The Human Web: Reflections on the State of Pastoral Theology

By Miller-Mclemore, Bonnie J. | The Christian Century, April 7, 1993 | Go to article overview

The Human Web: Reflections on the State of Pastoral Theology


Miller-Mclemore, Bonnie J., The Christian Century


After completing - graduate work in religion and psychology, I found myself teaching pastoral care at a seminary. In making that transition I experienced two surprises. The first was the jolt of moving from the academic study of religion and social science to the peculiar discipline of pastoral theology. Although I had had clinical training and professional experience in chaplaincy and pastoral psychotherapy, I had never had an actual course in pastoral care or pastoral theology, nor had many of my courses emphasized pastoral or congregational practices. This was not just a personal quirk. The field of pastoral theology is expected to be more oriented toward ministerial practice than other disciplines; at the same time, it has struggled with the ambiguities of its identity. The routine use of the psychological sciences in the past few decades, while helpful, has also complicated the struggle.

The second blow was encountering a student body that was approximately 50 percent women and 50 percent black. Although I had a personal interest in listening to other voices, none of my graduate school courses had required a text by a woman or by a person of color. In a society increasingly aware of the ways in which gender, race, class and worldview shape our ways of knowing, my good intentions quickly proved to be insufficient in working with such diversity.

Both shocks represent significant issues in pastoral theology. It is a field that is still trying to clarify its identity in relation to the academy and the church and its methods in relation to the social sciences. And now it must do so while taking heed of the many new voices that are contributing new perceptions of pastoral care. Both issues deserve comment.

Whereas biblical studies experienced the challenge of modernity in terms of historical-critical approaches to scripture, pastoral theology experienced it in terms of the emergence of psychology and sociology as disciplines. For the past four decades pastoral theology's toehold in seminaries has depended to a considerable degree on its use of clinical psychology. Pastoral theologians may have felt uneasy about the ethos of pop psychology and self-analysis, but they flourished within it. Whereas in 1939 few theological schools offered counseling courses, by the 1950s almost all of them did. And 80 percent listed additional courses in psychology and had at least one psychologist on staff. For a brief period in the 1960s and '70s, Carl Roger's Counseling and Psychotherapy was a standard text, and the fundamentals of empathic, reflective listening were a staple of introductory pastoral care courses. In the 1970s and '80s, Howard Clinebell's variations on this theme, Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counseling, replaced Rogers as the conventional introductory text. Although the first edition situates modern pastoral care within the long history of pastoral ministry, most of the text is devoted to particular counseling techniques for an array of problems.

The widespread use of psychology has fostered questions about how pastoral theology can be both a genuinely theological and a scientifically psychological discipline. This identity crisis is readily apparent in the assorted job titles. We may teach pastoral care, pastoral counseling, pastoral psychology, pastoral theology, practical theology, religion and psychology, psychology of religion, religion and personality or religion and culture. As these titles indicate, the discipline has been roughly divided between those who emphasize practical care and counseling approaches, those engaged in the critical correlation of theology and the social sciences, and those involved in the social scientific study of religious experience. Meanwhile, among our colleagues the turn to psychology has generated stereotypes of the field as skill- and feeling-oriented and as therapeutically shrewd. Among clergy, this approach has generated a reliance on psychological jargon and counseling techniques rather than on theological language, pastoral mediation and congregational care.

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