The Pastor and Developmental Psychology

Psychology generally has been described as a “discipline with a long past but a very short history” (Schlesinger et al., 1976, p.8). This popular aphorism is meant to convey two meanings. Firstly psychological problems date back to antiquity and secondly the subject, in the sense of being an independent academic discipline is a recent development. The discipline is however a collection of subfields. Although each has its unique characteristics and requirements, some are intertwined, interrelated or interwoven, the sum total of which might reasonably be called psychological studies rather than psychology (Dandoff, 1987). Although many will argue that clinical or counseling psychology should be a must for pastors, it would be farfetched to state that I am sinking in the quick sand of subjectivity to present a case for development psychology “a branch of psychology which examines the biological, social and intellectual development of people from before birth throughout the life-course” (Cambridge Encyclopedia, p.339). A notable strength of developmental psychology is that it cuts across several areas like attachment, educational psychology or Piagetian psychology.

It must be noted that there is a unique relationship between subjects in psychology. This need not mean that they contradict each other. This could be illustrated by using a different example. It is interesting to consider how from each perspective we might view an emotion such as anger. From a biological perspective, one must study the brain circuits that trigger the physical state of being ‘red in the face’ and ‘hot under the cellar’. Someone working from psychoanalytic perspective might view an outburst as an outlet for unconscious hostility. Another individual working from behavioural perspective might study the facial expressions and body gestures that accompany anger, or determine which external stimuli result in angry responses or aggressive acts. The humanistic perspective might want to understand what it means to experience and express anger from the person’s own point of view. Interestingly, the cognitive perspective might study how an angry mood affects our thinking. Someone working from a socio-cultural perspective might explore how anger and its expression vary across cultural groups. It is obvious that the biological, psychoanalytic, behavioural, humanistic, cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives describe and explain anger very differently. They are not necessarily contradictory approaches but six useful ways of looking at the same psychological state. By using all six, one gains a fuller understanding of anger than any single perspective can provide (Myers, 1992). By implication, it is the same with the branches of psychology.

It is imperative to briefly outline the range of psychology to put the discussion in perspective. Experimental psychologists, like many psychologists, rely on scientific methods and experiments to examine behavior. Their research often is conducted in a laboratory. They investigate areas such as sensation, perception, learning, memory and motivation in humans and other animals. Their emphasis is on basic research, that is, knowledge for its own sake without much consideration as to its possible application. Neuropsychological and psychobiological psychologists are interested in biological factors and their effects on behavior. Both neuropsychological and psychobiological psychologists study the brain, nervous system, genes and drugs in relation to behaviour. Neuropsychological psychologists, however, often work hand in hand with physicians to treat disorders related to the nervous system.

Developmental psychologists study the way in which behaviours develop and change during a life span. Often their emphasis is on childhood. Special areas of interest include the development of language, social attachments, emotions, thinking and perception.

Cognitive psychologists study internal mental processes, which include thinking, memory, concept formation, perception, and processing of information. To the cognitive psychologists, behaviour is composed of mental events, internal representations, desires, beliefs and thoughts.

Social psychologists use scientific techniques to examine the effects that people have on one another. They are interested in topics such as co-operation, aggression, affection and group pressure.

Industrial or organizational psychologists generally work with businesses. They are concerned with improving working conditions, raising production rates, and developing decision-making abilities. Many of these I/Q psychologists, as they are called, began their work as experimental psychologists and then became consultants for business or industry.

Educational psychologists study educational systems, methods of teaching, curricula, and other factors influencing the learning process. Their goals are to improve education and to make learning easier and more efficient.

Clinical psychologists focus their efforts on understanding, diagnosing and treating abnormal or deviant behaviours. Efforts are being made to change the law to allow clinical psychologists to prescribe drugs after further training. As the law currently stands, however, prescribing drugs for mental health is still the province of physicians.

Counseling psychologists were traditionally trained to help individuals solve personal, academic or vocational problems that did not stem from serious mental disorders. However, counseling and clinical psychologists often have similar training, and the distinction between the two has become practically nonexistent.

The above notwithstanding, the rest of the discussion presents supportive evidence to the importance of developmental psychology to the pastoral field. Generally in Africa, from the time one is born, one’s position in society is to a large degree determined by one’s age. We change as we grow older. These changes are noticeable during the early years of infancy and childhood. As each month passes, an infant grows larger and shows dramatic gains in intellectual and social competence. Children undergo great changes from one year to the next. As they approach adolescence, their physical changes bring them closer to adulthood. Yet, for adolescents, there are new developmental changes. Upon the approach of old age and death, individuals will face yet more changes. Developmental psychology therefore studies age-related changes in human behaviour. It is realistically observed that “psychologists know what to expect at different developmental stages and they learn the extent of human growth and development. When Paul observed that he’d be everything to all men in order to win some to Christ, he was in other words saying that since he understood the developmental stages and appropriate evangelistic principles used to produce results in the corresponding groups.

Although it is categorically stated that God invites mankind to reason with Him in the book of Isaiah, how can one realistically speculate the age group He is referring to? Jean Piaget, trained in zoology, was a keen observer of children and works related to him constitute the most comprehensive body of data and theory on mental development in existence. Although some of his conclusions are under serious scrutiny, he proposed that thinking develops in a fixed sequence of stages in children. Characterized schemata appear in specific times. The accomplishments of each stage build on prior achievements. In explaining development, Piaget emphasized heredity. Social and physical development, he maintained, affect only the timing of specific milestones. During the first twenty-four months, babies make sense of their experiences by seeing, touching, sniffing, tasting and manipulating. In other words, they rely on sensory and meter systems. At the stage before concrete operations (intuitive thought), the child is naturally ego-centric or self-centred. How can an ego-centric child understand what it means to reason together? Since he is self-centred, he tends to see the world largely from his own perspective and finds it extremely difficult to put himself in a position of others or even to understand that other viewpoints exist. It is at this stage that the child delivers monologues. Typically, he neither knows nor cares whether anybody is listening. Superficially, the chatter sometimes sounds like a conversation because children often alternate and talk about related topics.

A detailed study of Piaget’s stage theory is imperative because inspite of criticisms levied against some of his conclusions, the individual stages would help one in the pastoral ministry to know what the child needs to know about religion. The stage of formal operations enables the individual to develop the ability to understand abstract logic. The adolescence “are capable of explaining some phenomena through a series of logical hypotheses” (Newman and Newman, 1984, p.9). At this mental stage, questions are contemplated, trying to “make sense of life…identity, social realities, religion and the like” (Davidoff, 1987, p.388).

It is evident from the fore-going that developmental psychology is concerned with “the description, prediction and modification of age-related behaviors during the full life again” (Huffman, Vernon and Williams, 1987, p.301). Some developmental psychologists emphasize specific ages (such as infancy, adolescence or old age) while others concentrate on specific areas such as physical or cognitive development. Cognitive psychology generally studies the higher mental processes (memory, action, and reasoning). Jesus knew that the reason why His followers swelled astronomically high was the food He provided for the five thousand men in a previous meeting. Developmental psychologists have set themselves the task of describing changes and trying to understand their causes as they explore their effects (Bernstein, 1988).

A critical analysis of psychological development assists the pastor to understand why it is difficult for a human being within the infancy, preschool, early childhood/kindergarten/middle childhood and even late childhood categories to fully understand the salvation message. Why did Jesus merely bless the children brought to Him but preached vehemently to the adolescent? As a development psychologist, He understood fully well that it is at the adolescent stage that the individual can either experience genuine conversion or may choose to ignore spiritual conviction.

A relatively recent but very vigorous addition to development psychology is the study of sex difference, particularly under the stimulus of social movements which demand not only equal opportunities but also equality of social roles for the sexes. To demonstrate the unique position of mankind in Christ, Paul observes that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ” (Gal. 3:38).

Developmental psychology, in summary, covers infancy, emotional growth, intellectual development, socialization, family structure and even schools (Roe, 1972). This study of “how people change and grow over time” (Wade and Travis, 1987, p.25) is a must for every pastor simply because he has a congregation of people with different ages, temperaments and even abilities. The distribution of talents in Matthew 25 clearly demonstrates that the abilities of people are different and they were given individual responsibilities against their level of development. Since the pastor, a shepherd is expected to respond to the individual and collective need of the congregation, it is incontrovertible that he must be able to look at and respond in all areas and to all ages. In other words, he should be a developmental psychologist.