Allow me to begin a conversation.
After three decades of pastoral work, my counseling ministry has covered a wide range of life-issues. I am fully convinced that it would be impossible to adequately prepare a young leader for the multitude of issues encountered in ministry today. The landscape of ministry is far too complicated — primarily due to the breakdown of the family over the last four decades.
As I reflected on this, I realized that something must be done to protect new leaders (before they assume the role of counselor) from too much trial and error. Those who aspire to leadership are usually driven by strong desires to help others. But when we’re unprepared to handle issues and yet persist in trying to offer solutions, we risk hurting those under our care. We also bring disrepute to pastoral ministry and perhaps to the gospel itself.
A new pastor must expect to be approached with a wide range of problems — many beyond the scope of his preparation. Those entering ministry must be postured with enough humility to admit when they do not have answers to complex problems. But when they enter with the belief that the Bible is enough for all of our problems, they sometimes feel a need to offer solutions where they have little knowledge.
New leaders must understand that simplistically naïve answers to complicated matters hurt and mislead people. Some leaders wrongly feel obligated to have the answers to each problem they encounter. The temptation they feel is to reduce all of life’s problems to spiritual issues needing spiritual solutions. And this can be even more destructive when the leaders’ ego is inflated with a spiritualized sense of authority about the Bible being all we need to solve all our problems.
The scene often looks like this:
I (the new pastor) feel overwhelmed by the complicated issues in people’s lives. Yet I must appear to know enough to preserve my respect as the leader. So since I know the Bible, I appeal to my place of confidence and security. I know I can speak authoritatively (or, so I think) about the Bible, so I reduce every problem to a spiritual issue and try to solve all matters with simplistic uses of Scripture.
This approach to ministry is misguided and self-serving. It actually reflects an inadequate understanding of the Bible itself. It’s an approach based on superficial theology (esp. anthropology and hamartiology); involving uses of Scriptures that are isolated from their full theological contexts, and guilty of the same error of those who reduce humans to social and physical beings but discount the spiritual. When this happens it unnecessarily alienates the “professional” counseling community from pastoral counselors.
Please do not misunderstand. I am committed to the Scriptures (just read articles on this blog). When rightly and fully applied in context, God speaks powerfully to the matters of this life both directly and in principle throughout Scripture. Wrongful use of the Bible is what we must guard against.
In hopes of protecting young leaders from this path, we should invite them to learn more about the sources behind behavior. If we can lead future pastors and counselors to mature and well-researched conclusions about sources, we can help to protect them from doing more damage than good. We can also protect them from wrongful judging (which is very displeasing to God) and being too quick to offer superficial solutions.
With this goal in mind, I am beginning a series of blog posts. I will try to keep each post from being too lengthy. I realize that since my thoughts will not be fully developed in my initial posts, I risk misperception and even fiery debate. Toned appropriately, I always welcome robust dialogue.
I’ve had a long and deeply personal interest in the sources behind behavior. It’s an area of research that has occupied consistent space in my studies and ministry for many years. I am not pretending to be an authority on the matter but I do believe I have some important insights to offer. I welcome healthy discussion and, if necessary, correction. Opinions on sources behind human behavior have been significantly debated and too often motivations involved have been suspect.
Over the last several decades, the question of why we do the things we do has experienced a kind of social revolution. The two most prominent waves of thought trace human behavior to nurture and nature. Until recently, the dominant narrative has been focused on nurture. Breakthroughs in science and medicine, however, have shifted mainstream opinion toward nature as the explanation for behavior. Allow me to offer a simple overview of these two sources.
Nurture is concerned primarily with the effects of social context on personal behavior. The effects of your parents and other significant adults or life-altering circumstances explain most of your current thoughts, attitudes, emotions and behaviors. You are the product of your social context. Focus in this narrative looks at how you were hurt or helped by others. Were you deprived of nurture as a child? The things done to you or withheld from you, explain you. For many years, this has been the dominant assumption behind most psychotherapy. Words like “wounded,” ”dysfunctional” and “co-dependent” became stock vocabulary for psychiatrist. The nurture assumption also defined the primary objectives for helping wounded people. A primary emphasis focused on rebuilding self-esteem through therapy. Over time therapeutic psychology highly influenced public education so that teachers had to add self-esteem building to their role in the classroom. For a number of years, the person who saw a psychiatrist bore a social stigma for needing a “shrink.” But it didn’t take long for it to become fashionable to go to therapy and to have a personal therapist/psychiatrist. In social and behavioral sciences, therapeutic psychology occupied an authoritative seat until the recent emergence of bio-psycholgy and pharmacotherapy.
Nature: Advancements in science (particularly in genetics and neuroscience) gave way to new conclusions about human behavior. Scientific discoveries led researchers to conclude that set physical conditions in one’s genes and brain chemistry offered the most objective explanations for emotions and behaviors. This gave rise to the discipline of biopsychiatry. It also moved the markers in a way that shifted diagnosis and cure toward medical professionals. The new leader has now become pharmacotherapy. A kind of wedding took place between big business pharmacology and biopsychology to partner in helping people solve their problems. Without denying the effects of social context, biopsychiatry appears to offer hard scientific conclusions as the new reigning narrative for the sources and cures to human behavior. Stated more simply, since the sources to behavior trace to your body and brain, medical prescriptions offer the most objective solutions. Neuro-chemical deficiencies explain a host of personal problems. Perhaps the primary popular example of the influence of biopsychiatry is the exponential increase in depression and anxiety diagnoses and the prescription of medications for them. Treatment of depression in outpatient services increased by 300% toward the end of the 20th century. Antidepressant medications have become the largest selling prescription drugs in America. During the 1990s, spending increased by 600% exceeding 7 billion dollars annually by the year 2000. Estimates now indicate that major depression afflicts 10% of Americans. A disconcerting by-product has been an inability to distinguish biologically based depressive disorder from normal sadness.
Sadly, there has been a tendency among some Christian counselors to react to “all-things-secular” with a kind of knee-jerk suspicion rather than careful thought. Even among a few Christian counselors whom I respect, I sometimes find this tendency. I find what I call “hat-tipping” acknowledgement to the possibility of bits of truth in the nurture and nature paradigms. I think I understand where some of this comes from because secular psychiatry and biopsychiatry tend to be condescending toward spiritual dimensions of personhood. But we must not allow misguided assumptions (no matter how condescending) to cause knee-jerk reactions among Christian counselors. Nor should we be carelessly dismissive of all of the research and findings in these fields.
I must conclude this post (it’s already too long) but I will tip my hand toward my next movement. I believe that Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being holistically honest in dealing with human problems. Our theology protects us from simplistic reductions because we know that God has made us physical, psychological, social and spiritual beings. Each of these dimensions of life must be considered when understanding human behavior. And we know (from Scripture and empirical evidence) that the most corrupting and alienating force in the world (sin) has profoundly affected each dimension. We also know that any one of these dimensions can profoundly affect the others.