Building up God’s kingdom together

Bridging the secular/sacred divide in the social and behavioural sciences

January 19, 2011 | Feature | Number 2
By Joe Neufeld |

During the course of an evening of socializing with mostly pastors and deacons at some denominational committee meetings, discussion turned to the roles and practices

of responding to the needs of members of our congregations who were dealing with issues like depression, marriage breakdown and drug abuse.

While each of us had our viewpoints, I quickly got the message that I was the “secular psychologist” and therefore lacked important insights and sensitivity needed to deal with these behavioural problems.

I was somewhat taken aback when I realized that I was not being validated by the group. Despite having graduated from a Mennonite Bible college and having been heavily involved in the work of the church, as a registered psychologist with a Ph.D. in counselling psychology it became clear to me that there were those in the group that had a “sacred” calling and others possibly a “secular” calling.

What makes a career “secular” or “sacred,” or can we speak about an “integrated calling?”

Those with a sacred calling believe they been called of God to a specific field of work. They see it as being distinctive from a secular calling, in that their faith directly informs their practice.

It seems to me that those with a secular calling assess their aptitudes, abilities, interests and values in the selection of a given career or field of work. There is no particular emphasis on this choice being a “spiritual” or a theological calling.

This does not mean, however, that the divine element is missing for those individuals.

Secular/sacred dynamic

Maybe we in the church need to reverse our thinking about those who are “called to ministry” and those who have a different orientation/introduction to working in the church.

I am reminded of Henry Neufeld’s challenge regarding our views of believing and behaving. In his article, “Believe, behave, belong,” April 27, 2009, page 4, he challenged all of us to reverse our church’s formula in addressing the beliefs and behaviours that we practise. He presented a very strong point that we may need to focus more on what we do than on what we believe. He presented compelling arguments in his references to Alan Kreider’s The Origins of Christendom in the West, Jesus’ teachings, and Jewish New Testament writers and rabbis, that what we do has a more profound effect on others than what we believe.

I want to briefly explore this “secular/sacred” dynamic in terms of the church responding to the critical needs and issues emerging in our congregations. Personality disorders, suicide, addiction and family dysfunction are serious concerns, but seem to have taken a back seat to more formal theological concerns such as baptism, missions and discipleship.

Upon examining the themes of the annual assemblies during the last 10 years, it is obvious that formal “theological issues” have received most of the attention. However, I believe that our congregations need more support and direction in coping with the countless psychological and personal crises they are facing.

It may be that the themes chosen—all bearing scriptural references (like last year’s assembly with its key verses from Colossians 3)—were critical at the time and needed to be emphasized. But meanwhile, critical psycho-social issues facing individuals and families in our churches have not received adequate attention.

I am aware that some congregations in Canada have made creative efforts to cope. My observations tell me that we need to approach more of our competent behavioural and social scientists who are employed across Canada, but who are seldom used in the church. One unfortunate message they sometimes pick up is that their “secular” approach to the psycho/social/spiritual problems evident in our communities is somehow less “sacred.”

Maybe our “theological tunnel vision” has negated the contributions that the behavioural and social sciences can potentially make in addressing the concerns and issues that confront our church families. Of great concern is a tendency to “theologize” serious behavioural problems without critical diagnosis. Root causes of maladaptive behaviour need to be identified and treated, and this is where the specialized training of psychologists and psychiatrists are needed.

Integrated models

The inclusion of behavioural research studies of the issues facing our congregations could provide an atmosphere of integrating our faith with behavioural and social science findings. Let me briefly introduce some program models integrating the “secular” and “sacred” approaches that could be implemented in our congregations:

• A therapeutic/healing/caring perspective was developed by Dr. Abe Schmitt and his colleagues in Souderton, Pa., 25 years ago. His book When a Congregation Cares spells out the details of implementing an integrated program  involving theology and psychology that can be adapted to any congregation.

Call for volunteers

The program includes deacons, pastors, psychologists and nurses in meeting the varying needs of a congregation. When the church community becomes aware that some of its members have been identified as addicts or abusers, for instance, it is imperative that a behavioural specialist be consulted for treatment, Schmitt believes. However, this does not rule out the value of prayer, the use of Scripture or the provision of emotional support.

Using this model, Grace Mennonite Church of Regina, Sask., where I am a member, introduced a modified version of this program in which a team made use of pastors, deacons and a registered psychologist approximately 10 years ago.

• Another well-researched and -practised model is that of Dr. David Burns (Ten Days to Self-Esteem, 1993). Burns—a psychologist/therapist with a background in theology and therapy, and a career in the Anglican priesthood—has developed an holistic approach to dealing with self-esteem, depression and stress. He offers a powerful approach that provides hope, compassion and healing for people suffering from low self-esteem and unhappiness.

• Based on my many years of professional practice providing therapeutic services to clients in many settings, I have learned that an effective approach is an integrated model that includes constructs from the social and behavioural sciences with an underlying Anabaptist theology.

The framework for any program includes four phases or dimensions:

• The behavioural phase includes the behaviours that may need to be modified, reinforced, forgiven or discontinued. The behaviour is what we, as individuals, families and the church, need to address. There are behaviours such as divorce, premarital sex or drug abuse that the church has partially addressed using theology as a basis. In most cases, unfortunately, the social and behavioural sciences have been downplayed or ignored.

• The affective domain includes all the feeling and emotions individuals experience in relationship to the behaviours in which they have been, or are, engaged. The emotions may include fear, guilt or anger that trigger the behaviours that cause disruption in our families, churches and communities. There is almost always an incident that triggers positive or negative emotions to which each individual reacts.

• The cognitive domain is basically the use of the intellect, knowledge and thinking processes that enables individuals to choose behaviours to modify their stress-causing factors. In other words, they choose actions to reduce the debilitating behaviours and choose behaviours that can bring about resolution, reconciliation or healing.

• The spiritual domain includes an individual’s basic belief systems, theology or orientation to reacting to life situations. The spiritual foundation is basic to what a person chooses to do, feel, believe or imply in his/her actions and decisions.

Towards an integrated approach

For a congregation to implement an effective program of integrated services, it is imperative that the personnel involved have—in addition to being professionally certified—a sound understanding of the meaning of caring, helping or supporting. A few Greek terms expand the meaning of these concepts:

• Praekaeo means to beseech, exhort, encourage and comfort. The term is used in Romans 12 and 15, and II Corinthians 1, and suggests an interactive style of behaviour.

• Nontheteo means to warm, comfort and admonish. These are all directive verbs used in Romans 14 and 15, and
I Corinthians 4:14.

• Parmutheomaly is another term essential in understanding appropriate action; it means to encourage and cheer up. This also is an interactive type of behaviour.

• Antechomai means to hold fast, to take an interest in, to listen to and to pray for.

• Makroth means to be patient, to listen with love, to comfort or to love. The term is used in Matthew 18 and James 5:7.

These terms, actions or behaviours are helpful concepts that resonate with an Anabaptist theology, and which can be integrated into the behavioural sciences when helping to initiate and motivate behavioural changes.

I encourage our MC Canada leaders and program personnel to give increased attention to the many behavioural crises invading our churches. One practical way would be to begin doing this at our annual assembly sessions. This may require inviting some of the prominent behavioural and social scientists—as well as theologians—to speak to such issues as depression, stress, family dysfunction and other concerns mentioned in this article.

As believers in our Anabaptist churches, we need to make a concerted effort to involve the contributions that can be made by social and behavioural scientists doing research and therapy in these areas. It is my hope that we bridge the artificial wall of separation that divides us into individuals whose work is “secular” and those whose work is “sacred.” Are we not all called to help build up God’s kingdom?

Joe Neufeld of Regina, Sask., is a family counsellor and retired professor of educational and counselling psychology at the University of Regina. He is also the psychologist for his congregation, Grace Mennonite Church.

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