A Present Grace: The Relational Bedrock of Pastoral Counseling and Care

Ronald W. Wright

I sometimes joke with pastors that pastoral counseling is easy…refer, refer, refer. While referring parishioners to trained mental health professionals is essential, it is sometimes not possible or practical. On the other hand, I often wonder, in this era of specialization and expertise, if pastoral counseling has become another casualty of the tendency towards viewing counseling as a place where people get “fixed” of their problems and symptoms get reduced. Although I dislike this tendency in the larger field of counseling, it is understandable given the enormous impact of the medical model on the field, time and money constraints, and the lack of a telos that would suggest a different trajectory for counseling. That is not the case, however, for pastoral counseling. Grounded in the theology, practices, and tradition of the church, pastoral counseling is part of the larger telos of the Christian life, that is, the transformation of people’s lives into the image of God.

The transformation of the individual into a person, of the broken into the more whole, of the selfish into the loving is neither a six-session process nor a purely cognitive or behavioral process. Unfortunately, many students preparing for ministry still view pastoral counseling primarily in cognitive, behavioral, and symptom-reduction terms and overlook the importance of new relational experiences on the process of transformation. In this essay I will briefly discuss how Trinitarian theology and contemporary psychoanalysis suggest a relational perspective on change and transformation in people’s lives.

Trinitarian Theology

Trinitarian theology may seem like a strange place to locate a paradigm for pastoral counseling, but it is in Trinitarian theology’s understanding of the relational nature of God that a deep conviction of the centrality of community and the primacy of love, freedom, and suffering presence within relationships is formed. The Cappodocian Fathers developed the notion of God as a communion of three persons in free relations to one another as a response to modalism and subordinationism. This communion (the doctrine of the perichoresis) posits that the Father exists in the Son and the Spirit, the Son in the Father and the Spirit, and the Spirit in the Father and the Son. In this understanding of the Trinity, the very being of God is found in communion (J.D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church [St. Vladimir’s, 1985]); that is, to be is for God to be Father, Son, and Spirit in relationship with each other (C. Schwöbel, Trinitarian Theology Today: Essays on Divine Being and Act [T&T Clark, 1995] 113-46).

In this communion, however, the three persons are distinct and free; they have the space to be (Cf. C. Gunton, “Trinity, Ontology, and Anthropology: Towards a Renewal of the Doctrine of the Imago Dei,” in Persons, Divine and Human: King’s College Essays in Theological Anthropology [ed. C. Schwöbel and C. Gunton; T&T Clark, 1991] 47-61). Although the three persons are distinct and free, they are unified in their mutual love for each other, which is lived out in relationship with each other and through their indwelling in the other. Each person of the Godhead then is not only a subject, but also a “room” for the other (Cf. J. Moltmann, “God’s Kenosis in the Creation and Consummation of the World,” in The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis [ed. J. Polkinghorne; Eerdmans, 2001]). Thus, love ceases to be a property or a disposition possessed by God, but rather is viewed as the mode of God’s personal being in relation (Schwöbel, Trinitarian Theology Today, 113-46).

When viewed in this manner, kenosis, or self-emptying, is seen at the heart of the inner life of the Trinity. In the loving self-surrender of the Father, Son, and Spirit to each other, the nature of God is revealed and all of God’s actions outwards can be seen as emanating from that kenotic nature (Moltmann). This self-emptying and suffering love is powerfully seen in both the creation and the crucifixion. It is out of a loving desire for an other that God creates. As love does not coerce, creation is then understood as the granting of being to the other, which includes the space to be, other and particular (Gunton). Creation exists because God’s eternal love seeks fellowship and yearns for a response back in freedom (J. Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God [Fortress, 1993]). In the crucifixion, the life of Christ and his loving surrender of himself to the Father and the Father’s loving surrendering of the Son, even to death on a cross, becomes the earthly reflection of the eternal self-emptying love of God.

So what does the Trinity mean for pastoral counseling and care? Besides providing a theological framework for all aspects of pastoring, one implication is that a Trinitarian hermeneutic forces one to think in terms of relationships and communities. In fact a Trinitarian perspective, contrary to American individualism, would suggest that it is relational interconnectedness and interdependency that is the foundation of human personhood. For the church, reaching out to those with diminished capacities to relate, engaging those who act out destructive patterns within relationships, and creating webs of interconnection with whoever it touches become important acts of offering love, grace, personhood, and hope to the other that reflects the Triune God. Another implication is that love, freedom, empathy, patience, and understanding come to define what is brought to the relationship in order to allow participation with the other for the sake of the other. A final implication is that transformation into the image of God means that kenosis is the developmental goal for the Christian life.

Contemporary Psychoanalysis

Like Trinitarian theology, contemporary psychoanalysis asserts the fundamental interdependence of humanity and acknowledges that at the core humans are primarily relational beings. While psychoanalysis is often linked predominately with Freud and his notion of the impersonal, mechanistic drives that motivate humanity, contemporary psychoanalysts such as Fairbairn, Guntrip, Winnicott, and Kohut have long been arguing for a relational understanding of human motivations. That is, contemporary psychoanalysts have attempted to understand how relational experiences come to be organized into patterns of acting, thinking, and feeling and how those patterns then interact within the context in which the person finds herself. For example, from a contemporary psychoanalytic framework, a young woman who is abusing drugs would be understood as communicating something about her view of herself, her view of others, and her view of her current context, all of which have been shaped at her deepest core by her relational experiences.

In contemporary psychoanalysis empathic attunement and understanding by the caregiver are viewed as foundational to the development of a child’s experience of feeling “agentic” and “whole” in the world and thus a self. For example, when the caregiver responds to an infant as if they were communicating meaningfully, then the infant experiences itself as meaningful and understandable. Through the experience of the caregiver’s consistent empathic availability, a cohesive self (the self experience of oneself as “okay,” put together, whole, and an agent) is developed whereas empathic failures create deficits in self experience (e.g., expectations that one will not be taken seriously or responded to with care, feelings of self doubt and worthlessness, etc.). From a contemporary psychoanalytic viewpoint, the experience of empathy not only provides the foundation for the experience of oneself as cohesive and “full,” but also prepares one to be empathic with others.

While typical ways of understanding one’s self develop through interactions with the caregiver, relational interactions throughout life either confirm or deter that understanding. Thus, the subjective experience of self can change on a moment-to-moment basis based on the relational experience one is in. Repeated relational experiences gain power over time and can change the way one typically understands one’s self for either good or bad. It is these repeated relational experiences that undergird one’s patterns of feeling, thinking, and behaving which become increasingly repetitious, rigid, and unconscious (automatic). The belief for the contemporary psychoanalytic practitioner is that a new relational experience of empathy and understanding that is consistently available will provide a “developmental second chance” for the client within the therapeutic relationship (D.M. Orange, Emotional Understanding: Studies in Psychoanalytic Epistemology [Guilford, 1995]). Given that one is often dealing with deeply ingrained understandings of self, others, and the world, this is not a quick or easy process to undergo with someone. From a relational perspective, though, it is a process that must be undergone for transformation to occur.


I have very briefly attempted to present two perspectives, one theological and one psychological, that might inform a relational approach to pastoral counseling and care. As a clinician, I have found that Trinitarian theology provides a theological framework for my contemporary psychoanalytic formulations and interventions. Authors such as C. Gunton, C. LaCugna, J. Moltmann, M. Volf, and J. Zizioulas provide wonderful perspectives on Trinitarian theology. For contemporary psychoanalysis, a good place to begin would be with textbooks that provide overviews of the various theories within contemporary psychoanalysis: object relations theory, relational psychoanalysis, self psychology, or intersubjectivity theory. For further reading, authors such as R.D. Fairbairn, H. Guntrip, D. Winnicott, H. Kohut, S. Mitchell, R. Stolorow, and D. Orange provide insightful (and often dense) glimpses into working from a relational perspective. James Jones and R. Sorenson are two Christian authors who write from a contemporary psychoanalytic perspective. The Society for the Study of Psychology and Wesleyan Theology has also produced a good deal of work on relational approaches from a Wesleyan perspective (

In the end, it is important for the pastor to practice “being present” with others. Pastoral counseling is not about technique or advice. It is about relational presence. In contrast to American culture that values quick fixes and instant change, pastoral counseling is about participating in the transformation of people’s lives and witnessing to God’s love, grace, and forgiveness. The process of transformation in a person’s life is not a fast one, and witnessing to God’s love, grace, and forgiveness is less about words and more about a relational experience. As people experience love, grace, empathy, patience, and forgiveness in relationships, rather than merely words, they are profoundly impacted. Giving advice often comes too quickly and easily. Advice, when given, should come out of a prolonged time of being present with the other person. The difficulty with being present with someone, for most pastors and counselors, is the loss of control it entails and the anxiety it brings up about one’s inability to “fix” others or ourselves. Attempting to fix situations is much easier than sitting on the mourner’s bench with the person.

Posted Feb 01, 2003