I began my vocational career as a mental health counselor. I experienced my call to the ministry when I was a program clinician in a residential treatment center in Boston. I was doing individual and family therapy in family systems in which children had been sexually abused, physically abused, neglected to the point of inability to thrive, and tortured. They themselves acted out against other humans in an attempt to externalize the pain of their souls and minds. It was difficult to believe that these children would ever be able to live outside of an institution for the rest of their lives; they had been so damaged that many of them would have to stay in residential treatment until they were old enough to be housed in jails.
They were hard to work with; these kids. They swore and spit at us. They hurt each other. They threw computer monitors across the room when they were angry. But they taught me how to pastor. I had learned clinical skills aplenty in therapy school, but they taught me how to pastor.
The mantra that I learned in counseling school, "it's not about me", quickly became a theological affirmation for me when I was with them. I would remind myself consistently that the work of counseling is always about the clients I serve, even when the focus turned toward me. And my job wasn't just to remind myself that whatever behavior they were choosing was not about me, I also had to find ways to empathize with them while they were acting out.
In that process of empathizing with traumatized children, I found that my ministry was in loving people at their most unlovable. I could forgive the swearing, the spitting, the anger. I could love these children as I love my own children--at their worst. This was the work of the Holy, I thought. To love people at their most unlovable.
I also consistently reflected on how profoundly connected to each other we are. I could have been each and every one of them. Only circumstance and luck made it so I was the so-called "counselor", and they were the so-called "clients." We were both children of the same source, equally valuable; equally loved; equally capable of great good and great evil.
Later in my ministerial formation, I needed to integrate my clinical skills with my theology of care. When I did a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education and my ministerial internship, I got to use both in service to one another. I learned the ways in which I could discern the spiritual needs and crises of the patients in the hospital as separate from their clinical diagnoses and mental health needs, and concentrate on strengths-based healing through spiritual care and counseling. I worked to meet the people I served where they were in their own spiritual journeys, helping them make sense of their suffering.
The work of pastoral care is profoundly freeing to me as a trained clinician. It is a ministry of presence, rather than a ministry of "fix it." The greatest privilege of my ministry is to simply show up for the toughest and most tender moments of people's lives. Not with diagnoses and prescriptions, but with love and understanding for the complexity, brutality and beauty of each and every human experience.