Counsel of a humbler sort

When the Rev. James Dittes joined the Yale Divinity School faculty in 1955, pastors were steadily leaving ministry to seek greater influence in the burgeoning fields of counseling.

Armed with ordained standing, as well as a PhD in experimental psychology, Dr. Dittes stood poised to bring the power and allure of new therapies to bear on the seemingly passé art of ministry. Yet rather than restore ministry's lost luster as a world-shaping profession, Dittes ruffled feathers in the church and the Ivy League alike by redefining ministry in humbler terms.

"I think the Christian pastor has to empty himself or herself and provide a space for a person and God to work things out," Dittes said as he packed up his corner office in May.

"The minister has to be content with not knowing if it's been successful or not," he goes on. "Those who are really drawn to ministry don't see this as a heroic posture to take.... It's for those able to renounce their worldly career ambitions to strengthen God's hand for God's healing purposes."

With that vision, Dittes helped carve the field of pastoral counseling into what it is today: a specialized area of ministry where pastors listen to the aggrieved without giving answers. For 47 years at Yale, he taught future pastors to "get out of the way" and accept that "the minister is not a player" in fixing personal problems.

In May, the senior statesman of pastoral counseling retired. In doing so, he said goodbye to a field tempted once again to strengthen the pastor's hand.

"He was always standing there as a corrective or warning if [pastoral counseling] goes in other directions, if it becomes too professional or clinically oriented," says the Rev. Dr. Donald Capps, a Princeton Theological Seminary colleague who studied with Dittes and is editing a forthcoming essay collection in his honor. "He's been a steadying influence."

Pastoral counselors have lived up to Dittes's humble ideal, at least in their struggle for legitimacy. Insurance companies have generally chosen to pay instead for clients to see psychologists or social workers. Others with pastoral-counseling training have used the background solely to enhance the counseling dimension of their parish ministries, while referring clients with serious conditions to specialists.

At this juncture, however, the 3,000-member American Association of Pastoral Counselors reports an unprecedented level of interest in its services. In the months after Sept. 11, so many corporations requested "counseling with a spiritual dimension" for employees that the AAPC scrambled to form a network to meet the need. But as interest grows for counseling with a spiritual component, practitioners are once again asking whether the minister should do more than merely "get out of the way."

Rev. Tamara Moreland, associate pastor at Berlin Congregational Church in Berlin, Conn., says pastoral counselors are most helpful when they share their own Christian insights and moral values – a technique Dittes discourages as too directive.

"That person brings their whole self into the process," Rev. Moreland says. "Secular therapists are not supposed to talk about what they do or don't believe. But if you go to a secular therapist and start talking about the Holy Spirit, they're not going to know what to do."

Moreland also sees value in another trend that breaks from the Dittes school: pastoral counseling in a social context. She notes that in her own African-American community, family involvement is so crucial to personal problem-solving that effective counselors must get to know family members and address social problems stemming from the environment.

Such thinking about "social matrices" is so pervasive, Dittes says, that he no longer attends professional association meetings. Again, he sees a dangerous trend of detracting from the individual's space to find solutions.

"From the '80s until now, [pastoral counseling has felt] more responsible for the healing of the individual and the healing of society," Dittes says. "There's a Christian injunction to lose one's life in order to find it. To try to play detective and have answers is not the way to lose life. It's the way to claim my own authority."

Being a minority voice is nothing new for Dittes. In the 1960s, he protested the assumption that standard psychological inventories could assess aptitude for ministry. He defied academic norms, Capps says, by writing books for pastors rather than for academicians, and lavishly including personal anecdotes. Yet he maintained joint appointments in Yale's departments of psychology and religious studies.

"People didn't really know what to do with him," Capps says.

As Dittes retires, questions of what to do with his legacy remain open. Students at Yale Divinity continue to learn skills of reflective listening without offering answers, but in the same counseling courses they also learn to conduct interventions and advocacy for the abused.

And although counseling remains a staple of the curriculum, faculty positions have been trimmed and the future of Dittes's chair remains uncertain.

What seems certain, however, is that those who want a Christian believer to help them manage struggles will continue to look for pastoral counseling. And the counseling they receive will somehow reflect the ministerial vision of James Dittes.

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