At the Service of the Master – Reflections of a Rachel’s Vineyard Counselor
By Kevin Burke, LSW
I just completed another Rachel’s Vineyard Retreat Weekend where I had the privilege to serve as the team counselor with Site Leader Evelyn Walsh and her amazing team and volunteers at the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa.
The Rachel’s Vineyard Weekend is very different from a secular therapeutic support group or any other counseling process. The therapist in this scenario is not the guiding master nor is the priest or ministry leader – as essential as they are on the weekend. Neither is the facilitator the “captain of the retreat ship,” though they have an indispensible leadership role with the retreat team and in guiding the participants through the healing process.
The master of the retreat is Jesus Christ; Jesus encountered in the Word of God (manifest in a special way in the Living Scripture Exercises developed by the program’s creator Theresa Burke, Ph.D,) and the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation in the Catholic retreat format. In a special way participants experience the love and mercy of Christ through the retreat team and the Christian community offering prayer and practical support. Each person, from the priest, deacon or minister, to the women and men in intercessory prayer throughout the weekend, and the person putting out snacks during a break – each have an integral part to play in the success of the weekend experience.
With that said, the team has an intimate and important role as they accompany the participants in their journey through the paschal mystery of their lives. The goal of each team member, as they are called upon, is to help facilitate the encounter of the woman or man with the Lord Jesus and in time with their unborn child or children.
The priest, facilitator, counselor and team members each at different times play an integral role in helping an individual begin to trust, remove obstacles that surface and keep them on track in their healing journey. The Rachel’s Vineyard retreat process is very effective at treating the disenfranchised grief that is a key feature of those wounded by abortion and many of the symptoms that are common after the procedure.
Yet often it is the quiet support and encouragement of a team member with no therapy or ministry degree, who brings their own experience of abortion loss and healing in their role as they accompany the participants. These valuable team members bring that presence, word of encouragement and the unspoken understanding of a woman or man’s fear and pain; they have been there – and they made it through to the other side.
Some team or volunteers may not have personally experienced abortion but their presence is also very valuable. They powerfully reflect the love and mercy of Christ and the Church with those participants who have lived many years with the shame and guilt of their secret wound.
A River of Healing
I often imagine our role, team and volunteer staff, as accompanying the participants on a healing vessel travelling down a large river. We know that there is a safe port ahead, one that will provide healing, peace and closure.
But sometimes the wind whips up, the water get’s choppy and thunder rocks the boat. For some team members and leaders this can be a time when anxiety and a natural desire to be in control enter their hearts.
There are of course times when in the interest of all the participants and in certain situations you do have to intervene and deal with a problem or disruption. These situations are often related to a person’s deep seated fear of encountering their intense pain and grief. There can also be anxiety about a personal encounter with their aborted child that can make a participant want to jump out of the boat and stay on shore – and sometimes even a desire to disrupt the retreat process. On a rare occasion a person is not a good fit for a group healing experience like Rachel’s Vineyard. 
But at the same time it is essential to be aware on a deeper level what is happening in our own hearts and souls as we encounter obstacles.
Fear and anxiety, while natural responses in some situations especially early in our ministry experience, can lead us to rely too heavily on our own strength, to want to assert control, and not trust in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Apostle Peter learned this valuable lesson on the waters of the Sea of Galilee:
…the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” Jesus said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. (Matthew 14:24-32)
Wearing a Different Hat
For a counselor or priest/minister, it’s important to learn that this is a different role than the traditional therapy, ministry relationship or leadership position in a church.
It’s essential to discern when to step back, get out of the way in a sense, and trust God, your fellow team members, and trust in the retreat process. Thankfully there are many therapeutic benefits to the exercises and activities of the program that will assist the counselor in their role and help remove any obstacles to healing for most participants and help get them back on track.
The Priest, Deacon or minister in a special way incarnates the love of Christ and the Church for the participants. This is particularly evident and moving when they act in the person of Jesus in certain exercises and meditations and of course in the sacraments of Eucharist and Reconciliation in the Catholic model of the program.
The Rachel’s Vineyard weekend never fails to facilitate for the participants a powerful encounter with God and their unborn children. What appears to be an insurmountable obstacle Friday evening often loses its power over the participants as they progress through the program Saturday and Sunday.
Some team members may struggle as they begin serving in this ministry, to recognize that at times they feel a need to be the center of attention or to receive affirmation as an important healing or ministry agent in the process. These are very human temptations and needs that can arise from pride and some of our own life wounds. Jesus will prune and purify our efforts and gifts over time and increase the yield of our vineyard when we turn to Him in humility and repentance.
Its equally important to be patience and compassionate with our limitations and weakness when they surface. Some folks have spent years prior to their healing beating themselves up or acting out their pain in self-destructive and self-shaming ways. Its important to trust that Jesus wants to build us up – not tear us down.
All Jesus needs is our trust and our humility…He will do the rest.
The Vineyard of Christ
The Lord calms the stormy seas and retreat participants sail on in peace toward the port of reconciliation and healing. There is a great freedom that comes when we abandon ourselves to Divine Providence and trust in His guiding presence.
We learn over time that this Vineyard does not belong to you or me…or even Rachel.
This is the Vineyard of Jesus Christ.
But remember as well that each weekend retreat is wrapped in the healing mantle of the mother of Christ, Mary. She prays and intercedes for participants of all Christian denominations and faith traditions, and especially those with no faith, and leads them to her son Jesus.
So we can safely say with joy that this is also Mary’s Vineyard.
 Paschal Mystery: The passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ – the work God the Father sent his Son to accomplish on earth.
 Disenfranchised grief occurs when the loss does not receive normal social support, is not openly acknowledged or cannot be mourned publicly (Doka, 1989). https://www.yinstill.com/complicated-and-disenfranchised-grief
 This is usually clarified prior to the retreat in the registration period but there are situations that only become evident once the person begins the process. For those participants, who even with encouragement, support and love are not ready for the weekend experience, they can be offered referrals for individual counseling and spiritual direction with the open invitation to attend a later retreat weekend sometime down the line.