A History of Pastoral Care in America Review

November 9, 2011

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Tracing the Trends in Pastoral Counseling

About every ten-to-twenty years an excellent text is written in the rather unique genre of the history of pastoral care and counseling. In 1953, John T. McNeil penned the classic A History of the Cure of Souls. Eleven years later William Clebsch and Charles Jaekle gave us their excellent work Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective. In 1987, Thomas Oden authored Classical Pastoral Care, volume three “Pastoral Counsel.” In 2007, Robert Kellemen wrote Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction, and in 2009 he wrote Sacred Friendships: Celebrating the Legacy of Women Heroes of the Faith.

E. Brooks Holifield, professor of American church history at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, has spent a lifetime studying, researching, teaching, speaking, and writing in this genre. In 1983 (re-released in 2005), he authored A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization.

Clebsch and Jaekle, McNeil, and Oden have written broad histories of soul care. Kellemen has focused on African American soul care and women’s soul care. Holifield tackles the challenge of a comprehensive history of pastoral care in American religious history. His wide-ranging guide traces the trajectory of American pastoral care, as the subtitle suggests, from a focus on Christ, sin, suffering, and salvation, to a focus on self, self-actualization, and secular psychology.

Holifield is correct when he notes that every pastor adopts wittingly or unwittingly some theory of pastoral counseling. Unfortunately, many either have no conscious model, or follow models that are bereft of biblical and historical substance. Attention to Holifield’s findings can assist pastors, lay people, and biblical counselors to avoid this tendency.

Holifield also makes the excellent point that “for almost twenty centuries the Christian clergy have spent more time listening to people than preaching to them” (p. 15). This is a crucial reminder in an age when the options seem to move between the extreme of nothing but the preached Word from the pulpit or nothing but secular psychology in the pastor’s office.

Changing Focus and Foundations

Holifield’s work is both a history of the personal ministry of the Word (the private ministry of pastor and parishioner in addition to the public pulpit ministry of the Word) and a history of the changing relationship between theology and psychology in pastoral ministry. Holifield documents the important truth that American pastors have always had a psychology—originally it was a biblical psychology with an understanding of people, problems, and solutions developed theologically. Over time, secular psychological reasoning came to trump biblical psychology for many pastors.

A History of Pastoral Care in America commences with the Puritans and their in-depth focus on sin, idols of the heart, cases of conscience, suffering, consolation, and comfort. A major strength of Holifield’s work is his extended focus on specific pastors with specific parishioners, such as Puritan Pastor Thomas Hooker’s weekly pastoral conversations with one Joan Drake of Esher. In his ministry, Pastor Hooker followed the classic, historical pastoral role. “His task was to glorify God through the traditional range of healing, sustaining, guiding, and reconciling activities that characterized work in a local congregation” (p. 37). Hooker, and the great Puritan divines, all performed surgery on the souls of hurting and hardened people, bringing them to spiritual healing through the personal ministry of the Word.

Holifield’s chapter on the understanding and the affections, as developed by Jonathan Edwards and his peers, is priceless. Modern pastors and spiritual friends can learn much about being soul physicians from this study which taught that we pursue (volitional/will) what we perceive (understanding/mind) to be pleasing (affections/soul). Theirs was an in-depth biblical psychology that appreciated the comprehensive understanding of the imago Dei as relational, rational, volitional, and emotional.

Holifield engages in another extended look at one counselor in chapter four: Pastor Icabod Spencer. Spencer’s book, Pastor’s Sketches served well as a manual for pastoral conversations with anxious inquirers. His work in the 1850s sounded surprisingly like that of Hooker in the 1630s.

It would not be until after the Civil War that the trend toward the secularization of the ministry took full force. The ideal moved from communal self-sacrifice to individual self-love. The new pastoral theology now taught in many seminaries (in the 1860s to the 1960s) had more in common with secular psychology than the biblical psychology of the preceding 200 years.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Holifield’s greatest gift in this book is his ability to synthesize large tracks of material. In particular, as indicated, his subtitle communicates his understanding of the historical path taken by American pastors: “from salvation to self-realization.” This synthesis is both the key strength of the book and one possible weakness.

I agree that the noted shift has occurred—from a God-centered, sin-focused ministry to a humanity-centered, self-help ministry. That is not an issue.

The question is whether the shift is as comprehensive as plotted. This tension has always existed in pastoral care, not only in America. And, more than a few have avoided this pitfall, even in recent pastoral ministry. One problem is the need for careful definition. What makes pastoral ministry “self-realization”-related?

Also, having authored a work on the history of African American pastoral soul care (Beyond the Suffering), I find it disappointing that Holifield’s comprehensive examination of pastoral care in America is comprehensive for white pastoral care, but is not comprehensive or culturally-informed for pastoral care from other cultural perspectives.

Still, Holifield’s work stands out in the rare genre of histories of pastoral counseling. To see the general movement within the field of pastoral care, A History of Pastoral Care in America is extremely helpful.

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