Spirituality And Pastoral Care

Themes: Biblical, Christian Year, History, Pastors, Scholar, Theology

Genuine pastoral sensitivity arises out of the pastor’s own spiritual life and the pastor’s experience of God’s presence. Whether pastoral care is demonstrated through counseling or liturgical leadership, it must be grounded in faith and permeated with prayer.

Working as a pastoral psychotherapist, I am increasingly captured by questions of pastoral identity. Who am I as I sit in this room with struggling and suffering persons? Why am I here? How do I envision and embody my role here? The explicitly pastoral dimension of these questions also includes how all this connected to my experience of prayer and faith? In responding to these questions, I have found it helpful to return to those basic experiences which are foundational in my life—personal experiences of healing and salvation.

In this article, I would like to invite others into a conversation about such personal experiences. The invitation involves dialogue about the relationship of spirituality to our pastoral work. The contemporary literature of pastoral care and counseling emphasizes theological reflection and dialogue with Christian sources (Scripture, tradition, confessional communities) as ways of insuring an appropriate pastoral identity and practice. While acknowledging the value of these proposals, I submit that they are insufficient. Over the years, I have become convinced that pastoral identity and practice need to be rooted in personal prayer and spirituality. It is in the crucible of a personal encounter with God that pastoral identity is born and progressively integrated. In exploring this living relationship with God, we can approach with freshness the deep religious roots of our ministry.

The task requires some personal revelation and reflection. I will present here an exercise, exploring certain prayerful experiences that have aided me in addressing questions of pastoral identity. They are important factors in the spirituality which undergirds my ministry. Spirituality, as I use the term here, is a way of living in explicit relation to God and neighbor. Listening, discernment, and responsive action nourish this way of life. It is a vital union of spiritual experience, vision, and praxis.

I will present a spirituality of “?grateful response?” that has become the force behind my pastoral ministry and guides my sense of how ministry can be performed. The unfolding of healing metaphors in personal experience with God will be the path for reflection and will lead into a discussion of qualities of pastoral sensibility, as well as a view of Christology that may ground pastoral work.

The Starting Point

In The Practice of Spiritual Direction, William Barry and William Connoly suggest that any exploration of spiritual life can profitably begin with personal experience: “?What are people’s spiritual lives actually like and what has helped to develop them??” ([New York: Seabury Press, 1982], viii). As a Catholic priest and member of the Society of Jesus, my spiritual life is formed and shaped by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and the ongoing development of Jesuit spirituality (Louis J. Puhl, trans., The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius [Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1951]). Jesuits and others who follow this spiritual way maintain personal contact with Jesus the Christ, through contemplation of his life via Scripture and liturgy and discernment of his calling in contemporary “?signs of the times?” and in the continuing experience of the people of God (William A. Barry, “?The Experience of the First and Second Weeks of the Spiritual Exercises,?” Review for Religious 32 [1973]: 106). In pursuing elements in a spirituality for pastoral care, I will draw on my own experience and style of prayer. Certainly, this is only one way of proceeding. It is one pastoral counselor’s attempt to articulate some of the deep roots of his ministry. Hopefully, this exercise will invite others to similar exploration and dialogue.

Two metaphors come to mind, both from times of personal retreat and quiet prayer. One metaphor arises from the setting of a mental hospital. In a large, dark room sits a young male patient, bound in a “?jacket.?” He is isolated and alone, cut off not only from human companionship, but from silent company of clear perceptions and images as well. He is unkempt, unshaven, and wild-eyed. Most painfully, he has a clouded mind. Stresses, frustrations, and terrors seem to be assaulting him from within; and he feels defenseless before the onslaught. He knows it has not always been like this. The cloudiness and lack of clarity paralyze and frighten him; he feels beset, overmatched, defeated. “?Who will rescue me from the pit??”

The setting for a second metaphor is a medical hospital at the bedside of an accident victim. He is paralyzed from the neck down and bandaged. He cannot see through the bandages nor can he hear beyond vague distortions. When he rises above the stupor of shock and medications, he is aware of feeling cut off, out-of-touch, disoriented. He does not seem able to hold on to reality, but slips in and out of contact. In lucid moments, amid the loneliness and fear, he wonders what could possibly bring light in to this darkness. He wonders, “?Who can save me in this time of trouble??”

Until someone grasps his hand! This, he can feel. This sudden connection has warmth and strength, resolve and compassion in it. He feels flooded with hope and love.

Each of us utilizes metaphors for the articulation and deep appropriation of our experiences and their meanings. Metaphorical language is a way in which we can articulate our experience and comprehension of ourselves, of others, of creation, of God. Metaphors reveal, and offer the potential to reinterpret, our ways of being and acting in the world. They offer a path for seeing linkages in who we are, what we do, and why and how we do it.

These two metaphors which arose for me in prayer—the mental patient and the accident victim—acted as “?lenses?” to aid me in interpreting various aspects of my life. They were given to me during retreat in prayerful moments of reflection on my own woundedness and sinfulness. Within this context, they aided me in seeing the alienation and isolation that are part of illness and sin. They functioned as indicators of inner estrangement and disorientation, catching the essential neediness that can arise from one’s own wounds and sin.

These metaphors become nodal points for me, drawing to themselves memories, affects, and understandings of both patterns of disorder or sinfulness and its effects, and also a deep sense of my own need for healing and salvation. They also became central, organizing metaphors for my sense of pastoral identity and motivation for involvement in a “?healing?” ministry. They helped to convey a kind of “?felt knowledge?” that has affected my view of reality and my actions and reactions within it.

The Desire to Serve

James Fowler has reminded us that “?call and response?” to God lie at the heart of Christian life and ministry (James W. Fowler, Faith Development and Pastoral Care [Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress Press, 1987]). I suggest that the “?call?” of God often comes to us in experiences of a personal encounter with God’s healing grace and leads in gratitude to a “?response?” of offering oneself for healing ministry. Personal healing becomes the occasion for a desire to follow and serve, to respond to God’s gracious activity by mediating a similar healing for others.

The two metaphors I’ve described spoke to the alienation and disorientation that often accompany illness and the effects of sin. As these experiences unfolded in prayer, there came an experience of contact, of shared strength, of “?being grasped.?” Into the midst of isolation and confusion, there came a healing touch. I felt the presence of God in Christ grasping me and breaking into my closed world. The experience of “?being grasped?” emerged as a surprising and revelatory event. It evoked a surprising affective and attitudinal response. I encountered the grace of God, healing and saving me in the midst of my wounds and sinfulness.

The experience of “?being grasped?” by God’s grace became a felt sense of being accepted, of being a “?loved sinner.?” It also led to being a “?wounded healer.?” William Barry states:

Many experience tears of joy as they feel themselves to be loved sinners … The knowledge is a deep, abiding, felt kind of thing (knowledge in the way John means the word in his Gospel). It is the kind of knowing that leads to action and desire, the kind of knowing that wants to be shared and spread. It is “?Good News.?”

Grace that heals and liberates is grace which calls for service.

The experience of being saved becomes the catalyst for both gratitude and love. This in turn brings a desire to respond, to “?follow?” and reform one’s life. A deep spiritual dynamic is dictated here. Such a reformation of life may very well include decisions about the form and style of discipleship one envisions and embarks upon to actualize a response to that call. Reformation of life leads to a “?lifestyle response?” to God’s healing activity. In following the “?healing Lord?” through a personalized style of discipleship and ministry, one hopes continually to meet him, be with him, and serve him. The style of ministry and discipleship, as a personalized and grateful response to being healed, becomes a way of encounter and a way of salvation.

I am proposing a model of “?grateful response?” as the basis for healing ministry. As we return to our own experiences of being accepted, of being healed, these experiences function both to anchor and to enliven our understanding of, and involvement in, specific forms of ministry. Such deeply religious experiences in our own lives lie, I believe, at the root of our desire to serve. They operate at the heart of our desire to be “?disciples,?” to follow Jesus and serve at his side. The “?deep gladness?” they engender leads to grateful response. Pastoral care and counseling become both an actualization and a continued refinding of the Lord’s gracious presence, through being and finding his presence with those whom I serve.

Sensibility and Pastoral Relationship

In moments of gracious approach by God, personal and lively contact allows us to grasp a life-giving pastoral vision and sensibility. Experiences of “?grateful response?” to God function as guideposts and touchstones for one’s style of ministry. Drawing to themselves associations, memories, and feelings, they communicate a “?felt?” sense of how one can and should be in the world. They become bases for pastoral sensibility and for how one envisions one’s pastoral role. A dynamic of “?grateful response?” leads to pastoral vision.

The minister aware of his or her own connection with suffering and neediness is a minister truly open and caring toward suffering and needs in others. Such ministry flows into three essential qualities of pastoral sensibility: compassion, steadfast love, and faithfulness. These three biblically-based qualities, reflective of the Lord’s stance toward a broken world in need of redemption, are indispensable for ministry in general and for pastoral care and counseling in particular. In contemporary clinical parlance, we might speak in a parallel way of “?empathy,?” a “?holding environment,?” and the “?therapeutic alliance?” (Walter Brueggemann, “?Voices of the Night Against Justice,?” in To Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly: An Agenda for Ministers, ed. Walter Brueggemann et al. [New York: Paulist Press, 1986]). I am not proposing here a one-to-one correspondence between these religious and clinical terms. Complex nuances and linguistic contexts inform and contextualize each of them. Rather, I am suggesting a softer kind of correlation, a more general stance and attitude of persons, interestingly similar across the range of “?helping professions.?”

A basis of “?grateful response?” in the healing ministries, rooted in personal experience, is preeminently empathetic. Being grasped and healed holds within it the possibility of compassion. Grounded in a sense of self as a “?loved sinner?” and a “?wounded healer,?” ministries of pastoral care and counseling ought to envision themselves as “?walking with?” and “?standing alongside?” troubled or wounded persons. In vital touch with his or her own pain, the minister notices and cares about the pain of others. Understanding the gracious and healing approach of God in her or his own regard, the minister resolves to be present to souls as a living mediator—an “?incarnation,?” if you will—of God’s grace; that is, to be the presence of God’s kingdom breaking through, as Jesus himself was.

The minister comes to a sense of identity as a “?fellow pilgrim,?” walking with those in need of grace. To be sure, the minister is catalyst and guide along the way, but she or he is fellow-traveler as well. This is the key to a empathic basis for ministry. Empathy, or the ability to “?love tenderly?” (Micah 6:8), is to love “?with an awareness of the capacity of the other to be wounded, to suffer pain, and to be dependent upon relationship with others?” (Sharon Parks, “?Love Tenderly,?” in To Act Justly, Love Tenderly, Walk Humbly: An Agenda for Ministers, ed. Walter Brueggemann et al. [New York: Paulist Press, 1986], 30). It is the ability, rooted in one’s own wounds and healing, to understand and care about the situation of another.

Again, ministry in touch with its roots of neediness and healing comprehends well the necessity for “?steadfast love.?” God’s response to sinful and suffering people is characterized by hesed, a steadfast and fierce devotion to their health and their good. As Sharon Parks points out, such a stance on the part of God understands both our vulnerability and our innate possibilities, our best good. Consequently, God’s gracious love toward us is both “?tender?” and “?tenacious?” (Parks 39). The kingdom of God, the centerpiece of Jesus’ mission and ministry in God’s name, provides both a “?holding environment?” for human vulnerability and a context of hope, calling persons to a new and more healthy being. It is the kingdom or “?reign?” of God that is the ultimate environment which holds client, counselor, and the healing enterprise.

Such a holding environment is essential for the reconstruction that is the goal of pastoral therapeutics. “?When one’s faith and self come apart to come together again, there must be a supporting, nurturing environment that ‘?holds?’ us?” (Parks 34). Fowler speaks similarly in his discussion of “?reconstructive change?” in the face of failure or spiritual struggle, legacies of woundedness, or deficiencies from the influence of others’ or our own choices. In his view, the movement into “?reconstructive change?” requires a holding environment—an “?ecology of care and vocation?”—for successful passage (Fowler 103–116). Pastoral care and leadership involves attentiveness to the nurturing of healing and “?holding?” environments.

The third critical quality of pastoral sensibility is its valuing of faithfulness. YHWH, the Faithful One, made a covenant of unshakable fidelity to persons. For the Christian, Jesus in his person is the Incarnation of this faithful word of promise, the new covenant of healing and salvation. Pastoral sensibility understands the value of faithfulness from its own experience of being saved and healed, not just once, but again and again. It understands that God’s loving stance toward persons is ever-gracious and therefore seeks to make such faithful love its own.

Pastoral care and ministry take their cue from the experience of God’s trustworthy stance toward the people of God. As Nagy and Krasner have suggested, “?trustworthiness?” is an essential element for healing and loving relationships (Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy and Barbara R. Krasner, “?Trust-based Therapy: A Contextual Approach,?” American Journal of Psychiatry 137 [1980]: 767–775). And, as counselors of various schools can attest, the trustworthy faithfulness of the “?therapeutic alliance?” is an indispensable element in the healing of persons.

Empathy, holding, alliance—all these clinical notions have their parallels in biblically-informed pastoral sensibility—each speak to the necessity of relationship in healing endeavors. Pastoral care and counseling are ministries of healing and loving relationships. The metaphors I’ve proposed in our “?conversation?” are relational metaphors. True, each began with isolation and estrangement; each was striking because of its relationship deficits. Yet, the healing encountered came by way of “?being grasped,?” of being approached in relationship. Relational presence and intervention became the way of healing and salvation.

My own path of growth in pastoral identity and work has proceeded in this way. For me, it is important to provide compassion, steadfast love, and faithfulness in the therapeutic relationship. It has become equally important to envision myself as a catalyst for these qualities in my clients’ wider relationship network. Healing and recovery occur (and are maintained), not only in the therapeutic relationship, but in the wider relational surroundings as well. An additional issue, which is directly related to care and counseling that are pastoral, involves the connection to the spiritual relationship that holds and supports pastoral work. Ministry with persons occurs within the ambience of relationship to God and the kingdom of God. All ministry done in Jesus’ name involves, at its depth, relationship with him, as God’s offer of healing and reconciling grace. Pastoral ministry is inherently Christological.

Finding the Christ

Here I can only indicate what must—for the present—remain suggestions of a “?healing Christology,?” as it relates to the ministries of pastoral care and counseling. Earlier I spoke of the “?grateful response?” to the experience of “?being grasped.?” I suggested that this could inform one’s life and the possible choice of a healing ministry, as a way to both actualize one’s gratitude and continue following the Lord. Pastoral care and counseling could, I suggested, further specify one’s discipleship, as a participation in the church’s ministry in Jesus’ name.

What I would like to point toward here is that such a response may discover itself continually finding the Lord in its ministry. Moreover, such encounters with the Lord are the primary means for nourishing such demanding ministries over the long term. This Christological element is the wellspring for Christian pastoral care and counseling’s spirituality and identity. It is true enough to say that what makes counseling pastoral is its rootedness in the ministry of the church. Nevertheless, a full exploration of what this means must take into account the Christology which grounds both the church’s sense of itself and the minister’s pastoral identity and motives. Here the church’s living contact with its original experiences converges with the counselor’s own. At its heart, the church’s self-identity and the pastor’s identity and spirituality are Christological.

For the ministries of pastoral care and counseling, I envision—and in no way are these to be seen as exhaustive—three Christological dimensions: being his presence, finding his presence; and being in his presence. All three dimensions are inherent in pastoral relations and are constitutive of a spirituality for pastoral ministry.

Our ministry as Christian pastoral agents, as well as the church’s mission and ministry, is guided and shaped by Jesus Christ, as a metaphor of God’s healing and salvific love, as a parable of the kingdom of God (Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language [Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress Press, 1982]). Jesus becomes the original, foundational metaphor which grounds our identity, pastoral motives, and way of being, both collectively and individually.

As Sallie McFague has indicated, it is possible for a person to be and act metaphorically (McFague 67–68, 108–111). Looking back into our own lives, we can recover memories of people, who served as role models for us. Their words, causes, and behavior became guideposts and catalysts for our emerging sense of self. Their life stories functioned as guiding metaphors for us, revealing and interpreting some of the mysteries of our lives, grounding and articulating some of the dreams which helped to form us as persons. In the way of metaphor our familiarity with aspects of their story helped to illumine the unfamiliarity of ourselves and our stories.

From this vantage point, it is a small step to the experience of ourselves as metaphorical figures in the lives of our parishioners and clients. As I’ve reflected on the two metaphors, which have become part of our conservation, it is clear to me that they form my sense of being healed and grasped by God’s healing love. In the experience, which funded these two metaphors, it was Jesus the Christ, God’s healing-in-person, who approached and grasped me. More to the point, these metaphors also image for me my approach in a healing ministry to those I serve.

For at least some of my clients, I have become a concrete embodiment of God’s kingdom of love and healing. In this view, pastoral care and counseling can be seen as a “?personalizing?” of Jesus’ presence and ministry, an incarnation of the Lord’s own stance toward sinful and suffering people. Pastoral care and counseling become incarnations of God’s continual offer of salvation and healing, mediated through my ministry. The counseling situation becomes a possible encounter with, and discovery of, God’s forgiveness and Jesus’ ministry of reconciliation and healing in the midst of broken, alienated, and wounded living. The pastoral counselor becomes for the client a personalized point of meeting with God’s gracious activity and discovers (often surprisingly) herself or himself bringing God’s presence.

Further, the richness of prayerful spirituality also allows a sensitive pastoral agent to discover the Lord’s presence in her or his client. In the New Testament, Jesus’ own identification with the poor, the struggling, and the sinner allows—in fact demands—such a vision. As pastoral agents labor to break the barrier of alienation that shackles clients, to heal life’s wounds, and to restore this person to the possibility of free partnership with God, they encounter the suffering and crucified One, calling from the midst of the client’s pain and struggle. Finding the crucified, the friend of tax collectors and sinners and of widows and orphans, endows their work with a sacred quality.

Finally, as each of us plumbs spiritual resonances of our work and ministry, we find our faith and our prayers calling us to labor alongside the crucified and risen One. That is, we discover that, as we work with God’s people, we minister within the ambience of God’s presence and grace; we find ourselves being in God’s gracious presence. Here the kingdom of God, as the sacred ambience for client, counselor, and the healing relationship, comes to the fore. The ultimate environment for our lives and ministry is seen to be God’s gracious and healing love. Ministry itself is “?grasped?” by God; in God, we live, move, and have our being.

These three Christological aspects of pastoral care and counseling—being God’s presence, finding God’s presence, being in God’s presence—require more reflection and prayerful study, to be sure. Precise elaboration of them will be an important future task. I propose them here as part of our “?conversation,?” because they have emerged in my own reflection on experiences which ground my pastoral ministry. They have also become part of my experience of prayer, as I try to maintain and nourish spiritual rootedness for ministry, which is funded by my sense of call to partnership in what God is doing and inviting. It is my hope that others, joining this conversation through exploration of their own experience, will contribute to our understanding of the Christological basis for a spirituality of pastoral care and counseling.

A Practical Consideration

It may prove useful for the reader to have some sense of how such a spirituality might operate in the concrete. An example, I refer to often is the case of “?Rob.?”

Rob is a twenty-six year old, white, male, graduate student. He initially came for pastoral psychotherapy in order to address issues of depression, estrangement from his family, and social isolation. The details of this young man’s life and symptoms are not as important as the process that ensued between us.

Rob’s was a story of unremitting loneliness and schizoid withdrawal, yet it was a narrative laced with desire for warmth and relationship. His presentation, however, was anything, but helpful. He would sit for long periods of silence during sessions. His responses to questions were both brief and guarded, followed by relapse into withdrawal. He periodically expressed frustration at his inability to relate more appropriately, but seemed incapable of doing more. His self-presentation demonstrated the loneliness and isolation that characterized his life. I, for my part, could feel both the loneliness and the desire for closeness in the room. I could feel the frustration as well. A number of sessions continued in this way.

It is my habit to pray regularly for my clients and to search in times of prayer for generative ways to be with them (Oliver J. Morgan, “?Pastoral Counseling and Petitionary Prayer,?” Journal of Religion and Health 26:2 [1987], 149–152). Actively bringing clients into my relationship with God in prayer helps me to keep in perspective the pastoral dimensions of my work. It should be no surprise to state that I was beginning to feel depressed, bored, and resentful toward Rob. Being with him was making me feel helpless and paralyzed. I began to dread our time together each week, as I felt more isolated and my presence seemed futile. Nevertheless, I brought Rob and our situation to prayer. I needed something to help me break the logjam.

I was unprepared for what happened. In the midst of trying to speak about my dilemma in prayer, a strong sense of “?companionship?” enveloped me. In rapid succession, a series of “?understandings?” came to me. I had felt this loneliness and inability to “?break through?” in my own life. In those moments, God had reached out and “?grasped?” me. God longed to do the same for Rob, and perhaps could do so through my ministry. I need not carry all the burden of this task myself; God’s grace enveloped both of us and our work together. And, I understood something else, too. Rob’s brokenness and struggle wore the visage of Christ and his sufferings. The Lord was appealing to me through Rob’s suffering.

With the dawning of this knowledge in prayer, much of my own frustration and paralysis drained away. The task had been given new meaning and vision. I was able to identify emphatically with Rob’s struggle, I was able (at least to some extent) to entrust our time together to God’s grace as the environment for our work. And, I decided to take a risk with our fragile alliance as a way to build trust.

Our next session began with the usual silence. In contrast, however, to my previous inner attitude, I prayed calmly and felt again quiet assurance of God’s companionship. After a brief time, I shared with Rob my previous frustration, my sense of the feelings in the room, and my desire to understand him and be helpful. Abruptly, the mood in the room changed. Rob began to talk, hesitantly at first, but with genuine effort to “?make contact.?” Something powerful had changed in our relationship. I do not intend to convey a dramatic change in our relationship or course of treatment. There was much hard work to do and periodic relapses into withdrawal. However, our therapeutic work over the next year and a half was significantly affected by the growing trust and alliance that began on that day. The pastoral vision and sensitivity evoked in prayer were crucial elements in the ministry that was our therapeutic work together.


It has been my intention to stay close to personal experience and reflection in this “?conversation.?” I believe that such an “?experience-near?” exercise can be helpful in approaching questions of pastoral identity. I believe, too, that such an approach can be a fruitful starting point for contemporary pastoral theology.

I have stated here that attention to one’s personal experiences of healing and salvation can invigorate both vision and practice in pastoral ministry. These experiences can often function as keystones for a spirituality that underlies and nourishes pastoral action. As we come toward the end of our conversation, a few summary words are in order.

Earlier, I defined “?spirituality?” as a lively blend of vision and praxis, a stance or posture that combines prayerful listening, discernment, and decision-making in an intentionally God-ward and neighbor-ward way. As the “?conversation?” proceeded, I spoke of personal metaphors of woundedness and healing as touchstones for an experience of “?grateful response.?” In our exploration, I noted that qualities of compassion, steadfast love, and faithfulness arose in ministries rooted in such personal experience. I noted as well a Christological basis for both ministry and identify; Christology anchors both personal and ecclesial spiritualities for ministry.

The notion of a spirituality for ministries of pastoral care and counseling has received scant attention in the literature to date. Our “?conversation?” has been an attempt to begin a dialogue about this important issue. To be sure, such “?spirituality?” needs further elaboration. The interrelations of personal metaphors with the root metaphors of the Christian tradition will need further clarification, as will the relationship between theology and the practice of ministry. Other forms of spirituality and ways of prayer need to be discussed. Nevertheless, I believe we have made a start by discussing some personal, experiential roots for theology and ministry. It is my hope that such an exercise will evoke continued reflection, dialogue, and prayer, guided by living contact with God’s call and our own personal responses.

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