Cultivating the Practice of Relationship: Learning to Dance

Stephen P. Stratton

Pastoral care is a complicated skill. Motivated by compassion for others and a desire to be of service to God, pastors seek to bring the right ingredients for healing and growth to the lives of those in need. David G. Benner  explains, “Pastoral care is the gift of Christian love and nurture from one who attempts to mediate the gracious presence of God to another who desires, to one degree or another, to live life in the reality of that divine presence” (Strategic Pastoral Counseling [Baker Academic, 2003], 20, italic mine). As noted, the complexity of pastoral care lies, first, in the mediational discernment of God’s presence by the pastor, and second, in the varying degrees of responsiveness of the person in need.

Mediation of the gracious presence of God moves from one present moment to the next for the pastor and parishioner. No formula or method can eliminate the perplexing nature of this organic encounter. What makes room for God’s presence from moment to moment, and what does not? At a basic level, mediating pastors are aware in the moment that they are moving relationally to bear the loads of some and resist the loads of others. Compassionate load-bearing conditions are those that are most classically associated with pastoral care. The pastor is encouraging, helpful, and often accommodating in response to parishioner needs. Love is demonstrated in ways that promote a sense of connectedness that is amazingly neurological as well as social. The parishioner’s load is shouldered with the pastor and possibly others in the congregation to nurture healing and growth. Such conditions create space for God’s restorative movement in many circumstances — but not in every one.

Challenging load-resisting conditions are also needed to support God’s process in a parishioner’s life in other moments. It takes only a small amount of reflection on previous episodes of growth to realize that God’s mediational conditions can be facilitated when persons refuse to shoulder the burden of another. When pastors strategically refrain from bearing loads in pastoral care, love can be demonstrated by a sense of separateness that can also promote brain and social growth. The avoidance of rescuing or enabling behaviors can create the conditions for effective care because healthy boundaries are established or reinforced. A load-resisting stance may allow the parishioner to experience the consequences of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Pastoral mediation of God’s presence from this perspective is more about a strategic no as opposed to the strategic yes of the load-bearing variety.

Load-bearing and load-resisting pastoral mediation remains only theory until it meets real life relational situations. Mediation of God’s presence is never one-sided, as implied by the image of a pastor working on a parishioner as a potter works on clay. Mediation occurs in the context of a relationship in which the person in need participates to one degree of another. When load-bearing and load-resisting is practically applied, the parishioner and the pastor engage in a shared experience that may be compared with a dance. This dance is always two-sided, even if one side looks more involved than the other. Even when an invitation to dance is declined, it remains a co-constructed interaction. The pastor’s steps mediate God’s presence and the parishioner’s steps, to one degree or another, mediate as well. Mediation of God’s presence to one another is intricately dependent on the co-created relational movements that are always at work. Dancers are constantly aware of themselves with their partners. At brain-speeds that are so blazingly fast that the process may seem unthought, each partner is always assessing the joined effort. How do we position ourselves with the other person? How close should one stand to the other? When does one lead and when does one follow? What movements are possible for one or both of us?

In the past, pastoral care and counseling literature emphasized the value of the relationship for pastors and parishioners, but pastoral education operationalized models with the assumption that the pastor is the effecter and the parishioner is the effected. Pastoral training functioned on the basis of this one-sided perspective for most of its history. The inclusion of family therapy models in pastoral care offered a step forward into a broader relational view of how persons affect one another in groups. Nevertheless, systemic perspectives still functioned largely as if the pastor was the intervening agent, objectively set apart to work on the relational process in others. It has only been in recent years that pastoral care and counseling models have begun to wrestle with the inherent relationality of the pastor as much as it does the relationality of the parishioner. Reality suggests that there are always two persons moving in relation to one another on the basis of split-second “under-the-radar” judgments about the other.

The emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology has made it increasingly hard for pastoral education to affirm any kind of stance that is non-mutual when it comes to relationships of any sort. Pastors, like all relational human beings, are effecter and effected when in relational contact with others. At the same time, parishioners are also effecter and effected. In every relational contact, there is a brain-to-brain and body-to-body connection that could go unnoticed. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon summarized the neuroscience research by describing this phenomenon as an “open loop arrangement” (A General Theory of Love [Vintage, 2001], 85). They reported that, without conscious awareness being required, each partner in relational contact regulates biological functions in the body of the other. “Neither is a functioning whole on his [or her] own; each has loops that only somebody else can complete. Together, they create a stable and properly balanced pair of organisms” (p. 85).

Any relational connection between two interacting human beings is more profound than is readily apparent on the surface. Trinitarian theology has long extrapolated this deeper reality to be so, but practical theology has lagged behind in exploring the communing experience. In order to remain relevant and up to date, pastoral care must consider the practical implications of a relationally grounded care of others. Interpersonal neurobiology pushes pastoral care and counseling to emphasize how human beings are as much relationally co-regulated as self-contained. This co-regulating open loop process recalls the Trinitarian concept of perichoresis, in which the three divine persons indwell one another so that three are one, yet without the loss of either particularity or communal process. The idea that two become one is not for marriage alone in Christian practical theology. The joining of two persons in relationship is foundational for understanding every human interaction.

When it comes to mediating God’s presence in co-regulating relationships, the experience appears to be more improvisational dance among partners as opposed to the older one-sided management model. Training in pastoral care and counseling is evolving to prepare pastors for a dynamic, two-sided mediational interaction, not the classic one-sided version that is no longer adequate in light of Trinitarian theology, neurobiology, and developmental psychology. A two-sided encounter is one that will take into account the pastor, the parishioner, and the interactional process in which they are embedded. Mediating pastors have to train to be attuned to all three areas, starting with how they are implicitly affected and then moving out explicitly to consider the parishioner’s experience in the moment. This professional engagement rests on the God-created reality that “our nervous systems are constructed to be captured by the nervous systems of others, so that we can experience others as if from within their skin, as well as from within our own” (Daniel N. Stern, The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life [Norton, 2004], 76). To use Trinitarian language, it seems human beings are intended to indwell one another in ways that mimetically reflect the God they image. There is a perichoretic quality to human relationships that cannot be ignored any longer. It is not the same as God’s indwelling process, but it certainly images Triune God in a way that reflects his communing nature. This relational context becomes the dance floor where decisions about load-bearing and load-resisting become not only strategic but also mediational.

What does this mean for pastors?

  1. The physical health of the pastor is directly tied to the quality of relational care. In order to mediate in a way that is attuned to self and other, as well as God’s presence, pastors must be eating nutritiously, sleeping adequately, and exercising regularly. These are essential means of grace when one considers open loop relating in pastoral care.
  2. The relational health of the pastor is largely determined by the quality of their support system — beyond their family relationships. It is astounding how many pastors do not have close confidants with whom they have regular and frequent contact. Spouses, parents, and other family members, although significant, do not count in this list.
  3. Pastors are encouraged to have close connections with “well-chosen” parishioners. In fact, the open loop arrangement that joins one nervous system to another cannot be stopped. It therefore seem prudent to learn how to be a steward of relationships, instead of listening to the old fashioned admonition to avoid any close ties with persons in your congregation. Choose to engage intentionally those persons who show evidence of physical, spiritual, and relational health.
  4. Pastors need to join contemplative disciplines with the aforementioned communal ones for a balanced relational spirituality. Attunement to God, self, and others appears to be enhanced by these prayer-based forms. Contemplatives tend to be less reactive, more empathic, and better at conflict management.
Posted Mar 25, 2015