About James Newton Poling

Retired minister, counselor, writer living in North Carolina

Jesus’ Attachment to Life

Some Christians believe that Jesus was sent from heaven to judge the world; after he died he went to heaven to be with God. Someday Jesus will come again to destroy the world and take believers into heaven. In this theology the world as we know it has no place in God’s plan; the earth will be destroyed along with unbelievers. Until Jesus comes, believers should save as many souls as possible. The “Left Behind” novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins give vivid descriptions of this theology, and millions of people believe that destruction is the fate of the world.

Other Christians, like me, believe that Jesus came because “God so loved the world that God sent Jesus. . . .” John 3:16. I believe that Jesus came to earth as an expression of God’s love for people and the earth; Jesus died because of the violence of corrupt political and religious leaders; Jesus rose from the grave because God’s love could not be destroyed by the power of violence and death; Jesus comes again whenever people join together to care for the people and the world that God loves. The meaning of discipleship is that we follow Jesus when we work together for social justice and environmental healing.

I have drawn these two alternative ways of understanding Jesus in stark contrast. Christian life is not divided this way. It is possible to work for the salvation of souls and also work for social justice and environmental healing. Yet, I believe these two tendencies exist in our churches. Personally I believe that Jesus did not come to destroy the material world and evil people, but to save all people and the earth from violence and destruction.

See rest of sermon under Writings>Sermons>Jesus’ Attachment to Life

Clergy Sexual Abuse as Abuse of Power

Everyone agrees that Clergy Sexual Abuse is a bad thing, yet clergy are still abusing.

We have trained thousands of congregational leaders on clergy sexual abuse, yet many churches continue to deny and minimize when a beloved leader betrays their trust.

What is going on here? Why is this problem so stubborn?

Some people say it is just human sin. Individuals enjoy abusing their power to manipulate and control others.

Some say it is because of our confused ideas about sexuality. We can’t talk about sex in church without creating a mess.

Some say it is theology. As long as we promote ideas like sacrifice, servanthood, obedience, and forgiveness, we create clergy who put themselves in the place of God and expect others to serve their needs.

I say that it is all of the above, and the thing that links them together is abuse of power. The problem the church doesn’t talk about is power and how God wants us to use power.

Human sin can be understood as the abuse of power. In our failure to find the nurturing relationships and prosperity we want, humans engage in manipulation and power plays to get what we think we need. In this sense, clergy sexual abuse is just one among many forms of abuse of power in the church, one of “the many temptations that inevitably accompanies power.”

Sexuality can be understood in relation to power. Sexuality is a human drive that permeates all our relationships. Sexuality as a commodity drives advertising and U.S. values. Because we don’t talk about sex in a sensible way, we push sexuality into the unconscious world where its power multiplies. The structure that creates this mess is male dominance or patriarchy.

Theological doctrines are forms of power. All the terms above – sacrifice, obedience, and forgiveness – depend on power – who is sacrificing for who; who is obedient to who; and who is asked to forgive who. Who decides these questions is a matter of power.

So what do we mean by power and the abuse of power? What is power for, and how can we recognize the abuse of power? These questions are important because at this conference we are talking about how to use power to prevent clergy abuse of power. Through our public debates, our policies on sexual misconduct, our training programs, and our response teams, we are challenging the usual power arrangements to provide healing for the victims of clergy sexual abuse and accountability for everyone.

Every reform movement is a claim on power, and the movement to prevent clergy sexual abuse is no exception. We are here because we don’t like the way things have been for many generations. We want to change things – where male and female leaders are excused for abusing power even before they repent and change their ways. We want to change the way the church mistreats victims – by silence, by shunning, and sometimes by forcing them to leave the church. We want to change the ethics of church leadership so that vulnerable people will no longer become victims of sexual exploitation in the church family. We want true repentance and rehabilitation for offenders as they are restored to membership in the community. We want to restore the faith and trust of the congregation so it is empowered to fulfill God’s mission of love in the community.

We are here because we believe that we have power to change all of these things “through Christ who strengthens us.” (Phil 4:13) If we want power, we need to understand what it is, and what God intended when God gave human beings power.

I believe that all power is from God. Abuse of power is the abuse of a gift that God gives to us. God created us; God put us in this garden, the earth, on which we depend for food, warmth, shelter; God gave us loving communities of support and challenge and called us to be witnesses in the world. In Jesus Christ, we have been redeemed from our sinful ways and shown the way of loving power. In John 13, Jesus called us to be servants by kneeling and washing one another’s feet, thus showing us one way of empowering others; in John 15, Jesus called us to stand up and become friends, no longer servants, thus inviting us to claim the power of leadership in the name of Jesus. Whether we are kneeling down as servants or standing up as peers, we are exercising the power God gives us. In Acts 2, God sent power in the form of the Holy Spirit so that we no longer fear the violence of evil forces and the threat of death. We can look even at the horrible event of the crucifixion of Jesus and know that God is with us through whatever happens. We live in the power of the Holy Spirit that has called us into this conference and calls us every day to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8) We have received power from God to live fully in the excitement and challenge of this world until God’s kin-dom comes.

See the full article under Articles and Lectures, “Clergy Sexual Abuse as Abuse of Power”

Pastoral Care of Men

In 1999, I was co-lecturer with Dr. Christie Neuger at a UCC sponsored conference with the title, Women and Men: Sharing Holy Ground. My presentation focused on the history of men’s movements in the 19th and 20th centuries and some of the current pastoral care needs of Christian men today. The presentation was an outgrowth of my book with Christie Neuger, The Care of Men (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1997)

My presentation touches on some the following issues. First, I call attention to some of the history of the gender crisis over the last 175 years. The U.S. Women’s Rights and the Abolitionist-Civil Rights movements started in the early 19th century, and the implications of these movements continue to be important for Christian theology. This will give a context for understanding the issues that men bring to pastors for consultation and care. Second I identify five areas where men are in need of pastoral care: grief, couple and family relationships, work, sexuality, and aggression. The first set of issues can be approached in a fairly straight-forward way – namely, grief, couple and family relationships, and work. We need to be assertive in inviting men to discuss these issues, so they can find better support and begin to deal with their insecurities when gender issues are raised. Sexuality and aggression are more challenging because many men are already defensive and feel unfairly blamed. But there is more at stake here than embarrassment. What is at stake is a just world for both women and men in a rainbow of cultures and religions.

Hope is the thing with feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers (254)  
by Emily Dickinson
Hope is the thing with feathers  
That perches in the soul,  
And sings the tune without the words,  
And never stops at all,  
And sweetest in the gale is heard;          
And sore must be the storm  
That could abash the little bird  
That kept so many warm.  
I've heard it in the chillest land,  
And on the strangest sea;         
Yet, never, in extremity,  
It asked a crumb of me.

What is Christian Counseling?

What is Christian Counseling?

James Poling, November 22, 2003

[Note to Reader: I presented this lecture in Seoul, Korea to 250 Christian counselors gathered at Yonsei University School of Theology. I am trying to bridge the gap between Christian counseling and pastoral counseling, the divide of liberal and evangelical theologies. Many of the ideas also apply to the United States pastoral counseling communities.]

What is Christian counseling?

INTRODUCTION: Consider the following persons who call themselves pastoral counselors:

Counselor # 1 believes that Jesus came to save sinners from eternal punishment. Therefore he believes that Christian counseling is primarily an opportunity to invite persons to confess the name of Jesus and become active in the work of the church. He is particularly interested in pastoral counseling with non-Christians so they will come to know the gospel. His favorite Bible verse is: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Acts 16:31

Counselor # 2 believes that Jesus came to reconcile persons who live in broken relationships. Therefore she believes that Christian counseling is primarily a work of communication and mediation in interpersonal and family relationships. She is particularly interested in helping Korean American families who have returned to live and work in Korea. Her favorite Bible verse is: “God gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” 2 Corinthians 5:18

Could these two counselors be active in the same Christian professional organization? They have two different theologies and two different approaches to clinical work. They might have some conflict. What would the theology and identity of that organization be?

Counselor # 3 believes that Jesus came to liberate those who were oppressed by violence and poverty. Therefore she believes that Christian counseling is primarily empowering victims to seek justice. She is particularly interested in helping women who are victims of domestic violence and sometimes calls herself a feminist. Her favorite Bible verse is: “There is no male and female, for we are all one in Christ.” Galatians 3:28

It would be even harder to find a single Christian organization that would be open and fair to all three positions.

There is a fourth counselor, a Buddhist monk, who graduated from one of the best pastoral counseling programs in Korea and wrote a comparative religious dissertation on the Christian concept of trusting in the Holy Spirit and the Buddhist concept of the empty mind. He practices cognitive-narrative therapy and helps individuals find their true vocation in the world. His favorite Bible verse is: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of Truth Comes, he will guide you into all truth.” John 16:12-13

Now we have a huge dilemma. Even the name of our organization is in jeopardy if we invite all four of these counselors to be in the organization. Yet, all four practice competent, recognized forms of pastoral counseling; all four are religious persons who know and use the Bible to support their viewpoint; all have skills for helping people examine their lives and find healing. Yet, they have different clinical approaches and different faith assumptions. Is it possible to organize a professional organization of pastoral counselors for different varieties of Christians and other counselors in Korea? Let me share some of our experience in the United States and make a proposal.

For the full article, see writing>articles and lectures>What is Christian Counseling?

Notes on Pastoral Confidentiality

Notes on Pastoral Confidentiality:

James Newton Poling, April 30, 2012

Over my years of teaching, I have struggled with the issue of confidentiality. What are the theological roots of pastoral confidentiality and what are its limits? Here are some notes I have written about this issue, beginning with a covenantal statement I have used with my classes.

Confidentiality in the Classroom.

In a class in religion and healing, we must respect the highest ethical standards of ministry. Confidential materials discussed in the class must be protected from public disclosure or other inappropriate use. For that reason participation requires a covenant of confidentiality that no personal information will be divulged outside the boundaries of this group or used unethically or inappropriately. James Poling, 2011, syllabus for Evil and Aggression

Revision of Pastoral Confidentiality for Prevention of Domestic Violence

Confidentiality. The purpose of the traditional emphasis on confidentiality within the churches is to provide safety for confession of sin to be addressed by the rituals of the church. Within the mental health field, confidentiality allows shame-based transference issues to emerge for therapeutic intervention. Without such confidentiality, little in-depth pastoral care or psychotherapy can be accomplished. This principle is true in work with male abusers except that issues of safety for his victims must be paramount. In working with a man who is violent or abusive, it is crucial not to collude with the destructive and self-destructive impulses of the personality at the expense of those who are vulnerable. For violent men, manipulating such collusion is often their greatest interpersonal skill.

The limits of confidentiality must be clearly negotiated at the beginning of a pastoral counseling relationship. Whenever the pastoral counseling contract identifies violence against others as a focus, the pastoral counselor must cooperate with others to provide accountability for acts of violence. As a pastoral counselor, I agree to keep confidential any matters that do not involve the safety of others, to keep the man informed of any contact I have outside of therapy, and to openly discuss any concerns the man has about my commitment to his health and safety. Two situations periodically occur. Sometimes I hear from another professional that the man has been abusive or threatening to his partner or children and I use the information to confront him. Sometimes the man himself gives me information during therapy that he is being abusive or threatening and I warn the persons involved. In both of these cases, information is being exchanged with persons outside the therapeutic relationship, which contradicts some expectations of confidentiality, that is, that confidentiality equals secret-keeping.

I believe these are legitimate limits on confidentiality when working with violent men. As a pastoral counselor, I have a moral commitment to protect the safety of those who are vulnerable. I also have a moral commitment to enjoin the healthy psychological development of the person, and refuse to collude with his violent impulses and behaviors. This means helping him face the consequences of his behaviors and maintaining, if possible, a therapeutic alliance at the same time. The ability to sustain a positive therapeutic relationship during episodes of violence in the man’s life may itself be the healing moment.

There are some sacramental definitions of confidentiality which interfere with a pastor’s ability to accept these suggested limits of confidentiality. There are two responses to this problem. One is to clearly distinguish general pastoral counseling from the sacrament of confession and absolution of sins. It may be possible to maintain the Roman and Lutheran sacrament of confession in limited use but not extend it to all pastoral conversations. In this case, pastoral care and counseling would not be covered by the secrecy of sacramental confession. Another response is to rethink the theology of the sacrament of confession itself. Does the safety of other people set any limits on the confidentiality of the confessional? I believe it does.

From James Poling, Understanding Male Violence: Pastoral Care Issues. St Louis: Chalice Press, 2003, 22-23

Pastoral Confidentiality in African American Families Experiencing Abuse

Another revision of traditional pastoral care in work with perpetrators is pastoral confidentiality. Does maintaining confidentiality mean that the hands of a pastoral leader are tied if the person disclosing does not want the information shared outside of the counseling setting? What options does a pastoral leader have when he or she has promised confidentiality and later discovers there is a genuine emergency involving violence in the black family?

Black family violence requires some rethinking of the traditional understandings of pastoral confidentiality. Most pastoral leaders have been trained to protect the information we receive as credible religious leaders. We all know of damage that has been done when a pastoral leader shares information about sexual behavior with the deacon board, or when inappropriate information has been shared from the pulpit. If a congregation knows that the members of the pastoral team cannot keep a secret, information about the personal and spiritual struggles of the congregants begins to dry up. There are good reasons why a pastoral leader must be able to keep appropriate confidentiality with the personal information from pastoral care conversations. In some situations, keeping such confidences is inconvenient, especially when the gossip mills based on incorrect information get started. It is tempting to want to correct what the congregation knows, even when the person involved does not want the truth to be shared. These are examples of the normal dilemmas connected with pastoral confidentiality.

However, it is our position in this book that black family violence requires a paradoxical revision of traditional understandings of confidentiality. We believe that pastoral leaders should/ must announce these changes in a clear and direct way at the start of every counseling relationship so that the guidelines are stated from the beginning.

In our pastoral practice, we often say something like this:

I am willing to keep anything you tell me in confidence, which means I will share it with no one else, with two exceptions. First, if I feel that I need professional consultation in order to be helpful to you. In that case, I will tell you I am consulting. Second, if I feel that the health or safety of any person, including yourself, is at risk. In that case, I reserve the right to report that a child is in danger, or to seek outside help for a person whose their life and health may be in danger. With those two exceptions, I promise that anything you say to me will remain confidential.

For most people who come for pastoral care, such a statement is sufficient to enable them to continue without undue fear about their life becoming available for the voyeuristic eyes of others. For some people, the caveat about seeking consultation is actually comforting because it reminds them that this pastoral leader takes his or her work seriously and will seek help from another professional if necessary. Although expectations are high in the black faith community about the biblical competence of the pastor, most parishioners know that the pastoral leader is not a trained, professional counselor, and they feel comfortable knowing that the pastor is willing to live within certain limits. For victims of violence, the caveat about notifying the proper authorities if there is family violence is also comforting, and can often make it easier for the person to openly share their fears. It means that the pastoral leader is not naive about black family violence; that he or she knows that it can happen even in the most respectable-looking families; and that he or she knows what to do when the topic of violence is disclosed.

For perpetrators of violence, the limitation on keeping secrets serves as a warning. They can choose not to tell about the violence they are forcing on others and thus protect themselves. But if they decide to tell part of the truth, the pastoral leader of the black faith community is not going to collude with them by minimizing and denying the reality. Limiting confidentiality on issues of black family violence means that violence will be taken seriously and that the pastoral leader will do whatever is necessary to protect victims and hold perpetrators accountable. For a few perpetrators who genuinely want help, this could be the best news they have heard for a long time. However, for pastoral care with perpetrators, the above statement on confidentiality protects the pastoral leader by setting honest limits and providing a rationale for involving the authorities later when necessary.

While we recommend the above revision in the usual understanding of confidentiality, we understand that some pastors will get caught in the complications and ambiguities of this issue. For example, a pastor may promise confidentiality only to discover later that a child or an adult is in danger from family violence. Some pastors will feel confused about which obligation to follow — whether to protect the promise of confidentiality, or to protect a victim from further violence. In such cases, we suggest that the principle of protection of the vulnerable from further harm, which is often the difference of life and death, takes priority for the black family victim. While a pastor may be uncomfortable for a time, we believe it is better to live with the uncertainty of the meaning of confidentiality than to live with the guilt of contributing to ongoing black family violence. Knowing that a child or an adult is a victim of domestic and/or sexual violence and feeling helpless to do anything about it is a very uncomfortable place for a pastoral leader to be in. We encourage adult education sessions and discussion of the meaning of pastoral confidentiality. Until a new consensus emerges, we suggest that family violence must be treated as an important exception to the general rule of keeping the secrets of parishioners who come for help.

From James Poling and Toinette Eugene, Balm for Gilead: Pastoral Care for African American Families Experiencing Abuse. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998, 147-150

Poling Retirement Lecture

In October, 2011, I gave my final retirement lecture at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.  It is a reflection about the nature of human evil and redemption according to the witness of survivors in dialogue with Process Theology.  You can view it at the link below. It works well if you have auxiliary speakers, but you could have trouble hearing with only the internal computer speakers. A transcript of this lecture can be found in The Journal of Pastoral Theology, Summer, 2012.

Link to Poling Retirement Lecture: http://www.garrettmedia.net/lectures/fall2011/dr-poling-10-26.mov

Religion and Politics

Politics and Religion

James Newton Poling

(first preached on Oct 14, 2008)

Text: Matthew 22:15-22

Another national election in the United States. And we are in the midst of an economic crisis that seems to have no end. I continue to go about my daily life like usual, but I have this feeling of dread that my life is precarious. Living in the midst of a national and global crisis changes our lives, and we don’t know what changes will come.

How do we talk about politics and religion? When I was a seminary student, debating politics was a daily activity. But in recent years, I have noticed the eerie silence in seminaries about politics. Maybe things are about to change. When do we interrupt what we are doing and have special prayer meetings and seminars with experts so we can figure out the best responses?

Jesus lived every day in the midst of crisis. His friends and neighbors were poor, hungry, sick, disabled, and disempowered by the alliance of the Temple Elite and the Roman rulers. The corrupt leaders had stolen the historic lands of the families in Galilee and turned the people into sharecroppers and day laborers. Jesus’ parables are full of stories of oppressed people who were lucky to get enough food for one day. They yearned for a just king who paid them their wages without cheating them. They remembered the day when their families owned their own land, but they despaired ever getting it back. These stories are one reason why poor Christians all over the world love the Bible.

See the full sermon under Writing>Sermons.

Servanthood, Suffering, and Sacrifice

Text: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:45

It is a little bit drastic – hiring someone to kill your husband. But after 22 years being battered and sexually abused, Delia was afraid that her children and probably she herself will be killed. She had gone to her mother who said – you made your commitment to this marriage, now you have to make it work. She had gone to the police— who had written a restraining order and kept her husband in jail overnight when he violated it. But he tore it up and threatened to kill her if she did it again. She had gone to the shelter, but her husband found her and threatened to kill her parents. So she did the only other thing she could think of that would get rid of him forever.

In the film, Broken Vows, where Delia tells her story, Marie Fortune said: “Delia’s behavior is not something I condone, nor something I recommend, but her actions are something that I can understand. The community failed her completely and finally she acted in self-defense to save her own life and that of her children.” ((www.faithtrustinstitute.org for more information about Faith Trust Institute and their educational resources. “Broken Vows” is one of their training tapes.)

So I wonder what this scripture about servanthood, suffering and sacrifice might say to Delia. Actually, Delia talked to her priest and he said that divorce was against God’s laws, that women should serve their husbands, and that her suffering and sacrifice could be the channel of salvation for her husband.

When we preach this text, we have to think carefully about who is in the congregation. If a victim of family violence is in my congregation on Sunday and I preach the usual sermon about servanthood, suffering, and sacrifice, I will likely contribute to years of captivity for her and her children. We know that domestic violence often leads to murder, but usually it is the murder of women and children.

See the Full Text of this sermon under Writing>Sermons.