This post is the first in a series based on a conversation with Rich Plass on the Saturate Podcast. You can listen to the episode here.
Brad Watson: Jared Pickney, Adam Breckenridge, and myself were able to talk with Rich Plass about the relational soul that we all have, who we are, and who we were created to be. It was a really good conversation, and we are excited to share it. As people who want to do life in the context of missional communities especially, we can be very relationally-driven but we hardly ever pause and say, “What is a healthy relationship? How do you do that?”
Rich, thank you so much for joining us today. Before we jump in, could you share your story with us? Where are you from? How did you end up here as a servant to pastors and as a counselor to so many people?
Rich Plass: Reaching back, I grew up in upstate New York. My folks were believers. We were faithful attenders to church. A little bit of Pentecostal tradition in the family, but ended up as a child landing in the Reformed Church in America. Eventually was ordained within that community of faith. Our family was middle income, I would say. My dad was an orphan and a blue-collar worker. My mom was from an immigrant first-generation family, and they taught us to be responsible and to work hard. I grew up with four sisters. Made a commitment to the Lord in my teen years, and at that time felt God was calling me into ministry. Most likely, as I see it now as I close out on age 70, the fruit of my mother’s prayers, I suspect.
I wasn’t a very good high school student. In fact, I was told I probably shouldn’t go to college, probably find a good career as some sort of an electrician or plumber. But I ignored that. Felt I was called to ministry, and went to college in Orange City, Iowa at Northwestern College. Made my way through there. Sophomore year, I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship, and that really changed the trajectory of my life in a significant way in terms of recognizing Bonhoeffer’s favorite phrase, “There’s no cheap grace.”
And so, I became a diligent student then, and after college went onto Gordon Conwell, and graduated from there in 1975. Married and had four girls and in the course of 25 years of pastoral ministry, ended up my final pastoral work was in planting a church in the south suburbs of Chicago. I pastored that church for 19 years. Really, through that experience, a difficult marriage, unfortunately, that ended in divorce, and pain of that journey along with the pain of other pastors that I worked with, I felt God was calling me into a ministry of caring for the souls of leaders and probably unconsciously seeking to care for my own soul at the time.
And so, I launched out and went on to do PhD studies at Southern Seminary in Pastoral Counseling, and at the same time, founded CrossPoint Ministry to work on my own healing and to learn better how to heal and help others in the journey of healing and becoming whole persons in ministry.
I started the journey in doctoral studies in 1995 and 1996, and finally crammed four years of PhD work into six. We ended up starting CrossPoint Ministry, working really at doing intensives or interventions for couples that were really struggling and in trouble. We found that we could do that forever; what we needed to do was to become more proactive in what it was that cultivated being a healthy person in ministry. We wanted to explore those sorts of realities, and we ended up really focusing on contemplative disciplines of solitude and silence and contemplative reading of Scripture and prayer as essential spiritual disciplines in the fostering of a healthy soul in ministry.
There’s a tendency, I think, in the evangelical community to be an activistic community and we’re always busy building and achieving and accomplishing. And that needs to be balanced. Nothing wrong with ambition and accomplishing, but it needs to be balanced by the contemplative disciplines for the soul to stay in a healthy place.
And then, through my doctoral studies, really began this integrated work of trying to do a soul care that’s really Christ-centered, that is Biblically-based, and is clinically informed. And I think those three criteria guide how we go about doing our work in CrossPoint and providing coaching and care.
So now, my wife Sallie and I, along with several other colleagues, Jim Cofield, Joy Cofield, and other partners in our ministry try to do our best at caring for the souls of leaders from that particular context of being a Christ-centered, Biblically-based, and clinically informed ministry that really accentuates the significance of relationships. Hence, the book The Relational Soul. And our conviction really emerges out of experience and theological and clinical reflection.
We’ve been doing this now since 1995 or 1996. No one comes to us because they’re short on Biblical knowledge or theological knowledge. No one does. Persons come fundamentally because of troubled souls. Troubled souls individually or troubled relationally. And as a result, we’ve tended to saying that ministry will rise and fall on the quality of our relationships. And we also tend to say that the quality of our life is predicated on the quality of our relationships. Relationships become key for us at CrossPoint.
Jared Pickney: That’s a great segue into one of the questions I had for you, Rich. It’s around the idea I’ve heard you say that we’re designed for and defined by our relationships. You kind of alluded to that a little bit, but can you flesh out that idea for us just a little bit more?
Rich Plass: I think there’s two components to that question. One a biblical-theological component and the other is a clinical component. If we look at it from a biblical-theological component, it’s clear that the Scripture is telling us that we’re relational beings. After all, it says we’re made in the image of God, and our God is a unique God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He’s a Trinitarian God. He dwells as one God in three distinct persons in perfect love. So our God, by essence, is a relational God. I think the theologian Grenz makes that point in his book The Social God and the Relational Self.
But the point here is that because we’re made in the image of God, we’re made male and female, which points to our relationality as well. But when we even move from image of God thinking to the nature of the New Testament, we find Jesus saying things like, “Follow me.” Now, it seems to me that when Jesus is offering that personal invitation, He’s inviting a relationship.
And when He leaves and gives us the Great Commandment in Matthew 22, He doesn’t say the Great Commandment is think about God and think about your neighbor as you think about yourself, He says, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” So, if we’re going to engage in the world of loving, which is our primary ethic in our Christian life, then it seems to me that that’s all relationally focused. It’s an invitation to live relationally.
Paul, at the Areopagus, is saying in Him and through and for Him all things exist. So, we know this is a relational world. In Colossians, Paul is making the point, “In him, all things hold together.” There isn’t any life, there isn’t any form of existence unless Jesus is relationally holding it together under His Lordship and by His divine power. So, theologically, we’re relational beings. That’s our perspective from both creation and redemption.
And then if we look at it from a clinical perspective, it’s quite fascinating. When a little infant shows up, their survival is dependent upon a relationship, and it’s dependent upon making an emotional connection. Infants have two fundamental instincts, the instinct to find a set of eyes and the instinct to suck. Both of them are in service of connection. Both of those instincts serve sustaining, obviously, physical health, but even in that act of sucking or physical health, there’s this emotional connection that’s being forged. Neurologically what’s being mapped in the brain is a foundational attachment pattern, a pattern of connecting that we’ll use our whole life. And that pattern is completed, some would argue, by 24 months. So we’re designed both by instinct and also by the nature of how the brain is seeking to be structured and ends up being structured for relational connection.
One other, I find, very fascinating point is the fact, not notion, it’s a fact, that we have mirror neurons. Mirror neurons help us to mimic and copy. And so, I have grandchildren, eight of them, and they’re wonderful people. And if you’re around the three-year-olds, and the three-year-olds happen to be around the nine or ten-year-olds, the three-year-olds are going to be pretty much copying what the nine and ten-year-olds are trying to do because of mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons are the way by which we copy others, but also in a more profound sense, it’s the way we internalize the presence of others. I’m fascinated by the statement in John Coe and Todd Hall’s book, Psychology and Spirit. They talk about an infant literally borrowing the brain of their adult caregivers. So the little infant starts crying, and how is the little infant soothed? Well, the infant is soothed not by his or her own power or capacities, but rather in the early years, by literally borrowing the brain of Mom or Dad, who soothes and comforts them. And in that process, the infant internalizes the soothing presence and therefore, establishes neurologically, the capacity to self-regulate and to self-soothe.
That’s how profoundly relationally structured we are. And that continues throughout our lives. We continue to internalize the presence of other human beings as we make our journey. And no less so than in marriage. We internalize the presence of our spouse. We experience them deep within ourselves because we are fundamentally structured as relational beings from day one, and even probably in some cases, third trimester in utero.
As our culture continues to wrestle through COVID-19, how can followers of Jesus offer care, support, known-ness, and counsel, when many aren’t even comfortable being in each other’s physical presence?
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