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Pastoral Care is People-Centered

February 1, 2011

Note: Coursework for the class MDIV 645 Spiritual Care & Counseling includes a weekly reflection, ethics paper, or verbatim.  The first two types will be posted here.  They will often relate to the assigned readings.  In this case, we are starting with the following two books: ‘In Living Color: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling’ by Emmanuel Lartey and ‘People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts‘ by Robert Bolton.  In the reflective essays (1 page) we have been asked by our professor to address the following question:

How might these practices and ideas help me care for my sangha members, my patients, etc.?

Good question.  Beats me.  (First thought, best thought?) 

What I do know, through experience, is that what helps me rarely helps others.  After all, I don’t think someone who’s marriage is falling apart will be quite as fascinated with the implications of Postmodern thought on Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths as I am.  No, what is most helpful to me are the bits that make the least sense and seem the most vague.  Those are the places I know I have things to learn.

James Poling says in the Foreword, “Lartey defines care as the expression of spirituality in relation to self, others, God, and creation.”

Care is spirituality expressed in relation to others.  At first glance, that seems a bit backwards.  Rather, I’ve operated under the assumption that spirituality is care expressed in relation to others.  But that’s just semantics.  The real tricky part is the second bit, the expressed in relation to others bit.  That bit means we have to do something, something that has to do with other people, something based on relationship. 


Can’t I go back to my nice safe Postmodernism and semantics?  I barely know how to relate to myself and now I’m supposed to relate to other people?  And, on top of that, I’m supposed to help them relate to themselves and yet more other people? (And maybe “creation” and even a God  I’m not so sure is up there?)  Woe be it to the intellectual introvert who seeks a career in the caring professions.

(Detour ahead.)  When I was a kid, my favorite movie was Dirty Dancing.  My mother didn’t think it was quite appropriate for an eight-year-old, so she hid it.  That lasted less than an hour.  I watched that movie over and over again, never understanding what my mother found so objectionable.  Years later, as an adult, I watched it again and was surprised to discover there was sex, unwed pregnancy, and abortion in that movie.  As a child those scenes hadn’t made sense to me, so I wasn’t interested in them.  They didn’t even leave a dent.  (Return to main road.)

Now when I read for class, my mind is attracted to the spinning forms and fancy footwork.  The stuff I don’t get barely leave a track across my consciousness, but that’s the stuff I need to focus on most.  I need to learn how to relate and how to help others relate.  So the things that help me care for my sangha members and clients are the things about relationship, the things I understand least, and rarely even intellectually, let alone practically.

Larety’s work (and others’) makes clear that pastoral care is primarily about relationships.  He tells us, “Pastoral care consists of helping activities, participated in by people who recognize a transcendent dimension to human life, which, by the use of verbal or non-verbal, direct or indirect, literal or symbolic modes of communication, aim at preventing, relieving or facilitating persons coping with anxieties. Pastoral care seeks to foster people’s growth as full human beings together with the development of ecologically and socio-politically holistic communities in which all persons may live humane lives.” (Chapter One)

Helping, participated, human life, communication, facilitating, foster, communities, all persons – that’s a bucket-load of words that all have to do with people relating to one another.  Luckily, Lartey also begins to lay out a groundwork for the various ways that can be done in Chapter Three: as therapy, ministry, social action, empowerment, and personal interaction.  Breaking them down this way is helpful (for the theoretically minded).  He also does a good job of flogging the still-very-much-living giant, evil spider of ethnocentrism. (Horses are too nice to flog, alive or dead.)

There is hope, of course, even for the hopelessly introverted.  “The motive is love. …Love is a thoroughly social phenomenon. Not only does it impel us into relationship with others, it also enables us to recognize injustice and to desire to do something about it.”  It’s also universal, something even I can understand, no abstract theory necessary.  So color me impelled.

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