Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Pastors: therapeutic, not therapists

One of the blogs I consider useful to a pastor is “Musings of a Christian Psychologist.” A reason to turn to that site is that pastors can play a crucial role in mental health: by being therapeutic, not as therapists. Dr. Phil Monroe writes short and to the point, often describing a therapeutic technique in such a way that is helpful.

One of the therapeutic techniques he describes, for instance, is exposure and response blocking. When I was practicing as a pastoral counselor and working especially with those suffering from the obsessive compulsive disorder I often used it. I would never have used it as a pastor, but it was a useful tool for a therapist. 

In his discussion of that technique Dr. Monroe describes how fears are modified by repeated exposure and re-visualization. If a person has contamination fears, as an illustration, as the person gradually and increasingly touches what is feared it almost always diminishes. What is helpful to the pastor is not utilizing that process, but by being knowledgeably supportive. 

The difference between been a therapist and therapeutic is illustrated by the experience of the Apostle Paul when he was a young man and called “Saul.” After some bloody experiences in Jerusalem he was on his way to Damascus when he experienced a loud noise, a flash of light, and heard a voice. He collapsed and was blinded: a response well known as “shell shock” a couple of big wars ago. He was taken into the city and did not even touch his food for three days. My guess is that he just sat there, rocking back and forth.

Then a person with healer powers was sent to him, Ananias by name. If he had been using exposure and response blocking, Ananias would have had Saul re-visualize the scene that had emotionally overwhelmed him, done it repeatedly until his fear was sufficiently modified - talked the whole thing out. Saul then could have settled down somewhere.

What is helpfully described in the “Musings” blog is an outline of a mental health category, syndromes of it.  These characteristics are interlocking, in post traumatic stress for example, some would be rage, anxiety, alienation, withdrawal, and so forth. When the pieces of some form of mental disturbance are differentiated, there is always some aspect that has profound spiritual implications. Pastors have expertise in addressing this aspect or even more than one. Once a piece of the interlocking negative process is separated and altered into a more positive form, the whole complex begins to shift and becomes more ready to change. The scales dropped off his eyes: it did for Saul, can be so for a lot of others, in one way or another..

Do you know someone who would like to read this? Pass it on.

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