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Has Ministry’s Nerve Been Cut by the Pastoral Counseling Movement?

by Gaylord Noyce

Gaylord Noyce teaches practical theology at Yale Divinity School. His most recent book is The Pastor as Moral Counselor. This article appeared in the Christian Century, February 1-8, 1978, pp. 103-106 and p.114. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


An exaggerated deference to the most influential model of personal counseling may be undermining the ministry in hundreds of congregations today. We have taken the immensely helpful, nondirective Rogerian pattern and made it gospel, not only for wide areas of secular counseling but also for pastoral care. Further, we have turned pastoral care into the organizing principle for the whole of ministry.

That counseling, pastoral care, and the whole of ministry are not one and the same should be obvious, and a review of some recent writing in pastoral theology will suggest that a more distinctively pastoral vocation is again being vigorously propounded.

In the Movement’s Heyday

In my own ministry I sense a conflict between two inclinations as I serve a parish or counsel seminarians. On the one hand I want to be faithful to all the good teaching I’ve had about listening, about empathy, and about the "unconditional positive regard" with which I am to receive the person seeking counsel. I find genuine satisfaction in those moments when acceptance, so often talked about, is actually experienced. The important process of identifying with the pain and puzzlement and struggle of parishioners and students must not be neglected.

On the other hand, I want as well to share faith and Christian hope with these people, to avoid shutting off genuine interpersonal encounter and my own self-disclosure because of any false allegiance to psychotherapeutic norms -- and I doubt that empathy alone constitutes such a sharing. Other Christian pastors are aware of this dilemma in their work. To say that I simply disregard or "bracket" those larger concerns while I do my counseling is not answer enough.

Probing the relationship of modern psychology to Christian anthropology, or of psychotherapeutic style to pastoral care and leadership, is scarcely a new enterprise, of course. We cannot here take account of the entire genesis of "psychological man," the term Philip Rieff applies to people living in this late 20th century, but a brief view of ministry in the heyday of the pastoral counseling movement will serve our present purpose.

In the 1950s, as books from Carl Rogers came on the scene, serious-minded pastors and theological students devoured his Client-Centered Therapy and learned from it some crucial lessons. They learned to stop preaching and to do more listening in the pastoral encounter. They learned, going beneath the parishioner’s words, to "follow the affect," as we say now, and to reflect feelings back to the parishioner. I recall even yet a most vivid diagram from my own pastoral counseling instructor in 1950. Placing an arrow exactly parallel to a line he had already drawn to represent the story the parishioner was telling, he said: "This is to be your listening comment, your expression of understanding. You are not to introduce a detour, a side road."

We learned in those days to avoid intruding with the assortment of anecdotes, easy encouragement and doctrinal baggage that had so often been the stock in trade of well-meaning ministry both as we visualized it and as we had seen it practiced. We stopped imposing unwanted prayer on people. We were, we thought, being more intentional about our professional role.

Two decades ago the clinical training movement, based on the pioneering work of Anton Boisen and others in the late 1920s, was finally gaining noticeable momentum. Supervised clinical experience further helped pastors and seminarians develop empathy and drop their preachments. Since then pastoral counseling, greatly assisted by the clinical training pattern, has developed into a dominant area of ministry, mounting to its present ascendency in practical theology.

During the ‘60s, one might assume, we were occupied with other matters altogether. Clergy were scarcely perceived as nondirective listeners as they joined the movements for civil rights and peace, or the war on poverty. The counseling movement was not dormant, however. The formation of the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE) in 1967 represented a consolidation of the field, and it provided an organizational base for a surge of growth. Within a few months 81 seminaries applied for affiliation with the association, 27 more than had participated in the predecessor bodies at the time of merger. That rapid growth has continued, from 256 certified supervisors and 153 accredited centers for training in 1967 to the more than 750 active supervisors and 298 centers at present.

Another sign of the counseling movement’s vitality is the rise of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) and of pastoral counseling centers across the landscape, Still to be fully determined are the meaning and possibility of third-party payment to such centers from insurance and public sources, and of state licensing of pastoral counselors. The issues involved, however, illustrate the question of alliance or tension with secular healing roles when representatives of the church offer help to troubled persons.

By the mid-’60s, theoretical issues were being joined at the level of practice in ministry. Earlier books attempting to assess the impact of psychological assumptions on theological doctrine included David E. Roberts’s Psychotherapy and a Christian View of Man in 1950 and Albert Outler’s 1954 contribution, Psychotherapy and the Christian Message. Each portrayed both the affiliative links and the tensions between the assumptions underlying psychotherapy and the newly vigorous theological consensus within the Protestant community. Books by writers with similar concerns now occupy several feet of library space.

Counseling Aims and Faith

The dominant teacher during the ‘50s was Seward Hiltner. Although acknowledging that pastoral counseling had the same ultimate aim as other dimensions of pastoral work -- that of bringing people to Christian faith and the Christian fellowship, where those goals were "relevant" -- Hiltner defined the special aim of pastoral counseling in more flexible terms, virtually indistinguishable from those of secular counseling: "The attempt by a pastor to help people help themselves through the process of gaining understanding of their inner conflicts" (Pastoral Counseling, 1949). Such a definition now appears to be under question.

In 1966 Thomas Oden published Kerygma and Counseling. Subtitled "Toward a Covenant Ontology for Secular Psychotherapy," it had as its thesis that "there is an implicit assumption hidden in all effective psychotherapy which is made explicit in the Christian proclamation." Don Browning found himself with similar concerns at about the same time, although his Atonement and Psychotherapy (1966) is more heavily theological. Analogies between Christian doctrine and the underlying, non-explicit approach of the therapists were stressed. Oden followed in 1967 with Contemporary Theology and Psychotherapy.

For pastors, this material offers substantial theological justification for the supportive, kenotic style of counseling and pastoral care, along with a belief that, without formal words of doctrine, we build health and even faith through our concern for the counselee. In the broadest sense we communicate the gospel. Nonetheless, we still face theological questions. Is that sense of communicating the gospel too broad? Are we rationalizing our deference to secular professionals rather than reflecting our understanding of who we are in service to Christ and the church?

Thus, Edward Thurneysen’s A Theology of Pastoral Care reached us (English translation, 1962) like a bombshell. With Barthian vigor Thurneysen attacked the secular assumptions of humans on their own, and asserted that the goal of pastoral care was nothing short of bringing persons to the "breach in pastoral conversation," to confessing their sin, and to hearing from the pastor the word of forgiveness. In Oden’s terms, Thurneysen "reduces counseling to proclamation," while Hiltner represented a "diluted and functional theology." Even so, a reader had a sense that if the only choice were between Hiltner and Thurneysen to guide day-by-day work, the decision must go to Hiltner.

Edward Thornton reacted more vigorously yet, calling Thurneysen a frightened man "seeking to build a closed system," one who "sees the minister as a water pipe conveying the Word of God to the people" (Theology and Pastoral Counseling (Fortress, 1964], p. 50).

Yet one has the feeling that Thurneysen’s work has served to keep alive a healthy uneasiness in our pastoral care and even pastoral counseling has not. We sense that the work of preaching, teaching, pastoral care and even pastoral counseling has kerygmatic responsibilities unfulfilled by Rogerian habits of empathic listening. It is at the working level that the tension is particularly felt. Our listening has been helpful, we believe, and yet we continue to wish that the parishioners could know more of the robust faith of which they are capable. Is the gospel finding channels through us, we ask.

More Aggressive Movements

The present environment, religious and secular, contributes significantly to pastoral malaise. For whatever reason, the evangelical churches are growing, unlike the "mainliners." Dean Kelley has argued that the conservatives provide a clearer meaning system for their adherents, The culture at large is shifting on several fronts toward a style more prescriptive, less permissive.

Moreover, the secular therapists themselves are becoming less and less passive. O. Hobart Mowrer, perhaps the most vocal moralist among the psychologists in the early ‘60s, is now joined by Karl Menninger, as his book title Whatever Became of Sin? suggests. Like Mowrer, he urges pastors and therapists to hold persons more accountable in the counseling dialogue. Rogerian types are being replaced by more aggressive doctors of the psyche; reality therapists, transactional analysts, practitioners of Gestalt and existential counseling.

The Human Potential Movement, so influential that some have called it our new religion, states a theology in its very name. Human destiny equates with the realization of personal potential, and each group leader will have a fairly ready answer for what that is, whether it is a new state of consciousness or a particular sense of well-being. In all probability the answer will not include a phrase about glorifying God, although it may say a fair amount about enjoying something or other. In the growth centers one is rather explicitly directed to "get in touch" with oneself, to "let it all hang out," to "realize yourself." Est is the secular equivalent of the hard-line sect groups, judging from reports.

Messages of one sort or another are being pushed vigorously in these movements. At least two books have unpacked the theology implicit in Transactional Analysis, and the nutshell summary of Christian doctrine in TA terms is now commonplace: "I’m not OK. You’re not OK. But that’s OK."

Any ideas that there can be a value-free psychotherapy become more and more problematical. One writer (H. Newton Malony, in "The Demise and Rebirth of the Chaplaincy" [Journal of Pastoral Care, Vol. 29, 1975]) neatly summarizes four kinds of assumptions operative in the different therapeutic styles found in mental health centers: The biophysical (which focuses on the physical body); the intrapsychic (which focuses on mental dynamics); the behavioral (which focuses on learned habits); and the socioeconomic (which focuses on the situation)." He suggests two other points of view, and proposes that the chaplain be their advocate in the professional mix: a focus on meaning, arguing that the mentally ill have lost or have never found meaning in life (Tillich, Frankl); and a focus on morals, suggesting that a violation of moral obligation or social responsibility accounts for mental distress (Mowrer, Boisen).

Reversing the Trend

Two recent books deserve special comment in connection with such issues. Paul Pruyser has addressed them in a provocative discussion of The Minister as Diagnostician (Westminster, 1976). While praising the clinical pastoral education movement for the help it has offered pastors, he worries about the one-sidedness of the conversations in which he has participated at Menninger Clinic: "The theologians sat at the feet of the psychiatric Gamaliels . . . eager to absorb [psychological knowledge] . . . without even thinking about instructional reciprocity" (pp. 23, 24).

Pruyser, a psychologist, is a modest man who knows that human life must be seen through more than psychological lenses if it is to be seen whole. Writing about pastoral case conferences at the clinic, he observes:

These pastors all too often used "our" psychological language. When urged to conceptualize their observations in their own language, using their own theological concepts and symbols, and to conduct their interviews in full awareness of their pastoral office and church setting, they felt greatly at sea.

As lay theologian, Pruyser proceeds at helpful length to remind us of those familiar insights into the human situation which are our special domain. He is not artificially pushing for more evangelical God-talk in pastoral conversation, but rather for more sensitivity to dimensions of faith and experience which are altogether appropriate for the pastor and chaplain to explore with parishioners and patients What does this person most honor and revere ("awareness of the holy")? How does the world seem to come at him or her (providence)? Does the person embrace life experience or shy away from it (faith)? Other of these "diagnostic variables," similarly translated for encounters in pastoral care, include grace, repentance, communion and a sense of vocation. They are in every ease perspectives that lend themselves to meaningful pastoral conversation.

Pruyser acknowledges a variety of motivations that may bring people to pastors for help in their trouble, but maintains that pastors sell themselves short if they overlook the most probable of all reasons: that the person had in mind some "soulsearching," a look at the self through theological lenses. The person makes. a tentative self-diagnosis, he says, in the very choice of coming to a pastor. For the pastor to work with that self-understanding makes more sense than to avoid it by playing amateur psychiatrist.

Don Browning’s most recent book, The Moral Context of Pastoral Care (Westminster, 1976), is an even firmer reversal of the trend toward imitating the psychotherapeutic disciplines in conceptualizing the gist of pastoral care.

Browning does not disown the recent past, but without question he wants to go beyond the stance that he and Oden shared then: "The preoccupation with therapeutic acceptance and Christian forgiveness characteristic of the 1960s, especially of the work of Paul Tillich, Seward Hiltner, Daniel Day Williams, Thomas Oden and myself, was not so much wrong as one-sided in its emphasis" (p. 104). In part, Browning seeks to root pastoral care in the Jewishness of our Christianity, which emphasizes moral guidance. Throughout the history of the Christian community, he says, the pattern of pastoral care has been pastoral discipline.

Browning’s primary view of the church is derived from that past from sociologists such as Parsons and Weber, and from theologians such as Gustafson. The church is called to be a community of moral discourse, a community of inquiry and action. This emphasis is the basis for Browning’s appeal to ministers and the pastoral counseling specialists of ACPE and AAPC that they root themselves explicitly in a moral context. The church is called to be intelligent and articulate in its moral reasoning, rather than to celebrate antinomian "do your own thing" growth groups as the wave of the future in Christian liberation. Browning levels a great deal of criticism at the faddism of recent Protestant history, marked by grabbing onto one modality of therapy after another -- from Rogers to Berne to Jung -- and losing sight of its own moral rootage in the process.

Pastoral Care Within a Wider Ministry

What, then, is the course for the enlightened and conscientious pastor who is aware of the value of the Rogerian contribution and of the deep psychodynamic processes that so affect our human interaction? Being aware, pastors will certainly continue to listen not only to the parishioner/counselee, but also to any signs that they themselves are short-circuiting the process of growth by glib or impatient responses in the interview. In addition, two further perspectives suggest themselves.

1. Pastoral counseling is not the center from which all other ministerial functions are to be derived. If, as was maintained in the ‘60s, the church is mission, then the overarching image for the total ministry must be more assertive. We are not corner grocers, waiting for religion-hungry patrons to drop in for two pounds of pastoral care. St. Paul did not set up an office in Ephesus and begin, "Tell me your problem."

Hiltner points out that shepherding is but one of three areas for ministry, the other two being communicating and organizing. Shepherding itself includes the "guiding" function alongside healing and sustaining. Our task, then, becomes that of discovering the appropriate amount of energy to be invested in shepherding as well as the style of pastoral care that is to be our own. While liberation may not be adequate as a summary motif for the church’s mission and derivative leadership roles, it does hold out for us a more active overarching image than shepherding and counseling. We are also preachers, liturgists, teachers and community organizers, and we hope conceptually to keep all these together in a viable discipleship.

2. Pastoral care, including pastoral counseling, has in it a freedom, a vocation, and a resource beyond the legitimately circumscribed domain of secular counseling. Yes, freedom -- because from the very beginning neutrality is "blown" by the label itself and by the "self-diagnosis" (Pruyser) of the parishioner who seeks help from a pastoral figure. Every therapist is somewhat symbolic as a socially sanctioned expert; ordination grants a particular designation. We are to use this identity creatively rather than back away from it.

We have freedom, too, for intervention and pastoral initiative. In this regard there is some envy by social workers and counselors who are genuinely concerned for people, but whose own structured roles do not include the opportunity to drop in on a family in a congregation to say, "I thought I would come by; you seem troubled." Human welfare would suffer a genuine loss were adoption of the more formal professional counseling model to displace pastoral initiative.

And vocation. Every counselor works with an underlying framework for listening and moving on with a relationship. How often it becomes necessary to relearn the truth that we are not passive in our perceptions. We select data and impose meanings -- every one of us -- even as we strive for better listening and more objectivity in the counseling relationship.

The pastor’s frame of reference is a view of human life not drawn primarily from the psychological disciplines, be they ever so humanistic. We see the person in larger terms, as standing in a web of moral relation and also within the creative and redemptive love of God. Inevitably this conception will influence the pastoral conversation at some points along the way, in subtle ways at the least. We will acknowledge rather than hide the fact. Whether God-talk is introduced is another matter. As Pruyser stresses, our particular vocation is to see the situation through our lenses.

A unique resource for pastoral care is found in the parish church, with its caring and its praying. Though most parishes are ill equipped for helping every troubled person to find an appropriate slip-port group, still for many a parishioner this can be done. Once again, such resources are the envy of those secular counselors who lack access to community support groups that could be part of the healing process. Further, we have the root activity of worship, to which, as pastors, we point by means of our own identity even without much talk of it.

Moving with the Relationship

How assertive shall we be in pursuing this vocation? Will the counselee "hear" any introduction of specifically religious terms? Usually not, I suppose. We begin with Rogers even yet. Communications theory, findings of psychologists, and a doctrine of sin all remind us of the screens that get in the way of both parishioners’ expression of their problems and the counselor’s hearing. The counselee’s words mean more than they say. They come from images of the world that are at odds with those of the pastor. The situation is not unlike the language difficulties of the foreigner who can speak only in halting English. Add the entire baggage of emotion which prevents from being said much that needs saying. For the pastor there are also the problems of ego and impatience -- wanting to show the way, to play God, to solve the problem for the other. Therefore we listen -- attentively, actively, patiently.

However, the relationship is as important as the technique. So we do share, eventually, something of our response to the parishioner’s story. We even, by manner or words, tell a story of our own faith, as parishioner and pastor together face the dilemmas that oppress the one seeking help -- and all of us. If the parishioner can hear it, together we can acknowledge the resource we both share: the guiding word and caring love of God. We are that free -- free to talk about that reality.

We may even pray.


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