I know the burning question that must be on your mind right now. What is a pastoral counselor? The obvious answer is…wait for it…a pastor, who is a counselor. Right? Well, the answer is maybe! I myself, as a pastor, decided to pursue my graduate degree in Mental Health and Counseling. However, my intent was not so that I could be a pastoral counselor, but rather become a better pastor who has the ability to counsel. Clears the whole subject up doesn’t it? Ya I know, about as clear as mud. So let me back up a bit and give some differentiating definitions, as I see them. Keep in mind that as a pastor, I will be speaking to these points from that perspective. Sorry, can’t help it!
With the word pastoral, it is often assumed that we are speaking of someone who has been ordained. This can certainly be the case. However, I believe that no- clergy can also be pastoral. As a pastor I have seen countless examples of the church members showing care, compassion, generosity, accountability, and counsel to each other. So while yes, a member of the clergy is expected to be pastoral, I do not feel that pastoral actions need be limited to only member of clergy. As Christians we all have that calling.
The word counseling brings up a variety of thoughts and images ranging from old school lay on a couch therapy, to the primal scream therapy shown in one of the Shrek movies. Some methods are certainly more valid than others, but at the end of it all they are all trying to accomplish the same thing whether the counselor is Christian or not. Help the client mend brokenness.
So now that we have broken it out a bit we are still left with the question, what does the mash up look like? What is pastoral counseling? The answer to this is a definite….it depends! As a lay person, I feel the job responsibilities will be far different from those of a clergy member simply due to the expectations placed upon clergy. As I see it, a lay pastoral counselor would be someone who can facilitate a moderate amount of counseling, spiritual direction, and a touch of pastoral care. As a clergy member I see the order changed around a bit: heavy on the pastoral care and spiritual direction, with a touch of counseling.
Now keep in mind, this is how I see it for myself. And this brings me to my warning for clergy. There is so much trust and power given to the clergy position. It can be easy to fall into the trap that we must be everything for everyone. This is a lie! Only Jesus has that ability. The best we can do is be the best US for everyone. God has not graced me with the gifts to be the perfect Pastor, Counselor, AND Spiritual Director for everyone in the congregation that I serve. Equally as dangerous is to only serve in one of those areas. Each area has importance and to focus upon one and ignore the other two is doing and injustice to the person. I have to be aware of what my gifts and limitations are and act accordingly. That being said, I feel it is important that we continue to grow and learn, hence why I am getting my counseling degree. As clergy we also must know when to refer to specialists. If the person in front of us is in need of more intensive counseling or spiritual direction, then we can not let our pride prevent us from doing what is best for them.
Pastoral counseling will likely look different from person to person. The overall goal though, is to provide intentional assistance to the person in fostering their growth in body, mind, and soul.