Open and Relational Care
By Christy Gunter
Three key concepts of Open and Relational Theology apply clinically in a therapeutic context and to how the church relates to caring for the vulnerable.
In the last few decades of my adult life, there were several times where I needed extra help. As many single moms do, I turned to the church for those resources.
One of those times I was in need of a box of extra food, so I drove up to a church that was advertised by my kid’s school. The entry signs were easy enough to follow, but once I arrived, I had no idea where to proceed from there. I went the wrong way and felt incredibly humiliated. Especially when I tried to turn around and ran over a curb.
I sat in my car for a moment trying to gain composure. I had a one-on-one with the divine begging to just run away instead of going inside for more embarrassment.
Then I saw someone outside my car window. I cursed internally and smiled as she asked some questions I did not hear. I followed her inside. Teens lined the exit and entry way, so proud of the service they were doing for the Lord.
They mixed up my name, gave me a Spanish form that I couldn’t read, and then led me into the main room. Nothing was open. Nothing was relational, and I felt absolutely no uncontrolling love.
Every fiber of my being wanted to flee when I perceived what was coming. I could see, like the others before me, I was about to be sat down, talked to, proselytized, and prayed over.
By this point I was talking AT the divine with a few choice words that would bring shame upon my grandmother. I did not want to do this. But I sat down like a Nazarene quizzer about to jump in question recognition anyway.
A man in a matching red shirt, like all the others, looked at me. I pondered if death would be more fun.
Yep. That’s my name.
“Welcome back,” he cheerfully said.
“Thanks. I’ve never been here,” I said.
He asked me two more times, convinced I was unaware of my ability to recall driving and walking into places, until finally, he said, “Oh. Well. Welcome.”
Great, I thought. Let’s get it all over with and let me out of here.
He asked me if I was married. I hate that question. There have been very few times in my life where my answer was positive. But, you know, it’s a church and he made me answer. It was a required field. Nothing was open. Nothing was relational, and I felt absolutely no uncontrolling love.
Red shirt man asked how many and how old my kids were. He asked all sorts of questions that were invasive and embarrassing. He asked if I went to church and if I went every Sunday. He even asked the cross streets of the location of this church I attended. The cross street convinced him I really was a churchgoer, but he was concerned that it might be Catholic. I wondered if I could facepalm him right there.
He asked if I had anything he could pray for, and I shook my head no. He asked if he could pray for me anyway. But this question was not asked in a way where “no” was a possible response. I felt I had no choice in the matter. I would be prayed over.
I sat there as he petitioned the divine on my behalf, staring at the floor, eyes wide open. Teenagers on the sidelines continued to be so proud of their work. I thought starvation might be better than this. Nothing was open. Nothing was relational, and I felt absolutely no uncontrolling love.
When his prayer was over, I asked if I could walk forward. Such a question for permission to exist in space reminded me of domestic violence.
Finally, the light of day became visible, and I followed a young teenage boy out to my car. But not before some man, without asking permission, grabbed me and hugged me. I did not hug him back. He called me by name and thanked me for coming. I stared like a deer in headlights. Nothing was open. Nothing was relational, and I felt absolutely no uncontrolling love.
We got to my car and the teenager decided the shape of the box would not fit in my trunk, so I opened the side door.
“Do you live in your car?” he asked. I replied I did not. “Oh, then why is there so much garbage in your car?” he responded.
That’s when I died, and my ghost now writes this chapter.
I don’t know about you, but when my life is in chaos, my car reflects it.
And although I do not expect a kid to choose perfect words, his behavior reflected the church environment I was just experiencing where nothing was open. Nothing was relational, and I felt absolutely no uncontrolling love.
So, why do I tell this ‘death by embarrassment’ story?
Because it demonstrates the exact opposite of what I needed. I was vulnerable and needed a church that acted like the Open and Relational divine this book seeks to describe.
Three of the core foundations of Open and Relational Theology set a framework for how we believe the divine behaves and creates a context for how we can behave, too.
In Open and Relational Theology, we assert:
1. The future is open and unknown,
2. The divine is relational while affected by our actions, and
3. The divine loves us in uncontrolling ways.
In this essay I want to work with these three foundations to propose how these concepts relate to what I refer to as Open and Relational Therapy which can be applicable clinically in therapy or in how the church relates to the vulnerable.
I now work as the Director of Client Services in an agency that works to provide safety, healing, and opportunities for survivors of domestic and family violence in the North Texas area. Every day I put my heart into empowering five client services teams (the clinical team, rapid rehousing, the legal team, advocacy, and our two shelters) to be trauma-informed and survivor-centered in how we approach our community.
But here is my secret: I do this with an open and relational framework. I lead, guide, advise, coach, and interact with clients in the way I imagine the divine connects with us.
The people who come through the doors seeking help with domestic violence situations are as vulnerable as I was that day in the church waiting for a box of food.
When we are vulnerable, we often experience a world shaded by violence. A world that seeks to control us, is forceful with its demands toward us, takes away our agency and autonomy, and we feel the imposition of someone else’s will on us. That’s what violence is. Or, as I explain it in my book Survivor Care, violence is dehumanization, objectifying a person, and demanding a person is less than a meaningful human.
Clients come for therapy and advocacy having experienced a dehumanization of being that stripped them of agency and autonomy, and often the church’s response encourages further dehumanization, just as my introduction story illustrates.
What is needed is NOT more control, forceful pushes, required fields, impositions of someone else’s will, and a loss of agency. What IS needed is:
1. An approach toward humanity that believes the future is open and unknown and acts like it,
2. A relational worldview that believes the divine is affected by our actions and thus we also are affected by another’s actions, and
3. The type of love for others just like the divine loves us in uncontrolling ways.
So, what does this look like in the therapy room or in church expression to the community?
It means instead of having a set agenda and required fields that embarrass people, we are open. Just like the divine is open to an unknown future, we too might be prepared with tools and training, but we are open to what is before us. We do not act like we know the future any more than the divine.
It means that instead of pretending like we are the experts who know best, have access to the absolute truth, and act in a way that approaches humans with an all-knowing power, we are relational like the divine and believe that clients—people—are the experts in their own lives. It means we may offer a lot of options and resources but ultimately it is their choice, and we believe with them they are capable of making decisions for their life.
It means that instead of imposing our will on the client, we set up ways to help develop their confidence in agency and autonomy. It means instead of forcing them into prayer or an agenda that may not help, we ask if they want to sit or stand, question if they want this chair or that chair. It means we set up the whole time with us in a way that communicates they do not need to ask permission to walk forward. We approach them in uncontrolling love.
It means that Open and Relational Theology applies to therapy and community care.
Dr. Christy Gunter, LMSW MDIV is the Director of Client Services at an agency that serves families of Domestic and Family Violence in DFW. Christy is the author of “Survivor Care: What Religious Professionals Need to Know about Healing Trauma” that was released in 2019 from Wesley Foundry Books. She has an earned doctorate in Global Health and Wholeness, a Master of Divinity, and a Master of Social Work (Phi Alpha Baylor) and has over 500 additional hours of specialized training in violence, assault, trauma-informed care, and other related topics.
To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love