A New Must-Read for Pastoral Clinicians -- by Raymond J. Lawrence

23 Oct 2017 8:20 AM | Perry Miller, Editor (Administrator)

A new voice has suddenly appeared on the pastoral scene - or new to me at least. Susan E. Myers-Shirk, professor of history at Middle Tennessee State University, with the imprint of the prestigious Johns Hopkins Press, has written Helping the Good Shepherd: Pastoral Counselors in a Psychotherapeutic Culture 1925-1975. The work has a publication date of 2009, which is puzzling, making me feel like Rip Van Winkle. The book has been circulating for about eight years but I cannot find any significant evidence of its effects on either the clinical pastoral or the academic world, which I consider regrettable. This a very important book.

Myers-Shirk is not a clinician, but an academician. We can hope that this fresh new face in academia will signal the beginning of a new era of conversation between clinicians and academicians. I recall the old days when Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Seward Hiltner and many others from their academic perches enriched the clinical world with their support, consultations and dialogue. Those days seem to be history. But clinicians need academicians. To keep themselves honest. And academicians need clinicians to help keep their feet on the ground, not an easy assignment in either case.

A major fault of clinicians is that they do not read. But they do need to know the historical sources of clinical training, just as Christians need to know the Bible and church history. People are continually reenacting the past when they do not know the past. And reading Myers-Shirk is a good place to start for accessing clinical pastoral history. In reading her they will meet their forefathers, warts and all. Catching a glimpse of Carl Rogers, John Sutherland Bonnell, Rollo May, the Menninger brothers, Charles Holman, Harry Stack Sullivan, Carroll Wise, Eric Fromm, Hobart Mowrer, Samuel Southard, Knox Kreutzer and countless others of our academic progenitors is important and edifying for every pastoral clinician. They were not all in agreement by any means. Some of them were out in left field for sure, but they attempted to speak to pastoral clinicians. Reading Myers-Shirk is an inexpensive way to briefly meet these luminaries and others, and to catch their drift without spending a year in the library.

But the most blessed aspect of this work is that the author does not run down the vacuous rabbit trail of the recent frenzied spirituality movement. She sticks to concepts and approaches to pastoral work that can be identified concretely, and as she would say, in a manner of speaking, “scientifically.” There of course can be no science of spirituality. There is no there there. I have hopes that Myers-Shirk will be the prophet many of us have longed for, one who will help restore meaning to pastoral, as well as thinking, to the work of the good shepherd.

Of course I cannot put all the blame on clinicians for their failure to attend to the academicians. The charges can go both ways. Academicians have in turn generally neglected to accredit clinicians. Even Myers-Shirk neglects to mention the three preeminent clinician writers who worked within her stated time boundary, namely Edward Thornton, Robert Charles Powell, and Allison Stokes. The time has come to end the Cold War between pastoral academicians and pastoral clinicians.

Myers-Shirk acknowledges that she follows in the tradition of E. Brooks Holifield, and we have to presume that she adopted his practice in giving a wide berth to clinicians generally, including Boisen himself, whom he awards only a few desultory pages in his well-regarded A History of Pastoral Care in America. To her credit, and to my surprise, Myers-Shirk on the other hand gives Boisen by name the entire first chapter of her book, and fully ten percent of its pages. While she does not own this as a revision of Holifield, the words speak for themselves. 

In one important matter, however, Myers-Shirk is simply incorrect, having I presume listened too credulously to Holifield. She contends that Boisen was negative toward Freud and the psychoanalytic approach. She missed the fact that Boisen’s reading of Freud’s Introductory Lectures while in psychiatric confinement changed his life and led to the creation of the clinical pastoral movement. (But who would guess that a sometime psychotic would be reading Freud in psychiatric lock-up? And who would guess that this would change his life permanently and for the better?)

Boisen was very uncomfortable with the implication of sexual liberation in Freud, but even more troubled by evidence that pastoral clinicians became more liberated than Freud himself. That development threatened the abstemious Boisen mightily, and made him quite uncomfortable with Freudians, but never enough to dislodge him from a commitment to Freud’s therapeutics nor to the abstemious Freud himself. In the post Boisen era the negativity toward  sexual freedom - or should we say male sexual freedom - and Freud, spread like a virus. Myers-Shirk seems to have picked up some of that virus from her mentor, Holifield. And we note that Myers-Shirk ends her book with a paeon to Howard Clinebell who was the chief symbol of the rightward drift away from both Boisen and psychoanalytic theory. 

Another criticism I have, though somewhat minor, is that Myers-Shirk misses the dialectic between training and education that was at the heart of the Boisen movement from the beginning, and remains today a key to the riddle of the movement’s internal struggle. Boisen instituted clinical training. Cabot and his followers, who are dominant today, instituted clinical education. The contrasting innuendo of these two key concepts is a golden thread for understanding the strife that is currently taking place among pastoral clinicians. 

One could say that the central story of the clinical pastoral movement is what to do with the inconvenient bodies of Boisen and Freud. The history of the movement is an explosive mixture of profound indebtedness, profound resentment and deep denial about the importance of both men. Boisen and his mentor Freud are dead, but they simply won’t go away, or stay dead.

Clinicians don’t write and academicians don’t make a vocation of relating to suffering persons. Thus clinicians and academicians do not easily engage in conversation. But both tribes benefit by engaging the other with seriousness. The first thing that we clinicians can do to promote this reunion is to do more reading. And a good place to start is with Myers-Shirk.

I see this work as an excellent companion to my own soon-to-be published work which is a perspective from inside the clinical world, Recovery of Soul: A History and Memoir of the Clinical Pastoral Movement. One could say, I believe, that Myers-Shirk as an academician gives an outsider view of the clinic that correlates with my insider view. And like any outsider, she misses some important matters. But like any competent outsider, she also provides a valuable wider perspective.

Clinicians will not assent to all her claims. Who would expect that? However, they will find her breadth of reading and her wide knowledge of the field mostly correct, quite constructive and edifying. This book should be required reading for every member of CPSP, and indeed every pastoral clinician.

Overall, Susan Myers-Shirk presents herself as an emerging and promising authority in the field of pastoral care, pastoral counseling and pastoral psychotherapy.   


Raymond J. Lawrence
General Secretary