Caring for God’s People

Reviews of “Caring for God’s People: Counseling and Christian Wholeness”

Caring For God's PeopleBook Details

Author: Philip Culbertson
Publisher: Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2000
Pages: 384
ISBN: 0-8006-3187-0.
RRP: US$ 29.95


Table of Contents:

Part One: The Theory
Family Systems Theory
Narrative Counseling Theory
Object Relations Theory and Intersubjective Narratives
Part Two: The Application
Premarital Counseling
Marriage Counseling
Divorce Counseling
Counseling Gays and Lesbians
Ministry with Those Who Mourn
Part Three: Staying Safe in Ministry
The Praxis of Pastoral Counseling
Pastoral Congruence and Ministry Supervision

Back Cover Endorsements

I heartily welcome this book-a readable and thorough overview of three distinct psychological approaches to engaging interaction with the common needs of congregational ministry. I’m impressed with the author’s thoroughness and pleased to see his interest in the healthy development of the person of the pastor, as well as his sensitivity to the issues of diversity.
Bonnie Miller-McLemore,
Vanderbilt Divinity School

Culbertson provides a wide variety of historical and contemporary material that is important for pastors, theological students, and laity to know and use in their pastoral care work. The book gives a cross-cultural perspective that is essential in offering a relevant ministry in the world today.
John Patton,
Columbia Theological Seminary

Thorough, innovative, and insightful, the application section covers the key aspects of pastoral care ministry with sensitivity. The chapters on premarital, marriage, and grief care offer comprehensive theory and strategies for excellent ministry, and the chapter on pastoral care and counseling with gay and lesbian persons speaks to the issues of justice without sacrificing the dimensions of care and counseling. I look forward to using these chapters in my own pastoral care classes.
Christie Neuger,
United Theological Seminary

Publisher’s Advertising

Culbertson has built his text around the ideal of Christian wholeness and maturity-a healthy interconnectedness of self-within-community. The heart of the book lies in its presentation of the three schools of counseling theory that Culbertson finds most helpful: family systems theory, narrative counseling theory, and object relations theory.

Each of these is explained in detail, and then applied to the most common and challenging of counseling situations: pre-marital counseling, marriage counseling, divorce counseling, counseling gay men and women, and grief counseling. Culbertson brings new sensitivities to the counseling scene-a more nuanced grasp of gender, a new sense of families, issues of sexual orientation, a strong sense of the relationship of emotions to spirituality, an empathic attitude, a pragmatic but professional mix of ancillary theories, and a sense of the relevance of the counselor’s own self-understanding.

Author’s Blurb (from

This book is culmination of fifteen years of teaching pastoral care to those training for ministry, as well as teaching “cultural issues” to those training to be psychotherapists. It is designed to serve practitioners in the fields of ministry, counseling, and psychotherapy as a refresher course and as an introduction to new developments in the field of pastoral psychotherapy. It is also designed to be a textbook for those being trained in “people skills.” Within the first months of its publication, it has already been adopted s a textbook in a dozen US seminaries and theological colleges. Introduction or refresher, “Caring” should be a valuable text for those devoted to the psychodynamics of interpersonal relationships.

From OC BOOKS, Dunedin, Catalog 13, March 2000, page 2

American priest Philip Culbertson is well-known in New Zealand circles – he teaches at St. John’s College. He has recently produced a new title called Caring for God’s People: Counselling and Christian Wholeness. The book looks to me to be very comprehensive, especially for anyone training in ministry (including lay people) and apart from saying that I found it very accessible and non “text-book-like,” I can’t do any better than quote the recommendations from readers on the back cover.

From The New Zealand Herald, 26-27 August, 2000, p. I-11.

Subtitled Counseling and Christian Wholeness, Caring for God’s People is promoted as a textbook on pastoral counseling for a new generation of professionals in ministry. It should not be viewed as an easy read, but rather as a resource tool. As soon as I began reading, however, I realized that this book is not primarily aimed at those of us in ministry in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Aucklander Philip Culbertson’s very American references to school grades and his American spelling indicate who the real audience is, even if some local examples are used.

Not surprisingly, Culbertson begins with a number of assumptions. For example, he has chosen family systems theory, narrative counseling theory and object relations theory as the three most useful approaches from the field of psychotherapy for those in ministry.

Of course, most ministers do trawl from a wide range of theories, so even if you do disagree with this view and are willing to grapple with the jargon, his analysis could add to any minister’s melting pot.

Another assumption Culbertson works from is his perception of ministry, which he defines as recognizing god through self-knowledge and then simply being among others to point where God is already present and at work.

Good ministry, according to Culbertson, is ultimately dependent upon the pastor’s people skills, people knowledge, and knowing what wholeness looks like.

As significant as these issues are, ministry must be more than this. What about our understanding of who God is and the skills in ministry that enable people to discover a closer relationship with God? What is Christian ministry without a living, active God?

And yet there are practical ideas and a great deal of useful information throughout the book, with the three theories fully outlined and then applied to the areas of pre-marital, marital and divorce counseling; counseling of gays and lesbians, ministry with those who mourn, and staying safe in ministry.

I finished the book feeling it was yet another very good counseling textbook. But the application of theory to Christian ministry seemed superficial, with a lack of real theological integration. Assumptions about theology are not clarified at the outset, as others are. Instead these must be pieced together as one reads. The emphasis on comprehending the “object God” as something we have created and the only other perception of God being labeled the “God Beyond” implies an inability to have a relationship with a real God who exists beyond our imaginings.

The emphasis on Christian maturity correlating with autonomy and independence goes against the strong argument for mature interdependence, as modeled on the nature of the Trinity.

Culbertson’s introduction promotes the need to delve into the dangerous place where Christian faith, psychotherapeutic theory, ecclesiology, missiology and justice issues intersect.

It seems to me that although this is a fine counseling text, Culbertson fails to find that elusive point of intersection.

Reviewed by the Rev. Nicola Watkin,
Kohimarama Presbyterian Church,

From World Pastoral Care Center, May 2000.

As time permits, this book will receive an extensive review. It has an important message for all engaged in the work of ministry. Not only does it refocus our thinking on matters of wholeness, but speaks clearly about what distinguishes ministry from other caregiving and counseling.

Part 1 covers various theories related to caregiving. Part 2 moves us beyond theory to practical matters that come to our awareness through people in need. Among the subjects discussed are premarital counseling, marriage counseling, divorce counseling, Gays and Lesbians, the bereaved. Part 3 covers “staying safe in ministry,” including the praxis of pastoral counseling, maintaining a supervisory relationships and matters for self care and adjustment.

From Anglical Theological Review, 2001.

In an era when the psychotherapeutic model of ministry has fallen into disfavor and insurance companies and judicatories are warning about the liabilities inherent in counseling ministries, the Rev. Dr. Philip Culbertson, an Episcopal priest who teaches at St. John’s Theological College in New Zealand, calls us forward to a vision of pastoral care and counseling which is rooted in solid psychological theory and grounded in sound ministry preparation and practices. Caring for God’s People is more than an excellent textbook for an introductory course in pastoral counseling. It offers readers both an accessible introduction to and a high-powered refresher course in resources for self-awareness; contemporary psychological theory; approaches to pastoral care throughout the life cycle; and the ongoing need for supervision and support in all kinds of ministry.

The volume is organized in three parts: “The Theory”; “The Application”; “Staying Safe in Ministry.” In “The Theory,” Culbertson presents an impressive overview of family systems theory, narrative counseling theory, and object relations theory. He believes that these three psychological perspectives are especially useful in contemporary pastoral care and counseling. His treatment of each synthesizes an amazing array of writers and theorists. The chapter on “Family Systems Theory” is concise and easily approachable. Indeed, it would be useful background reading for seminarians or clergy prior to tackling Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation (New York, Guilford Press, 1985). An appendix to the chapter offers a practical introduction to the construction and interpretation of genograms.

“Narrative Counseling Theory” explores the concepts of story and family narrative within a Christian context. It has a marked resonance with currently popular narrative approaches to theology and ethics, such as have been explored by the late James William McClendon (Biography as Theology, Philadelphia, 1990), and to congregational studies such as that developed by James Hopewell (Congregation: Stories and Structures, Philadelphia, 1987).
The thirty-six page chapter on “Object Relations Theory and Intersubjective Narratives” is an extraordinarily lucid and concise summary of many of the leading themes and theorists in the field of object relations. Culbertson clearly recognizes that most clergy will not have the educational background to work with this material in a sustained way, but asserts nonetheless, that object relations theorists offer important windows into both the development of the self and the relationship of the self to God. The material on faith development is thought provoking and potentially very helpful to pastors and spiritual directors who may be exploring an individual’s concept of or relationship to God.

Part Two, “The Application,” includes chapters on “Premarital Counseling”; “Marriage Counseling”; “Divorce Counseling”; “Counseling Gays and Lesbians”; and “Ministry with Those Who Mourn.” Whether pastors are involved only in general crisis intervention and referral work or in fact expect to be engaged in some more sustained premarital, grief, or other counseling ministries, they will find each of these chapters very useful. All of this material is rooted in solid psychological theory and excellent recent pastoral resources are referenced throughout. Each chapter holds substantial potential as a resource for a variety of pastoral adult education initiatives. The chapter on “Counseling Gays and Lesbians” clearly enunciates the view that gay and lesbian persons should be able to expect the full pastoral care and support of the Church. It includes a very thoughtful theological reflection on the “coming out” process and many practical suggestions for counselors and spiritual directors.

The final section, “Staying Safe in Ministry,” is devoted to more general issues of practice in pastoral counseling. Culbertson lays out a schema of the types of pastoral counseling and offers clear advice for when to make referrals. The discussion of transference and countertransference issues is succinct and helpful.

Chapter Ten, “Pastoral Congruence and Ministry Supervision,” represents an able articulation of the need for every pastor to be aware of his or her own “woundedness” and the essential place of high caliber supervision in pastoral care in general, but most especially in ongoing counseling ministries.

Throughout the book, Culbertson makes an earnest effort to add a cross cultural dimension to his writing and pastoral illustrations, drawing particularly from his current experience with clergy and seminarians from Maori and South Pacific cultures. This reviewer hopes that a second edition of Caring for God’s People will pursue and develop this dimension more fully.

I have already used this book as a text in three seminary courses: in teaching fundamental concepts of pastoral care; in orienting spiritual directors to the need to make appropriate pastoral and psychological referrals; and in elucidating an accessible model for premarital and grief counseling in routine parish ministry. Philip Culbertson has provided such sound theoretical content and such splendid ministry models and bibliographical leads that Caring for God’s People: Counseling and Christian Wholeness also ought to be on the continuing education reading list of all who have been out of seminary for a while.

Professor William Doubleday
The General Theological Seminary
New York, New York

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