Koerner Explains DBT and Supporting Skills

DBT_review_05212016Kelly Koerner. 2012. Doing Dialectical Behavior Therapy: A Practical Guide. New York: Guilford Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the most difficult cognitive disorders is borderline personality disorder (BPD), which is diagnosed by ticking off at least 5 out of list of highly 9 provocative behaviors.[1]  Believed to be hopelessly unreachable, BPD patients were frequently shunned from treatment both because they routinely burn out their counselors and because insurance companies will not reimburse treatment, leaving families alone to deal with a highly dysfunctional[2] and frequently abusive family member.[3] The biblical picture of the BPD personality is Gomer, the wife of the Prophet Hosea, who is unfaithful, becomes a prostitute, and falls into slavery and who Hosea redeems from slavery much the same way as God redeems us from sin  (Hosea 1:2; 3:2).[4]

Hope for beleaguered families has recently come in a new approach to therapy, known as dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which starts by answering the perplexing question posed by BPD: how could such as cognitive dysfunction persist over time with highly intelligent people who ought to be learning from their mistakes, like everyone else?[5] Kelly Koerner, in her book—Doing Dialectical Behavioral Therapy— cites  Marsha Linehan, who developed DBT (ix), in hypothesizing an answer to this question:

“…three biologically based characteristics contribute to an individual’s vulnerability. First people prone to emotion dysregulation react immediately and at low thresholds (high sensitivity). Second, they experience and express emotion intensely (high reactivity), and this high arousal dysregulates cognitive processes too. Third, they experience a long-lasting arousal (slow return to baseline).” (5).

In other words, BPD patients are very sensitive people whose learning process is effectively disabled by their hyper-sensitivity to criticism, sometimes arising from a history of child abuse or of pervasive invalidation (7). Because their sensitivity disables their ability to learn from their own mistakes, they repeat the behaviors that lead to those mistakes over and over again. These repeated mistakes disturb their family and friends, who respond with criticism of the patient which shames the patient even more than the mistake. Overwhelmed with negative feedback that the patient cannot process, the patient responds to the shame with avoidance behaviors (running away, using drugs, binging at the mall, jumping into bad relationships, staying up all night…) rather than correcting the underlying mistakes (11-12). The world of BPD is an unhappy world.

Koerner describes the purpose of her book as to: “show[s] why, when, and how to use the principles and strategies of dialectical behavior theory.” (xiii). DBT sets out to accomplish 5 functions:

  1. “Enhance client capabilities…
  2. Improve client motivation to change…
  3. Ensure that new client capabilities generalize to the natural environment…
  4. Enhance therapist capabilities and motivation to treat clients effectively…
  5. Structure the environment in the ways essential to support client and therapist capabilities…” (18).

Koerner writes in 7 chapters, which are—

  1. Tools for Tough Circumstances,
  2. Navigating to a Case Formulation and Treatment Plan,
  3. Change Strategies,
  4. Validation Principles and Strategies,
  5. Dialectical Stance and Strategies: Balancing Acceptance and Change,
  6. Assess, Motivate, and Move: Getting the Most from Each Interaction, and
  7. The Individual Therapist and the Consultation Team (xvii-xviii)

–and which are preceded by front matter (an author about section, note from the editor, foreword by Marsha Linehan, preface, and acknowledgments) and followed by a reference section and index.

A key concept driving DBT is the concept of pervasive invalidation, as Koerner writes:

“Bigger problems arise, however, when caregivers consistently and persistently fail to respond as need to primary emotion and its expression. Pervasive invalidation occurs when, more often than not, caregivers treat our valid primary responses as incorrect, inaccurate, inappropriate, pathological, or not to be taken seriously. Primary responses for soothing are regularly neglected or shamed; honest motives consistently doubted and misinterpreted.” (6)

The therapist practicing DBT works to observe instances of emotional dysregulation (see definition below) in the patient and works backwards from these incidents using behavioral chain analysis  (see definition below) to determine precipitating events and vulnerability factors (42). Once these events and vulnerabilities are identified, then the patient is taught the skills necessary to avoid triggering the emotional dysregulation. The kicker is that highly sensitive patients may exhibit emotional dysregulation multiple times in a single counseling session. Consequently, the therapist must have a refined intuition as to when the patient begins to shut down and intervene to “validate” (see definition below) them in working to accomplish the goals for the session.

Let’s dial back into this last string of statements to define a few terms.

Emotional Dysregulation. Koerner defines emotional dysregulation as:

“..the inability, despite one’s best efforts, to change or regulate emotional cues, experiences, actions, verbal responses, and/or nonverbal expression under normative conditions.” (4).

Where normally we might react to invalidating information by pausing to reflect, the patient here is firing up heated emotions (think door-slamming anger), even if no words are spoken, so that the therapy session cannot move to the next point until these emotions are dealt with.

Behavioral Chain Analysis. Koerner defines behavioral chain analysis as:

“…an in-depth analysis of events and contextual factors before and after an instance (or set of instances) of the targeted behavior. It is a way to identify the controlling variables for the behavior.” (42)

Typically, the therapist will stop the conversation, observe the patient’s behavior leaning towards emotional dysregulation, ask the patient if it is true, validate the patient, and then begin parsing back in the conversation to identify a triggering word or idea. Once a trigger is identified, the therapist engages the patient in a conversation about alternative responses to the trigger.

Validate. For BPD patients, change interventions require processing negative feedback appropriately and their sensitivity to such feedback makes it hard for them to hear, let alone respond to. Therefore, Koerner defines validation in these terms:

“With empathy, you accurately understand the world from the client’s perspective; with validation you also actively communicate that the client’s perspective makes sense…validation, in itself, can produce powerful change when it is active, disciplined, and precise. Used genuinely and with skill, it reduces physiological arousal that is a normal effect of invalidation and it can cue more adaptive emotions to fire.” (15).

Validation is more than “buttering the patient’s bread”, it communicates that the patient is truly understood, which may be the first time that they have experienced it and which helps enable the patient to trust the therapist.

Kelly Koerner is the director of the Evidence-Based Practice Institute,[6] a clinical psychologist and DBT trainer. She has written a number of books. She received her doctorate from the University of Washington and studied under Marsha Linehan, who developed DBT.

Kelly Koerner’s Doing Dialectical Behavior Therapy is a fascinating book of obvious interest to counselors and other therapists working with difficult patients. I found her descriptions of the use of emotional wisdom in her case studies especially interesting, in part because they were both lengthy and detailed, as behavioral chain analysis requires.


[1] The DSM –IV lists: 1. Feelings of abandonment, 2. Unstable relationships, 3. unstable self-image, 4. Impulsivity (in money management, sexual behavior, etc.), 5. Suicidal behavior, 6. instability of mood, 7. Feelings of emptiness, 8. Inappropriate levels of anger, and 9. Paranoid ideation (my abridgement).  Also see: (Kreger 2008 25).

[2] BPD patients are about 2 percent of the general population but 12 percent of the male prison population and 28 percent of the female prison population. About 40 percent of the people using mental health services have BPD (Kreger 2008, 21).

[3] Spouses of BPD patients are a high risk of suicide.

[4] See discussion: (Stanford 2008, 197-212).

[5] Mental patients should not be confused with special needs individuals—mental patients often score very high on intelligence tests.

[6] http://www.PracticeGround.org.


American Psychiatric Association (DSM-IV). 1994. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the Mental Disorders (fourth edition). Washington DC.

Kreger, Randi. 2008. The Essential Family Guide to Borderline Personality Disorder:  New Tools and Techniques to Stop Walking on Eggshells. Center City:  Hazelden.

Stanford, Matthew S. 2008. Grace for the Afflicted: A Clinical and Biblical Perspective on Mental Illness. Colorado Springs:  Paternoster.

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30. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webEternal God,
We praise you for the beauty of the earth, the freshness of the wind, the crispness of the sea, and the warmth of dry earth. You have created heaven and earth for your glory and our benefit. Thank you.
We confess that too often we say one thing and do another; save us from our own hypocrisy.
We confess that too often we have overlooked the needs of our neighbors and preached about their shortcomings; convert our hearts to your truth that we might display your grace.
We confess that too often we have acted too quickly out of prejudice and veiled your mercy; grant us gracious hearts and open minds.
We confess that too often we have focused on ourselves and sheltered ourselves from others; teach us hospitality.
We confess that too often we have resisted change out of stubbornness and neglected the needs of our own youth;  give us eyes that see and ears that listen.
We confess that too often we have judged too quickly and judged imprudently;  grant us the mind of Christ.
Forgive us our many sins;  guide us in making recompense; heal the wounds that separate us from one another and restore us to your kingdom. Through the power of your Holy Spirit and in Jesus’ previous name, Amen.

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ShipOfFools_web_10042015Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.
For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone
when he falls and has not another to lift him up! (Eccl 4:9-10)


By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first small group consisted of three people—Jon (my best friend), my pastor, and I—who met on Wednesday afternoons in my senior year in high school for pizza and soda to discuss the Book of Romans and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book—The Cost of Discipleship (1995). While I really specifically remember only Bonhoeffer’s comments on cheap grace—

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living, and incarnate (44-45).

—those discussions have grounded my faith and theology ever since.

Part of my grounding came by way of Jon who after college went immediately into seminary and shared his seminary texts with me, which we discussed together. He was, for example, heavily influenced by Karl Barth and, at Jon’s prompting, I read some of Barth’s shorter works, such as Dogmatik im Grundriβ[1] in graduate school. Part of my grounding came more directly from my fascination with Bonhoeffer, which led my ordination committee years later (2010) to describe me both as neo-orthodox[2] and very theological.

Grounded or not, the backstory on our group was less encouraging—at the end of my junior year the church fired our youth director unexpectedly when the senior pastor retired. The assistant pastor attempted to fill the void created by her firing, but was not entertaining enough to keep the youth group together. The group collapsed until only Jon and I were left and, because the youth group was my primary social activity outside of school, I was deeply bitter about it. My bitterness continued for several years and, as a result, I did not attend church when I left home for college. At college, I cannot remember attending a single church event on or off campus at either Indiana University or the College of William and Mary.

My lack of church attendance posed no problem when I was away at school, but it was a source of friction when I returned home for holidays and summer vacation. Because my parents moved from Maryland to Virginia during my freshman year, the friction over church was compounded by a change in churches because the kids my age in Virginia were unfamiliar and hung out in high school clicks to which that I was not a part. Between the clicks and my own bitterness, I had no reason to attend church beyond the prompting of my parents. So Sunday morning we would fight, I would attend out of obligation, and not much came of it until I transferred to Iowa State.

At Iowa State University, I lived in Wilson Hall, which overlooked the dairy farm across the street, and shared a room with Dennis who introduced me to the Navigators,[3] a Christian group on campus and who took me to church on Sundays. The Navigators had picnics and other events around campus which I attended, just to get to know other students. Dennis’ church was nondenominational and, because I did not particularly like it, I began attending Collegiate Presbyterian Church [4] and became a member, not knowing that my parents had attended this same church when my Dad was at Iowa State in the 1950s.

Reflecting on why I was returning to church, I realized that the bitterness that I felt when my home church fired our youth director was directed at the leadership of the church, not God. God’s presence was real to me even when I was not part of any church. As a consequence, atheistic arguments never seemed real to me, even when I repeated them, because I knew God first hand and I knew that I had been blessed when I came to faith. Pascal’s Wager, which was directed at atheists, made perfect sense to me, even when I had turned my back on God.

An important atheistic argument starts with the observation that the existence of God can neither be logically proven or disproven. Atheists focusing on this observation prefer the term, agnostic, which in Greek means “not knowing”, suggesting that there is insufficient evidence to make a faith decision. Pascal used probability theory  to argue that the agnostic argument is logically false in that faith is a fair bet (hence the term, Pascal’s wager)—if God exists and you believe, then you win heaven, but if God does not exist and you believe, then you loose nothing. In other words, faith in God has a positive reward even if the probability of God existing cannot be established—just so long as the probability is a non-zero, positive number.[5]  Of course, if you know first hand that God exists, Pascal’s Wager is no bet at all!

Whether Pascal’s Wager seemed logical or not, I began attending church in my junior year at Iowa State both on campus and off. Unlike at Indiana University, Iowa State was close to my grandparents who frequently hosted me on weekends when they took me to Central Reformed Church in Oskaloosa, Iowa where I had been baptized and where I was always in the company of relatives and friends in Christ.


Barth, Karl. 1977. Dogmatik im Grundriβ (Orig pub 1947). Zürich: Theologischer Verlag.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. 1995. The Cost of Discipleship (Orig Pub 1937). Translated by R. H. Fuller and Irmgard Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster.

[1] I read Dogmatik im Grundriβ during my year in Germany (1979).

[2] Barth, Bonhoeffer, and others started the neo-orthodox school of theological thought which was popular in the period from the 1940s to the 1960s, but since then has fallen out of fashion.

[3] http://www.Navigators.org.

[4] http://www.cpcames.org.

[5] Pascal’s Wager is mathematic proof that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Prov 1:7)

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Kodak Prays for the Persecuted

Kodak_review_05162016Betsey Kodat. 2015. Arise, LORD! Scriptural Prayer for the Persecuted Church. Herndon, Virginia: CreateSpace.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The annual number of Christian martyrs in 2015 has been estimated to have been 90,000 people. This estimate is a decline from 377,000 in 1970s in the heyday of world communism,[1] but it is still about three times the number (34,400) in 1900 (IBMR 2015, 29) and has probably increased since that estimate was made because of genocide reported in the ISIS conflict in the Middle East. Those directly affected by genocide and martyrdom thankfully remain a small portion of the Christians worldwide suffering persecution.

Betsey Kodat In her book, Arise LORD! Scriptural Prayer for the Persecuted Church, takes her title from Psalm 3—

O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God. But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the LORD, and he answered me from his holy hill. I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me. I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around. Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked. Salvation belongs to the LORD; your blessing be on your people! (Ps 3:1-8 ESV)[2]

—and focuses on intervening for those affected in prayer (3). Prayer is, of course, hard enough because in order to pray for the persecuted, one needs to admit to yourself that persecution exists and believe in your heart that God both truly exists and cares enough to intervene. Intervening in prayer also requires admitting our own impotence to stop persecution, often a hard step for gung-ho Americans, so by inviting us to pray for the persecuted God is also inviting us to set aside our pride and approach Him in humility. This need of humility is aptly captured in the cover graphic displaying the disciples in the storm on the Galilee (Matt 8:23-27) which symbolized persecution and early church fathers referred to as “the ship of Peter” (7).

In approaching prayer for the persecuted, Kodat recommends a 4-part movement in prayer:

  1. Opening Prayer,
  2. Strategic Prayer,
  3. Specific Prayer, and
  4. Closing Prayer (7).

The basic prayer in 4-movements structures the core chapters in her book and the group prayer template, which functions as the book’s concluding chapter (166-168). Kodak expands these 4-movements into 6 steps in application, allowing for preliminary research and a period of spontaneous prayer just before the closing (15).   Let me turn briefly to each of these 6 steps.

Step 1: Preliminary Research. Kodat admonishes us to: “Research target needs before you pray, using reputable resources, then select prayers that meet these needs” (16) She then offers a list of websites that can be used to undertake this research. Research for prayer might seem like overkill, but in prayer we are asking God to channel His power to specific ends. By engaging both our hearts and our minds, taking time to be specific demonstrates to us and to God that we are serious about prayer.

Step 2: Opening Prayer. Kodat recommends that we open prayer employing 6 specific topics: placing ourselves in God’s hands, praising God, binding Satan, confession, thanking God, and song (17). These instructions remind me of the “harp and bowl” prayers of the saints (Rev 5:8) where music and petitions are mixed together in continuous prayer.[3]

Step 3: Scripture-based Strategic Prayer. Kodat offers a list of 7 topics for strategic prayer to select among for particular occasions. This list includes—general needs, strength, leaders, supporting churches, nations, national leaders, and persecutors[4]—and it targets topics that may prevent or correct the problem of persecution (18).

Step 4: Scripture-based Specific Prayer. Kodat offers a fairly short list of 4 specific prayers (19)—for crises, recovery from crises, ongoing oppression, and a 4-page list of specific items mentioned throughout the book (170-173). Being specific in prayer has commonly been promoted as a way to channel God’s power, but channeling is unnecessary for an all-powerful God; a better explanation for channeling is so that God’s concern for us would be more obvious (John 9:3).

Step 5: Spontaneous Prayer. Kodat advises us to “pray with Holy Spirit insight as your heart leads.” (20) This advice might seem out of place because for most people this is the only way that they normally pray, but something more interesting is at work. If we become too formal in our prayers and neglect to engage our hearts, then we pray for reasons other than love—remember the Apostle Paul’s admonition:

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Cor 13:1-3)

Nothing is gained by praying without love, in part, because our love marks us as disciples of Christ worthy of God’s attention to our prayer (1 John 4:21).

Step 6: Closing Prayer. Kodat’s guidance on closing prayer is brief:

“Choose a blessing, and pray it in unison along with ‘leaving our concerns with God’ and the Lord’s Prayer” (20).

In particular, Kodat advises us to pray corporately to intensify the power of prayer (21).

Betsey Kodat’s Arise, LORD! Scriptural Prayer for the Persecuted Church is a readable and thoughtful devotional focused on interceding for the persecuted church. Each devotional includes an introduction to the topic, suggested resources, a list of suggested prayers, and scriptural resources. In addition to being a prayer warrior, Kodak writes, teaches, and is a dedicated mom,[5] but I know her best for her tireless work for the Capital Christian Writers’ club[6].

[1] Communism is an atheist philosophy and remains widely influential in secular circles even today. Over time, communist nations have been fairly open in their persecution of Christians who are often accused of representing a foreign influence. This idea of foreign influence is also an excuse used in the case of Middle Eastern persecution of Christian minorities (Iwanicki and Bailey 2012).

[2]A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son…” (Ps 3:1).

[3] International House of Prayer (http://www.ihopkc.org).

[4] This rather-unusual idea of praying for the persecutors comes directly from Christ—“You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt 5:43-45)—who essentially advised us to persecution as a ministry opportunity.

[5] http://www.BetseyKodat.com.

[6] www.CapitalChristianWriters.org.


 International Bulletin of Missionary Research (IBMR). 2015. Christianity 2015: Religious Diversity and Personal Contact. Cited: 28 December 2015. Online: (http://www.gordonconwell.edu/ockenga/research/documents/1IBMR2015.pdf).

Iwanicki, Hugh and Dave Bailey. 2012. Shock and Alarm: What It Was Really Like at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. North Charleston: CreateSpace. (Review: http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1pl).

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29. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webAlmighty Father.
Spare us, Lord, from a divided heart, an indecisive mind, and conniving spirit. Prune the eye that sins, a hand that grasps, and ears that itch to hear anything other than your word. Intensify our love of your law; give us gracious hearts and discerning minds. Plant in us your Holy Spirit, holy affections, and sanctified thoughts that we might be truthful to ourselves, to others, and, most of all, to you. Grant us your whole armor: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness,  helmet of salvation, and sword of your word (Eph 6:13-17). That we might serve our entire lives as examples of your godliness, like your Son. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Coming Home

Cover for Called Along the Way
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Phil 1:21)

Coming Home

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My decision to study economics forced me to re-organize priorities both inside and outside school. In school, economics required supporting work in mathematics, statistics, and computer science which I had not taken. Outside of school, my volunteer work in the Indiana Public Research Group (INPIRG) was a constant distraction from my studies. I looked for schools closer to home.

INPIRG Distracts

In my sophomore year of college (1973), for example, my volunteering included work on a local congressional campaign, community organizing, and support for other INPIRG projects. The congressional campaign involved chauffeuring a friend of mine, Charlotte, around the district in Indiana accompanying her on numerous campaign stops. The community organizing involved organizing local community groups on the west side (across the railroad tracks) of Bloomington to protest the city’s neglect in taking care of burned out house on the edge of town. The support for other INPIRG projects involved recruiting students for demonstrations and volunteering for things, like the weekly grocery store price survey, when other volunteers failed to show up.

Being a faithful volunteer was personally meaningful and introduced me to many interesting people both in the local community and on campus, but after I was turned down for a paid position as a community organizer for INPIRG, I started to feel abused. This feeling reached a boiling point when the executive director scheduled a defective-part demonstration at an automotive plant in Fort Wayne during exams week and asked me to recruit students to help out—I did my best, but ultimately I was the only student who was willing to attend the demonstration. After the demonstration and poor performance on exams, I decided to transfer to another school rather than study economics at Indiana University.

College of William and Mary

Transferring to another school proved more challenging than I initiated envisioned, in part, because in the spring of 1973 my parents moved from Maryland to Falls Church, Virginia. Virginia had good schools so, not thinking much about it, I applied for and was accepted at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, thinking that I would save my parents money by going to school in state. School in Indiana would be over in April and summer school classes started in June, leaving me the month of May open to earn the money to pay for summer school expenses.

Earning summer school expenses in a month was just barely doable, if I worked construction during the day and worked in a restaurant at night. For construction, I worked as a plumber’s helper constructing the McLean House where, at first, I helped a plumber hang pipe, but, after the old veteran screwed it up his assignment, the foreman made it abundantly clear that my real job was to keep the plumber out of trouble—the trouble was that he “brown bagged” breakfast at six-thirty in the morning and to cover up his alcohol consumption drank profuse amounts of coffee all day. For restaurant work, I worked the dinner shift at Roy Rogers in Falls Church where I flipped burgers until after eleven and routinely closed out the place. Between construction and restaurant work, by the end of May I was so exhausted that at one point the foreman at the McLean House accused me of having fallen asleep while standing up. Asleep or awake, I earned my summer school expenses in a month.

At William and Mary that summer, I enrolled in principles of economics and calculus, lived in the Jefferson House, and worked washing dishes in George’s Campus Restaurant in Greek Town. I remember economics mostly because my professor smoked cigars blowing smoke and telling stories of his government service and because a pitcher of beer was my favorite study aid. Studying in Jefferson House, known best for its six-inch cockroaches, was a lost cause because of a lack of air conditioning and the intense summer heat. It was cooler washing dishes at George’s Campus Restaurant, where I enjoyed hanging out and got my only real meal of the day.

Out of State at Home

One day I received a letter in the mail from William and Mary informing me that I was being classified as an out-of-state student. This classification, which substantially increased my tuition costs and defeated my primary reason to return to Virginia from Indiana, caused me great distress and with letter in hand I went to visit the college president. The president, sitting behind a figure of three monkeys (hear no evil; see no evil; speak no evil) on his desk, quietly explained to me that, because I had an Indiana driver’s license and registered to vote in Indiana, that I was not a resident of Virginia. To that I responded: if I am not a Virginia resident, then what state am I a resident of? My parents no longer reside in Maryland where I grew up; I have never actually lived outside of school in Indiana; and Virginia is my only real home—how can I not be a resident? The legal answer was that I was not “domiciled” in Virginia because I could not at that point in my life know where I would live following graduation and Virginia required that I be domiciled in Virginia.

Domiciled or not, the president had actually done me a favor because William and Mary was not a good fit, both because of the small class sizes and strong influence of fraternities on student housing. The small class size meant that my cigar-smoking professor, who waxed eloquently about the distinguished history of tidewater Virginia to the detriment weightier topics, would be unavoidable. And, although I was not enamored with Jefferson House, I was even less interested in pledging a fraternity, in part, because of their culture and, in part, because of my own independent streak. The parochial outlook on life at William and Mary and the high tuition costs made the college a bad fit.

Iowa State

When I checked expenses at Iowa State University, where my father attended college, they were lower than at William and Mary College. Iowa State had the additional benefits of being closer to my grandparents and of having a nationally-recognized program in agricultural economics, which was of interest. The idea of studying at Iowa State also pleased everyone in my family. When I applied to and was accepted by Iowa State, I felt that I was truly coming home.

Also see: Looking Back

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VanHoozer and Strachan Argue Case for Pastor-Theologian

Pastor_Theologian_review_05032016Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan. 2015. The Pastor as Public Theologian: Reclaiming a Lost Vision. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Amid periods of rapid social and philosophical change, tension in the church often revolves around our interpretation of the identity of Christ which, in turn, informs our sense of identity as Christians and other things, like worship. Worship and identity are practical applications of our theology because one of the primary tasks of theology is interpreting both the Bible and our world. Hence, theologian Karl Barth’s comment that pastors should preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other clearly assumes that at the heart of the pastor’s role is applying theology.[1]

In their new book, The Pastor as Public Theologian, Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan start with a harsh assessment:

“Societies become secular not when they dispense with religion altogether, but when they are no longer especially agitated by it. The church, the society of Jesus, is similarly in danger of becoming secular and in the very place where we would least expect it: its understanding of the clergy. This not because churches are dispensing with the pastorate, but because they no longer find its theological character particularly exciting or intelligible.” (1)

Their objective in writing is to “reclaim the theological pedigree of the world’s boldest profession” with three groups in mind—pastors, churches, and seminaries (2)—and against competing visions, such as the pastor as therapist, the pastor as political activist, the pastor as story-teller, the pastor as professional XYZ, and the pastor as manager (7-10). Against these competing visions, the author’s caution: “Without a biblical vision of the pastor, the people of God may indeed perish: they will certainly fail to prosper.” (15) In order to prosper, they write: “Success in ministry is determined not by numbers (e.g., people, programs, dollars) but by the increase of people’s knowledge and love of God.” (22)

In expanding our knowledge of the pastoral office, Kevin J. Vanhoozer[2] and Owen Strachan[3] collaborate with a number of pastors to write a series of 4 chapters, including:



Introduction:  Pastors, Theologians, and Other Public Figures

PART 1: Biblical Theology and Historical Theology

  1. Of Prophets, Priests, and Kings: A Brief Biblical Theology of the Pastorate
  2. Of Scholars and Saints: A Brief History of the Pastorate

PART 2: Systematic Theology and Practical Theology

  1. In the Evangelical Mood: The Purpose of the Pastor-Theologian
  2. Artisans in the House of God: The Practice of the Pastor-Theologian

Conclusion: Fifty-Five Summary Theses on the Pastor as Public Theologian



Scriptural Index

Subject Index


The introduction and each of the four chapters includes short “pastoral perspectives” written by working pastors.

One of these pastor perspectives, written by Gerald Hiestand, offered some practical advice for would-be pastoral theologians in the form of 6 steps:

  1. Hire staff with the vision to overcome isolation.
  2. Network with like-minded pastors through Skype, ETS or blogging.
  3. Make study-time a priority in the weekly schedule.
  4. Get buy-in from your leadership.
  5. Remember that theology serves the church, not vice versa.
  6. You do your work in a “study”, not an “office”—Bureaucrats work in offices while theologians have studies (29-31).

Personally, my study time in the morning minimally includes journaling, studying, reading, and praying for 30 to 60 minutes before wandering out to swim laps, but as a writer I spend more time in my “study” than would be typical for pastors.[4]

In the Old Testament, three anointed offices are described—priest, prophet, and king (40)—which today describe different aspects of the role of Christ in the New Testament. Concerning these anointed offices, the authors write: “The priest was a man set apart by the Lord to be an on-the-ground mediator of holiness between God and the people.” (4) “The prophets exercised the ministry of truth-telling.” (44) The king personified divine wisdom (46). These three anointed offices do not readily transfer to the role of pastor, as the authors observe:

“Priestly ministry was centered around the teaching and performance of the law. Pastoral ministry is centered around the person and work of Christ” (49).

Still, aspects of these three anointed offices inform the role of a pastor and the interpretation of each of the roles differs among denominations, ethnic communities, and age groups, as is frequently observed.

An important observation repeated throughout the book is that throughout church history the best theology was often written by pastors, not academics, as the authors observe:

“…it is easy to forget that Jonathan Edwards spent little time in the ivory tower. He was never a professor in the modern sense. Edwards composed many of his treatises in the middle of a demanding pastorate, at the largest church in New England, outside of Boston. Later he wrote soaring theological works on the Massachusetts frontier while serving as a missionary.” (82-83)

This observation remains a valid point today as many of my own influences—Barth, Bonhoeffer,[5] Ortberg,[6] Sproul, Lucado,[7] Peterson, Keller[8]—are better known as pastors than academics, even if they have freely moved between the academy and the church.

Clearly, a lot more could be said about this book.

Kevin Vanhoozer and Owen Strachan’s The Pastor as Public Theologian is timely resource on where pastors ought rightly to be spending their time, which is unfortunately much needed by some of my best friends who are pastors. Pastoral burnout is a huge problem for the church, not only because of the loss of great talent, but also because “pastor as dervish” is a poor model for a church that, presumably, glorifies the “Lord of the Sabbath”. A better model is the pastor-theologian presented in this book—buy it; enjoy It; share it in a group study.


Barth, Karl. 1991. Homelitics. Louisville: Westminister John Knox Press.


[1] Barth’s comment, which is widely cited by his students, appears nowhere in his writing. Instead, we read: “theology as a church discipline ought in all its branches to be nothing other than sermon preparation in the broadest sense.” (Barth 1991,17).

[2] Vanhoozer is a research professor of systemic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago and the author of numerous books (http://divinity.tiu.edu/academics/faculty/kevin-vanhoozer).

[3] Strachan is a professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of numerous books (http://www.mbts.edu/about/faculty/owen-strachan).

[4] I am currently studying First Samuel which has been surprisingly fruitful.

[5] Sample review: Bonhoeffer’s Nachfolge:  Following After Christ (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-y9),

[6] Review: Ortberg Sharpens and Freshens Jesus (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-138).

[7] Review: Lucado Calls Out Fear; Instills Peace (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-99).

[8] Sample review: Keller Argues the Case for God (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-Sr).

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28. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webFather of Creation, Beloved Son, Spirit of Truth,
Bind our wayward hearts with your law; sing to us of your love. Gather our confused thoughts in your grace; center them on your truth. Separate us from evil influences, harsh temptations, and trials we cannot bear. Walk with us when the sun fails to shine, the rain draws near, and our paths become unclear.Sit with us while storms rage, our strength weakens, and our health flees. Guide us when our friends are distant and our troubles are ever near. Grant us strength for the day; grace for those we meet; and peace. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Listening and Talking

ShipOfFools_web_10042015“The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor,
but the lips of a fool consume him.” (Eccl 10:12)

Listening and Talking

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

My first year of college at Indiana University I lived and worked in the Graduate Residence Center (GRC) where everyone had a roommate, telephones were in the hall, and two of the three buildings housed men. Because GRC had both men’s and women’s buildings, it was considered co-educational.

My education in dealing with the opposite sex was less exciting than one might believe from recent movies. The movie that everyone talked about in 1972 was Dustin Hoffman’s The Graduate (1967) where a high school graduate is seduced by an older woman and falls in love with her daughter.[1] The only older women that I met were professors and, although I became acquainted with many young women, they were more interested in dating older guys who were experienced in social settings and could afford to date.

Money was always a problem in college. Although my dad paid my college tuition and room and board, every other expense—books, travel, and entertainment—came out of my account. By Christmas of my freshman year my bank account was pretty much empty of savings from my summer work in high school and I started the New Year working in the cafeteria where I normally was assigned to the dish machine, but occasionally worked the food line. I enjoyed working the line because I soon became acquainted with just about everyone in GRC, including the co-eds. Still, dating co-eds required money and most of my money went to books and traveling home over vacations—even pizza money for Sunday evening dinner was hard to come by and required strict budgeting. My budget simply did not include money for dating.

Dating was not really on my mind in my freshman year, not only because I could not afford it, but because I missed a close friend back at home in Maryland. For me, she was like the freshwater pike that got away and grew longer and more ornery with each telling of the tale, vaccinating me from the advances from other women. Vaccinated or not, it was easier telling myself that my standards were too high than to admit that it was painful seeing older guys date my female friends.

Dating friends in high school, conversation might be about common things, like a class or activity that we shared, but it often quickly wandered into more serious matters, like plans for the future and how many children that you wanted to have. Future plans were a perfect date topic because in the 1970s dating was treated like a job interview for marriage and guys naturally paid for dinner and activities to demonstrate their willingness (and hopefully future ability) to provide for a family, should they marry. Marriage was on everyone’s mind which made dating, like an important job interview, an activity that made almost everyone nervous, because everyone obsessed about being the perfect date.

Unable to date, hanging out with female friends in college was unscripted, awkward, and without an obvious social context—what do you even talk about? I knew almost everyone in GRC from working in the cafeteria, but “I see that you really like green beans” is a pickup line not suggesting a lengthy conversation. Real conversation required common ground that was frequently lacking and verbal skills that I simply did not possess and that were not in the curriculum. In searching for common ground, I soon discovered a friend from high school lived in GRC and made friends with another girl who grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland. In developing verbal skills, I soon discovered “the question”.

Questions were cool because you could ask a question and listen potentially for hours to the answer, speaking only occasionally to say something like “yeah” or “tell me more”, because most people love to talk. I loved questions and became a good listener, but there is one problem with questions—they only really worked well in one-on-one conversation. Once two becomes three, conversation takes on a competitive element and it is not cool to dominate the conversation for too long. When conversation morphed into a group dialogue, as I discovered in my freshman year, I was lost both because of my limited social skills and because I did not perceive a social context suggesting that being the “life of the party” was important. More important was that I learn to earn a living and reach a point where I might support a family.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Graduate.

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Bacevich Explains U.S. Political Economy Post WWII

Bacevich_review_04142016Andrew J. Bacevich. 2008.  The Limits of Power:  The End of American Exceptionalism. New York: Metropolitan Books.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Political economy—the nexus between policy, philosophy, history, and economics—is never more important than in transition periods when the old rules no longer apply and the new rules have yet to be crafted. Yet, those who practice this craft are often castigated both by the old guard resisting change (and rewarding those that aid their resistance) and by specialists defending their professional turf (and under-appreciating the irrelevance of the division of labor in a period of fundamental change). Faced with such changes, it is refreshing to read an author, such as Andrew Bacevich, who is up to challenges posed.

In his book, The Limits to Power, Bacevich frames the current dilemma as a political economic problem, writing:

“The United States today finds itself threatened by three interlocking crises: The first of these crises is economic and cultural, the second political, and the third military. All three share this characteristic: they are of our own making.” (6).

Framing this crisis as internal, Bacevich is swimming against the tide—our problem is not, as widely perceived, a problem created by Osama Bin Laden on September 11 or by OPEC in 1973. Looking into the heart of America, Bacevich sees “our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness” run amok in the face of limits that we refuse to accept and that now erode national power, as our principles, our heritage, our resources, our middle class, our allies, and our military preparedness have been thrown under the bus by leaders attempting to forestall the day of reckoning (9).  Because Bacevich sees this reckoning composed of three related crisis, let me examine each in turn.

The Economic and Cultural Crisis. In discussing the crisis of “profligacy”, Bacevich sees the Jefferson trinity of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” having been reduced in the current age to one word: “more”. He  writes:

“For the majority of contemporary Americans, the essence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness centers on a relentless personal quest to acquire, to consume, to indulge, and to shed whatever constraints might interfere with those endeavors.” (16)

This is not a new endeavor; Alexis de Tocqueville noted in the 1830s that Americans possessed a “feverish ardor” to accumulate (17). More recently, this ardor was observed by Reinhold Niebuhr as being manifested in a tendency to “seek a solution to practically every problem of life in quantitative terms” assuming that “more is better” (23). Buttressed by Charles Maier’s America’s “empire of production” after World War II (WWII), America’s “empire of consumption” continued to provide “more” until reaching a tipping point in the period between 1965 and 1971, as Bacevich observes:

“The costs of the Vietnam War—and President Johnson’s attempt to conceal them while pursuing his vision of the Great Society—destabilizing the economy, as evidenced by deficits, inflation, and a weakening dollar. In August 1971, Nixon tacitly acknowledged the disarray into which the economy had fallen by devaluing the dollar and suspending its convertibility into gold.” (29)

Bacevich sees this deepening economic crisis coming to a head a decade later in Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise speech” (July 15, 1979) where he spelled out that a sustainable future required living within our means (31-36). Carter’s analysis was soundly rejected by the American people who overwhelmingly elected Ronald Reagan based on two related ideas: “credit has no limits and the bills will never come due” (36). Modeled on the unlimited federal deficits, personal savings which average 8-10 percent of disposable income for most of the postwar period, fell to practically zero in 1985 (44).

The economic consequences of the Reagan deficits were reversed during the Clinton years only to be reinstated during George W. Bush’s presidency when the debt accumulated effectively reduced the federal government from a prime to a sub-prime borrower, using debt-to-income standards applied normally to individuals. Of course, debt issues have their implications for politics.

The Political Crisis. Bacevich observes that “American democracy in our time has suffered notable decade”, a decade that has its roots in the response to WWII and to the Cold War and that had the effect of concentrating significant power in the executive branch of government (67-68). While the government’s response to September 11 is often cited in development of an ideology of national security, Bacevich sees the George W. Bush’s contribution being primarily in articulating existing convictions. Bush’s second inaugural address cited 4 convictions:

  1. “History’s abiding theme is freedom, to which all humanity aspires…”
  2. “America has always been, and remains, freedom’s chief exemplar and advocate…”
  3. “Providence summons America to ensure freedom’s ultimate triumph…”
  4. “…for the American way of life to endure, freedom must prevail everywhere.” (74-75)

The idea that American can and should intervene in defend of freedom elsewhere in the world, Bacevich notes, “imposes no specific obligations” and serves primarily “to legitimate the exercise of executive power” (77). So legitimatized, military intervention has become the preferred political instrument in a world with only one super-power and for a people whose desire for “more” seems insatiable. This ideology accordingly serves as a reasonable explanation for why the end of the Cold War did not result in the much promised peace dividend and war, not peace, has become the norm (1), thanks, in part, to the Bush doctrine of “anticipatory self-defense” (117) which justified preventive wars, like the Iraq war to unseat Saddam Hussein.

The Military Crisis. Citing Corelli Barnett, Bacevich described war as the “great auditor of institutions” and observes:

“Valor does not offer the measure of an army’s greatness, nor does fortitude, nor durability, nor technological sophistication. A great is one that accomplishes its assigned mission. Since George W. Bush inaugurated his global war on terror, the armed forces of the United States have failed to meet that standard.” (124)

Bacevich explains this failure in great detail, but the short answer is that the use of military needs to be undertaken in the context of political objectives and, when the politicians—including military politicians, become fascinated with the technologies of war, the political context frequently is ignored—tactics displace strategy leaving only a muddle. Having reviewed the muddle, Bacevich concludes:

“America doesn’t need a bigger army. It needs a smaller—that is, more modest—foreign policy, one that assigns soldiers missions that are consistent with their capabilities.” (169)

Andrew Bacevich is a retired U.S. Army colonel who taught history and international relationship at Boston University. He is a graduate of West Point with both master’s and doctor of philosophy degrees from Princeton University. He is the author of numerous books.[1]

Andrew Bacevich’s book, The Limits of Power, ties together many aspects of U.S. history and, for me as an economist with 27 years of service in 5 different federal agencies, adequately explains much of the recent dysfunction (lack of sustainability) of the federal government. For readers who are neither political junkies nor Washington insiders, this may be a challenging book to read and understand because Bacevich challenges many of the assumptions normally taught in high school civics classes. In any case, it is a book well worth reading.

[1] http://www.bu.edu/history/people/emeritus-faculty/andrew-j-bacevich.

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