In May, Drs Robi and Noleen Sonderegger, both clinical psychologists, taught the pastoral care staff of City Harvest Church a three-day course on how to help those who hurt through an understanding of how the mind and heart work.
In providing pastoral care or counseling, church workers have traditionally relied on methods influenced by their own preferences and experience.
While fully acknowledging the importance of deliverance ministry and divine intervention, clinical psychologist Dr Robi Sonderegger suggested a structured framework for the pastoral staff at City Harvest Church, both to provide a more holistic, effective standard of care as well as to avoid unnecessary legal disputes—a noteworthy concern in an increasingly litigious society.
For the first time, Sonderegger, a regular speaker at CHC, shared the stage with his wife and fellow clinical psychologist, Dr Noleen Sonderegger, in a three-day masterclass held from May 20 to 22. In between some lively role-playing and much humor, they laid a Biblically-centered, evidence-based and outcome-oriented foundation for pastoral care workers to address behavorial and emotional disorders.
The Sondereggers specialize in trauma rehabilitation, especially among child soldiers and war victims in Africa. Through their programs, tens of thousands have found reconciliation and restoration both in their communities and within themselves.
Here are some highlights of the masterclass.
Understanding The Role Of The Pastoral Care Worker
In a nutshell, pastoral care is all about pointing people toward Jesus.
Pastoral care workers should remember that they are not the problem fixer but merely the guide accompanying somebody on their journey of change. They are like the passenger reading the map in a car, with the person being ministered to being the driver; the former plays a guiding role, but it is the latter who is in control of making the change.
Asking the question “What do you want to do about it?” helps put the responsibility on the person seeking change, giving no room for him to blame others. Phrases like “It’s all her fault,” “He needs to change, not me,” effectively disempowers the person from being able to make changes. Autonomy is one of the fastest ways for someone to arrive at their destination.
This is not to be confused with independence, however. The pastoral care worker’s role includes helping the person move from a place of independence—“I’ve tried everything but failed”—to one of interdependence with other parties and, ultimately, dependence on God.
Embarking On The Journey Toward Change
How does a pastoral care worker bring a person to a state of readiness for change, or a place where they are ready to take personal responsibility?
According to the Sondereggers, there are six steps:
This is typically the starting point for most people. They are aware of a dysfunction or disorder in their lives, but are not ready to take responsibility for it. At this point, the counselor or pastoral care worker merely helps to define the problem, e.g. a contentious relationship between husband and wife.
Here, the person is thinking about the possibility of changing themselves. Asking “So what are you going to do about it?” may trigger the realization “Maybe I can be more encouraging of my wife instead of criticizing what she’s not doing right,” through the following:
– Do a self-rating: How do you think you are functioning in this area of your life? (1 being poorly, 10 being very well)
– If you could bring about a transformation
- What would this transformation look like, i.e the vision? “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”- Proverbs 29:18
- Why do you want it? The “why” speaks of the heart, the motivation behind the desire for change; it is also a good indicator of the person’s readiness for change. (This principle applies to parenting as well; get to the heart of the matter. If you capture the heart of the child, you will capture the behavior. Parent the heart, not the behavior. E.g. explaining the “why” behind the need for good manners—“because a child of this household bears the good name of the family and carries himself well,” Focus not on what the child should and should not do, but who they are and who they have the potential to be.)
- When does the person want to see change? This is one of the hardest questions to elicit a response; when he is able to pinpoint a date, the dream becomes a potential reality.
- How will you know if you have achieved it? This question helps the person to see the potential reality in his mind; what the mind can conceive, the person can achieve.
The above four “W”s and one “H” also helps guard against sidetracking; at some points, the pastoral care worker may be sidetracked by the person being ministered to or accused of not helping. Sometimes, all that person needs is a listening ear.
The person agrees to take action to improve things; the pastoral care worker helps him to anticipate what will happen if things do not happen favorably with the other party, and vice versa: “If I change, what could go wrong?”
The person starts to make changes in his own communication with his wife. At this point, the pastoral care worker needs to reassure him that taking the right action may not always result in success, i.e. the couple may relapse into quarrels or fights. What is important is that the person is trying. Guilt and shame are the greatest precursors to a relapse.
At this point, “fruits” start to appear. The relationship between husband and wife may improve.
The person has reached the place he aimed for.
However, a pastoral care worker need not only step into the picture when there is a crisis. Through early intervention, they can re-route footsteps headed for disaster. One way is to differentiate between the habit and addiction in an individual’s lifestyle. Three questions to ask that help gauge if it is merely habit or an addiction: Who is in control? Is mental stability affected? Is it becoming destructive or is it impacting daily function?
In order to jumpstart the engine for change, there needs to be trust between the pastoral care worker and the person being ministered to; a heart connection between the two is important, so that the latter does not feel like he is being preached at. Just as the enemy’s power is in secrecy, a transparent relationship helps to bring things into the open for change.
In building a relationship of trust, one can conduct a motivational interview based on O.P.E.N:
O: Ask open-ended questions i.e questions that are not answered merely with a “yes” or “no.”
P: Paraphrase what the person has spoken; it does not necessarily mean agreement with what he has said, but
E: Engage the motivation; is the motivation a positive or a negative one?
Positive motivation (e.g. “I love my kid and I want to be a good mother”) vs. negative motivation (e.g. “I don’t want to lose my temper at my kid all the time”).
Negative motivation pricks the conscience and helps one embark on the path toward change, but it is the positive motivation that gets a person across the finishing line.
Psychologists explain that what you focus on, you will get more of. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”- Philippians 4:8
N: Neatly summarize
In order to embark on the process of change, help the person to see the overall picture and his or her contribution to the cycle of unfavorable circumstances.
Providing Spiritual Support—Everything Is Spiritual
For a pastoral care worker and the believer he or she is ministering to, everything is spiritual—not in the sense that there is a spirit behind the problem (some disorders are caused by a psychological/ chemical imbalance in the body) but in that there is an answer to every problem in the Bible.
It is not belief in God that benefits a person who has suffered a traumatic experience; it is belief in a God who cares that makes the difference.
One of the most important roles of the pastoral care worker is to help someone deal with disappointment. However, getting disappointed is not the issue; it is how we deal with it. Even God had disappointments, but He covered it with love.
In the Sondereggers’ trauma rehabilitation work among war victims, they noted that people who were able to make the most significant recovery demonstrated five characteristics common in resilient people. These people were able to bounce back from a setback, no matter how traumatic:
- Faith in a God who cares
- Kindness: turning the spotlight on others
- Courage to pick oneself up
Christ may not always get us out of our circumstances but He will always get us through it, say the Sondereggers.
Remind the person to “ … take every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5), and this means negative thoughts. Bitterness at God will grow roots in the heart if it is left to fester. Let him or her that it is okay to have expectations, but one should not put those expectations in circumstance but in God alone. As it says in Isaiah 29:43, “the one who hopes in Me won’t be ashamed.”
Having Divine Dialogues
One of the pastoral care workers’ greatest privileges is that they get to incorporate prayer into their ministering. Encourage the person to draw close to God through prayer, and tell them that they should expect to hear from God.
There may be blockages to prayer, however: a root of bitterness and/or unforgiveness in the heart, and disobedience—refusing to make a change or struggling with fear and doubt.
Another role of the pastoral care worker is to help restore intimacy with God in the person’s life—intimacy being the ability to be in God’s presence without shame. The aim is to get relational with God, not super-spiritual.
There are three basic ingredients to hearing from God:
1) Ask. God is a responsive God. He has promised that those who ask will receive, and those who look shall find (Matthew 7:7).
2) Trust. Trust that God will, and does, speak. “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”- Hebrews 11:6
3) Act. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”- James 1:22. Oftentimes it will be messy and challenging, but as a pastoral care worker, you have the privilege of walking alongside them.
Reordering Dysfunctional Thoughts
When counseling someone with dysfunctional thoughts (thoughts that are neither helpful nor true), it is not enough to tell the person to just change his or her thoughts. While conventional psychology prescribes re-orientating and restructuring the dysfunctional thought, Sonderegger advocates the re-shaping of the person’s belief in order to change his thoughts.
Likening the thought to the tip of an iceberg, Sonderegger taught that undergirding the thought is a belief (the submerged part of the iceberg); when thought is infused with emotion, it becomes a belief. In order to alter the thought, the belief has to be changed.
Giving the scenario of a depressed person who, after being fired, is reluctant to apply for work, Sonderegger recommended that pastoral care workers first identify the ABCs of the belief:
A: Activating event: what was the event that triggered the thought? E.g “retrenchment”
B: What the belief is: e.g “I don’t measure up,” “I’m not good enough,” etc.
C: Consequence of the thought; e.g. finding a job vs staying unemployed.
He proposes three ways to dislodge the wrong beliefs by challenging dysfunctional thoughts which typically manifest in the form of over-generalization, jumping to conclusions and cognitive distortion.
1) Rational disputation: Find evidence to support the new framework of thought. The three types of evidence include:
Pastoral care worker: “How did you do at your former workplace?”
Person: “Good, I had no complaints from my customers or superiors.”
Such a conversation lets the person look at observational things that challenge his belief.
Pastoral care worker: “If you were to get a job, what would you need to do?”
Pastoral care worker: “What’s the consequence of not applying for jobs?”
When the person arrives at his own conclusion, he is less defensive and more receptive of the change.
2) Emotive framework
Find out the underlying emotion and defuse its severity. Ask “What’s the worst thing that could happen if you apply yourself to looking for a job?” The person might answer: a fear of rejection and come to realize that the worst case scenario would be to end up where he presently is, with everything to gain and nothing to lose if he starts looking.
Encourage them to take specific action e.g. upgrade themselves and boost their confidence.
Quoting an eminent researcher, Dr John Gottman of the Gottman Institute, who specializes in marital issues, Sonderegger highlighted four unique characteristics—the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”—that destroy marriages. These characteristics are highly predictive—90 percent of couples who exhibit these traits end up in divorce.
- Criticism: over-generalization of a person’s faults and actions.
- Contempt: the opposite of respect, having a very negative view of your partner, acting or speaking with the intention to harm or hurt.
- Defensiveness: seeing oneself as the victim in the situation, or retaliating by giving the other party the same thing they feel they have themselves received
- Stonewalling: becoming withdrawn or unresponsive to the other party
Contrary to conventional belief, infidelity is typically not the cause but the result of an unhealthy marriage.
A good marriage is a union between two forgivers, not necessarily between two people who have never wronged each other, says Sonderegger. He gave the example of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus when He was arrested—because there was love and forgiveness, Peter was restored in his soul and spirit, and eventually became the great apostle instead of traveling down the same path as Judas, who also betrayed the Lord but found no redemption from his actions.
Four steps to build resilience in a marriage:
- Making a choice: Find small moments to make a heart connection with the other party without getting defensive. With the connection comes trust, an essential ingredient for transparency.
- Take personal responsibility: “So what am I going to do about it?”
- Be understanding: Try to be understanding even if you don’t understand the other party’s point of view.
- Friendship: One of the most startling pieces of statistics—couples who pray together have a 0.008 percent chance of ending in divorce.
When a marriage is on the path of reconciliation, where there has been hurt and betrayal, just a “sorry” from the other party does not heal. Healing is only found at the altar of God, says Sonderegger. Like when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and called upon the family members and friends to “roll away the stone”, we are responsible for rolling away the stone from our hearts by forgiving or reconciling with the other party, but Jesus is the one who brings forth life once again.
During the last segment of the three-day masterclass, a Q&A session, the Sondereggers gave their stand on several issues, including trial separation between couples—”Why not try a “trial marriage instead?” asked Sonderegger—and homosexuality. In response to the question of how parents should react when they find out that their child is gay, Sonderegger suggests that they should not treat them any differently. Asking a question like “So will you be home for dinner?” is a good starting point to assure the child that he or she is not loved any less, he explained. Conversely, the same house rules (e.g. “Can my partner sleep over?”) applies to this child as with the other children.
As for instances whereby the pastoral care worker is to give his stand on controversial issues, e.g. homosexuality, Sonderegger advises that one should not be lured into unprofitable debate, but to be mindful of what one’s role is: theologian or pastoral care minister?
He also reiterated the need for clear and detailed journaling of the correspondence between the pastoral care worker and the person being ministered to. Keeping clear and detailed notes helps one to better review the risk factors faced by the person being ministered to, in the event of legal or medical intervention.
Drs Robi and Noleen Sonderegger’s masterclasses will be available on DVD soon from The Ink Room. Watch this space.