I have met some wonderful vicars, pastors and lay-preachers in my many years of Christian church and secular life. However, some recent writing from a fellow blogger athinkingman has made me question the strength, and rigour of ministerial training, in relation to pastoral care of the church flock or congregration and the wider Christian community.
The term “flock” conjures up in my mind the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, watching his sheep in the field. if you think of this as an analogy, you may think of an image where the church is the field and us the little sheep who come to dwell there, feed from the grass, and take shelter from foe and predator. Jesus has been termed in the bible “wonderful counsellor, prince of peace”( Isaiah 9:6). We see him as a gentle man, kind and comforting, helping the sick both in body and in spirit, and giving strength and encouragement to the weak and vulnerable.
Main stream Christian church leadership, whether these leaders are called vicars, pastors or elders, (as some Evangelical churches have their leaders called), as I interpret it have two main functions. To represent Christ in ministry through delivery of God’s words in sermons, prayer and teaching and to offer guidance and pastoral care to the many individuals of the congregation presenting with very unique needs. These church members may have deep seated emotional needs which require sensitive handling. How much counselling training do ministers receive to be adequately prepared to deal with the many complex issues presenting in real congregational life? I wanted to find out, and had one friend recently trained and about to be ordained in the ministry to ask.
My questions to her are listed as folllows :
- Did you receive formal counselling training and how adequate do you feel this was?
- Could this have been conducted more effectively?
- what shortfalls, if any were there in pastoral care prepartion for the ministry?
- Do you know if other denominations are as effectively prepared to give care in this way?
- were there any particular strengths you felt were present within your training on aspects of emotional care, listening and communication skills?
I must stress here at this point that my friend was about to enter the Church of England as a Deacon and could only give one denominational view point. Here is her response:
“We received good training in this area. Most of what I learnt was from practical placement settings. There were two placements, one church based and one secular. We do not see ourselves as trained counsellors and received support from a spiritual director if we had our own issues in training to deal with. There was formal academic training on aspects of counselling and pastoral care and we reflected and studied this within a theological framework.”
My friend was not in a position to give her view on other denominations and her conversation was very brief. She thought it was good; so that was it. There seemed no point debating it. She didn’t want to go into too much more of an discussion there and then.
The last statement she said concerned me. Could all of life’s problems and difficulties be resolved simply by looking at scripture and using that totally as a framework to offer effective pastoral care? Of course the Bible is a very important reference point but can life’s dilemmas be given an answer, just by using the Good Book as the only reference source. I question this very much. In other churches, and I am thinking of the more evangelical ones, my questions remain about the strength and suitability of training when dealing with fragile emotions, complex family life and the big one for me, marriage failure and divorce. I think the later subject is for a separate blog.
I personally have been on the receiving end of pastoral care and counselling which was very damaging and destructive. The people concerned were well meaning but they were so blinkered. What was so frightening was their total convincing belief that they were qualified to give advice, and the confidence they displayed because they really, really believed they were acting in the holy spirit: that God had somehow, through their faith, had given them the vision and the knowledge to tell me what needed to be done. I have my own personal testimony which I can’t share on here because it is too awful, as far as being given well meaning but terrible advice.
So these questions for me remains largely still unanswered:
- How accountable is church leadership in relation to the pastoral care they give?
- What authority should they presume to have in our lives?
- How much should church leaders have the right to interfere if they think the flock is starting to stray when comparing their own prejudiced standards and professional code of conduct, should they even have one?
- Should there be one accredited training for all church denominations, subject to external scrutiny by people expert in the field of psychology, psychotherapy and counselling?
I think there should be more accountability not less. More importantly, the leader(s) in question should never be afraid to admit his or her own limitations of training, experience and any held personal view which might interfere with non-judgmental balanced thinking on any subject. If this is the case then that person(s) needs to reflect on this and refer to another person or association.
Church leaders are in the public domain and need to follow a code of conduct similar, if not equal to other professionals working with wide sections of society. In established main stream denominations this would apply, as with any other profession. However, in smaller church communities, perhaps as being seen on the fringe, more not less guidance, education and training needs to be given and adhered too.
All I can remember from my old church evangelical congregation were a few very “loose canons” existed. Well meaning but potentially very dangerous with their words and advice.