History of Pastoral Care in America

Thanks to Patrick Fore

Thanks to Patrick Fore

I finished E. Brooks Holifield’s A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization. The book has been a grounding or a re-grounding for me since my seminary days. As the title tells, it is a history of pastoral care and pastoral theology in the United States of America.

Holifield walks through several Christian theological lanes, surveying and summarizing some of the major figures in pastoral theology broadly and pastoral care more specifically. He intends the book to be narrow in the sense of covering Protestant pastoral counseling and ministry.

I found it broad in how it went about telling that history. The author named several primary voices in pastoral work, drawing out the thoughts and conceptions of thinkers and preachers and teachers who shaped the practical ministry of pastors and the academic institutions who trained ministers. Holifield wanted to show specifically how the “self” was revealed in history, how attitudes about the self developed in American religion, and wrote in that direction.

Any history that covers centuries has to be clear in its scope and intention. Holifield told of theological traditions and how they dealt with (i.e., defined, taught, and constructed meanings for) sin and spiritual development, two primary foci of pastoral care and those seeking such care throughout history. How a church defines sin directly relates to how a person in that church develops him/herself, whether they develop at all.

I appreciate learning names and dates that I was not thoughtful of. Holifield named preachers and leaders who framed debates that I know of but didn’t know the progenitors. One criticism is that the historical debates were framed around churches and communities which regularly disallowed the names and thoughts of non-white people.

That lack of voice is loud in Holifield, and I found myself wondering why he wrote about the influence of Jonathan Edwards but didn’t discuss with equal precision the thoughts and impact of Richard Allen or Alexander Crummell, the Episcopal priest who started what was essentially a society for African American intellectual and theoretical development. The omission is both honest from the historical perspective–since Allen wasn’t “invited to the debate” in his time–and discouraging because I don’t note Holifield walking through his work with the sense of loss with which I read him.

He presented a lot of philosophical material that made me feel informed, and he made the connections to keep me interested because he used several local church pastors to offer what could have been, simply, heady stuff. A central event in American history of the Protestantism Holifield writes about is the Great Awakening. He writes of the psychology of the Awakening and how with the best of intentions, leaders disagreed (meaning argued) about conversion and cure.

He notes the remark of one historian who says that the central conflict of the time was not theological but psychological, about opposing views of human psychology. Holifield points to how misleading that comment was, but it as helpful as it is misleading. As he says, “the theological context of any clerical assertion about psychology profoundly affected the interpretation of the psychological claims” and “the antagonists had far more in common than any such dichotomy might suggest.” Both are true then and seem true still.

The book covers material that can’t, or shouldn’t be covered in a review. There’s stuff about will and affections, comfort, cure, accountability, capitalism, and urban culture which I hardly would relay as urban in contemporary sense. He develops in solid detail the early therapeutic movements which we see but don’t see in pastoral counseling and therapy offices. He documents the beginnings of the Emmanuel Movement, explains less popular figures like Harry Stack Sullivan (whose work I appreciate), and points to how clinical focus moved from adjustment to insight.

He opened up for me a connection between mainstream culture in the US post-Civil War and the accompanying shifts of emphases in counseling and ministry and which established the primary contexts for the 20th century pastoral care movement. The same was true after World War 2. National violence, world violence directly impacted the needs for, methods of, and providers for pastoral care and mental health. Power and achievement and success were foci. Warlike metaphors abound from that time in clinical history, and the residuals of that period are still with us.

The last half of the book was much more relatable. He employed names and methods I have been introduced to, and the book did a good job unearthing the nuanced theories from which today’s approaches in pastoral theology stem. He dealt with the ever popular client-centered therapy and its large reception among pastors, as well as the derivative therapies thereafter. He mentioned early to mid-twentieth century pastoral heavy weights like Hiltner and Boisen and Oates and Wise.

I remember thinking about something one of my Bible professors said. Perhaps they are words I put in a professor’s mouth: the people who write our texts are the people whose stories stuck. Their stories endured. In other words, those we quote continue to be those we hear.

I felt Holifield reminding us of good historical stuff while also, in my view, choosing certain voices and neglecting others relative to a history of United States of American pastoral care. I certainly am developing a personal project to augment Holifield’s good work, thinking through whose voices are missing but shouldn’t be.

In summary, as good as this history is, it is short-sighted in the direction of white, male perspectives which is nothing surprising. Most of theological scholarship bends in that direction. Certainly most recognized histories bend there too. I could see more complementary texts coming alongside this book in order to illuminate the less-told stories of women and people of color. Indeed, I know the work of folks like Carroll Watkins-Ali and Archie Smith should be read with Holifield’s book.

Now, I’m on the hunt for another pastoral theological history that captures and enriches the story by adding the voices that Holifield didn’t include. That said, this quote, pages from the end, summarize well the good ground the author did cover and offers a kind of vista into the next places historically minded theological scholars may next dig:

Pastoral conversation–whether understood as counsel or as counseling–has never been a disembodied activity, isolated from social and cultural expectations and ideals. The strategies of pastoral discourse, the tone and vocabulary of private communication between the minister and the person in distress, always have borne the dim reflection of a public order. One begins to understand something about pastoral counseling by looking closely not only at prevailing conceptions of theology and psychology but at popular culture, class structure, the national economy, the organization of the parishes, and the patterns of theological education. And one must also look at the past.


Millennials & Church & Protestantism

I read an article at Religion Dispatches with interest. It’s about why the Roman Catholic church is having a hard time keeping Millennials in their churches while mentioning several Millennial groups within Catholicism which are intentionally bucking that same dwindling trend.

Among the comments in the piece is the difference between doctrinal teaching in the RC church and the implicit theological agreements–often the result of a public and cultural version of theological formation–of those the church wishes to attract.

Thanks to Luis Llerena & Stock.Snap

Thanks to Luis Llerena & Stock.Snap

I wonder how Protestants come at this material. There are doctrines, i.e., church teachings, that most Protestants disagree with, and the impact of that disagreement isn’t as noticeable as it would be in the catholic setting but it’s there. People come and go, join and lose commitment. Perhaps we don’t count the way the RC church does, but are we attending to our own losses and, as importantly, the reasons behind them?

I thought of this article as I was talking with my small group Wednesday. We’re reading short stories for the summer. Every week one of us offers a piece of fiction for the group and we discuss it. The other night we read my story which was ZZ Packer’s “Speaking in Tongues” from her memorable Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.

Among the comments that emerged was the tight and unrealistic ways churches offer curricula to youth and young adults, particularly around topics like sexuality and bodies and creativity; we talked about the ways we are parented and how communication or the lack thereof shapes us even when we don’t notice it.

A couple people affirmed the church’s established place to offer doctrines (i.e., teachings) but doctrines-in-relation-to the lives that we live. We spoke about our continued longing for churches to live into that offered place and to actually engage in hard subjects.

I’d add now that the church’s inevitable place is as a shaper of morality in most people’s lives. It offers–or can offer–uniquely an environment where we learn to integrate our theology (thinking and speaking about God), our ethics (thinking and speaking about ourselves in relation to others), our practice (doing and being and living), and our hopes (aspirations and envisioned futures).

If our teachings, if whatever way explicate, doesn’t reach into and come out of an appreciation of real life, we’ll lose the people around the table. We’ll never continue to capture the imaginations of those who are yet to come. We’ll never engage the critical questions which make passing on our/any faith possible. That didn’t all come from the RD article, but the elements and residuals are there.

Read the article here.

Seth Godin on Credibility

Thanks to Luis Llerena

Thanks to Luis Llerena

You believe you have a great idea, a hit record, a press release worth running, a company worth funding. You know that the customer should use your limited-offer discount code, that the sponsor should run an ad, that the admissions office should let you in. You know that the fast-growing company should hire you, and you’re ready to throw your (excellent) resume over the transom.

This is insufficient.

Your belief, even your proof, is insufficient for you to get the attention, the trust and the action you seek.

When everyone has access, no one does. The people you most want to reach are likely to be the very people that are the most difficult to reach.

Attention is not yours to take whenever you need it. And trust is not something you can insist on.

You can earn trust, just as you can earn attention. Not with everyone, but with the people that you need, the people who need you.

This is the essence of permission marketing.

When I began in the book industry thirty years ago, if you had a stamp, you had everything you needed to get a book proposal in front of an editor. You could send as many proposals as you liked, to as many editors as you liked. All you needed to do was mail them.

In my first year, after my first book came out, I was totally unsuccessful. Not one editor invested in one of the thirty books I was busy creating.

It wasn’t that the books were lousy. It was me. I was lousy. I had no credibility. I didn’t speak the right language, in the right way. Didn’t have the credibility to be believed, and hadn’t earned the attention of the people I was attempting to work with.

Email and other poking methods have made it easy to spew and spray and cold call large numbers of people, but the very ease of this behavior has also made it even less likely to work. The economics of attention scarcity are obvious, and you might not like it, but it’s true.

The bad news is that you are not entitled to attention and trust. It is not allocated on the basis of some sort of clearly defined scale of worthiness.

The good news is that you can earn it. You can invest in the community, you can patiently lead and contribute and demonstrate that the attention you are asking be spent on you is worthwhile.

But, no matter how urgent your emergency is, you’re unlikely to be able to merely take the attention you want.


Read Seth’s blog. Daily.

Long Games and Good Questions

Thanks to Joshua Earle & Unsplash

Thanks to Joshua Earle & Unsplash

I was working a piece with a friend–and then I saw the title to an article on a particular political leader–and both experiences made me question myself in this way, “What’s my long game?”

I’m no athlete. That was my brother’s hobby in high school. While he was mastering football on Simeon’s beautiful blue and gold, I would work in drivers ed, take the school’s cars to mechanics, and flirt with girls from different schools.

But there’s something I like about athletic metaphors. And when I saw that article title and contemplated the piece me and my brother-friend wrote, I wondered about my own leanings, my own directions.

You think through such things in ministry anyway. You have to have some sense of internal direction. It helps to add to that a sense of interiority. But the explicit question needs to raise: what is the plan? Where does the map I’m working from lead? In what direction I am hoping this thing will go? Those are long game questions.


From a Book I’m Reading

From the Dreamers & Doers at Death to the Stock Photo

Books grow out of the lives of the people who write them, of course. But they also grow out of the lives of the people they touch. The writer writes one truth; the reader brings to it another. When we read something that has meaning to us, we ourselves give it a meaning it never had before. If what we read resonates with nothing we ourselves know to be true, we call it fantasy.

From Joan Chittister’s Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope (pg. xiii)

“Singing Love Songs to Them”

I’m particularly interested in the ways to hear/see this presentation from a pastoral-theological point of view. Not being a medical person, I’m drawing on my basic bottom beliefs about human personhood and community and health.

I think Johann is on to something wonderful. Again, not being as conversant with the particular cognitive psychological elements or neuroscience underneath this talk, I’m vulnerable to that gap. But I think of readings by James Ashbrook and Gerald May and of my professor in seminary, David Hogue.

I’d love to know what you think.

Complications, Surgeons, Care, & “Undeniable Power”

Thanks to Leeroy and Life of Pix.

Thanks to Leeroy and Life of Pix.

This is an intriguing report about patient choice, public information about doctor’s records, and surgeons teaming up to prevent complications and errors even though they’re paid less for it. Here’s a quote that made me hopeful–and there were a few:

There was undeniable power in putting the information out there, where everyone could see it.

“When you get that grade, if you don’t like that grade or think you can do better,” Kaplan said, “you either study harder or go to the teacher and ask, ‘What can I do better?’”

Being a unit chaplain for surgical floors and a medical intensive care makes me particularly interested in this report which you can read here. Of course, your disagreements, your considerations, the comments after the report, and so forth are just as helpful in learning about all these things. And I’m grateful that Marian Wang shared this.