when I hear pastors talk about their counseling load. I think of her because I know that these pastors, unlike my wife, have had barely any professional training. I wonder what in the world they are doing when they say they’re counseling. These pastors may have empathy, they may have emotional intelligence, and they may have taken one or two courses in pastoral counseling at seminary—but when it comes to counseling, they are actually total amateurs.

            Counseling is a skilled vocation for which it takes years of focused training and supervision to become adept. Ninety-five percent of pastors don’t have that training. So while pastors might be wise friends who can steer a congregant in the right direction on a whole host of matters, if such steering takes more than one or two visits, the pastor should be referring that congregant on to a professional counselor.

            I can think of several reasons why pastors might want to, or be pressured to, counsel, in spite of their own misgivings. A professional couples counselor can be very expensive. Pastors—whether they’re trained for it or not—tend to cost a lot less. So people start with pastors. There is also a sort of prestige that goes with saying you’re a counselor that just doesn’t go with being a pastor. Consciously or not, pastors might gravitate to that prestige.

            So what to do? I have three thoughts. First, pastors should never shut their doors on people who call and say, “I need help.” Invite those people to come on over, and listen to their stories. Just make sure that you, as a pastor, understand your limits. In this sort of situation you are a referral source. Help your parishioners find the counseling they need. 

            Second, remember that there is one kind of counsel that pastors must always be willing to give—spiritual counsel. That is, many people who need professional counseling also need to hear that in spite of their struggles—be it with anger or depression or anxiety—God still loves them, unconditionally. People need a place where they can confess their need and hear good news. In some traditions, this is called "cure of souls."

            Finally, pastors shouldn’t neglect pastoral visitation—especially to play at counseling. To use a somewhat hackneyed Biblical image, the pastor is a shepherd, and shepherds know their sheep. Otherwise, how would the pastor ever be able to speak to what is living in the hearts and minds of the people who worship? Without regular pastoral visitation, how will the pastor know who to pray for, or how to lead, or who needs encouragement to see a counselor? Regular, disciplined pastoral visitation is what pastors do. Pastoral visitation is the pastor’s vocation. Counseling is someone else’s.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Against Nature?

            A few weeks ago, the Toronto Star ran a story about a gay woman, Anne Tesluk, of Bowmanville, Ontario. She sent her daughter to the local Catholic School because she was herself a Catholic. Tesluk was also thrilled that her school, St. Joseph’s Elementary, distributed the blueprint for a plan to help teachers tackle discrimination of all kinds, from racial to religious to discrimination based on disability or sexual orientation.

            That is, she was thrilled until she read in the fine print of the school document that homosexual people are “objectively disordered.” Tesluk was so shocked and offended that she decided to go to the local Catholic school board to ask that the offending phrase from the blueprint be removed. In a way, the story is surprising—what Catholic person, after all, doesn’t know that the Catholic Church takes this stand? Perhaps especially, what gay Catholic mother? Be that as it may, I wish Ann the best of luck, because her concerns for how such statements demean and marginalize gay people are right on.

            In my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, things are about the same, unfortunately. We’d say that homosexuality is “against nature,” or “against creational norms.” People who argue that homosexuality is against nature believe that God reveals his intention for sexuality, at least in part, by divine norms or laws that can be deduced from the natural order. In my tradition there is actually a very deep philosophical well of reflection on whether or not such norms actually exist, and if they do, to what extent can we know them? The last question is really important. It is hard enough to interpret Biblical texts. But how does one interpret nature with a view to arriving at appropriate ethical conclusions? It can’t be easy.

            For example, I’m reminded of a person who once said to me, “Homosexuality is wrong. Anyone can see that God didn’t create two men or two women to fit together. The body parts just don’t align.” This person is saying, in effect, that what seems to be our “natural design,” should be the rule for how body parts get used. The argument, right or wrong, is an important one.

            However, it is worth noting here that not only is nature hard to interpret if you are reading it for  ethical norms, but it would also be very hard to develop a consistent application of such an ethic. Human activity, after all, is replete with actions that seem “against nature,” that few of us therefore regard as being against God’s will. In the area of sexual practice, for example, masturbation, oral sex and even kissing are actions that involve the use of the body in novel and not necessarily “normative” ways, at least given the primary uses of the plumbing and appendages involved. But beyond sexuality, the list of things humans do that they were not “designed” to do is endless. If God had meant for us to fly, he would have given us wings. If we are supposed to bear children in pain we dare not use epidurals. The list goes on: in vitro fertilization and/or surrogate pregnancies, birth control, transplanted hearts, heart valves made of pig flesh, genetic engineering, artificial (not natural!) hips or knees or even facelifts . . . all of these technologies involve leaps of the imagination and use of the body in ways that are novel and imaginative. 

            Meanwhile, one supposes that if a behavior really is against nature, you would not find it in nature. Suffice it to say, however, that homosexual behavior has been widely documented in nature, including among chimpanzees. Homosexuality, like having red hair or an IQ of 170, isn’t so much against nature as it is just not that common in nature.

            Naturally, the ethics of homosexual behavior—like the ethics of heterosexual behavior—are complicated and deserve more reflection than I can give it in a short blog post. But arguing that homosexuality is against nature just isn’t going to work for me--or Anne Tesluk.