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We Don’t Help People –– We Help Them Help Themselves

The Theory and Practice of Ministry
We Don’t Help People –– We Help Them Help Themselves
By Howard Stringfellow, Archdeacon, Diocese of Bethlehem
16 December 2009

Some weeks ago the Daughters of the King invited me to become their Chaplain. This development was not anticipated, but I agreed to accept their truly sincere invitation. Then my internal debate began. I am comfortable opening the door to it.

The Daughters probably don’t know that the seminary training (entitled ‘The Theory and Practice of Ministry’) in pastoral care I had was (how shall I put this?) a course taught by a gaggle of professors whose expertise lay elsewhere and whose syllabus was charted by personal reminiscences rather than by anything approaching the normative content of Pastoral Care, an academic field as well-defined as any, replete with bibliographies, histories, surveys of the literature, and abstracts. When this concern arose, I saw it to be a growth opportunity, and opportunity to function up and to take responsibility for what the seminary didn’t teach. This is nothing new: I’ve been doing this since graduation. Secondly, the Daughters had seen something in me for which they, too, had decided to be responsible. We are in this relationship together. The prospects for this new ministry were looking up. I’ll do my part as best I can.

Then the “help” issue came to mind. This is a tough one to describe effectively. It’s a minority view, certainly; it’s a view that can trigger disagreement, misunderstanding, conflict, and even resentment. I can show you my scars. Years of practice and reflection are required to keep these results at bay. Holding this view reminds me of believing that New York pizza is just fine and then serving it—in Chicago where they enjoy a different pie altogether. It’s a view that empowers an undertow; it’s a view that can be a flashpoint.

Chaplains, by vocation, help people. Helping is a high expectation of them as they are generally understood to function. Do I need to explain to the Daughters that when helping people comes up, I look in a slightly different direction?

What I try to do is perceive a person’s responsibility and functioning fairly, and then ask, if needed, why someone isn’t stepping up. This is a version of Benedictine practice: a rule is set, and when the rule is broken, one asks why and goes as deeply as necessary in search of the answer. The result is an improvement in following the rule. Chaplains, on the other hand, look for hurting people and then give them the attention they need or want or both. The bigger the hurt, the more attention the Chaplain gives. Greater attention can be given according to other factors as well, such as how obstreperous a person can be if he doesn’t get the amount of attention he feels is his right or whether the person is a substantial donor.

But I approach the role of Chaplain or giver of pastoral care from a different perspective, admittedly from a minority point of view. A request for help is an invitation to create a triangle. First, there’s the person making the request. Second, there is a person, an experience, a fear, a limitation, a parental influence, an automatic behavior—something—that has enough power over the person to hinder the person from meeting her or his own needs. The person, by asking for help, attempts to alleviate or to work around the stress or anxiety that exists between her or him and the hindrance by bringing someone else in (the Chaplain or whomever) who will stand up to the something, whatever it is, and save the person from working through that stress or anxiety.

And so, requests for help, invitations to create a triangle, have to be evaluated carefully. What is the something, the hindrance, that keeps the person from functioning well on her own? Why has he given it the power he has given it? What role can the Chaplain take that at one time both decreases the power of the something and increases the maturity and responsibility of the person? There are ways to do these things, but I submit that they move in a different direction from reinforcing the hindrance and from giving the attention the person expects. The ways move in the direction of liberating the person from the hindrance and of setting the person free from the sense of being stuck which led the person to seek help in the first place. For some people, this medicine is too strong. It’s not easy. It takes very hard work and a lot of time. It can be a lot more costly than just getting someone else to take care of it. We don’t help people—we help them help themselves.

Some Chaplains fall into the trap of the triangle, and some even exploit the triangle’s flexibility to increase the power of the hindrance over the person and simultaneously increase the person’s dependence on the Chaplain. Some Chaplains, let’s call them wolves in sheep’s clothing, do this quite consciously and deliberately. They get to play savior and devour the sheep at the same time. Most Chaplains, however, function in this way only unconsciously. I can just say that the triangle, worked in this fashion, is basically unhealthy for all people involved in it.

The resolution given me for this “help” concern was rather like that of the first one. The Daughters found me. In this relationship, in this Chaplaincy, I plead that I was like Moses, who was tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro (Exodus 3:1); Gideon, who was beating out wheat in the winepress and trying to hide it from the Midianites (Judges 6:11); the Virgin Mary, who, we are simply told, was engaged to a man whose name was Joseph (Luke 1:27); and others in the Scriptures: I was quite literally minding my own business when the request came. They and I have felt our way along in our conversation, and I expect that all of us will grow closer and grow in the measure of the full stature of Christ.

The Service of Installation was held at The Church of the Good Shepherd in Scranton on Advent 3. Good Shepherd does not have a Chapter of the Daughters, and I hope that women there will sense a call to form one. Father Joe De Acetis, the former Chaplain, preached, and I offered the Eucharist. Several Daughters who planned to attend could not do so because of the inclement weather. The Handbook of the Daughters that includes the Installation has me promise to be a spiritual guide, to provide pastoral care, to be a person who gives support, and to aid in maintaining the group. I interpret this last to mean to aid in the maintenance of the healthy functioning of the group, as I am sure you now understand.

I think you now know what I mean by that as well as how I propose to go about it with God’s help.

[The Ven. Howard Stringfellow is Archdeacon for the Diocese of Bethlehem and supply priest for Good Shepherd Scranton]

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