Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Pastor and The Psychologist @christianaudio @caReviewers

I'm currently in the middle of listening to the audiobook version of Eugene Peterson's memoir, The Pastor (with a free copy courtesy of christianaudio). I had heard nothing but good things about it, and I have to agree. Since it's a long book (12 hours for the audio), I wanted to post something about how it has impacted me in my vocation as a psychologist.

While the tome focuses on the pastoral vocation, Peterson actually spends a good amount of time exploring the role of mental health and the work of a pastor. He describes how he began working in a rural area with a significant dearth of mental health professionals. A local psychiatrist realized that clergy are usually the first line of defense against mental illness and that most people having emotional problems seek clergy first. This is fact that has been verified many times up to the present, emphasizing the importance of the clergy to know about mental health. In response, the psychiatrist trained a group of a dozen or so clergy members in the basics of mental illness so they could aid with triage and helping get people to needed services.

As a psychologist, I absolutely love this. It's a great way to bridge the artificial divide between psychology and church life while having the practical implication of utilizing resources wisely to help people get the help they need.

Peterson expressed his appreciation for this training. One of the things he noted was that he began approaching his congregation as problems to be solved, diagnoses to be named in order to find the issue and provide a resolution. He did not at all criticize the mental health field for this, but realized that he needed to back up and begin to re-immerse himself in the ambiguities of congregational life (and I would add that solutions are not always possible).

Rather than giving an answer or immediately offering to do something, he explained how he would sometimes just sit with the other person. Or he would ask if they would like him to do anything. He stated this was difficult because providing the answers helps the ego and sense of accomplishment of seeing change happen quickly.

Yet this is not all that different from the work of many psychologists. While there are some people who focus on diagnostics and simple symptom reduction, that is not my calling. There are plenty of psychologists who want to focus on deeper elements than behaviors and labels. While we may have to use that wording at times for billing purposes, many of us do work much closer to what Peterson described of just offering ourselves and our presence to the individual or family.

At this point, the work of a psychologist moves from a job to a vocation. Depending on our orientations, I kept thinking that the best description of my work is being more of a pastoral psychologist than a clinical psychologist. This emphasizes the lack of the de-personalization and impersonalizing work that can often coincide with a more clinical perspective, which Peterson explained was key to his understanding of the danger of seeing his congregation as problems to be solved.

Later on, he describes how a friend, who lived through Nazi Germany, became severely disillusioned with the institution of church, as so many supported Hitler's terror. Peterson beautifully describes how this friend vividly pointed out how the position of pastor could suck all of his life and compassion and heart out, leaving a deadened, sick individual.

This is not so different from the life of a psychologist. The issues of insurance and institutions and diagnoses and money can quickly de-personalize all work, sucking the love and sense of vocation out of the psychologist. I have struggled with this, despite being new in the field. Peterson's work helped me recall and refocus on my reasons for pursuing my vocation.

While I'm only halfway through the book, I would definitely recommend this to all mental health professionals and would love to include it in future classes I may teach to budding clinicians. It reminds us we should not just be pursuing a job, but a vocation.

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