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Verbum et Ecclesia

versão On-line ISSN 2074-7705
versão impressa ISSN 1609-9982

Verbum Eccles. (Online) vol.35 no.2 Pretoria  2014




Love: A philosophy of pastoral care and counselling



Frederick J. StreetsI, II, III, IV

IYale Divinity School, Yale University, United States of America
IISchool of Social Work, Columbia University, United States of America
IIIDepartment of Social Work and Latino Community Practice, University of Saint Joseph, United States of America
IVDepartment of Practical Theology, University of Pretoria, South Africa





This article explored the meaning of love as an ethical principle and the aim of providing pastoral counselling and care. The author, inspired by the work of Professor Julian Müller, applied Paul Tillich's notion of love to affirm the value of pastoral counselling as a constituent practice and research focus of practical theology. The focus of the discussion was upon love as the primary witness of the church and motivating factor for offering pastoral counselling and care to those who seek it. Distinctions were drawn between psychotherapeutic counselling and pastoral counselling. Müller's postfoundationalist approach to listening and reflecting upon the work of pastoral counselling and valuing the counselee or co-researcher role as teacher was supported.




There has been a longstanding discussion within the academic study of theology (Browning 1991; Osmer 2008) as to what practical theology is and where pastoral care and counselling might fit in this discourse. Browning (1991), for example, suggests four questions that guide practical theology: how do we understand the concrete situation in which we must act? What should be our praxis in this concrete situation? How do we critically defend the norms of our praxis in the concrete situation in which we practice theology? What means, strategies and rhetoric should we use in this concrete situation? This theological debate will not be rehearsed here. Pastoral counselling has value and a place within practical theology. Practical theology supports the interpretation of human needs and praxis of pastoral care. This position is also the claim of Steyn and Masango (2011) that:

This understanding and interpretation of human needs points to a theological and hermeneutical analysis of a practical-pastoral problem. In this context, we mean that pastoral problems cannot be separated from their urge to caregivers to find solutions in the praxis of the same. Furthermore, this understanding and interpretation should also provide the caregiver with the motivational means to offer this pastoral care from within his or her theological convictions. To say one should care for people in need in a pastoral way and yet not grapple with the question of why one should care at all would be somewhat presumptuous. Practical theology should therefore both prompt and sustain the following question: what is the motivation for this conviction to care? (p. 2)

This essay does not address the many different ways healing is understood in different cultural contexts. We have, since our beginning as a human species, sought to define illness and health and assign to it a meaning. We seek advice and help for what troubles us from a variety of healers and sources depending upon our physical and emotional needs and cultural context. Healers are called by many different names ranging from physician and psychotherapist to priests and diviners. Healing practices vary to include our calling upon divine intervention in addition to engaging in other non-traditional and traditional therapeutic practices in our effort to feel better. These practices, as Hucks (2013) suggests:

function as important epistemic and generative resources for how Africana populations [people everywhere ...] deploy religious meaning, invoke counter strategies of resistance, and seek to create remedies of restorative health and wholeness as protective shields from individual and collective affliction, disease, threat, and annihilation. (p. 47)

Jesus asks: do you love me? (Jn 15:19 New International Version [NIV]). I wish to propose that in the developed world context of conceptualising practical theology, love be the primary motivation for pastoral counsellors to care and provide counselling to those in need. Love, as described below as a guiding principle of pastoral caring, lends itself to the orientation that postfoundationalism offers to theological reflection and praxis.


Pastoral care and counselling

Descriptions and definitions of the meaning of pastoral care and counselling abound (Clebsch & Jaekle 1964; Couture & Hunter 1995; Dittes 1999; Moon & Shim 2010; Pruyser 1976; Wimberly 1979, 1982; Wise 1983). According to the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (2012):

Religious communities have traditionally sought to provide religion-based solutions for those in trouble. Their leaders have listened intently to personal problems for centuries, and have developed religious counseling responses to those who suffer from mental and emotional illness and relational difficulties. Traditional religious counseling continues to help many of these people. It was recognized long ago, however, that in many cases specialized professional therapy was necessary for effective treatment and healing ... Pastoral counseling has evolved from religious counseling to pastoral psychotherapy which integrates theology and other faith tradition knowledge, spirituality, the resources of faith communities, the behavioral sciences, and in recent years, systemic theory. (n.p.)

The integration of psychological theories and methods of counselling with religion, theology and concepts of spirituality, as implied in the above statement from the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, has given rise to the practice of pastoral counselling as a distinct area of practice within the life of parish ministers, as well as those clergy and other religious professionals whose practice context includes other institutions such as hospitals, mental health clinics and the military. The training and practice context of pastoral counsellors vary in the USA. The growth in the interest in religion and spirituality in the field of mental health (Kahle & Robbins 2004) and helping professions, such as social work (Canda & Furman 1999; Hugen & Scales 2002; Lee & O'Gorman 2005; Streets 2009), also reflect the variety of ways that pastoral care and counselling is being understood and practiced in North America.

Carroll A. Wise, long ago in his Pastoral psychotherapy (1983):

dispenses with the term pastoral counseling and used the term pastoral psychotherapy . In using the word psychotherapy rather than counseling we are returning to the roots of our religious tradition. The Greek word 'psyche' in the New Testament refers . to the living person as a total reality or unity. It cannot be taken to mean a spiritual aspect as distinguished from the mental or physical. It is man as a whole, an organic unity . Pastoral psychotherapy is that psychotherapy done by a person who has a professional identity and commitment within a religious faith group. This means that in addition to all of the problems of human values that are the concern of other kinds of therapists, the pastor openly recognizes the place of ultimate realities and values in all aspects of human life, and is, therefore qualified to help persons to deal with their false ultimate's, or in religious terms, their idolatries. (pp. ix, 3, 12)

At the beginning of his text, Wise (1983) states what the mental health community in North America, even today, would describe as a meaning of psychotherapy:

By psychotherapy we mean a process, engaged in by two or more persons in which one is accepted as a healer or helper, who aims at assisting the other to change feelings, attitudes, and behavior, or, in other words, become in some ways a different person. Psychotherapy deals with intrapsychic processes, with interpersonal relationships, and with the person's response to his total environment, including his cultural milieu. (p. 3)

What is pastoral about Wise's understanding of psychotherapy is the way the religious counsellor understands and explores with his or her counselee the 'ultimate' or religious values and beliefs that influence the way the counselee sees the world and how that perspective contributes to his or her sense of self, illness, health and manner of relating to other people.

The robust interest of the pastoral counsellor and other helping professionals in the spiritual and/or religious orientation of their assistance to others suggests the importance of thinking about the concept of love, more than theology per se, as one of the ethical principles guiding the practice of pastoral psychotherapy or pastoral care and counselling. What are some of the ways might we consider the meaning of a pastoral counsellor loving those whom he or she counsels? It is also important not to privilege psychological systems of thought and methods of intervention over some of the traditional and indigenous ways people have understood and coped with their troubles and made meaning out of their experiences. Love is a common factor within the variety of ways people have understood and experienced religion and spirituality and by which they have been motivated to minister to one another. Love is an important idea for pastoral counsellors to consider and reflect upon in their work.


Pastoral care and theological education

One could easily assume, at least in the developed world, that theological education is also education for the professional practice of ministry. The curricula of most seminaries or divinity schools in the USA are structured according to the students' area of study or concentration such as the Bible, History, Theology and Pastoral practices. There are subdivisions within each of these areas that students can further explore. Literature regarding the nature of theological education in the USA will not be reviewed here.

I have observed from my experience in graduate theological education that there has been a longstanding tension between professional theological education for the practice of ministry and theological education in the developed world (Foster et al. 2006). A focus upon practical theology and pastoral ministries of the church, in general, are often less valued by some in the academy as areas of study than those of the Bible, History and historical and systematic theology. These areas of study are considered by the academy as the dominant domain of religious research, scholarship and teaching. Such scholarship has value and contributes to the work and mission of the church and academy. However, the research and teaching in these areas are often highly theoretical and divorced from the situation in which people live and experience life (Foster et al. 2006). I have often heard from students in theological education (as was my experience as a Divinity School student) that they feel they are either indirectly or implicitly given the impression by some faculty members - and based upon their experience of the way that the entire theological education enterprise is conducted -that they should be suspicious of the pastoral practices of ministry as areas of study with scholarly rigour and research muscle.

There is the ongoing need for connections to be made between theological theory and ministerial praxis and the role of human emotions in pastoral care. One would rarely find, for example, as an object of study the idea of empathy in the curriculum or course content of seminaries or divinity schools. In the work conducted by Foster et al. (2006:22-26), the term 'pastoral imagination' is used in such a way that it is divorced from pastoral feeling and emotions and framed as primarily a cognitive exercise. Those students who plan to engage the pastoral ministries of the church may find some reference to empathy in some courses on pastoral care and counselling and in the clinical pastoral education (CPE) programme. CPE is an elective offered in many graduate theological schools in the USA and therefore it is not taken by many, if not most, students graduating with a theological degree. It is the author's opinion that graduate theological students who are studying the various meanings of him who came into the world as the 'bread of life' do not sufficiently reflect upon or empathetically imagine the various meanings of life people create for themselves and for which this bread is offered. Kelsey (2005), for example, critically reflects on the important Christian concept of redemption. He does so in the context of a lived experience of a colleague and friend who asked him, as a theologian, to explain the meaning of redemption.


Pastoral care and the emotion of love

New research into the science of human attachment and negative emotions, such as hate (Bartlett 2012), and positive emotions, such as love and empathy, as important aspects to teach helping professionals (Gerdes et al. 2011), show the importance of our need to further understand how emotions like these are developed and nurtured in human beings and how they impact our behaviour. The neuroscientific research of Cacioppo et al. (2012) shows that:

Social neuroscience of love is a growing field of research, which only recently has become the topic of intensive and rigorous scientific empirical investigations. By identifying the specific cortico-subcortical neural network as well as the central and peripheral electrophysiological indices of love, we hope to provide an interdisciplinary approach to better understand the complexity of love and its disorders. Although combining knowledge from neuroimaging (fMRI and EEG) studies with standard approach in relationship science still doesn't solve the hard problem of love regarding its nature and origin, an integrative approach combining neuroimaging techniques with other disciplines such as social psychology, animal studies, and genetics has the potential to answer age-old questions as to the function of love, which can have useful applications in mental health and couple therapies. (p. 12)

Locating her argument within her scientific study of emotions, Fredrickson (2013) makes a distinction between the 'products of love', such as the 'bonds' people may have to one another, and the 'commitments' that connection between them might generate from love itself. She offers, based upon her research, that:

Love is the momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and another person's biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other's well-being that brings mutual care. My short hand for this trio is positivity resonance. (Fredrickson 2013:17)

I will return to share some implications of Fredrickson's view of love later in this discussion. The concept of agape or caritas as described and related to the profession of social work by Tillich (1963) is a description of what I am proposing as a meaning of love for the practice of pastoral counselling:

Here, when I use the term love ... I certainly do not mean the love which is emotion; nor do I think of philia - of friendship which only really develops between the social worker and his patient, nor do I think of the love which is Eros, which creates an emotional desire towards the patient that in many cases is more destructive than creative; rather, it is the love whose name in Greek is agape and in Latin caritas - the love which descends to misery and ugliness and guilt in order to elevate. This love is critical as well as accepting, and it is able to transform what it loves. It is called caritas in Latin, but it should not be confused with what the English form of the same word indicates today - namely, Charity, a word which belongs to the many words which have a disintegrated, distorted meaning. Charity is often identical with social work, but the word 'charity' has the connotation of giving for good causes in order to escape the demand of love. Charity as escape from love is the caricature and distortion of social work. (p. 29)

The problems of those who seek the assistance of pastoral counsellors are often not unlike the concerns we all have as human beings. Humanity's larger life situation is embedded in the conversation between the pastoral counsellor and his or her congregant or counselee. There are many reported moments in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament when God spoke words to humankind.


Theological conversations

There are also conversations between God, Jesus and human beings. Perhaps the first dialogue, and I think pastoral conversation, between God and human beings is found in Genesis 3:

God called to man and said to him, 'Where are you?' He said, 'I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.' He [God] said, 'Who told you that you were naked?' (vv. 8-13 New Revised Standard Version [NRSV])

There are no insignificant conversations between us and God. The first human could recognise the sound of God and the voice of God calling him. The first emotion and problem, according to this story of a human being presented to God, was fear and an awareness of being 'naked' in some way. An adequate biblical exegetical treatment of this story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis is beyond the scope of this discussion and my expertise (Linzer 2008). My reference to this story is for the purpose of suggesting that in pastoral counselling the counsellor listens for at least four things from the one who comes to them for help, namely:

  • How does he or she express their understanding of hearing God in their spirit - their view of their divine nature?
  • Of what are they afraid? This is a question of vulnerability and mortality.
  • What and/or who is telling them who they are? This is a question of identity and self-understanding.
  • What does it mean for them to feel 'naked'? This is a question of feeling defenceless or unprotected.

In the context of this story, God asks Adam one of the most important questions a pastoral counsellor may ask his or her counselee: 'who told you that you were naked?' In other words, what are the sources from which we draw the meaning of our life? Of all the questions God could ask 'Adam' at that particular moment, why ask him 'who told you that you were naked?' I am suggesting that a question such as this one is one that a pastoral counsellor may also ask as it comes from the pastoral counsellor engaging in a 'deep listening, understanding and reflection' process (Mollica 2013:34) and this process characterises the nature of a potentially transformative dialogue that is at the heart of pastoral counselling and care. It is pastoral love in action. Deep listening requires the listener to have empathy for or 'feeling into' the feelings and attitudes of the person whom they are trying to help (Jackson 1999:87). Jackson (1999) further characterises empathetic listening:

The effective healer in the realm of psychological healing has tended to be someone who has been interested in talking with and listening to the other person. And these inclinations have been grounded in an interest in other people and a curiosity about them. Further, such healers have had a capacity for caring about and being concerned about others, particularly about those who were ill, troubled or distressed. The sufferer has tended to seek out an interested, concerned healer responsive to the distress, who would minister to his or her ailments and brig relief, if not cure. Sufferers yearn to be listened to, to be taken seriously, and to be understood, crucial aspects of the healing process. (p. 93)

The impact upon those with whom pastoral counsellors work can last long beyond the professional relationship they have with their counselees. The process of their work together can therefore be a way that love is expressed by the counsellor and experienced by his or her counselee. What then are some of the fundamental convictions and values that undergird the work of pastoral counselling and the nature of the dialogue or conversation between pastoral counsellors and those whom they counsel?


Listening love: An underlying value of pastoral counselling

Even if in any given society all of its social and supportive institutions were functioning at their ideal conception, we as human beings would, from time to time, struggle with our experiences of our human limitations, unfulfilled aspirations and ways by which our relationships with other people leave us frustrated. Balancing the fulfilment of our need for intimacy and connectedness with time to be alone is a part of our dance of life. Any number of things can interrupt and/or obstruct our efforts to live a meaningful life. Making meaning of our lives and discerning our own essence and value and coping with the reality of death is a part of our ongoing human agenda that we cannot attend to alone. We are always selves-in-relationship to other people and to nature itself. We become who we are as a result of our