All through February on the Intersections blog, we explored the art of connection, and how the need for divine and human connection is an enduring part of what makes us human. This has included hearing from Dr. Steve Call on his new book and his therapeutic work with couples, Dr. Roy Barsness on Love As a Category of Healing in the work of psychotherapy, and Dr. Doug Shirley on Why Counselors Make Poor Lovers.
It’s worth remembering, though, that therapists are not the only ones who help foster healing in others by pursuing dynamic, life-giving relationships. Most pastors and chaplains could tell you that, for them, the categories of active listening, attunement, and transformative relationships make up a more-than-full-time job. It is the ministry of presence—a deep calling to walk with congregants, clients, and neighbors as they wrestle with the risk of connection and live more fully into their own relational identities. Our alumni practicing in their local contexts are a reminder of the vital importance of connection in ministry and the helping professions, and their work and stories are a constant inspiration to us.
(And just in case you hear “relationship” and think first and foremost about the particular relationship of marriage, here’s Emily McBroom’s [MDiv, ‘17] crucial, incisive presentation on “Idolatry of the Couple: Breaking the Idols that Ostracize Single Women in the Christian Community.”)
“Most pastors and chaplains could tell you that, for them, the categories of active listening, attunement, and transformative relationships make up a more-than-full-time job.”
In Martha Wood’s (Master of Divinity, ‘15) Integrative Project, “Attachment in Spiritual Direction: How Our First Relationships Shape Our Search for the God Who Is Love,” we’re reminded that our earliest relationships shape how we develop our identity and style of relating—including how we relate to God. If our childhood attachments are marked by experiences of abandonment or misattunement, our conceptions of God may feel very much the same. Martha argues, then, that in the work of Spiritual Direction, helping others foster a deeper connection to the divine is intimately connected to the need for healing in their human connections.
As they pursue relational healing that fosters divine connection, spiritual directors, chaplains, and pastors walk with others as they come face-to-face with their experiences of trauma. For her Integrative Project, Jessica Dexter (MA in Theology & Culture, ‘18) explored “Living with God in the Aftermath of Trauma.” Jessica, who now works as an Associate Chaplain with the Mental Health Chaplaincy, argues that our biggest questions about God should not be written away with easy answers that deny the gravity of trauma. Instead, by wrestling in the midst of community with the pain of trauma and its very real, ongoing effects, we may begin to arrive at a new understanding of the divine.
In this work, it is crucial that ministers and leaders—not just therapists—remember that spiritual health cannot be separated from physical and mental health. To forget that may amount to a form of spiritual neglect, argues Molly Erickson (MATC, ‘17) in her powerful Integrative Project about “Spiritual Neglect: Anxiety and Depression and Its Reception in the American Evangelical Christian Church.” Molly’s thesis is that “Some of the ways the Church responds to people with anxiety and depression can be classified as a form of spiritual abuse or neglect,” ultimately exacerbating symptoms, furthering alienation, and damaging the connection to God. Pastors and leaders who hope to build healthy, generative community, then, must be willing to acknowledge and support the challenges and needs related to mental health. And this requires—as we’ve said before and we’ll say again and again—offering a space in which the work of healing can unfold through the context of relationships.
While time spent in class is a crucial part of learning to offer that space, we know that transformative learning must also occur outside of the classroom, through embodied, day-to-day work with others. Just as the work of healing is intimately connected to human connection, so is the work of learning; it is through relationship that theory becomes practice. That’s why all of our students being trained for pastoral care, chaplaincy, and ministry leadership are required to participate in immersive field experience outside of our building.
In this video, Dr. Ron Ruthruff shares his dream that our city and world might be a laboratory of learning for students, a place where they are invited and trained to ask beautiful questions about themselves, their communities, and the Church. “Practically speaking, that happens by getting students out of the classroom,” says Ron. “That’s my dream: that we’re in the world, and that we’re in real places doing real work.”