To Jan Holton, associate professor of the practice of pastoral theology and care, pastoral care should aim to accompany a person or community having problems, not fix the problems.
“Pastors are not therapists, unless they have additional training,” she said. “One class in pastoral care does not make someone a therapist or counselor. And yet, we’re really steeped in this idea of diagnosing and fixing.”
The tendency to diagnose and fix not only forces pastors to undertake something they shouldn’t, but means they also miss a key opportunity. “We’re forfeiting the role of spiritual care provider—the one who is able to bring in aspects of what culture brings to the story, some of what is happening psychologically,” she said. “Our opportunity is to help someone understand God’s presence in their lives, and to understand what hope is and what joy is, even in a despairing time.”
Holton formed this approach through both her formal education and experiences outside the classroom. She sought jobs that served people or communities in struggle: when she was an undergraduate student at Randolph-Macon College in Richmond, Va., in her 30s, she worked as live-in staff at a women’s transitional shelter. During seminary at Union Presbyterian, she completed an internship at a state psychiatric facility. During her doctoral work at Vanderbilt University, she worked as a hospital chaplain at its medical center.
Holton describes her journey as coming from a place of deep thirst. After high school in Virginia, she first pursued acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. She “veered off of that course,” but stayed in New York for much of her early 20s, occasionally taking classes at City University of New York. Living there and seeing poverty and homelessness opened her eyes to suffering. After moving back to Virginia, she began volunteering at a Methodist church. “I just threw myself into the activities of the church and was drawn to ministries that reached out to people who were suffering,” she said.
Her experiences led her to realize that being a child of God does not exempt anyone from suffering. “I suppose my whole career has moved from that point of trying to understand suffering, and then eventually to help pastors think through that,” Holton said.
She traveled widely on mission trips and directed studies. She visited the Holy Land, Siberia, Sudan, and Congo. She went on a mission trip to Bosnia in 1996, just a few months after the cease-fire. “That was an immersion into a post-conflict zone that still felt like a conflict zone,” she said. “That was where I started forming these questions about suffering in conflict zones, and what trauma looked like in those contexts.”
While in seminary, she participated in a directed study in Nicaragua, helping a church group distribute relief supplies after Hurricane Mitch devastated much of Central America. The group encountered families living under plastic tarps beside a polluted river, including a mother with a newborn baby. “I realized this mother was joyful,” Holton said. “That’s not to say there wasn’t trauma and despair, but I found this idea that because bad things have happened we can just classify people as being traumatized not to be true in other cultures or other places where life was hard to begin with.”
Holton is clear that no one should dismiss or downplay tragedy or suffering. Rather, she argues that the culture needs a wider view of what strengths and deficits people and communities have.
“In our culture, how we explain stress is through a biomedical model, with diagnosis, with treatments,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong: I’m grateful for all of those things. So, it’s not a critique of that. But the training of one’s lens that way is really a sort of deficit.”
That’s the “pathology” lens. Holton wants her students to look through the “promise” lens. This is a strength-based view that wants to include what may be going right. “I’m not taking away from the bad things that happen,” Holton said. “I think we can hold both of these things.”
The strength-based view also includes faith stories. Individuals and communities have them and often draw on them during challenging times.
“What faith narratives explain who we are as children of God, who we are as followers of Christ, what is our relationship with God in Christ? Those are important questions, because every church will have slightly different ways of expressing their answers,” she said. “I think that it’s important for pastors to understand what the faith narrative is at the churches they move into. Because it can sneak up on them if they’re not aware—and if they come in with a different kind of narrative.”
Holton learned that while working in refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities. She began when the organization’s focus was on the “Lost Boys” of Sudan, and more recently worked with churches in the United States helping to resettle refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.
“My job was to understand church congregations, how they’re thinking, and what the barriers are, and what the gifts are, and to offer some training,” she said. “And also, to understand the refugees and what they’re going through, where they are.”
Coming to Duke Divinity School in 2018 was “a no-brainer,” Holton said, considering the “brilliant students” and “wonderful faculty,” plus Duke’s strong focus on strengthening the local church. “It’s really living into the faith in the local church,” she said. “Building the local church is the focus of Duke Divinity School, and it does that so powerfully.”