The Crunch for Leaders in a Therapeutic Age
On changing words and changing worlds and a gesture forward.
The therapeutic seems to be the only language we know. This is a problem — not only for a person who holds faith in Jesus in the pews, but also especially for pastors and Christian leaders.
As I’ve engaged the topic of the therapeutic (see this on the loss of wonder and this as a first pass/broad overview and why we can’t get to forgiveness in a therapeutic age), the “therapeutic” has less to do with an individual going to therapy (which can be helpful), and more to do with the way that the “therapeutic” has become the language we use for growth.The language of therapy (perhaps more than the practice of going to therapy) is our default modern tongue. Gone are ‘archaic’ words like sanctification, sin, holiness, or mercy. Here to stay are words like: self-care, vulnerable, live your truth, abuse, toxic, and shame.
These words are not bad in their own right and many have shed light on how we understand the interplay of body, mind, soul, heart and the complex stories of generations and places. But, they cannot be the primary grid through which we conceive of spiritual health.
The older words are not gone of course but they feel less applicable, less punchy (and less splashy in a square grid quote) in an era of rapidly evolving algorithms, a loneliness epidemic, increased mental health challenges for young people (and all of us) and a sense of disorientation, decision fatigue, and rapidly changing understandings of the self and a “good life.” Instead of these older-sounding words, we see more language couched in the vernacular of the therapeutic. My concern is how these words — especially delivered instantaneously en masse online — shape us.
These therapeutic words, I’d describe, as maternal-sounding words — where we are to focus on care, gentleness, or to “speak our truth” — (but they only ever sound like the hushed lullaby of maternal song and never like the actual mothers whose “Where have you been?!” is a call to repentance when you were off being stupid). They only give us one side and in so doing, give us a truncated view of growth. Even living things must be pruned not coddled.
And when words change, it matters. I love a good romp through etymology like any nerdy PhD. On the word “therapeutic” we read here:
therapeutic (adj.) pertaining to the healing of disease, 1640s, probably shortened from therapeutical (c.1600), from Mod.L. therapeuticus "curing, healing," from Gk. therapeutikos, from therapeutes "one ministering," from therapeutein "to cure, treat," of unknown origin, related to therapon (gen. therapontos) "attendant." Therapeutic was used from 1540s as a noun meaning "the branch of medicine concerned with treatment of disease."
‘Therapeutic’ as a word connotes healing, attention, curing, and ministering. It is primarily something that happens alongside another and was concerned chiefly with the healing of diseases. Interestingly the etymology of the word minister, besides defining an ecclesiastical role, also includes this from the 1300s: "an agent acting for a superior, one who acts upon the authority of another."I see no sense of subordination around the origin of “therapeutic;” therapeutic it seems — at least in our day and age — to be a companioning. Ministering, on the other hand, requires a hierarchy and guardrails. Someone who ministers does so in the name of another. A minister is deeply accountable.
This is not to say there is no purpose of any sort of companioning spiritual work. But it is a different sort of work than ministering. And, I’ll note, when this companioning work happens in the no-place of the internet, it’s often disastrous. When companioning is quiet, it can be transformative.
What does all this talk about language and words matter? How we speak about things of course influences how we understand them. If we are so formed by the language of the therapeutic, I believe we will not be translating the grand story of redemption into the words of the people (as we see Paul do in Acts 17) but instead we will start with the language of the therapeutic and then interpret the grand story of redemption through it. This has implications for our leaders especially.
And here we come to the on-the-ground crunch for the Christian who has committed herself or himself to a local body of believers, called the Christian church. Belonging requires submission and this also requires particularity. For instance, to be actually married and a mother, I must love my actual husband in his particularity and my actual children, rather than a figment of what I imagine them to be. This, then, has consequences on my time, my money, my affection, my work in the world. Rather than state that these limits on my time make me less me, they make me more me — precisely because they enfold me into a larger web of belonging.
For, church, too, we must wed ourselves to the specific. A church is located in a particular town, suburb or city. It’s made up of flesh-and-blood people across lines of difference in ethnicity, socio-economic status, gender, personalities and hobbies. And a Christian is also joined to the invisible church from every tribe, tongue and nation across time and space. What holds the church together is the person and work of Jesus, the proclamation of the gospel, and the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has said he will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. And those ministers of this gospel are accountable, “acting on the authority of another.” It is this language that they must firstly proclaim.
For a Christian (leader or otherwise) to actually practice this sort of belonging requires a submission, a limiting of all the possible options, by committing oneself to a people, in good times and bad, trusting that the goodness of God will prevail. This may feel like death to the modern woman and man.
What I am concerned about is that the only lens we have on the story of the Bible is a therapeutic one. And those tasked with the proclamation of this message — the pastors and leaders in our midst — are to act as bridges to the culture, like Paul, without capitulating to the cultural trends. Such a threading of the needle is challenging at any time, but especially so when authority seems to only be found within the self.
Let me break this down practically. You’ve no doubt seen the studies — pastors and leaders burnt out, not sure how to proceed amongst a million cultural taboos and landmines, where folks to the right of them think of them as communists and folks to the left of them think of them as neanderthals. And if you haven’t, comment and I’ll link them. (Part of this in-betweenness is part of ministry, never fitting neatly into any Venn diagram.) But given this reality of not knowing how to thread the needle or knowing exactly where to step to avoid a cultural grenade going off isn’t helping these leaders.
Leaders, and pastors particularly, can be paralyzed by the challenge of leading in a therapeutic age because all of us are being formed by the language of a therapeutic age. We are conditioned to want soothing. We are not formed to want holiness.
And while it is imperative for leaders to speak out against abuse, to be a house of refuge for those without power or a voice — there is, too, another side. When that is the extent of our vocabulary, when all we have is the language of the therapeutic to describe our experience, we do not allow ministers to actually minister. We cut them off at the knees because the hard truths of the gospel do not feel good. And they are tasked with both the gentle welcome of Christ and the hard truths of a broken world (including our own hearts).
What are we to do with the parts in the Bible we do not understand? The ones that grate upon our modern sensibilities? The parts where God seems inscrutable, mean or unfair? Are we to cage him in the language of the therapeutic? In the language of the therapeutic, we’ve been lead to think that if something is hard, if it hurts, it is therefore bad. Sometimes, yes, but no, not always.
Yes, you are made in the image of God, the very crown of creation and it is from here we begin to tell our grand and beautiful story. It must start here. But yet this is equally true: sin has so seeped into the pores of who we are, that we are hopelessly tangled, hopelessly dead, and it is only the goodness, the sacrifice, the resurrection of Jesus — the one who ministered always in the name of another, of the Father — that can move us from dead to alive.
No amount of self-care or being gentle with oneself will make us desperate for rescue. We need much more than soothing: we need saving.
Back to the ministers — the ones deeply accountable for this gospel message. Theirs is a calling of companioning, but also (perhaps more radically now) of proclamation. The gospel is a “stumbling block” in all ages, and yet perhaps this is the stumbling block of our age: we’ve been so mollified, so conditioned to the language of a therapeutic age, that proclamation can be lumped into a sliding scale of abuse.
For every abusive leader there are many, many more who aren’t. There are ministers who are immature. Who need to grow. Who need some years under their belt, to feel consequences, who need to repent, and who need to grow in emotional maturity. Just like all of us. But most of them did not go into vocational ministry to make a buck or to wield their power over others; they did so because of being so captured by the goodness of God they couldn’t help but proclaim His goodness. They were rescued. They wanted to bring others in to that story.
So what to do? We must at least notice our language. We must notice how we spend our time online; how the language of the therapeutic age creates the terms we turn to and if these words have become shibboleths, things we do not speak against for fear of an angry mob. Yes, these words can be helpful. But they are not the only path of wisdom. Let us return to the word of God. Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing. Let us dig in to the limits and particularities of our lives, and, of the church.
Let the leaders make mistakes. Let them repent. Let them have your forgiveness. How ever else will we look any different?
Be sure to share and subscribe! If you’d like to think together charitably, I’d love to hear your comments.
If you missed it, on the podcast we’ve had Gem Fadling on your thought life (Episode 134) and Angie Ward on Kingdom and Country (Episode 133).
I’ve appreciated the dialogue around issues of “the therapeutic” from Jake Meador on his Mere Orthodoxy blog here and here, and Mike Cosper. What ends up happening on the online public sphere is that we pit one another against one another, always endlessly splitting hairs. That is not my intention. The questions I’m concerned about asking have to do with the broad cultural waters we swim in online and in person (as individuals and communities).
Photo by Theo Crazzolara on Unsplash
appreciate your thoughts Ashley. I just wrote something about the same issue (https://onceaweek.substack.com/p/ theologians-call-things-what-they) and find Eric Johnson and the vision of Christian psychology to be an incredibly helpful guide. I'm new to your work but intrigued by your title “Beauty Leads the Way”. Have you read The Ethics of Beauty by Timothy Patitsas? He has some helpful (if at times overstated) critiques of modern psychotherapy from an Orthodox “beauty first” perspective. If we are able to move beyond the back-and-forth critique (of which my article is guilty, but I do believe it’s necessary at times) and do the positive work of a distinctly Christian psychology, the heritage of Christian soul care can help us greatly. I believe this is especially the case with the Eastern Orthodox tradition (eg the Philokalia), because it maintains a biblical focus on beauty first rather than truth or goodness first. I personally don’t think we’ll make a lot of progress if our focus remains on the level of language, because our social imaginary (eg the “therapeutic”) is deeper than that. We need a vision of healthy shepherding (eg vision of beauty, representation and imitation of Jesus) more than we need a critique of sinful shepherding (which gets stuck on what is true/false and good/evil, necessary as those questions are).