Problems in Caregiving Relationships: Neglect of God

We’ve seen how neglect can happen in caregiving relationships between the Chaplain and the person being cared for. For example the caregiver can neglect the other in the relationship by taking away their power and authority regarding healing, and the caregiver may neglect their own needs as well. These problems often show themselves in co-dependency, overcompensating and undercompensating, burnout and meaninglessness.

Now to the third member of the therapeutic relationship, God. It’s interesting to note that we tend to relate to God similarly to how we relate to others, yet God does not relate to us in the way others do. Perhaps this is why our relationship to God can be so puzzling and frustrating at times!

While it may be tempting to focus on how the other may neglect God in the therapeutic relationship, I want to write first on how Chaplains neglect God in the relationship. Yes, in fact ministers, clergy, and Chaplains can neglect their relationship with God. We neglect God when we fail to see Him working in our own life because we are too busy caring for others. We neglect God when we feel that the care of another is solely up to us, or that it is our own spiritual power which the person needs. We neglect God when we use Him as a tool to manipulate others, to badger others, or belittle them. We neglect God when we feel that we are the only conduit a person has to get to Him.

I could go on but I hope you get the idea. Clergy have been guilty of these and much more in our caregiving relationships. We can overemphasize our own spiritual strengths as well as our own knowledge of what God is doing in and for another. The attitude is one of “I know what’s best for you. Here’s what the Bible says, and it doesn’t matter what you think.” To do this is to put ourselves in God’s place, which neglects and minimizes God. This is the error of the self-righteous person, who sees not the other but only error to be corrected. I find this from time to time, thankfully less so in Chaplains than in others in ministry. I came across this recently in an online discussion where a self-claimed evangelist and “Ambassador of the Kingdom of God” ridiculed and belittled the beliefs and opinions of everyone in the group before presenting the Gospel to them as an afterthought. Obviously no one was converted, which he blamed on their own pridefulness and self-deception rather than the tastelessness of the message. How sad it is when the Good News is presented in such a self-centered manner!

We also neglect God when we rely on our own strength more than we should. Clergy, and I want to say especially Chaplains, are prone to neglecting their own relationship with God simply from estrangement. Hectic schedules and the needs of others can cause us to push our own spiritual lives to the sides because the need we feel to care for others is stronger than the need we feel to care for ourselves. Doing so may feel like selfishness at times, even to the point of feeling that permission must be granted in order to take time for spiritual self-care. This may sound foolish, but it happens. Chaplains and other caregivers can have a hard time turning off their “caring mode”

This can especially be the case when there is pressure to perform and not simply to be. I’ve often heard from Chaplains and others serving in secular workplaces that there can be a lot of pressure to do more in order to prove to their relevance to their managers. Thankfully there are many companies and managers that value self care among their staff, but often it is the Chaplain who is providing the care even to the staff. The Chaplain is then left to his or her own devices regarding self care. Healthy, secure clergy make room for self care. Anxious ones who fear for their livelihood and security may not.

It’s important to note that spiritual care is more that just things associated with religion: scripture reading, prayer, and so on. Spiritual care, I believe, ultimately deals with meaning and purpose. It guides, feeds, and directs us toward the things which give us purpose from a grounding in God. This grounding comes from every aspect of our lives: our work, our relationships, our faith, our sense of who we are, our religious practice, and the world itself. Therefore it’s terribly short sighted to see spiritual care as just praying or scripture reading. Those are aspects of spiritual care, but without a holistic model of care that involves the mind, body, and our spirit (if we want to think of our emotional core as our spirit as opposed to our “soul”) it will ultimately fall short.

Of course neglect of God happens at the other end of the relationship as well, often in the same ways. The difference is that the other may not be aware of this taking place.  The other in the relationship may neglect God by neglecting their own spiritual needs or practices, or by seeing him or herself as unworthy of God’s healing or love. The person may feel abandoned, helpless, or simply “stuck”.

The minister or Chaplain can best begin to assist someone who his hurting spiritually by simply allowing them to question. I’ve often found that many feel distance from God because they find God unapproachable and unquestionable. When the Chaplain is able to handle questions in a nonjudgmental way this can help the other to begin to draw nearer to God. Helping the other find answers to those problems is often helpful, but when the questions are unanswerable (most of them are) the minister should not be afraid to say so. Admitting to struggles in faith is tremendously freeing for all those in the therapeutic relationship. It frees the other from the guilt of questioning, and it frees the minister from needing to be perfect!

Answering questions can be tricky territory. Some Chaplains find being directive to be against their professional creed, while others feel more open to providing what they feel are appropriate theological answers to spiritual questions. It can be very tempting to try and answer all of the questions and correct all the problems that a person may have. We have to guard against simply providing our own answers to someone else’s problems. Doing so may help the other feel better for a time, but often the same questions will come up again because they have not really answered the question for themselves. For some ministers this can feel like dangerous territory. However we need to remember that God is working in their life and that we are merely one part of how that happens.

I hope that this brief series has been helpful and thought-provoking. It’s made me think more clearly about the dynamics of relationships I have not only with those I help but with all those I come in contact with. I hope you’ll pass this along!

God bless all of you in your ministries.

Other links in this series:

The Therapeutic Triad

Problems in the Therapeutic Triad: Neglect of the Chaplain

Problems in the Therapeutic Triad: Neglect of the Other



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