When troubled people seek guidance from the church, should they hear the same advice they'd receive from a secular counselor? A practicing psychologist and director of a center for psychospiritual health, Benner explores the role of the church in "soul care," advocating a method of counseling that anchors modern therapy in timeless biblical principles. 256 pages, softcover from Baker.
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In "Care of Souls," Benner proposes to explain "soul care" in its totality. He does so by examining the ideal characteristics of soul care providers, presenting his own definition of "dialogue," and explaining in detail the distinctiveness of "Christian spirituality." Unlike typical counseling techniques, Benner suggests that "providers of soul care" ought to offer "judicious advice, suggestions or offerings of direction" (155). He reasons that if dialogue is based on an "authentic relationship of care" then offering "ideas" and "suggestions" are expected (155).
I found the "seven characteristics of Christian soul care" helpful because I used the list to measure my own "qualifications" (207). Benner states that soul care providers should be "spiritually mature," which includes descriptors such as "personal holiness" and "well-developed habits of prayer" (209). The term "personal holiness" seems vague because it might be misconstrued as "holier than thou." The "demands of Christian soul care" are realistic and should be expected from all "soul care" providers (212). I think counselees expect (and deserve to get) truthfulness from the counselor; and counselors should "continue to grow" through continuing education, but more importantly they should continue to grow in their relationship with Christ in order to remain effective in their Christian counseling practices (213).
I found Benner's presentation of the future dilemma of "soul care" to be very troubling. According to Benner, soul care is not clinical or therapeutic (in the secular sense). Even though it is not clinical, soul care that is provided by a lay counselor will be seen as "substandard" and if it is promoted as "distinctly Christian," it will not be taken seriously (215). Based on Benner's suppositions, a soul care ministry would never work. His statement bothers me since this is the type of ministry I would like to start at church.
Although Benner's section "Preparing for Soul Care" is meant for people who will receive care, I think there were helpful suggestions that care providers should do for themselves. For instance, Benner recommends the practice of self-reflection (or "contemplative prayer"). This is where a person can "sit in God's presence" by allowing Him to "fill" one's consciousness thus enabling "psychospiritual growth" to happen (231). This seems like a fancy way of saying that persons ought to have personal devotions and meditate on God's Word-something soul care providers should be doing. Benner also suggests writing a "soul care autobiography" whereby a person can assess how "internal reality" matches with "external behavior" (232).
Providing soul care should be taken very seriously, in fact Benner lists seven "challenges" for those who wish to provide this type of care. Two challenges resonated with me: "Guard against the erosion of the personal in such care" and "avoid sacrificing being on the alter of doing" (216). Sometimes I forget that soul care is different from "traditional counseling." In a traditional counseling situation, friendship is not encouraged or developed-there is a "professional attitude" that keeps the relationship very business-like (216). From my understanding of Benner's stance, "professionalism" (one-sided approach to counseling) is discouraged because he believes the caregiver and receiver are "mutually" caring for each other (217). I tend to think that if someone seeks care, then the person is probably not very capable of giving care, so "mutual care" is not realistic.
Doing ministry due to an obligation, or forgetting the reason why one does ministry (to serve God) is probably a common problem for soul care providers, who are concerned about providing good care and meeting the needs of others. Ministry may start to feel like a chore. If the other "challenges" are met, then the focus of ministry will always be evident and soul care providers will never be drained of their "inner psychospiritual resources" nor neglect the "formative and transforming power" of the gospel (216). These challenges are good reminders for all counselors and soul care providers.
Benner's sub-title clearly delineates his purpose: "Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel." As a practicing Christian psychologist, author, and trainer of lay, pastoral, and professional counselors, Benner's purpose in writing "Care of Souls" is "to make a contribution to the recovery of distinctively Christian soul care by developing an understanding of such care that can be of practical help to those involved in providing it to others" (p. 16). In his first two chapters, Benner contrasts historical Christian soul care and spiritual direction with the modern rise of what he calls "therapeutic" soul care--secular psychology's movement into the field. These opening chapters describe the tension and set the tenor for the rest of the book. How do Christians reclaim the mantle of soul care? How do they practice it effectively? Benner is neither nave nor is he a psychology basher. He carefully yet courageously charges into the battle lines, discussing psychology and spirituality, body and soul, psychology and religion, and the like. Perhaps his most interesting and insightful chapter in this section is his analysis of Christian spirituality. His chart on page 94 and the ensuing discussion on the four main ways of experiencing God, though not totally novel, are well-explained and applied. The second half of "Care of Souls" moves from this more technical, philosophical discussion to a more practical application. Here, among other topics, Benner discusses dialogue and dreams in soul care. He also outlines various types of Christian soul care such as psychotherapy, pastoral counseling, and lay counseling. As an introductory text for the Christian student of pastoral counseling and Christian counseling, "Care of Souls" is excellent.Reviewer: Dr. Robert W. Kellemen is the author of "Soul Physicians" and "Spiritual Friends."