Monday, July 22, 2013

Gossip and Pastoral Counseling

Professor Donald Capps of Princeton Theological Seminary thinks that pastoral counseling could be conceived of as “a higher form of gossip.”1 In Living Stories: Pastoral Counseling in Congregational Context, Capps characterizes the key benefit of pastoral counseling as “the experience of telling stories within a constructive framework.”2 That framework might even include gossip. Capps believes that gossip “sometimes, perhaps often, plays the same constructive role in the life of a social group that I am ascribing to pastoral counseling.”3

Capps comes to his somewhat positive appraisal of gossip by covering the same ground we have above, focusing in, especially, on the social and personal benefits of gossip asserted by writers such as Jack Levin, Arnold Arluke, and Patricia Meyer Spacks.

Capps’ main contribution is to directly compare the features of social gossip with the practice of pastoral counseling. He notes, “Like gossip, the ‘subject matter’ of pastoral counseling is the ‘trivia’ that often gets demeaned by those who . . . value only ‘important’ subject matter, whether complex ‘intellectual matters’ on the one hand or ‘deep spiritual matters’ on the other.”4 “Another is that, precisely because it deals in ‘small particulars,’ the worldview that pastoral counseling expresses is not that of ‘the dominant culture’ but ‘the beliefs of quiet sub-cultures.’”5 “Still another similarity . . . is the fact that it is a kind of creative play, providing the counselee (and also the pastor) a sense of freedom that they do not experience in the other ‘language systems’ of their lives.”6 He also observes that pastoral counseling often involves talking about people who are not present in the counseling room.7

There is nuance, however, to this positive comparison. Professor Capps wants pastoral counseling to rise above garden variety gossip. “While it shares these and other characteristics of gossip, pastoral counseling (ideally) differs from gossip as well.”8 It should not, for example, “degenerate into malice” or “destroy the reputation of an innocent person.”9  He also says, “Another difference between pastoral counseling and gossip is that the pastor has greater freedom, even, at times, the obligation, to introduce a values perspective that does not confirm the counselee’s own values but instead brings other value considerations to bear.”10 The pastor has an obligation to scripture and truth.11

Openness, for Capps, is the area in which pastoral counseling truly transcends traditional gossip.

I suggest that the central value that the pastor represents in the pastoral counseling context is precisely that of openness, and that this value is expressed both in the pastoral counseling role itself and in the perspective that the pastor takes concerning the parishioner’s life problems. It is precisely in its openness that pastoral counseling becomes a gospel form of gossip. The subject matter of pastoral counseling is still the small talk that prevails in other forms of gossip, but an open atmosphere is created and maintained in every aspect of the counseling process.12

I appreciate Capps’ nuances and think there is much to meditate upon in the concept of pastoral counseling as constructive story telling. I see some truth in the parallels drawn between pastoral counseling and non-malicious gossip, especially how we are called to bring truth to bear on the so-called “trivial” and “mundane” aspects of life. And I love the phraseology of “gospel gossip”! But the gospel Capps preaches seems much more dependent upon Carl Rogers than Jesus Christ. The biblical gospel is more than a dynamic openness and “unconditional positive regard.” The gospel we are called to proclaim is the good news of a Savior that loved us while we were still sinners and loves us now in a way that leads us into dynamic personal change (Rom 5:8, Titus 2:11-12).

1Donald Capps, Living Stories: Pastoral Counseling in Congregational Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 192. Capp’s theory of pastoral counseling is in the stream of Rogerian thought. For an alternative “family-systems” approach to counseling see Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: Guilford Press, 1985). Friedman’s theory includes something he calls “triangulation” which is pitting the wrong members of a family against one another, usually by inappropriate secret keeping. This may be gossip by yet another name.
2Donald Capps, Living Stories: Pastoral Counseling in Congregational Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 10.
3Ibid., 173.
4Ibid., 192.
5Ibid., 193.
6Donald Capps, Living Stories: Pastoral Counseling in Congregational Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 194.
7Ibid., 195.
8Ibid., 194.
10Ibid., 196.
11As a theological liberal, Capps equivocates a bit at this point, declining to definitively share what those “value considerations” might be, but the implication of his words is obvious and true.
12Donald Capps, Living Stories: Pastoral Counseling in Congregational Context (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 198-199.

This post is part #3 in a series on "Ambiguity and Ambivalence about Gossip" in a longer series about "Taking Sides on Gossip" drawn from my doctoral research on the problem.
Starting tomorrow, we shift onto the other side of the debate, and start listening to opponents of gossip.