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HR Goes to Church

November 2nd, 2022 | 7 min read

By Jake Meador

The longer that I listen to folks who didn’t like Samuel’s review talk about Samuel’s review the more I think Samuel has it exactly right.

Perhaps this is a good way of getting at the concern I have, which is growing sharper in my mind the longer I consider it.

Which of these is closer to the truth:

  • Does the church possess the capacity to abuse and is it called to repent in appropriate ways when it does abuse?
  • Does the church need to exist in a state of perpetual self-examination to insure that it never commits abusive actions?

The former sounds, to me, like basic Christian wisdom concerning our capacity for error and even for grievous evil as well as a sober reckoning with the dangers of spiritual leadership (about which Paul had much to say). Moreover, it sounds like something many evangelical churches failed to reckon with, a failure which has done untold harm.

The latter sounds like setting up our pastors to live in a state of constant anxiety and frustration. I also imagine it will ultimately undermine Christian community because it will tacitly teach everyone in the church to regard everyone else in the church, and especially pastors, as a threat.

Second, a series of questions:

  • Who needs therapy?
  • Is there anyone that does not need therapy?
  • Do people who do need therapy ever reach a point of not needing therapy?

Again, if the claim being made is that therapy can be a helpful tool in particular situations to help people grow and mature, I see no problem there. What I object to is the totalizing tendency in much therapeutic rhetoric which seems to run on the assumption that everyone needs therapy and you never stop needing therapy.

My fear, in short, is that we have a growing contingent of more centrist, urbanite evangelicals (the sort who tend to read and like outlets like Mere O, frankly) who get their doctrine of sin and doctrine of salvation not from Scripture and the teachings of the church passed down to us over millennia, but from therapeutic categories and ways of imagining the human person.

The Sin Chart

If you use Mark Sayers’s sin chart as a heuristic, the DeGroat school seems inherently to be baptizing the “therapeutic” schema as described by Sayers. In other words, the world is basically unsafe, which leads to feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and depression. The good life is one defined by a feeling of inner serenity and peace, which is achieved via therapeutic techniques and the aid of mental health practitioners who equip us to cope with an overwhelming, hostile, chaotic world.

Within this model, Christianity is one crutch we can use to realize peace. But it doesn’t really define what “peace” is (or what anxiety is, for that matter) and it cannot really critique the therapeutic in any kind of real way. It can only accommodate it and support it.

This has the effect of rendering therapists the new priests and of making pastoral leadership and discipleship virtually impossible because any attempt to actually encourage people in Christian discipline can be dismissed as potentially abusive or indicative of narcissism in the pastor.

It also implicitly re-situates the church and the individual Christian disciple into a different sort of world. In this world, the church is a community that stands beneath the judgment of the mental health professional and the Christian disciple is simply someone who has found Christianity to be a helpful part of emotional health and self-actualization. But the engine driving the train isn’t Christianity; it’s emotional health, harm prevention, and self-actualization.

This in itself is troubling enough, but a further point follows. If all the above is true, then what we have effectively established is that the goals of therapy—things like “emotional health” or “mental health” or “self-actualization” are basically synonyms for “Christian maturity.”

The difficulty with this is that some of the goods that we are directed to pursue by concepts like “emotional health,” “self-actualization,” and so on are not actually good, but are instead idols that will lead us away from the life of Christian love.

I regularly reflect on something my mom said to me once a number of years ago after my dad’s brain injury. The rehab hospital where dad was staying required stroke victims and their caregivers to attend support groups. At one of these support groups for caregivers, my mom told me that one of the caregivers in attendance was talking about the challenges of caring for a disabled spouse, finally lamenting at the end of their time that, “I didn’t sign up for this.” As mom told me that, she looked sad and then said, “What I wanted to tell them is that you signed up for this when you married them.” She wasn’t thinking that because she didn’t understand their pain. She is a full-time caregiver. She knows the pain. But she also knows a number of other things which shift the way she understands her own pain as well as my dad’s pain. She knows that suffering can be meaningful and formative. She knows that pain can play a positive role in a person’s maturation and, even, that some of us can be called to suffer for periods of time.

That doesn’t make it easy, of course. And it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t practice healthy habits that allow us to offer care in a sustainable way. And it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t press for a more humane society in which it is easier for caregivers to give care. We can and should do those things.

But what it does mean is that there are many times in life when the call to love the person in front of us is going to require dying to our own needs so that we can offer ourselves up to our neighbor. That is the life of Christian discipleship. For Christian believers, that is the calling we’re given. When therapeutic categories teach us to shrink back from those responsibilities, they are teaching us to reject the way of Jesus.

The HR Problem

We need to press this a bit more, I think. One of the most useful questions we can ask ourselves as we try to get our bearings in a very confusing time is something like this: “What kind of world does this thought system presuppose?” The problem with the Christian Nationalist schema, for example, is that it imagines a world where Christians are never called to suffer defeat or to die, which is actually a pretty horrifying error when one considers the biblical witness.

But the therapeutic imagination imagines its own sort of false world, one defined by impersonal institutions, isolated individuals, and the professionalization of care, such that goods and services once rendered to one another organically through human relationships are now transformed into market goods that are bought and sold by licensed professionals.

Consider: You cannot have therapists and counselors and mental health practitioners and all the rest without graduate programs, health clinics, credentialing processes, pharmaceuticals, and so on. There is an entire social imaginary latent in the therapeutic which foregrounds the individual person, backgrounds communities, and centers the therapists office (and the pharmacy) as the place where we are made well.

This is why the therapeutic mentality will eventually have the effect of making church life answerable to HR, or to something very like HR. For the therapeutic schema, HR is the institutionalization of therapeutic rules and norms; HR exists to insure that everyone is mentally healthy, “well,” etc. (Of course, HR does this not because it is concerned with people in themselves, but because our economic system requires a certain degree of “wellness” so that people can make money for big business and also spend money to keep the economy humming along.) Eventually we end up with pastors in the dock being evaluated and tried by HR consultants—a point that we have written on before at Mere O.

I’m reminded of this quote from Hauerwas in an interview given early in the pandemic:

The pastor is supposed to be a truth teller who helps the baptized grow up and survive as Christians. Pastoral care is supposed to be the work of the whole church. Both as an academic discipline and as a practice, pastoral care has become obsessed with the personal wounds of people in advanced industrial societies who have discovered that their lives lack meaning. “What did you expect?” I want to ask these people. “Quit taking yourselves so seriously. Enjoy having your narcissism defeated by being drawn into the church’s eschatological mission to witness to Christ’s cross and resurrection.” That’s care worthy of the name Christian.

Later in the conversation, Will Willimon and Hauerwas clarify the point still further:

Willimon: Lacking theological governance and guidance, pastors are tempted to give people encouragement to be even more self-concerned than they already are before they come to church. The trouble starts in seminary. There’s an overemphasis there on self-care, keeping sabbath, and finding emotional support, as if that’s the purpose of the church and its ministry. Better than self-care is responding to the call to care about what Christ cares about.

Hauerwas: That’s why I have little sympathy for clergy who present themselves as a member of the “helping professions.” Such pastors are using people in pain to legitimate their ministry. Pastoral care has become so important because it’s the last socially approved activity of pastors.

I suspect that the pivot amongst some centrist evangelicals toward a focus on emotional health, identity talk, and self-care is a movement of evangelicals who (rightly) fear being lumped in with Christian nationalists, but who also lack a positive Christian program for society, and therefore default to baptizing the categories that their audience has already deemed acceptable. The problem with this is that it situates the church’s witness within the frame of therapeutic culture, which makes it answerable to therapeutic culture and insulates the therapeutic from any sort of critique.

What I want to see, instead, is a centering of the Cross and the Eucharist in the life of Christian communities, which in turn equips them for lives of heroic sacrifice in the world. The Cross shows us what God has done for us, how God empties himself for the sake of his neighbor, even unto death. Then in the Eucharist God fills us, nurtures us, and sends us out on our own spiritual journeys with the task of pouring ourselves out for neighbor just as he himself did for us.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).