While at sea earlier this month, I had the opportunity to read cover to cover Lori Gottlieb’s best seller, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed . Gottlieb had written extensively before; this book was well-reviewed by The New York Times, and I was in the mood to study how other therapists were addressing what I see in my current practices. All of us who work with the public in any meaningful way—and that certainly includes church ministers—can fall into repetitious and unproductive “routines” or slip into that “one-size-fits-all solution” for everyone that life brings into our ambit.
In parish settings a staff will encounter assistance of many kinds, such as engaged couples seeking marriage, annulments, funerals, religious education and RCIA families, counseling and/or confession. It is possible, almost inescapable, to get fixated on the formalities, necessary as they may be, such as gathering necessary documents for youthful sacraments or walking through the various stages of an annulment. Some pastors are notorious for fixating on results, e.g., the numbers of candidates in the RCIA program or tallies of registrations for religious education programs. The pressure percolates down to parish staff/ministers, most of whom were attracted to Church ministry to engage souls into the communal life of Christ’s church and would probably want time to do more face-to-face personal evangelizing and less filing and traffic directing. If it is any comfort, therapists have similar paper pressures and depend upon a variety of software programs like Therapy Notes, which I used in my private practice. One of TN’s features is an automatic email and/or phone system that reminds patients of appointments, depending on how much you want to pay.
The point of Gottlieb’s self-revelations and lengthy case studies is the demonstration of the depths of human experience and suffering, and I have to say this is one of the best mental health reads for the general public since Listening to Prozac in 1993. Gottlieb takes us through a year with six different patients [and her own psychotherapy] so the slow process of therapeutic change can be observed and understood. At the heart of each patient’s presenting collections of symptoms—depression, grief, narcissism, marital distress—is a misunderstanding of the self. We all carry a life script within us [i.e., who we think we are], and what usually brings a patient to “talk to someone” is the life script jumping the tracks—by trauma, by business or career failure, by a failed relationship, by substance abuse—the list is endless. But as Gottlieb wisely observes, a crippling blow from the past also means a painful loss of the personal future one has crafted through life. If you think about it, much of Church work is about life change, bad and good.
I hear from many religious education directors and personnel how parents present children out of the blue for baptism, first confession, first communion, confirmation. Then, after the rites, those young people become invisible again. Pastors get requests from couples to witness the renewal of their wedding vows, not at the usual 25th or 50th anniversary markers, but at odd anniversary years such as seven years or thirty-four years. The question we ought to ask—ourselves—is why now? What flags a Catholic mother to herd her children into the DRE’s office, breathless, baptism certificates in hand, to “regularize their standing in the Church?” The bureaucrat in us rejoices with the impression that a lukewarm family is back in the fold, a numerical success. Don’t fall into the trap of failing to consider why this family has chosen to make this move now. Research into the subject of individuals leaving the Church has found that some of those leaving the church do so because they have never felt personally engaged in the church, the liturgy and its members. At some level, perhaps even microscopic, the folks who engage us want to be a part of us. Regard them as brothers and sisters.
I am not advocating that we turn pastoral work into Freudian psychotherapy. But I do believe that church life and ministry must be personal and supportive, particularly the structured and routine programs. Take the example of the mother with the children who need all their youthful sacraments. I might ask what her hopes were for the sacramental life of her children. She might say, “I don’t want them to go to hell.” A little tardy, perhaps, but a good reason, nonetheless. My response; “you’re a good mother to do this.” “Avoiding hell” is her vocabulary for salvation. When one is bound to the textbook language of catechetic textbooks, one misses the sincerely stated if unconventional language of a mother’s love for her children. Some church ministers use the occasion to scold the parent or quote the catechism. And we wonder why we lose them.
This mother’s encounter with the church leads to two roads: we would like to see her and her children with us after the initiation sacraments. And, if we apply the “why now?” rule, what is the story behind a mother--who clearly believes the doctrine of hell--bringing her children, perhaps as old as 14, to the saving waters of Baptism now? There is more to this story. I might comment off the cuff that with her children she must have a busy life. It is a hypothesis, of course, but an innocent one. The responses can be varied and quite revelatory.  Some people say thank you.  Some defer the compliment with self-deprecation on the grounds that parenting is a duty that doesn’t deserve pats on the back.  Some will say, in a variety of ways, that the key people in their lives don’t realize how hard it is to be a good mother—almost always the spouse and/or the doting mother-in-law.  Some suffer from a chronic form of depression or dysthymia, and the effort of parenting, let alone reaching out to the church, is Herculean.
But I need a separate category for those carrying pain from the Church. There is often generic and/or specific predisposition of anger among those who approach the Church—and this number is dwarfed by those who stopped coming altogether. It is a good idea to approach all pastoral engagements with the idea that this may be the last chance to restore faith in the institution, and the last gasp of hope for a Catholic reaching out. Besides the major “institutional hurts” of clergy abuse and an assortment of complex disciplinary hurdles, a large number of respondents to pollsters—and clients in my offices—report difficult encounters simply “doing business with the Church” in some period of time in their personal history.
But going back to the example of the mother and children, I might say to the mother that “our late afternoon hours for religious education might be inconvenient for a family,” particularly a single-parent family. I might also get the sense that this mother is socially isolated and might enjoy a church relationship that brings her an oasis of solace in her busy world. In that case, I would ask her if she would like someone [preferably another mother or grandmother] to stop in with a Starbuck’s from time to time and bring her material and assistance in catechizing her own children. Conversion here is built upon acceptance, upon hearing the needs of those who seek God’s grace, even in circuitous routes.
To borrow from St. Thomas Aquinas’s principle that nature builds on grace and grace builds on nature, psychology listens to grace, but lived grace is reinforced by the principles of psychodynamics. The key to healing in a relationship, as Carl Rogers famously put it, is “unconditional positive regard.”