Pastoral Counselling 1984

Pastoral Counselling is the name for the official methodolgy for clergy approach to counselling. There was after some contentious manoeuvring a chosen method. There could only be the one. The Christian church seems to have this affection for The One, one and only. I think it stems from its notion of the Truth. There can be only one truth, the One True Church, for example. And it was the driving concern behind the development of the church that the whole of the world would subscribe to this one Truth promoted by the winning group. Much contention arose in the debate over which particular perspective renders the Truth that all nations are to kneel before in the language of the sacred text.

The one and only pastoral counselling came down to two camps, one in New York and one based in Princeton University. The New York faction which later moved to Boston and Boston University. The New York group aligned with a Freudian perspective on helping, later to shift more to Jung. The Princeton faction, let by Seward Hiltner was in the Rogerian camp. Much later I presumed an answer to the question why official pastoral counselling adopted the New York approach was that Jung in particular seemed more biblical, aligned better with theology. Even though Carl Rogers’ roots were religious in a more conventional way, I think the methodology was also too modern, that is too secular. I don’t really know why the one group one over the other. I’d be interested to follow the political debating and reasoning for the choice of the eventual winner. In any case, one group did get the stamp of approval and the other group disappeared.

Of course the Rogerian approach challenged convention in the 1940s. The tradition was for the counsellor as an all-knowing expert, one who knew best for the client. Rogers threw that away saying the expert was the client; the client had in them the solution, knew best in themselves the solution to their concern and the counsellor was one who through gentle, empathic reflection helped the client to find that answer in themselves. I’m going to guess that church people preferred the status of being an expert as it kind of fit with everything else about the church hierarchy.

I was drawn more to the losing camp, long after they had lost. I was convinced at an early age, age 12. I happened to pick up a book from my father’s shelf title Pastoral Counselling by Seward Hiltner. Funny thing is I read the whole book and understood it, somehow. Somehow I saw myself in the book. When I studied at the seminary, there was no sign of Hiltner or Rogers. Oddly enough my first seminar group in counselling at the college applied the modern technique of Encounter therapy. Unfortunately encounter therapy had been abandoned by the secular side for being disrespectful and even abusive a technique. The church I found has always been about ten years behind changes in society. Consider issues around a woman’s right (for ordination), acceptance of divorce, or gay rights; they were hot button issues in the church a decade after it had been accepted in the non-church world.

I was appalled at the use of Encounter Therapy in my training. I was at odds with the requirements for pastoral counselling as defined by the official deciding body of Pastoral Counselling. When I began my ministry, I wanted to continue with counselling training and got wonderful advice to volunteer with the Victoria Crisis Line. It turned out to be a defining moment for the rest of my life, launching my own personal development in a positive direction and giving me rock-solid skills that suited my values and allowed me to become a better helper. The Victoria crisis line was the inspiration of a group at the University of Victoria and became a model for crisis lines across North America.

To begin a study leave three years into my ministry career I took two courses at UVic that were pre-requisites for the UVic counselling program. The base work for our learning was that of Gerard Egan and the courses helped us develop practical skills in individual and group contexts along with a theoretical understanding. All that worked out really well for me.

The second half of my study leave after study in Israel for a year was to be graduate work in counselling, so I could be a better priest. It took me sometime to choose a place to study. I went to visit Boston University, even sat in on a class. The top people in pastoral counselling were there: Jordan, Jerrnigan and Strunk. Their journal Pastoral Counselling I devoured over the years. I thought being there would be a good test for what I’d learned on the secular side to try to find my way through the two approaches. I looked at Princeton and many other pastoral counselling degrees. None of them to my dismay required any clinical work. Official pastoral counselling status was managed as a supervisory system. Originally pastoral counselling was training for hospital and prison chaplains whose primary ministry was “counselling.” Accreditation then became time spent with these chaplains learning from them.

Because the supervisors weren’t academics or in the field of research, the training didn’t change much over time; the supervisor would pass on what he learned. It was only men at the time. Eventually, parish clergy were taking the training and setting themselves up more with a counselling ministry in the parish, often booking appointments and taking on a person for a series of ten sessions, for example, like a psychologist or therapist would be doing.

This was another red flag for me. I just felt it all going in the wrong direction. A lot of therapy works with the idea that the issues a counsellee has are worked out in the therapy by transferring the issues to the therapist. It’s a bit of dangerous ground needing a clear isolation of that therapeutic relationship to protect both parties and the relationship. The risk is what’s called counter-transference, a bit of a trap, for example when a counsellor or a counsellee begins to believe they are in love with the other. A good counsellor understands the dynamics at play and the separation of the counselling chamber from the rest of life allows for that therapeutic relationship to be fruitful.

None of that is safe-guarded for the parish clergy taking on a counsellor role. It’s the worst of all possible scenarios. For example, in counselling a clergy would be hearing all kinds of intimate, raw feelings and facts about the counsellee’s life. But that counsellee could also be a member of the advisory board of the church. And what if that person took a different position than the clergy on a policy matter. You can easily see how that politics and power relationship could become so problematic. Oh yes and clergy and counsellee have thought they were in fact deeply in love with each other. Another student at my seminary years into his ministry walked out of an advisory board meeting at the church with his Warden, a volunteer appointed or elected to oversee management of the parish, and my colleague said to his warden, ‘I am in love with your wife, and she with me, and I’m going to marry her.’ Oh boy. The problem I felt was the lacking standards and understanding of the church world.

Who am I to make a case. The problem is I wasn’t part of the church as a rational adult choice. I was born into the church as third generation clergy. I didn’t know any other world and it tends to be an isolated world. I won’t bother explaining. So my doubt for the efficacy of official pastoral counselling especially for parish work was a challenging of my birthright and was a growing up in the world I was born with and eventually a growing out of it.

I ended up finding a graduate degree at St. Paul’s University, University of Ottawa, that offered the secular model I’d been working with over the previous years at the Crisis Line and some other training opportunities. Clinical work was part of the education; in fact they had a counselling centre as part of the school. This gave me the model I wanted to develop myself in and allowed for theological reflection as integral to the course. It was the only school like that. I remember my first day walking to class in September of 1983. I had that sensation of walking above the ground, not even touching the sidewalk with my feel but floating so exhilarated was I. I was going to have two years of study, had saved enough money that I could focus on the study and not have to work so much as I’d done for my schooling in the past. By November I was going into the centre at night and reviewing the tapes of counselling done at the centre. Everything was taped in agreement with the counsellee so we the students could learn by having access to all the tapes for our learning. I was viewing the tapes because I was questioning my education. With each night’s viewing and I did this for a few weeks, I grew angrier and angrier with what I was seeing based on what I’d learned in Victoria. I finished the semester with straight As to prove to them it wasn’t my incompetence, and withdrew from the program.

The course I was taking in the theology of pastoral counselling, however, was excellent. It continued over two semesters, and I continued with the course for the second semester while also transferring to the U of Ottawa and taking undergraduate courses in psychology, psychological statistics and theatre. These courses and especially the theology course helped me to work where I was going from here. I wasn’t ready to go back to parish ministry; my exploration wasn’t complete. My pursuit only writ larger.

Through this examination I came to realize for myself that counselling was not something exclusive to being a priest. It was other work, and in fact depth counselling wasn’t something to be done by a parish priest. It came to me that the single and exclusive work of the priest was the celebration of the eucharist, a ritual central to the church for the making of the transcendent present, specifically in the eucharist the consecration of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. I took on this exploration: to see how delivery of the eucharist could be a healing experience and a motivating ritual for inspiring well-being, a congregant’s deeper appreciation for life.

I had no idea where to go with this. I also had no money left. I was at ground zero. I didn’t have a plan forward as there was no neat course of study for my question. Ritual Studies, in particular with Ronald L. Grimes was the closest I could get. i was out of resources. I took a chaplain call-out position with the military for 4 months. After that I was faced with not being ready to return to my career, no prospect of employment in another career. I could have joined the military, and while I liked the work of Chaplain, I knew I’d be giving up any creative spark I had in me. I’d be using my counselling skills and I wouldn’t have to worry about fundraising for the church building maintenance and for the first time in my life, I’d have a decent salary. However, every building looked the same and everyone wore the same uniform. For the five summers and the call-out I’d worked in the military it was at the expense of my writing and creative impulse. Standing on the south-west corner of College and University Ave, waiting for the light to change, I made the fateful choice to brave the uncertain world. Without stating it this way for myself, looking back I was throwing myself into the hands of my muse, whatever that is as my unconscious impulse or the celtic guardian angel, or whatever, what I see as an act of faith, a journey that had so many serendipitous turns, so many unconnected events that all became a life a look back on as one of incredible blessing for what I got to see and discover. It became with having nothing. In fact I was so desperate I was walking the streets looking for loose change. A man approached me on University Ave asking for money. I said I was out of work and needed money myself. He looked at me and smiled. In those eyes were the deepest of empathetic gazes that said to me ‘I understand. I am with you.’ And that launched me, lifted me up, and took an expectant step forward into my brand new life.