A Brief Theology of Care in Practice: The Therapeutic Triad

Counseling and care have typically been seen as a dyad consisting of the counselor and the counselee. However this limits the scope of the relationship as it often fails to recognize the presence of a third other, which is God. Counseling done within the context of chaplaincy, as well as any other form of Christian or spiritual counseling, whether professional or not, is better thought of as occurring within a triad, recognizing the presence not only of myself and the other, but also of God.

Presence of God: God is present in, around, and over all encounters. This is because of God’s omnipresent nature, and rules out any interaction that does not include God in some way. If God is real and present, then He is not only present to those who believe in Him but to those who don’t as well. Therefore, that presence may or may not be realized by either or any of the people involved in the encounter of each other. One part of the pastoral caregiver’s role is to bring his or her own awareness of that presence into the encounter: to make God known. This can be thought of incarnationally, as the caregiver represents God, Christ or the Church “in the flesh” within the encounter. The acceptance of God’s presence allows the caregiver a certain freedom which is based on the understanding that God is working and present not only in the encounter but in each person in the encounter at that point in time. The caregiver can rest assured that it is not only them doing the helping, but God as well. Not only that, but the same hand that is holding the other is holding them as well. This is the basis of God’s grace, to see how God’s love flows, embraces and works in the lives of all people. It doesn’t need to be invoked or summoned like some sort of magic spell – one doesn’t invoke God’s presence, one can only recognize it. God reveals His own presence through His very name, when he says “I Am who I Am”, as opposed to “I was who I was” or “I will be what I will be”. Both of these are true obviously, but God’s presence in the now is preeminent. If I can see how God is working in the current moment, not just how He did work or how He might work, I can see how I am working in the present moment as well. This can help me be free of the “what if’s” and “should have’s” that can instruct and guide but also paralyze and neutralize.

The Presence of My Self: It is one thing to be present physically with another, however simply being physically “with” someone doesn’t necessarily mean that one is fully present with them. The second role of the pastoral caregiver is to be fully aware and “present” with themselves as well as with God and the other. Bringing my whole self to the pastoral encounter requires that I am aware of my own past: my successes, pains, struggles, and history are all part of who I am. I also bring my goals, plans and fears with me to the encounter as well, all of which are looking toward the future and what lies ahead. However focusing too much on my past or future prevents me from being completely present. I often feel these to be distractions, pulling my mind and heart away from painful feelings and the thoughts that surround them. Escapes to the past or future can dull that pain, but never heal it. My past and future are best used to help another when I look at how those wishes, desires and fears influence me in the current moment. Part of being present also involves understanding the roles I play in my own life as well as in the lives of others. Am I a father to this person? Am I a father to myself? How am I Christ to this person, and in the same way, how am I understanding Christ in me? This points back to the idea of incarnational presence. I am not merely an instrument, and my job is not to “get out of the way”. Quite the contrary – all of me is necessary and useful in revealing God. However even as the chaplain in some way represents Christ, the chaplain also points beyond him or herself as a fellow sufferer and companion on the road. The chaplain can serve as both a window through which God is seen and made evident, but also as an imperfect mirror of the other, showing not only is God present but that in their brokenness they can be present with God. The caregiver as well is healed in this process by seeing Christ’s Spirit work through them and in them.

The Presence of the Other: The third role of pastoral care is to be aware of the other in the present moment. Just as I as a caregiver try and dwell in the present moment, I can help the person I am caring for dwell in that same moment as well. By acting as an example of being present, not dwelling on the past for too long or planning so far ahead, the caregiver can help the other person be free from being stuck in the past or the future. Simply being present and allowing them to be present and authentically themselves, not who they should have been or might be. This authenticity can be a place of fear and anxiety though, as the coverings of the past and future are no longer there to disguise who they really are, or who I really am. Recognition of God’s presence heightens these emotions even more, causing us to run for cover like Adam and Eve in the garden. Perhaps the greatest fear of God comes from the fear of annihilation and death – that if God sees us as we really are there is no hope for us. Yet it is within that presence where we are truly accepted, and grace is experienced and not simply known. The other that I care for may never let their guard down long enough to show me more than a glimpse of who they really are. And this is understandable, because we all bear some mark of shame that makes us want to appear as something that is probably at best “like me” but isn’t really Me. By lowering my defenses even a little, I give permission to the other to lower theirs. And when the defenses are lowered and the real self is allowed to reveal itself without being attacked or annihilated, that is a little bit of grace.

read on: Problems in Caring Relationships Part I: Neglect of the Caregiver/Chaplain


One thought on “A Brief Theology of Care in Practice: The Therapeutic Triad

  1. In order to experience the healing power of this Triad it’s important to make a hospitable space within ourselves and within our encounters as professional chaplains. This requires discipline and practice… and the expectation that God will always show up… and the willingness to receive as well as to give. Occasionally we will be aware and in tune and can when it happens its powerful.

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