Psychotherapy and Christian Ministry -- By: Robert C. Roberts

Journal: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology
Volume: SBJT 07:4 (Winter 2003)
Article: Psychotherapy and Christian Ministry
Author: Robert C. Roberts


Psychotherapy and Christian Ministry1

Robert C. Roberts

Robert C. Roberts is Distinguished Professor of Ethics at Baylor University. For sixteen years he taught in the clinical psychology program at Wheaton College. He works on questions about moral and intellectual character from a philosophical orientation. His most recent book is Emotions: An Essay in Aid of Moral Psychology (Cambridge University Press, 2003), and he is at work on a book on intellectual character entitled Virtues that Deliver the Epistemic Goods, co-authored with Jay Wood.

Pastors as Therapists

As facilitators of God’s saving work, Christian ministers are in the business of promoting people’s “wholeness.” Such wholeness is largely psychological: It is a formation or transformation of people’s emotions (their anxieties, hopes, angers, loves), their behavior, and their relationships. All of this can be summed up by saying that ministry is largely characterformation or character-transformation. The word “character” sounds like ethics, rather than psychology; but good character is also wholeness, personal well-being. And the borderline between personality (the domain of psychologists) and character is by no means clear-cut. Ethicists these days are much more attentive to psychology than they used to be (see the recent move away from an ethics of action-principles to an ethics of virtues), and psychology is coming to be recognized as a discipline with a strongly ethical dimension (psychologists as instructors in how to live).2

It is not surprising, then, that pastors and pastoral theologians have been intensely interested in the psychotherapies of the twentieth century. In his history of the Clinical Pastoral Training movement in the United States, Brooks Holifield chronicled the virtual relinquishment of distinctively Christian ministry in favor of therapeutically informed ministry.3 Moreover, Thomas Oden noted that the classical tradition of pastoral care “has been steadily accommodated to a series of psychotherapies. It has fallen deeply into a pervasive amnesia toward its own classical pastoral past, into a vague absentmindedness about the great figures of this distinguished tradition.”4 But why, we might ask, should we worry that the Christian approach (or approaches) to promoting people’s wholeness has been so largely replaced by the approaches of Sigmund Freud, Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis, and Carl Jung (to mention just a few)? After all, they are all promoting personal wholeness, and we are promoting the very same thing. Is Oden’s anxie...

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