Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

11/24 2015

Pumpkin-Flavored Faith

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Each fall pumpkin flavored everything explodes. There’s pumpkin lattes, donuts, candles. Bagels, chips, and even alcohol. And in just two days – hopefully! – there will be pumpkin pies at your Thanksgiving feast. Ever wondered though which type of pumpkin treat represents your faith? Take the “Pumpkin-Flavored Faith” quiz from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and find out!


11/17 2015

Pre-marital Counseling: Getting to the Heart of Marriage

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premarital-counselingHave you ever overheard a conversation between a wedding coordinator and the pastor? I had one that went like this:

Wedding Coordinator: “Have you met the bride yet? She is a real Bridezilla. Her first question was about the carpet. She wanted to know if we were going to have it changed before her wedding. It seems she doesn’t like the color.”

Pastor: “Sounds like a bride with the wrong priorities!”

How does a pastor counsel a couple to focus on the right priorities? What is an essential and what is a frill? This is where competent pre-marital Christian counseling comes into play. To really get to the heart of marriage preparation, pre-marital counseling is vital. You may have noticed I wrote marriage preparation and not wedding preparation.

Many couples enter my office with a lovely planner that has lists and lists of things to do before the wedding. Rarely does the list mention “prepare for a marriage”. The wedding is important not because of extravagance but because it is a worship service. So, I tell them that I am certain we can plan for a beautiful worship service, but my most important job as a pastor is preparing them for marriage. It is my responsibility to take the focus away from a one day event and toward a lifelong commitment—a covenantal relationship between each other and God.

I generally hold three sessions with a couple. During the first session I get to know them. One of the key things we talk about are faith traditions, why they want to get married in the church, what their faith means to each of them, and where God is in their relationship. We discuss how they met, where they met, how long they dated before they got engaged, what they have in common, and where they have found themselves in conflict. Other topics are families of origin, family traditions, friends, education, careers, and their thoughts on having children and parenting. The conversation always leads to values and money (one of the key stressors in a marriage).

During the second session, we plan the worship service. This includes going through the entire service and offering them choices for each section of the liturgy. They also spend a significant amount of time reading Scripture together and deciding on passages that speak to them and their relationship. Watching their interactions during this process gives a great deal of insight into how they work together and problem solve. It gives room to begin the discussion on compromise. This also gives insight into how they respect each other, how they speak to one another, and how they value the other’s worth as a person. We talk about fighting fair: talking to each other in a respectful manner, no name calling, and discussing the matter at hand rather than every grievance they have from the past.

In the third session, we discuss how things have been going over the past few weeks and any concerns they have about the relationship. They have a chance to voice their struggles and areas of concern so that we can discuss them openly. I also ask what makes their relationship special and why they have decided they are meant to be together.

Every pastor has his/her own method of conducting pre-marital counseling. The important thing is that it is conducted openly and honestly and offers the couple the opportunity to truly explore their relationship. As a pastor with an Mdiv degree, when I sense that a couple has serious issues that go beyond my level of expertise, it is vital that I refer them to a person who is specialized in Christian counseling—like someone with a master of social work degree. I am never reluctant to refer a couple because as a pastor my desire is for them to enter into a solid, Christ-centered marriage based on a loving, devoted relationship. Marriage is not a 50/50 proposition. In a successful marriage, each person gives 100 percent.

The Rev. Carolyn Cranston ’99 is a graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and serves as the director of alumnae/i and church giving. As an ordained teaching elder, she’s also temporary associate pastor at Pleasant Hills Community Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, and often officiates weddings.



11/11 2015

Counseling Through Spiritually Integrated Treatment

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theology and mental health counselingShannon is having sleepless nights, is short with her kids, and has even scared herself from time to time as thoughts of suicide have floated across the landscape of her mind. As a minister in a respectable denomination, she realizes that the words of grace and pardon she proclaims week after week don’t seem to penetrate her own soul even as she hopes them for her beloved sheep.

Michael is in a 12-step program where he is trying to “fake it until he makes it” and is working diligently to change his “people, places, and things”. But try as he might, he can’t quite believe in the higher power that is supposed to be keeping him sober. That higher power of his youth, that pie in the sky Santa Clause figure with a disapproving glare who rains on the just and who has let him down one too many times. Like that time that his father left his mother to raise three small children on her own in spite of Michael’s desperate, but futile, cries to God that his father would return. Michael believes that his very sobriety depends on an embrace of that God and yet he finds himself no longer able to go there.

These people are fabricated in my mind. Or more accurately said, they are bits and pieces of the 100 different people who grace the halls of the Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute (PPI) every day, wrestling with the very place that theology and mental health meet. People often ask us what “spiritually integrated treatment” means. They wonder what PPI does that is unique from secular or Christian counseling. It’s a terribly challenging question but one that I believe finds its focus in the dual MDiv/MSW degree program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work from which I (and many of the other therapists at PPI) have proudly graduated.

Through my seminary education, I learned how individuals construct their understanding of God even as my own thinking about God was challenged to be bigger and more expansive than I previously knew possible. Seminary grounded me deeper in my sacred tradition and deepened the value I place on the power of ritual even as I learned to embrace the traditions and rituals of others. My social work education taught me how our lives are lived in systems, how change comes about in the human psyche, and how human services can function as agents of grace in the world in ways that most churches currently only dream about. The unique coupling of these disciplines creates therapists and practitioners like myself who can journey with people from despair to hope as they weave in and out of the personal and conceptual landscapes of life, and family and sacred community, and faith and social action, and responsibility and connectedness.

People of all colors and stripes, with a vast variety of faith orientations, bring their journeys of brokenness and resiliency, faith and fear, desperation and hope, to the Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute. This is spiritually integrated treatment. Thanks be to the joint MDiv/MSW degree program for equipping me so well to live out this call to the world.

Michelle Snyder, LCSW is a 2009 graduate of the joint MDiv/MSW degree at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. She currently serves as executive director at Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute and oversees The Center for Clergy and Congregational Care.

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