Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh shit happens

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I don’t always take selfies, but when I do, I am flanked by books on theology, history, and Biblical criticism.

This was a role play self-evaluation and group goals assignment for my Pastoral Theology and Care class.

I am learning that I am capable of conducting pastoral care effectively within a role play setting. In all of my role plays, I have gotten good feedback, and others have asserted that I am good at allowing people to speak without interrupting, keeping my composure, and sitting with silence. Interestingly, in the first role play, I was told that my social work training showed through, although I did not think highly of my direct practice course at the Brown School of Social Work—it felt too much like pretend, and I did not feel like I was gaining any new skills or learning any new information. However, it is possible that principles of social work may have influenced my interactions subconsciously: using a strengths-based perspective, asking open-ended questions, and going where the client leads.

Most of all, I think that my experience as a chaplain intern with Lifeline Chaplaincy and our class readings inform my understanding of pastoral care. Both my chaplaincy experience and the class readings taught me that pastoral care hinges on the power of presence. Even sitting silently with someone can be sacred, powerful, and healing, if done with care, empathy, and attentiveness. In this way, the pastoral caregiver is a manifestation of God’s presence, and a conduit of the Holy Spirit—it is not so important what the pastoral caregiver does, as much as where the pastoral caregiver is. Even asking open-ended questions and going where the client leads flows out of this idea of presence. It is not the pastoral caregiver’s job to force the client to an ultimate goal, but to allow the client to speak and name their realities.

This is the main difference that I see between a social worker and a pastoral caregiver—that even when social workers claim to take a strengths-based perspective, ultimately, the process of serving clients is about identifying problems (excuse me, issues) that the client and the social worker must work together to address. The mantra of the Brown School of Social Work is “evidence-based practice,” which implies that the value of the social worker is in what they do, not in where they are or who they are. In contrast, though pastoral caregivers must also employ praxis when appropriate and intervene when situations call for intervention, pastoral care emphasizes that the value of a pastoral caregiver is in their willingness to go where they are called, and in the humility with which they allow themselves to become whom God invites them to be.

During the role plays, I mostly tell myself to keep listening, to let the care seeker speak, and to go where the care seeker wants to go. In this way, I ensure that I remain attentive and empathic, and to show that I have no agenda and am only there to be there for the care seeker. For these role plays, this approach is appropriate because they are first visits, so the care seeker must spend more time describing their situation, unpacking the situation, and looking for affirmation and validation. Sometimes, I also tell myself to be mindful of my posture, being aware that pastoral care is not the same as a social conversation, and that I cannot rely on my previous relationship with the person in order for the person to feel that I am trustworthy or that I care. Thus, I try to sit with my legs on the floor, uncrossed, and with my arms in an open position on my lap, with my hands put together, but palms up and open as well. I keep my head straight and nod when needed, and murmur sounds of assent every once in a while, and making sure that such sounds do not occur so often that they are perceived as interruptions.

The one time when my self-talk deviated from that which was described above was when I was giving care to an individual who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. My self-talk was an eloquent stream of “Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh I don’t know what to do what do I do don’t say this don’t say that, just be present, just be there, listen, be present, be there oh my gosh oh my gosh.” Such self-talk was my internal reaction, but my outward expressions were much of the same as described above, although I delved into theological concerns after the care seeker spoke about the role of God. My self-talk in this scenario indicated that I felt out of my depth, having never experienced cancer or known the personal experiences of a person with cancer. Though I have worked as a chaplain intern at a major cancer treatment center, I was not exposed to the same theological, existential wrestling that some of my fellow interns got. My patients mostly had physical concerns, and similar concerns to those that many people share—loneliness and the desire for company and physical touch.

While I know how to deal with theological and existential concerns on a personal and social level with friends and acquaintances, I felt that the situation presented by the care seeker was different and that my role as pastoral caregiver is one that I have yet to fully understand. I know how I would act as Karen, but I am not sure how Karen Pastoral Caregiver should respond. As mentioned, I understand pastoral care to be more about presence, affirmation, and validation, but after a person is done saying all that they want to say and are looking for guidance, I do not feel equipped to respond as a pastoral caregiver. Partly, this is because I felt that the theological and existential struggles that the care seeker presented with were so weighty and deep that I could not adequately address it in a way that would also honor the importance of such struggles. This may be natural and good, seeing as none of the struggles presented could or should be resolved in one session, and that perhaps these struggles are an indication that the person is in liminal space, and as such, such space should be honored as sacred and the person need not be extricated immediately.

On the other hand, the care seeker mentioned that they wanted to stop feeling sad all the time, and wanted to be better right away, even thought they knew they would not achieve such healing immediately. This comment tugged at my heart strings and made me want to do something to apply a figurative salve to the care seeker’s wound, but I recognized the care seeker’s need to stay in their liminal space and to process their feelings, theological wonderings, and existential anxieties when they are ready, in their own time. I recognized this need as reflecting a need that I possessed recently when I was going through emotional distress, and theological and existential struggles of my own. At the time, I wanted nothing more than to escape from the place where I was, and to emerge fully-fledged armed with a new self-awareness and robust coping mechanisms. I tried journaling, talking about my feelings, jogging multiple miles each day, crying, reading the Bible, and working, but to no avail. My process could not be rushed. It was not until I let go of the idea that I needed to be a certain way or achieve a certain level of composure that I was truly able to heal.

In addition, I do not yet feel adequately prepared or trained to function as a pastoral counselor. Although I understand the theories surrounding grief, it is quite another matter to put these theories to practice. I cannot very well say, “I see that you have anticipatory grief, which is when you grieve something that is about to happen” and expect the care seeker to feel any sort of lasting validation or healing. Class discussions seem to suggest that theories and academic categorizations of phenomena are merely tools with which to understand the circumstance at hand, that care givers should maintain an awareness of these tools, and that such tools should only be mentioned if it would be helpful, and in those instances, they should be revealed in bite-size portions, so as not to overwhelm the care seeker or make the care seeker seem like an exhibit or merely the subject of academic inquiry.

This uncertainty and lack of skill and knowledge regarding pastoral counseling (as opposed to pastoral care) is what burdens me during role plays. I am troubled by a lack of preparation and knowledge on how to guide people with weighty emotional, theological, and existential struggles. I recognize that we will likely cover pastoral counseling later in this class, or other classes, or in some time during the course of our careers, and that pastoral counseling requires specific training. However, I am not sure how to traverse the inherent tension between speaking with the same words used by the care seeker, using open-ended questions, going where the care seeker wants to go, and providing guidance in discussing theological issues. While I understand that it is not appropriate to persuade a care seeker to arrive at my theological views and that I need to honor the views of the care seeker, I wonder how I should address care seekers for whom their theological views are the source of their distress. For example, “Why do I have cancer? Does God hate me?” The true answer in my mind is that God does not hate, and all types of people have cancer. Cancer just happens. Shit happens. While this is my thought, I do not feel that this answer is satisfactory.

Perhaps the correct response is to explore why the person is asking the theological question, and then to affirm the feelings underlying the reasons for the question, and to help the person explore the factors related to the question. I can also see how this approach of evading the theological exploration would be frustrating, given that I have had experience with a counselor who was so affirming that I felt that I accomplished nothing in therapy and left with no better coping mechanisms than before. It was not until I switched to another therapist that I realized what it was like to have a therapist who challenged me with new ideas, who taught me how I can change systems, and helped me to see ways in which people in my life were manipulating each other. This therapist did not simply speak with the words that I used, or go only where I wanted to go. Instead, the therapist walked with me, talking me toward other paths on the way as needed. While I felt this was valuable, I recognize that pastoral care serves a different function from therapy—pastoral care involves healing and may use the same theories that inform therapeutic practice, but it is not an intervention that has any particular goal in mind, other than healing and hope.

Therefore, my individual goals include: 1) learning how to explore theological issues when it is appropriate and relevant, speaking plainly about implications of theological views, and discerning the time when it is appropriate and relevant to have explicit discussions about theology, 2) traversing the tension between affirming and validating, and moving a care seeker to a place of healing and hope, and 3) better understanding how the natural counseling style and personal intuition possessed by Karen can intersect with the theory-based, formulaic counseling approach and intentional attentiveness held by Karen Pastoral Caregiver.

My small group goals include: 1) listening more to others’ suggestions before offering input of my own, realizing that it is presumptive to believe that I have more important insights than that of others, 2) observing others’ role plays from the perspective of care giver or care seeker, and compare and contrast how others handle certain situations with how I would handle the same situation, and 3) being attentive to the ways in which others incorporate theological language in their care giving and care seeking, in order to make sense of the ways in which people might perceive, apply, and alter their theology in various circumstances.

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