Religious guidance is not out of reach

Courtney Cook

Ted Schumacher meets with students in his office inside his home, opening and closing each session with prayer.

Melissa Carvill-Ziemer has a lovely sitting room adjacent to her office and sometimes likes to get together with parishioners for coffee or a walk.

The Rev. John Jerek congregates with students in the Fireside Lounge or in his office in the Newman Center.

Scott Sommer gathers with students weekly and individually, wherever they feel most comfortable.

Religious leaders often counsel students in secular matters, but in different places and in various ways.

All, though, use a spiritual underpinning.

The sound board

“Sometimes all people need is someone to talk to, someone to be there for them and someone to listen.” – Ted Schumacher, Christian Outreach.

Schumacher has been a campus missionary, affiliated with Coalition for Christian Outreach, for more than 27 years. He is the adviser for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Kent State, a group with more than 60 members. He meets with nine students weekly for half-hour sessions.

“You don’t pursue people,” Schumacher said. “Don’t push. Just let yourself be available. If any individual isn’t interested in what I have to say, then I back off.”

He said the issues students have extend from the severity of drug dependency and authority issues to struggles in school and relationships.

He said it’s difficult when students come to him with relationship problems because, more times than not, the relationship isn’t worth fixing.

“Sometimes people just need to walk away from a bad thing in their life,” Schumacher said. “This is often a person or relationship that is causing them stress. At the point where they’re coming to me for help, I generally tell them to move on and help them get there.”

The secret to understanding life’s mystery, Schumacher said, is discovering truth, accepting it as the truth and working toward it down the road.

“You can tell when someone has learned and matured when they take their eyes off themselves,” he said.

The internal wisdom-seeker

“My job is primarily careful listening and gentle reflective questioning.” – Melissa Carvill-Ziemer, Unitarian Universalist minister.

Carvill-Ziemer is the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Kent. She describes pastoral counseling as the many ways trained clergy provide help for members of a congregation or religious practice.

“I’m trying to help them hear themselves clearly by hearing what is concerning them,” she said.

Carvill-Ziemer said counseling sessions vary from simply chatting after church to dedicating specific periods of time to conversation. Problems can be relationship and family issues or deeper concerns such as abortion, suicide and mental disorders. In Unitarian Universalism, pastoral counseling also includes child dedications, weddings and memorial services and funerals.

Occasionally, people will seek help that exceeds her trained spectrum of care. Many come expecting a referral to a professional, and they need someone qualified to help them “make that leap.” She said she will meet with people up to three times before seeking outside help.

“A lot of times people know they need a therapist, but it’s hard to pursue,” Carvill-Ziemer said.

Often, people come to her simply wanting to talk. She said she wants people to understand what is inside them so that she can, in turn, listen and understand, while helping them come to peace with themselves through internal searching and reflective questioning.

“Someone may come to me feeling disconnected from that which is larger than themselves,” she said. “I believe people are very wise, and that when given the opportunity to access their own wisdom, find what they need within.”

Carvill-Ziemer said the clergy is not the only outlet individuals can seek for pastoral care. The congregation’s extended care is significant to how Unitarian Universalists support each other and interact together.

“Care and concern for all is available through the congregation,” she said.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent created a pastoral association last January, and seven parishioners were trained in intense listening and focused conversation.

Carvill-Ziemer said she would never wish suffering on any person. However, it is through suffering, she said, that individuals learn. Without attempting to solve their own problems, they are unable to grow spiritually.

“None of us can save anyone else – even if we could, I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest,” she said.

The trained listener

“As we listen, we allow the wisdom of the religion to impinge on the situation.” – John Jerek, Newman Center pastor.

The Rev. John Jerek is the pastor at the Newman Center at Kent State. Catholics practice the sacrament of reconciliation, the act of confiding one’s sins to a pastor or priest and penance, then taking specific steps to overcome the sinful action. Pastoral counseling and confession, however, are not the same.

“Confession is an experience of unburdening one’s sins so they can gain strength from the church,” Jerek said. “Pastoral counseling has more of a therapeutic dimension.”

Penance is structured, he said, and pastoral counseling is about making individuals feel more at ease with their lives. It is a therapeutic session that focuses on the subject’s feelings, whereas confession has prearranged guidelines for achieving penance. The answers to pastoral counseling issues are open-ended, and a pastoral counseling session requires different knowledge of the situation at hand. Confession only requires knowledge of the sin.

“Many people will come to confession and unload all their problems on me, but that’s not what confession is for,” Jerek said. “There is another time and place for personal problems.”

When he begins a counseling session, Jerek said he needs to have knowledge of the person and a little history about him or her, the dynamics of the issue at hand and where he wants to encourage the individual to go.

Jerek said people come to him with worry of world hunger, soldiers dying overseas, issues of global warming and other factors they feel a responsibility to but are mostly out of their control.

“Occasionally, the larger issues of the world can break into people’s lives so much that they need some help understanding it and sorting it out,” Jerek said.

Church staff and parishioners will direct people seeking help to Jerek. He will assess the situation to decide if the problem is something he is adequately trained to help with.

“It is important for a minister to be honest about his or her limitations,” Jerek said.

He said if issues rooted in a larger problem surface during a counseling session, such as threat of suicide or endangerment of someone’s life, it would be grounds for contacting professional psychological help.

“With the growth of so much church ministry, I wonder how many people doing pastoral counseling are really qualified to be doing it,” Jerek said.

He said it is easy for a member of the clergy to get a “messiah complex,” believing he or she can save the person, when in some situations that’s not the case.

He will occasionally refer someone to another educated parishioner to help “size-up” the situation rather than to diagnose the problem at hand.

“You can’t just set yourself up to be an amateur psychologist,” he said.

There is a reason that “pastoral” is in front of the word counseling, Jerek said. The help individuals receive from clergy or a congregation defines “pastoral” as care from and for the church with a sense of being part of a religious body.

The mentor

“I am a resource – I help others learn to walk with Jesus.” – Scott Sommer, director of the Dive.

Sommer is the director of the Dive, a Christian outreach group on campus. He is new to Kent State this semester and regularly meets with three students a week to converse with them and counsel them, if he is able. Sommer sees pastoral counseling matters as a large picture that involves many people sharing in faith.

Sommer said 50 percent or more of the students who come to him are simply looking for a more adequate way to walk with God. Many seek help in relationships, which Sommer said can be solved by asking, “how can we all, as humans, love each other better?”

It is the role of every person following the teachings of Jesus to help others along the path to God as they are able, he said.

“I don’t know how one person just ‘is’ a pastoral counselor,” he said. “It is just as much my responsibility to love people and listen as much as a pastoral counselor.”

Sommer attended The Ohio State University and began counseling his peers while he was a student there. He has since experienced situations ranging from grades to girlfriends to bipolar disorder, depression and suicide.

The Dive has peer counseling available, called Life Groups. Sommer said the groups are generally divided into people who share a common interest or live in the same area. They meet once a week to sit down, talk and unload.

“It’s a place to talk about the normal pressures of life and get a response from the Christian perspective,” Sommer said. “A lot of times with the Dive, that feeling of support is automatic.”

Contact religion reporter Courtney Cook [email protected]