Chapter 6: Pastoral Care and the Crises of Life by Homer L. Jernigan

Community Mental Health: The Role of Church and Temple
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr., (Ed.)

Chapter 6: Pastoral Care and the Crises of Life by Homer L. Jernigan

A Crisis Approach to Pastoral Care

The church or synagogue as a caring community should be concerned about people at all ages and stages of life. Religious ministry should he relevant to the needs of individuals, families, and communities. The growth and welfare of persons should he important at all times. Our religious traditions and contemporary studies in mental health recognize however, that there are certain critical times in life which are particularly significant for the emotional and spiritual growth of persons. Religious ministry has long recognized the importance of such experiences as birth, puberty, marriage, sickness, and death. Empirical studies by men like Gerald Caplan and Erik Erikson have brought new understanding of the significance of life crises.

We now have an opportunity to bring together the historic wisdom of our religious traditions and customs with the findings and insights of the behavioral sciences. The religious leader is a key person in this process. Ministry to persons in crisis has long been part of his role, and now he has new understandings and resources to help him. Our opportunity includes the development of more effective approaches to the care of persons in crisis and also the development of programs to prepare people to meet the inevitable crises of life more effectively. Pastoral care, as the total ministry of the religious community to individuals and families in crisis, should include both ministries of healing and comfort and ministries of preparation.

The strategic significance of a crisis-oriented ministry becomes apparent to the hospital chaplain or the student in clinical pastoral education. The minister or rabbi of a local congregation may also experience the readiness of some persons in a crisis situation to reexamine the meanings and values of life and the nature of close interpersonal relationships. Pastoral experience bears evidence that a crisis experience may mean a real effort to change and grow or it may mean a reinforcement of old patterns which limit and distort health and growth.

Gerald Caplan’s studies in community psychiatry confirm pastoral observations and add new evidence of the influence of crisis experiences on interpersonal relationships in the family. Caplan describes a crisis as a time

When a person faces an obstacle to important life goals that is, for a time, insurmountable through the utilization of customary methods of problem-solving, a period of disorganization ensues, during which many different abortive attempts at solution are made. Eventually some kind of adaptation is achieved, which may or may not be in the best interests of the person and his fellows.

Caplan goes on to say, "The important point . . is that disturbances of interpersonal relationships between mothers and children, and also within the total field of forces in a family, can often be seen clinically to originate during a certain crisis period, or subsequent to a certain crisis period." (Gerald Caplan, An Approach so Community Mental Health[New York: Grune and Stratton, 1961], p. 18.)

Dr. Caplan talks about periods of crisis which are of relatively short duration (four to six months) which are related to significant losses or threats of loss, such as experiences related to birth and bereavement.(Ibid., p. 41) Erik Erikson, on the other hand, has developed a theory of crisis which is related to personality development through various stages of life. Erikson emphasizes the interaction between the developing individual and his social environment and identifies crucial points and stages of such interaction.( Erik Erikson, ‘Growth and Crises in the Healthy Personality," in Identity and the Life Cycle: Psychological Issues, Monograph 1, Vol. I, No. 1 [New York: International Universities Press, 1959] , pp. 50-100.) Both the crises noted by Caplan and those defined by Erikson are important in the development of mental illness, according to studies of family diagnosis conducted by Grunebaum and Bryant. (Henry Grunebauns and Charles Bryant, "The Theory and Practice of the Family Diagnostic, Part II. Theoretical Aspects and Resident Education," in Irvin Cohen, ed., Family Structure, Dynamics, and Therapy [Psychiatric Research Reports of the American Psychiatric Association, Washington, D. C., 1966] , p. 151.)

In a crisis approach to pastoral care it is important to include both the situational and the transitional forms of crisis which occur in families, since both may exert significant influence on the direction of growth of family members and of the family as a whole. Such crises, which happen to most families, include experiences related to birth, adolescence, vocation, marriage, middle age, old age, sickness, and death. Many other crises may occur and may be significant for pastoral care, but it is important to focus the program of the church or synagogue on what might be called the "normal crises" of life. These are the times which influence the life and health of most members of the congregation. Pastoral care which is oriented primarily toward the pathology in the congregation tends to be a quick and inadequate response to emergency situations and has little effect on the welfare of congregation and community. Even a focus on normal crises of families is not sufficient expression, in itself, of a community which really cares about what happens to persons. To care about persons means to care about the social problems which influence their lives, such as poverty, war, discrimination, and political corruption. Pastoral care may need to emphasize personal and family crises because of their significance for the mental and spiritual health of congregation and community, but a total program of caring goes beyond individuals and families to the conditions in the world which interfere with the growth of persons.

Dimensions of a Life Crisis

Each of the normal crises of life which has been mentioned needs careful study in order to identify the nature of the crisis and the resources for preparation and treatment. The analysis of one such crisis may serve to illustrate the many dimensions which need to be considered and the implications for the life and work of the local congregation.

One of the common tasks of a congregation and its leadership is the provision of an appropriate wedding ceremony for a young couple. This is such a familiar occurrence that little thought may be given to it beyond the necessary details of a "lovely wedding." If, however, a congregation really cares about the young couple and what happens to them in their marriage and what happens to the family which is established by the marriage, then much more thought needs to be given this particular marriage and to the responsibilities of the congregation for marriage and family life in the community. The marriage ceremony, as a symbol of God’s concern about marriage and of the congregations’ concern about this couple, should symbolize a total program of guidance and support for marriage and family living. A focus on the wedding ceremony is strategically important, because the wedding marks the beginning of a new family. This is one of the crucial places to begin with the development of a comprehensive program of pastoral care.

Some observations about marriage and preparation for marriage can be summarized briefly as a background for discussing a comprehensive pastoral care approach to the crisis of marriage. These observations are based on a variety of reading and experience.

1. Preparation for marriage begins at birth and is influenced by many things. Some of the more significant influences -- expectations of marriage and attitudes toward marriage that the couple have developed in their own families, the ability to give and take they have learned at home, their social adjustment outside the family, the opportunities they have had for gradually increasing experience with the opposite sex before this courtship, and their understanding of facts, values, and attitudes related to love and sex.( For a brief introduction to some of the problems involved in preparation for marriage see Evelyn Duvall, David Mace, and Paul Popenoe The Church Looks at Family Life [Nashville: Broadman Press, 1964])

2. Approaching marriage arouses anxieties, and sometimes guilt, about personal adequacy for marriage, closeness with another person, sexual adjustment, ties to parents, new responsibilities, etc. Such anxieties (and guilt) need to be faced as openly as possible before marriage.

3. Preparation for marriage is much more than the readiness of two individuals to participate in a ceremony. The couple prepare themselves for marriage by the kind of relationship they develop with each other before marriage. Most important are the patterns of interaction they are developing in sharing positive and negative feelings, facing conflicts, making decisions, and handling their relationships with other people (especially their future in-laws)

4. Our society tends to foster unrealistic attitudes and expectations about courtship and marriage and confusion about husband and wife roles.

5. Many couples, whether or not they have grown up in a religious community, have little idea of the religious meaning and significance of marriage (as well as the psychosocial realities).

6. The wedding ceremony is often seen as a social occasion for which it is nice to have a religious service. Meaningful participation in the ceremony as an act of worship of the religious community requires education of the congregation as well as preparation of the couples requesting the marriage service.

7. Adjustments to marriage is an ongoing process, and many important problems cannot be faced realistically until after marriage. Before marriage the couple may be helped to face the problems and resources they have in their courtship, particularly the potentialities and limitations of their own relationship. The couple may also need help after marriage to face problems they could not realistically anticipate before marriage.

8. Marital and premarital problems often involved the interaction of unconscious attitudes and habit patterns which a couple cannot recognize or change without outside help.

9. Marital problems are interwoven with social problems such as education, medical care, housing, employment, race and war.

Such observations could be documented in detail. They do not constitute a total picture of the problem of marriage in our day. Much more needs to be said about that problem; but these brief observations do suggest some of the things a congregation that is concerned about people and about the significance of its wedding ceremony needs to consider. A number of implications for a program of pastoral care emerge.

1. The congregation needs to develop a climate of concern about people and about their marriages. This climate needs to be based on facts about the problem of marriage in our day, the various dimensions of the problem, and the role of the religious community in dealing with this problem.

2. The congregation needs to understand the religious significance of marriage and the meaning of the marriage ceremony.

3. Policies and procedures need to be developed to protect the marriage ceremony from being used by persons who do not accept its meaning or being exploited by those who want to put personal or social values above religious values.

4. The congregation needs to develop a program of family life education which will strengthen families in their efforts to prepare their children for coping with the realities of life (including marriage and family living)

5. Single congregations need to join with other congregations and other concerned groups to develop community programs of education for marriage. Such programs are needed to counteract the unrealistic values and expectations fostered by our society and to provide resources for couples to face the issues of courtship and marriage before they are involved in the actual details of the wedding ceremony.

6. Policies and procedures for pre-marital counseling need to be developed which can use the skills of competent lay members of the congregation as well as those of the professional leaders. Such counseling needs to begin early enough and last long enough to help the couple assess and strengthen their relationship in crucial areas. In some cases the potential in-laws may need to be included in the counseling process. Group pre-marital counseling is a valuable resource which needs more experimentation.

7. Careful attention should be given to the actual marriage ceremony in order to enhance its worship aspects and to make use of the historic and contemporary resources of the religious community.

8. Programs of marital guidance for young married couples should be developed to help them in their adjustment to problems encountered after marriage.

9. Resources for competent marriage counseling should be made available to those couples who cannot, on their own or with the help of information and guidance, develop adequate patterns of coping with marriage and family crises.

10. Congregations and individual members of congregations should join with other concerned individuals and groups to work for the alleviation of social conditions which are threatening marriage and family life.

11. In view of the complex problems of marriage and preparation for marriage, which have been suggested here, and the need for competent professional resources to assist the local congregation, congregations should join together in sponsoring agencies which can provide such professional resources.

A Comprehensive Program of Pastoral Care

Marriage is but one of the many crises which are important for the emotional and spiritual health of individuals and families. The brief analysis of a pastoral care approach to couples requesting to be married in a religious community is only one illustration of the comprehensive approach which is needed to persons in every crisis of life. It is obvious that such an approach goes beyond pastoral care in the limited sense which is often understood. It does not, however, go beyond the kind of care for persons which should characterize a religious community in our Judeo-Christian tradition.

Both the needs of persons in our day and the new resources for mental health which are available to us challenge us to develop more adequate approaches to pastoral care. We, in our religious traditions, have something valuable to offer to the community mental health movement, particularly in our resources for life crises. We also have much to learn.


For additional reading

For some readings on premarital counseling and marriage education see Pastoral Psychology, December 1959, and Pastoral Psychology, May 1968. See also Aaron Rutledge, Pre-marital Counseling [Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman Publishing Co., 1966] , and J. Kenneth Morris, Pre-marital Counseling, A Manual for Ministers[Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1960])