I am nearly finished a fascinating book "Pastoral Counseling with Adolescents and Young Adults" by Charles M. Shelton (1995, Crossroad Publishing). I picked it up in a used book sale and stored it away for future reference. Planning, as I am, to commence a Masters in Counseling in Feb 2007 I decided to pick it up and give it a read. Not expecting much I have found it to be a good read by someone who is clearly passionate about both care and Christian transformation of individuals.
Shelton is an American Jesuit and despite both cultural and theological differences I found the text very engaging. For anyone considering any type of care ministry I would thoroughly recommend it but especially so for those ministering to youth and young adults (hence the title).
Two of the key axioms that Shelton embraces in his ministry approach are "compassionate care" and "loving challenge". The compassionate care "fosters the trust and openness that allows loving challenge to be accepted and bear fruit" (p176). At a fundamental level this approach seeks to build a bridge between the liberal and conservative theological traditions. Although this is a generalisation there is a definite body of Christian teaching that emphasises care but without the courage to challenge. Likewise there is theological teaching that is prepared to challenge but not always in a loving manner and certainly not with the long-term approach that compassionate care entails.
Shelton writes for those in pastoral ministry and so he encompasses, in parts of the book, the need for the congregation to be a part of the caring ministry. I found this aspect of the book encouraging because, since working with psychiatrically ill men, I have begun to question the Church's approach to many marginalised people. It is easy to come up with a "position" on issues such as schizophrenia, homosexuality or drug addiction to name a few but it is far more difficult to formulate a response when people who are marginalised come amongst a Christian community or interact at the fringes in a manner that precludes the Church hiding its head in the sand.
The "loving challenge" of Shelton's work does not presume to completely change people. It holds open the possibility that for a number of reasons people may not completely move to a Church's position on a particular issue but the compassionate care allows for individuals to be loved as they are in line with God's grace and mercy. Loving challenge is not just an attempt to present another viewpoint though. It is an approach that over time and with patient questions at appropriate times can help someone consider there lifestyle or condition more widely and therefore develop a direction that is more oriented towards Christ than themselves.
In saying this I understand that mental illnesses can be long-term and need ongoing medication but the individual responses to these conditions can be challenged in a loving, nurturing environment. In a similar manner, there are those who would consider their gay lifestyle to be a lifelong position but a church can still show care and can engage in loving challenge to move the person into a Christ-centred focus.
I offer these points as steps in my own journey and provocations towards an integrated Christian ethic of care and responsibility.