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Chapter 5: The Care of the Clinging Vine or Dependent Person
You are greeting people after the morning service and it happens again. One particular person stops and engages you in a long conversation while other people wait ... and wait, until they finally give up and leave by another door.
Or just before a congregational gathering, this same person stops you and asks for advice on something you feel a person as old as he could decide for himself. Finally you have to break off the discussion to get the meeting started on time.
Then this person calls you at home more and more often to ask your advice or help in making a decision. Again you think a person "of a certain age" could decide this without your input. Besides, these telephone calls interrupt your private time with your family (or colleagues, as in the case of a celibate pastor). You begin to resent this person as a nuisance, a pest, a bother. You wish this parishioner would go away and leave you alone.
Your impatience seeps through into your conversations with this person. Your tone of voice becomes shrill. Then your anger gets the best of you, and you blast out: "Why do you have to call me so much at inopportune times?"
Then the person takes up another routine: writing you notes of apology, giving gifts to you or members of your family. She wants to do things for you that you would rather do for yourself. This routine taxes your patience until you lose patience again.
In response to this, the person blows up at you: "After all I have done for you, you treat me this way! I was only trying to be helpful!" It is a temper tantrum. Some dependent types, instead of having temper tantrums, will become depressed, withdrawn, and even threaten suicide in a note written to you. That will get your "help" when nothing else will.
What on earth is going on here? You have become the object of the dependent member's need for someone else to make his or her decisions. If you as pastor lose patience with him, or he with you, he soon will shift the dependency to another individual or couple. A lay leader and spouse whose children are grown and out of the house (or if the couple has lost a child by death) may actually enjoy this dependency. (Know that the lay leader's opinion of you as a pastor may become colored by the accounts given by this dependent person.)
Some Reasons for Dependency
In caring for dependent people it is helpful to develop some working hypotheses as to how they came to be this way. These hypotheses give you clues for caring. They can also guide you in setting reasonable limits on their manipulation of you.
Early Beginnings-Parental Overprotection
Erik Erikson (1960) and others relate dependency to the very earliest beginnings of our lives. He says that this is the stage when trust is formed and hope is kindled. The mother and father provide everything for the infant. An infant is a ravenous appetite at one end and total irresponsibility at the other end! If the infant's every need is not met, you're sure to hear about it!
But if these needs for food, cleanliness, and freedom from pain are met and the child is given physical affection and care, the child develops trust in this new and unknown world. Erikson says that faith in God is eventually made of this early, basic trust and hope.
If the person does not build religious faith, then he or she "must derive a basic faith from elsewhere” (p. 65). The dependent person seems to invest his basic faith in other humans. Only a few human beings are comfortable being the center of another person's life. (There are a few such people around, as evidenced in the authoritarian, power-ridden person.)
Typically, adults "stuck" in the dependent way of life have or had parents who did everything for them. Instead of instilling autonomy and confidence, parents instilled doubt that the growing children could do anything on their own. Parents "micromanaged," telling children what to do about even the most trivial thing. Children grew to adulthood not believing in themselves or their ability to make it on their own.
The foregoing discussion gives one specific insight for caring for dependent people: From the outset, invest confidence in their ability to venture out on their own. For example, instead of making small-or big-decisions for them, outline a number of good and "doable" options. Then say, "I believe you have the ability to decide this for yourself. What do you think you will do, or do you want to think about it for a while?"
Dependent people are afraid of responsibility and having the freedom to make their own decisions. They are like the man in Jesus' parable who said to his master, "I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground" (Matt. 25:25).
Our challenge is to calm their anxieties in the presence of their freedom to decide for themselves. We can listen to their fears and despair and not to their demands. This is one common-sense way of caring for them.
As children enter the school and/or the church system, they are at risk for meeting teachers and/or pastors and leaders who insist on making all decisions for them. An example of authoritarian religious thought is the Bill Gothard teachings about the family. Gothard counselors—who can be consulted by long-distance telephone—manage the smallest life details for the family system. The wife is to be subject to the husband; she should teach the children at home, and so forth. I am astonished at how people turn their lives over to these long-distance counselors. A dependency is perpetuated.
In many authoritarian religious groups, followers have been exploited for money. The Jim and Tammy Bakker dynasty is an example. The Jim Jones group followed him in a mass suicide; after the tragic death of more than nine hundred followers, large caches of money, including Social Security checks, were found by authorities.
The Branch Davidians led by David Koresh near Waco, Texas, provide a more recent example of an extreme authoritarian religious group. Such leaders could not rally a following if there were no dependent personalities. Like sheep led to the slaughter, people turn their lives over to the dictation of one person who makes all their decisions for them.
In encouraging dependent people to think for themselves, we steer clear of authoritarian religious teaching. In some cases a woman sees a biblical basis for being dependent on a man's spiritual direction or authority. But the authoritarianism of men in relation to women overlooks the creation story, which says,
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:27)
This describes a mutual participation in the image of God. No dependence of women is here. And the apostle Paul says, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). No dependence here!
Dependency and Pastoral Counseling
A whole generation of pastoral counselors came to maturity under the influence of Carl Rogers, who initially developed his therapy approach with a population of college students struggling to become independent adults, to "individuate" from their parental home. His approach was originally called nondirective counseling and later named client centered therapy. His objective was to enable his clients to manage their own problems, to encourage them to accept responsibility for their own lives. Rogerian counselors do not provide a solution for problems; they encourage clients to analyze problems and to make decisions of their own.
Rogerian theory emphasizes the importance of seeing counselees—or parishioners—as individuals of worth and significance who have the capacity to deal with their lives and decisions. The counselor finds a client's internal frame of reference by creating an atmosphere of warmth and acceptance. Rogers (1951) says we counselors must put aside ourselves to the best of our ability. To the counselee we become "a safe opportunity for you [the counselee] to discern yourself more clearly, to experience yourself more truly and deeply, to choose more significantly" (p. 41).
Rogerian theory is vividly relevant to the pastoral care of dependent people. In Rogers's schema, these people have only a superficial desire for us to make their decisions for them. They are really struggling for independence and then interdependence. Note a much more recent comment from another source: "the sufferer is yearning to be listened to, to be valued and to be understood... the attentive listening of a concerned and interested healer can, and often does, have a compelling effect on the sufferer" (Jackson, 1992, p. 1629).
I give the example of a part-time minister to youth in a large semi-rural church. One of her volunteer leaders insisted on talking with her endlessly after the evening youth meeting. The late hours began to wear on the minister's nerves. Finally she invited the woman to visit her in the nearby city where she had an office. She hoped they could talk when they both would be rested and have no distractions. She made it clear, and the woman agreed, that this would be a formal counseling situation.
She let the woman talk and pour out her concerns, which included a deeply held confession of what she felt made her feel ashamed and unworthy. They worked over the issues of God's forgiveness and restoration. She was assured of God's forgiveness and her worthiness to be a youth leader. They celebrated in prayer together. She was not as dependent as she was anxious and guilt laden.
If someone keeps crowding you for time and hindering your public ministry, look on this as a cry for help. Arrange a time and place of discreet privacy and listen closely. This person may carry a burden that has never been shared with anyone. He may not be dependent at all but a conscience-stricken person seeking someone who will listen, understand, and lead him to hope in the forgiveness of God.
Do You Have the Time?
But, you will say, I don't have the time to schedule two, three, or four hour-long appointments with a clinging-vine, dependent person. My response? You don't have the time not to do so! This person will use up that much time snatching brief, frustrating conversations with you. This parishioner is in charge of the situation, and you are the captive.
When you structure the time and place of your care, you are in control and can guide and sustain this person without interruptions by others and without feeling trapped. In fact, you will probably use less time taking this tack than any other. You will certainly be less likely to blow your stack.
Many pastors do not set specific counseling times for parishioners; they reason that they cannot do this for all their church members so they shouldn't do it for any. But all do not want or need such attention. And many will appreciate the difference the counseling is making in the lives of one or more very anxious people. In addition to preaching, visiting the sick, conducting funerals, and officiating at weddings, you have set aside some carefully planned time for a person in need. You have met him or her in your office at the church or in your study at home—with a secretary, lay leader, or at least one family member present outside your office or study. This attendant ground rule applies to counselees of both genders.
The fear of being accused of sexual harassment may keep you from seeing privately a counselee of the opposite gender. This is a legitimate concern, but one that can be resolved if you limit your bodily contact to handshakes. Also, avoid meetings outside your office and sessions held during lunch and—God forbid—dinner.
If indeed the person begins to interpret your work together in a romantic or seductive way, remind the parishioner that this time is for serious work on his or her need to grow; unrealistic romance changes the subject. To yield to this kind of pressure is a misuse of the power of your office as pastor or church leader. You can clearly define the limits of your role, fix the time of meeting when others are in the area, keep the place of meeting unchanged, and refrain from self-disclosure of personal problems of your own. This way you are sticking to the work of caring for the parishioner. You can further protect the counselee and yourself from confused, anxious involvement with each other. If the person will not abide by these instructions, you can refer him to a pastoral counseling center, clinical psychologist, or psychiatrist.
Some pastors avoid counseling parishioners for a third reason: Not feeling qualified in "pastoral psychotherapy," they prefer referring people to pastoral care specialists who have had extensive training in counseling and different forms of psychotherapy. These professionals often work in counseling centers geographically apart from the church.
In its infancy, "pastoral counseling" was practiced and sponsored by preaching pastors such as Leslie Weatherhead, Harry Emerson Fosdick, John Sutherland Bonnell, Norman Vincent Peale, and Theodore F. Adams. Later its practice was relocated to the hospital chaplaincy by persons such as Anton Boisen, Russell Dicks, and Richard Cabot. Now the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) is vigorously involved in efforts to receive government recognition, so members would be classified as health care deliverers whose services would be eligible for insurance coverage. Very few churches financially support them, and they are pushed to charge fees, get insurance payments, and so forth. This shift of focus away from church-based counseling is being corrected by a few churches that are establishing their own counseling services. Some of these churches pay the counselors a salary and receive all fees as a gift to the church. A few churches pay salaries and charge no fees. This is the most effective way to go. Other churches provide the office space and receptionist service and take a percentage of fees in return, varying 40 percent down to 10 percent. In effect, these counselors are in a quasiprivate practice in the locale of the church. If they are members of the AAPC, they are required to have malpractice insurance. Still, should a malpractice suit be filed, it would likely name the church as a codefendant.
This intensive discussion of professional pastoral counseling as a specialty has been generated from the issue of pastors not having time to give to time-consuming counseling. How the pastoral counseling specialist is to make a living is relevant to pastors making referrals. The churches often accept no financial responsibility for supporting the pastoral care specialist. They exercise no oversight with a system of supervision and answerability to the church. The subtle secularization of much pastoral counseling is the result. As Robert Coles (1993), professor of psychiatry and humanities at Harvard, says, clergy "should not see their work [as being] too professional or specialized. The hazard is to become too intellectualized or psychologically oriented—no longer to think of your ministry as a ministry of service. Instead you become a therapist" (p. 1210). Faithful, hard-working members of the Association of Pastoral Counselors are, with some success, reversing this secularization. Still, individual churches are slow to be of much assistance to them.
I see another concern when the dependent person is referred to a pastoral counseling specialist who charges fees. It's possible that affluent people might be recommended an endless series of interviews with no operative treatment plan. A counselee may become "addicted" to the process of interview after interview, and the counselor may become financially dependent on the counselee. High-paying clients can have their dependency needs met and not be encouraged to change. As the IRS man in the Ziggy cartoon says: "No, Mr. Ziggy, you cannot list your psychiatrist as a dependent!"
I propose the following pattern for preventing clients from becoming too dependent on counselors. The counselor needs to be part of an ongoing peer group that meets at least once a week. In this group counselors present case material for peer review.
1. With a new client, the first eight interviews would be at the counselor's own discretion.
2. At the end of the eighth interview, the counselor would present the case to the peer group along with a diagnosis and a plan of treatment.
3. At the end of the twentieth interview, the case should be presented again to the group to decide whether to proceed much further or to begin a referral process to seek outside consultation. This would be to seek collaboration with a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist who practices psychotherapy and is not simply a dispenser of medication. (The practitioners of hospital psychiatry too often ask social workers, nurses, or pastoral counselors to do the work of psychotherapy and/or family therapy. The psychiatrist too often deals only with the medication and hospitalization of the patient, focusing on diagnosis, the prescription of drugs, and the medical check-ups on the course of medications.)
Let us conclude this chapter by returning to the discussion of the busy pastor of a congregation. You and your lay leaders have an opportunity to affect the process of care for the dependent person—or for anyone else, for that matter. If you plan to spend from one to five interviews with someone in need, explain this time frame to the parishioner. Then explore the depths of the present despair and the shape of the person's hopes for the future. You can often satisfy the person's need for attention. You can invest confidence in the person's ability to make decisions. You can be a Barnabas, a son or daughter of encouragement.
At the end of a few interviews and assessment, you turn to a network of professionals for referrals, depending on potential problems you see. You might rely on a ready-made network of church members who are professionals—internists and family practice physicians, lawyers, social workers, pastoral counselors, chaplains, and psychiatrists. You can add to this network professionals in the larger community. If you have made it your business to develop such a network, these professionals will become a system of caretakers who come alongside you in the care of your flock.
These few counseling sessions have the potential for effecting great change in the parishioner. Even if change is slow and comes through some channel other than you, the sessions give you personal insight and knowledge of the inner world of the dependent person. After having given such personal and private attention, continue to speak briefly to this person in the course of ordinary church activities. Always encourage his ability to be independent. The conversation is a brief follow-up of the steadfast understanding you have together. You have dropped into step alongside this person in a long pilgrimage into maturity under the tutelage of and dependence on the wisdom of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.
We began this chapter with people who become pests and nuisances. We conclude with people who believe in themselves and trust God. We can listen for the still, small voice that says, "Well done, good and faithful servant."