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The Power to Give Ourselves Away

February 10, 2011


"Listening to his story" photograph by Jennifer Konig.

In his book, In Living Color, Lartey outlines Clebsch and Jaekle’s four basic functions of pastoral care, healing, sustaining, guiding, and reconciling, then adds Clinebell’s nurturing, and tops it off with two additions of his own, liberating and empowering.  His descriptions (Chapter 4) of each of these functions make perfect sense.  However, in the end, I am forced to conclude there is actually only on function of pastoral care, from which all other outcomes derive – empowering.

Perhaps in the Christian (or any theocentric) tradition, the other five functions are possible.  After all, God is all powerful and can presumably work through his human tools to bring about healing or liberation.  Without this idea of an all powerful God, we are forced to admit that, in truth, no one can make any one do anything.  If I hold a gun to someone’s head and tell him or her to bark like a dog or die, he or she could choose to die.  Naturally, this is an extreme example.  What I actually had in mind is more relevant to pastoral care and counseling, the willingness of the person seeking care to actually be healed, sustained, guided, reconciled, or liberated.

Anecdotally, many people have claimed therapy to be unhelpful.  They go to counselors, psychiatrists, social workers, and priests, and in the end, nothing changes.  “No one could help me,” they say.  As discouraged as these individuals may be, I don’t find this assertion surprising, though it is sad.  We all like to think that as counselors and caregivers if we could just figure out the right thing to say, the right thing to do, if we were just wise enough or discerning enough, we could figure out what that person needs to help them.  When we fail, we blame ourselves.  We’re assuming a level of power we would do better to give away.

That’s why, in the end, I believe the only thing chaplains can actually do is empower others to heal themselves, sustain themselves, guide themselves, reconcile themselves, and liberate themselves.

When I was eleven, I went to a child psychologist due to anti-social behavior.  I enjoyed those visits and they truly helped me, but for the longest time I couldn’t figure out why.  After all, my counselor didn’t really seem to do anything.  She hardly ever gave me advise and never told me what was ‘wrong’ with me.  All she did was listen to me talk, play games, and let me hold her stuffed animals.  It took me years to realize that what she didn’t do was far more important.  She didn’t judge.  She didn’t admonish.  She didn’t disapprove.

When I told her, “I hate my brother!” she didn’t tell me I shouldn’t hate him.  Instead she asked “Why?”  That empowered me to speak, to have legitimate emotions and opinions.  For once in my life I finally felt heard.  That was tremendously empowering.  I only saw her for a few months and it took years for the full effect of her work to be felt, but that’s about the time my life began to turn around.  In time, I was able to become more assertive and confident because my voice had been legitimized.

All we can do as chaplains is choose to be present, choose to listen, and, when we speak, choose to give ourselves away to the best of our ability.  We have the power to do that much.  The people we are helping can do the rest on their own.  They can be a lamp unto themselves, just as we can and must be a lamp unto ourselves.  If we don’t believe that and don’t live it to the best of our ability, we’ll be doing them a disservice.

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