A few months after arriving at the Samson (Alabama) Group Home, I asked for a private one-on-one session with the director of the day treatment program, who also happened to be my therapist … thankfully. Her name was Joy, and it certainly fit her very well. She was, indeed, a joy to be around and, consequently, an extremely comfortable counsellor with whom to talk. I needed this, because I desperately needed to open up about something I’d only shared with two, maybe three, individuals in my entire life.
As always before, Joy welcomed me into her office with open arms and a smile. She listened quite attentively as I “spilled my guts,” shared with her one of my deepest, darkest secrets, (nothing at all criminal or unethical, mind you … but extremely difficult, nonetheless.) Point in fact, I was unloading ~ or trying to, anyway ~ an awfully heavy burden I’d carried since adolescence. It was not as if she could help me shoulder this burden ~ not exactly ~ but what she did do was enough.
I mean to say, I received from Joy all that I could expect from an upstanding, conscientious counsellor: Focused attention, non-judgmental reception, calm and sober-minded evaluation, and compassionate understanding. No, she could not solve my conundrum, one with which I have lived for decades now, but she did offer an altruistic, tender-hearted consideration and sensitivity. I was very thankful, of course, and naturally I felt somewhat better for having “unloaded.”
We visited about this issue two or three more times, but I also went to the pastor of the church I was then-currently attending. We met one time and never again. We were supposed to meet again, but it never happened. I suppose, that was as much my fault as hers, but it did hurt somewhat that she seemingly just forgot about it all. And it was not as if she had a large congregation to attend to ~ about forty to fifty members ~ and the very personal issue I’d raised was, indeed, quite important. Not to complain, though…
After my experience with Joy, however, I decided I wanted to help people like she helps people. I decided I want to be a counsellor in whatever capacity. This is also when I came to the conclusion that the age of pastors (ministers, priests, rabbis, etc.) may very well be coming to an end … at least the traditional role(s) clergy play. I believe members of the clergy are increasingly being squeezed out of usefulness in society, so that to continue to minister they will need to “retool” in order to expand their resumes, so to speak.
By no means am I saying all clergy are bad; no, not at all! And I am not suggesting that members of the clergy are, in and of themselves, somehow worthless. God forbid! And if I am coming across this way, please forgive me! I am only suggesting that the typical pastoral minister will need to add to his/her repertoire of skills and abilities in order to effectively continue on into the 21st century. But this is, perhaps, a subject best left for another day.
So far as the field of counselling is concerned, “the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…”¹ And I deeply desire to be one of those laborers, eventually. Along with this desire comes somewhat of a radical conviction, that is: Here is the new face of the Church. Here is the new spiritual hospital for holistic care, including mind and soul care. Here is where ministry now effectively takes place. Yes, there are still the typical, local churches, and they will be for the foreseeable future, but the action is elsewhere.
Naturally, there are exceptions to this, as I believe, but I think it is practically undeniable that the landscape is changing … shifting. If you don’t believe me, believe the numbers as presented by Kelley Shattuck on April 10th of this year:
(Olson’s) findings reveal that the actual rate of church attendance from head counts is less than half of the 40 percent the pollsters report. Numbers from actual counts of people in Orthodox Christian churches (Catholic, mainline and evangelical) show that in 2004, 17.7 percent of the population attended a Christian church on any given weekend…
Another study published in 2005 in The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion by sociologists C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler—known for their scholarly research on the church—backs up his findings. Their report reveals that the actual number of people worshiping each week is closer to Olson’s 17.7 percent figure—52 million people instead of the pollster-reported 132 million (40 percent).²
This contrasts to “nearly half of American households,” who “have had someone seek mental health treatment” in 2004. More than this, fully nine out of ten people polled “said they would likely consult or recommend a mental health professional if they or a family member were experiencing a problem.”³ Indeed, this field is “ripe unto harvest,” and the harvest is the very lives of flesh-and-blood human beings … many of those lives quite literally hanging in the balance. I know when I sat down with Joy on that very important day to open my heart and share my decades-old burden, I sure felt like my life was hanging in the balance!
¹ The Gospel of St. Matthew 9.37 (NRSVCE); also on prospective job growth, see the Bureau of Labor (BLS) stats on psychology, for example, or rehabilitation counselling
or especially marriage and family therapists, which shows an extremely high prospective growth rate over the next eight to 10 years, all of which far outpace the expected growth of eight percent in the area of clergy. Note from BLS: “Clergy conduct religious worship and perform other spiritual functions associated with beliefs and practices of religious faith or denomination. Provide spiritual and moral guidance and assistance to members … 2016 employment: 243,900… Projected employment change, 2016–26: Number of new jobs: 19,900 Growth rate: 8 percent (as fast as average)”
² Kelley Shattuck, “7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America,” as accessed on 09/29/2018 at www.churchleaders.com
³ As reported by the American Psychological Association, “Survey Says More Americans are Seeking Mental Health Treatment,” as accessed online on 09/29/2018 at www.apa.org
For previous articles in this series, go to: