Preaching the Bad News
Is the Therapeutic Gospel turning Christ’s activists into couch potatoes?
By Kristina Robb-Dover
Once upon a time, I was a Gospel-inspired idealist who naively assumed that if you wanted to become a minister, your church would naturally be right there beside you, with the wisest, most effective guidance possible to help you reach your goal.
I was baptized in my sophomore year of college at St. John’s Episcopal Church in New Haven, Conn. What initially attracted me to St. John’s were the depth and beauty of the Anglican liturgy and tradition. The Episcopal Church seemed to be a place where both heart and mind could be fully employed in the worship of God.
The call to Christian ministry came in my mid-twenties. At that time, I was living in Tennessee and had been taking personal enrichment classes at the local seminary, Sewanee School of Theology. I was also leading mission trips to support an orphanage and seminary begun by Anglican Sudanese in a refugee camp in northern Uganda, and found that I had a natural inclination towards preaching and pastoral care.
So, I began an official discernment process with my Episcopal Church in Sewanee. Shortly afterwards, my husband and I were obliged to move to New Jersey, where I had my first taste of the paralyzing red tape that governs Episcopal polity. Because I had not officially become a “candidate” in the discernment process in Tennessee, I was compelled to begin the process all over again, at square one, this time in a new diocese.
Undaunted, I complied. After all, I still had all of the idealism and high hopes of one who has discovered her passion and vocation in life, and I was chomping at the bit to serve God and God’s church. The only thing that was standing in the way, it turned out, was…God’s church. I had been warned about this diocese, a veritable behemoth that could take years to approve you for ministerial service. But I had no idea just what I was in for.
I remember clearly that first visit to headquarters. With a plastic smile, the smartly dressed “Canon for Ministry Development” (“canon” is a fancy term for the bishop’s right-hand person) described a complex Byzantine system of hurdles designed to weed out the undesirables and make absolutely, positively sure that ordination was the path for you. Then she uttered the same lines she undoubtedly repeated to every bright-eyed and bushy tailed candidate: “Trust the process.”
A big part of that process was psychotherapy. Lots of it. The diocese had recommended one to three years of therapy to nearly half of the candidates who had come forward in the last year. Their “calls” would be put on hold, until the psychological evaluations came in. Only then would the diocese decide whether a candidate was truly intended for ordained ministry, or if he or she would be better off selling real estate.
One full year after that first visit, I faced the next challenge in the ordination obstacle course: the dreaded psychological exam. This consisted of a breathtakingly immense packet of forms, from the more standard Myers Briggs personality test, to the Minnesota Multi-Phasic Indicator, or MMPI (intended as a filter to weed out the psychotic killers and child molesters), to a questionnaire asking for spontaneous word associations. Once completed, these forms were dissected and analyzed over two days on a couch with a shrink, who then wrote a report detailing my psychological profile and her recommendations.
I considered myself a fairly normal person, but when, early one morning, I received a frantic call from the psychologist, I got a little scared. In urgent, staccato tones, she informed me that I had left so many questions blank that the test would be difficult to score. I nervously explained that I did not know that I had left that many questions blank, and that I had not known how to answer particular questions, such as “Do you like to flirt?,” with either a “yes” or “no” instead of “maybe.” (The test does not allow “maybe” answers.) Over the phone, we reviewed the unanswered questions and I obediently filled in the blanks with ayes and nays. When the test results came back, I scored well within the “normal” range on the MMPI, meaning I got the all clear on diagnosable manias and/or phobias. What a relief!
The fact that I had grown up in an evangelical missionary home, with a strong father who was conservative about sexual mores, had presented other problems, too. When asked to describe my earliest childhood memory, I had recalled the time my father read J.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” to my brother and me, and we then played a game of “Captain Hook,” my father pretending to be Captain Hook in search of small victims to be tickled. This tidbit of information had elicited an exclamation from the shrink, as if, in mining the deep recesses of my subconscious she had finally seized upon the prized nugget of gold.
“That’s fascinating!” she mused, taking off her horn-rimmed glasses. “The Hobbit is a small, marginalized creature trying to assert himself, and Captain Hook is a strong, patriarchal and oppressive figure.” Somehow, in the innocent recollection of a childhood memory, I had succeeded in painting my father as an ogre whose oppressive regime I had tried to overthrow.
This discovery led to a diagnosis of “slightly repressed anger and sexuality issues.” Thank God the therapist had the cure: a couple years in psychotherapy with a “seasoned male therapist” with whom I could “work out” my feelings of sexual attraction. (Apparently, the “do not commit adultery” commandment is not binding for future ministers and their therapists.) This prescription of a couple years of therapy was not a terrible shock. Apparently 98.5 percent of those tested by my Freudian inquisitor are prescribed therapy for various “issues.”
Now all this therapy may sound like a lot, but it was actually a minimum sentence. I felt lucky; despite slight elevations (within the normal range) of anger and sexuality, I was encouraged to continue forward towards ordination while undertaking therapy. There would be no need for a delay.
I figured the Commission on Ministry, a body of clergy charged with the task of discerning future ministers, would naturally concur. Wrong again! After a 45-minute interview, two members of the Commission, complete strangers, concluded that while it was possible that God was calling me to ordained ministry, I should first spend two years in therapy for unspecified “issues” and then come back again. By this time the message was clear: therapy, not spiritual discernment, was the ultimate litmus test of a call to ordained ministry.
But I was not alone. In fact, each of the seven candidates who came before the Commission on Ministry had received the same prescription. Four of us were “novices,” i.e. new to the workings of the therapeutic gospel. The other three, who qualified as “old timers,” had gotten the message some years before, and were back after spending time on the couch, as directed! One old timer I spoke with had been sentenced to three years of therapy for “unspecified” issues; after serving her time she was now out and ready to try her luck again.
I had joined the Episcopal Church to worship at the high altar of God. Now I found out that the Episcopal Church was worshipping at the high altar of psychotherapy! I was disgusted. Or, in psychotherapeutic lingo, my scores in the anger category were significantly elevated! But please do not mistake this anger for a general aversion to therapists. As one who has been helped by therapy before, I recognize that psychology has a legitimate place in the church. However, when therapy and not spiritual direction becomes the preferred vehicle of discernment, psychology has overstepped its bounds and the church runs the risk of becoming little more than a therapeutic support group, forsaking her one, defining mark, namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Good News,” which used to be the Gospel, becomes self-actualization on a couch. “Redemption” disintegrates into regular sessions with a shrink, and our savior becomes not Christ but Freud, who viewed religion as nothing more than the projection of deep-seated fears and desires—the “universal, obsessional neurosis of humanity.”
What if we were to read Scripture through these therapeutic lenses? Take, for instance, the call of the disciples. As the story currently reads, when Jesus summons his disciples to follow him, he tells them to drop everything and follow him. The call of the Good News is urgent. It cannot wait. It is a matter of life and death. So, Peter, Andrew, James, and John leave their nets immediately and follow Jesus, according to Mark’s gospel (1:16-20).
After a little therapeutic reconditioning, however, I read the story differently. Jesus, with his all-or-nothing summons to obedience, appears to have some control issues, and the disciples are co-dependents who could use some help in the area of establishing boundaries. And how come Jesus didn’t use better criteria in selecting the disciples? He should have asked them to spend several years with a shrink and then get back to him—hopefully in time for key highlights of the story, like his death and resurrection. The proclamation of the therapeutic gospel is clear: God only employs as ministers those who have all of their “issues” sorted out, and those, moreover, who can afford the not inexpensive, weekly therapy sessions to accomplish this. Is it any wonder that the Episcopal Church has such a hard time attracting socioeconomic diversity?
What about the whole notion that following Jesus really means following Jesus to the cross? What would the therapeutic gospel have to say about that? Nothing too positive, I suspect. Forgetting one’s “issues” to follow Jesus to the cross is a sure warning sign of mental instability or an ensuing breakdown. In fact, if the therapeutic gospel had its way, Jesus himself would have been committed for dangerous levels of self-denial, bordering on suicidal impulses. After all, anyone who maintains that “those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life will keep it for eternal life,” clearly has not discovered the transformative effects of self-actualization.
Perhaps the Episcopal Church has discovered those effects—in a steady decline in membership since the mid-20th century, with the heaviest “shrinkage” (pun intended) occurring in Northeastern dioceses. Meanwhile, there is little to suggest that the therapeutic gospel has improved the spiritual health and ministerial effectiveness of Episcopal clergy. The rates of burnout and breakdown remain high, even when many ministers now lighten their loads by referring parishioners to—you guessed it—therapists.
In short, the therapeutic gospel is a tried and untrue solution. It will never meet the deep, abiding desire for restored relationship with God and fellow human beings that only the Gospel answers. If therapy becomes the single criterion for future ministers of the Episcopal Church, we will be preaching a gospel other than the one to which we have been called. That will mean the sacrifice of the one thing that defines us as a people of God.
As for me, I cut my losses in the Episcopal Church and spent two years at Princeton Theological Seminary, where I received my Masters in Divinity in May of this year and ended up “going Presbyterian,” to a church that has a much more efficient and accountable system of polity. An ordination process that in the Episcopal Church would have taken at least six-and-a-half years takes roughly two years in the Presbyterian Church. To me, that is not only much more reasonable but much more faithful to the intrinsic mission of Christianity. There are a whole lot of needs out there, and more than enough ways in which the Church can and should be making a difference. My message to the Episcopal Church is un-therapeutically simple: Life is too short to waste that much of it in self-absorbed navel gazing. It’s time to move off of the couch and into a world so desperately in need of some real Good News—the kind that saves and has been saving for centuries.
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Kristina Robb-Dover currently resides with her husband, Paul, and her dog, Carter (named after Jimmy Carter) in Atlanta, Ga., where she is preparing for ordination in the Presbyterian Church and will be working as a chaplain at Emory University Hospital.
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