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Theological Response to 2014 Runcie Lecture on Pastoral Counseling

The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Little speaking with The Rev. Dr. Douglas Ronsheim (2014 Rucnie Lecturer) on May 1, 2014.

The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Little speaking with The Rev. Dr. Douglas Ronsheim (2014 Runcie Lecturer and Executive Director of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors) on May 1, 2014.

A Theological Response to “Recalculating Pastoral Counseling:
From Past, to Present, to Future”

by Rev. Dr. Jennifer Little, Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Theology

The following comments are offered as both response and invitation to further dialogue between the disciplines of theology and pastoral care and counseling. They are offered in response to Rev. Dr. Douglas Ronsheim’s 2014 Runcie Lecture at Graduate Theological Foundation: “Recalculating Pastoral Counseling: From Past, to Present, to Future.”

The theological warrant for an interdisciplinary community approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling is both foundational and an essential trajectory for ministry in the twenty first century.  Rev. Dr. Ronsheim’s lecture highlighted several elements for consideration in “recalculating” the scope of pastoral care and counseling for the future.

The first of the issues addressed by Rev. Dr. Ronsheim summarizes the quest for legitimacy in the foundational period of the area of Pastoral Care and Counseling and for the formation of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC).  Rather than a movement toward “parallel” legitimacy, the process of defining an area of inquiry and response for Pastoral Care and Counseling attempted to draw on a definition and call for care of whole persons in the several faith communities in which its members practiced.  The response of  the mid-twentieth century to this call provided legitimacy for the specialized training of Pastoral Counselors and Marriage and Family counselors; communities of faith identified those with health care training and established “parish nursing” programs, “loan closets” for temporary need of wheelchairs, crutches and other needful items that are either prohibitively expensive or inaccessible. Additionally, pastors trained in psychological and counseling disciplines began to offer specialized counseling attached to or in association with churches.  Within the health care professions, institutional chaplaincy also enjoyed an increased exposure and legitimacy; seminaries increased their programs oriented to the psychological and counseling aspects of the role of the pastor.  From the perspective of the pastoral care and counseling discipline, legitimacy for the discipline has continued to be recognized in these ways.

In his lecture, Rev. Dr. Ronsheim called for further steps toward inclusion in health care settings and community involvement through integrated cooperation from both “faith communities” and the institutions associated with healthcare.

From a strictly theological standpoint, the warrant for integrating “faith” and “religion”[1] within the healthcare institutions and the secular community is clearly foundational –even within the shifting landscapes of faith and society in the twenty-first century. In its continuing quest for legitimacy, efficacy and relevance, the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy must continue to revisit its institutional thinking about and expression of theological issues and a renewed emphasis on systematic and philosophical theological training as they equip counselors and therapists in the highly complex world of the twenty-first century.

To begin with, one must find a working definition of “faith” itself that does not diminish difference among the several expressions of faith while at the same time building a broader sense of community and cooperation among the religious communities. A basic phenomenological definition of faith will be helpful: Faith can be defined as a total response of one’s entire being to what is experienced as holy. Such a definition embraces both theistic and non-theistic (as well as agnostic and atheistic!) understandings of the transcendent, primary, and ultimate reality human beings seek in the multiplicity of its religious expressions.  Furthermore, and perhaps most pertinent to the question of  the legitimate role of pastoral care and counseling within secular institutions, this provisional definition of faith calls for the reflection and integration of human beings in their wholeness and the functions of religion and spirituality to address the wholeness of human beings.

Religions and faith meet the functional needs of human beings: emotional, intellectual, social, and embodied. Thus, a total response of one’s entire being, implies that a person’s emotional, intellectual, social and embodied experience must be engaged –at whatever level he or she is able; “entire” here means not “intensity” or even “adequacy,” but engaging these integrated and integrative aspects of the self. Ideally, “faith communities” and “faith traditions” provide the positive social milieu in which each self can integrate and be integrated by the experience of the holy.

As Rev. Dr. Ronsheim pointed out in his lecture, the question, “Who am I?” is a core inquiry for faith and wholeness.  This question is the existential expression of faith (along with the corresponding questions “Who or what is holy?” and “What am I to do?” reflected upon in its social, intellectual, emotional and embodied components. This quest for the liberated or integrated self, particularly in its crisis moments (in body, mind, and heart), cannot be strictly an isolated question: it must be asked within its social component as well. Human beings, in so far as they are able to participate in community (family, friends, faith community, society) are social beings and to neglect this aspect of the quest for wholeness in subordination to the quest for the individual self (“Who am I?”) can only lead to further isolation, self-centered experience and fragmentation.  A “faith” community then, is that community in which one discovers, restores, or further expresses a total response to the experience of the holy; “God” in theistic traditions “Holy” in non-theistic traditions. Rev. Dr. Ronsheim’s call for further integration of “faith” communities and the practice of health care (including mental, emotional, intellectual, and social modalities) is consistent with the foundations of solid theological thought. A note about “faith traditions” as a term might be appropriate as we go forward.

A second point Dr. Ronsheim introduced addressed the “systems theory” approach to the family as well as health care settings. Systems theory provides a necessary integrative moment for health care –all individuals function as part of a system; when one aspect of the system is out of harmony or in a state of change, the whole will be affected. This is certainly true within the discipline of systematic theology: when one addresses the issue of faith and theology, one must take into account not only the social, emotional, intellectual, and embodiment issues of individuals, but how these severally related to understandings of God, creation, sin, salvation, sacraments, humanity, and community in the sacred story and history of a faith tradition with its varied culturally influenced expressions. As the discipline of pastoral care and counseling and marriage and family therapy continues to employ “systems theory” to express its call to facilitate wholeness of human beings in relationship to faith, a renewed emphasis on “systematic” theology is essential.

In the twenty first century, pastoral care providers and counselors are faced with complex task of embracing not just an abstract concept of “faith” and “faith traditions”, but the embodied complex experience of faith and the diversity of faith within community and tradition; there is no simple expression of faith in an adequately existential framework. For example, in order to adequately embrace many faith traditions the Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, must adequately address the faith needs of different expressions of marriage and family.  Same-sex marriages and families with same-sex parents are embraced and endorsed by an increasing variety of faith communities. The American Association of Pastoral Counselors as well as the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy must revisit theology in order to adequately address issues related to “faith” and “family”  rather than relying on culturally biased research about “faith” and “family” that is today, inadequately descriptive of faith communities and the individuals and families who participate in faith communities.

Dr. Ronsheim has spoken enthusiastically for the necessity for a more integrative and adequate approach to treatment of the whole person in health care systems through the inclusion of faith and religion, as well as a new understanding of what “health care systems” means in light of faith and religion. As a theologian, I find that the necessary integrative trajectory lies in the theological foundation of the discipline of pastoral care and counseling; in renewed vigorous study and response to the classic expression of faith in scripture; in the cultural and social embodiments of lived faith and religions and in the decisive and definitive experience of the holy for individuals. As the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy “recalculates” their own opportunities and expressions in health care systems and faith communities, I suggest that they re-examine as well the lived expression of faith as a total response of one’s entire being to what is experienced as holy in a systematic fashion. This re-examination involves:

  • Renewed emphasis on and attention to the four part “functional” aspects of faith and religion: intellectual, emotional, social and embodied, such that pastoral care givers and faith based counselors can adequately[2] articulate structures and systems of health and faith.
  • Renewed emphasis toward specifically theological education in the field of systematic and/philosophical theology such that the truly existential nature of faith may be addressed –in particular through critical thinking.
  • Re-examination of constitutive and constructive elements of family, individual, and community from a theological perspective in relationship with classic articulations of those elements (in Hebrew Bible, New Testament and Quran) as well as current sociological and psychological research.


About Dr. Little

Rev. Dr. Jennifer A. Little serves as Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Theology at the Graduate Theological Foundation and Instructor of Religion and Biblical Studies at Parkland College (Champaign, Illinois).

[1] The phenomenological definitions of “religion” are several. For our purposes of inter-faith and interdisciplinary dialogue, let us agree on a basic definition of “religion” as “human seeking and responding to what is experienced as holy.”  For the purposes of our dialogue such a definition, while broad, indicates both the human movement toward wholeness and liberation from suffering as well as the existentially authentic nature of human response to the experience of holiness.  Faith, as discussed later in this essay, occurs in conjunction with religious expression of faith in community.

[2] “Adequacy” in a theological context is a measure relative to the definitive and decisive articulation of justice and blessing from a divine perspective or in relationship to the harmony and expression of wholeness and blessing of the holy.  Furthermore it is understood as a “dynamic” measure in its expression; epistemological and cultural variables are essential in the experience of adequacy to divinity.