Do you know what Pastoral Counseling is? Probably not. Before I started taking this class I wasn’t so sure about what Pastoral Counseling was and how it differed from spiritual direction and “normal” counseling. There is definitely some gray area between these three disciplines, but the following is how I personally internalize the differences.
In the first chapter of Strategic Pastoral Counseling by Benner, he discusses pastoral counseling as “Soul Care.” This idea really struck me. Taking Theology classes in my undergraduate career, the idea of the fusion of body and soul really struck me. We are not just physical beings. We have an immortal soul and a body and the two are one and what happens to one can affect what happens to the other. When our bodies commit a sin, it influences the soul. Many times after going to confession I feel physically lighter and better, now that my soul is in a better condition.
The truth of body-soul union is so important to me in counseling. I intern in a community counseling center. In this setting, I don’t have the privilege of discussing Christ in sessions, but that doesn’t stop me from praying for my clients in front of the Eucharist and before sessions. I pray not only for their disorders and their presenting symptoms but that they may see the love of the Father through me, whether they realize it or not. This is my approach to “regular” counseling. I recognize my clients as body and soul, and though there is not too much I can do for their soul in this setting, I do what I can to help their soul while I help their mind and body.
Another discipline similar to pastoral counseling is spiritual direction. Did you know that there are schools for people to get trained in spiritual direction? I didn’t, before. There is a school in Florida that is associated with Franciscan University called The Cenacle of Our Lady of Divine Providence School of Spirituality. According to their website, “Spiritual direction is the loving companionship that assists others on their life journey, helping each person to develop a closer relationship with God by discerning the action of the Holy Spirit in his or her life.” I think that is one of the best definitions of spiritual direction I’ve ever read. In my opinion, spiritual direction is mainly focused on soul care. It primarily focuses on the relationship of the person to God and ways God is working in their life and how to properly respond to God’s call. This of course includes the body also, because people are body soul-composites, but the main focus is on the spiritual aspect. Spiritual directors are not trained to deal with psychological issues. In this sense, if there is a psychological issue, the spiritual director would do best to refer the person to a counselor for help. Psychological disorders, in most cases, cannot just be prayed away. God gave us the knowledge of counseling and how to best aid someone in psychological distress, just like he gave doctors the knowledge of how to aid a person with a serious illness or physical injury.
This week I had to great fortune of shadowing a dear friend of mine who is also a pastoral counselor. She works at my internship site and also does pastoral counseling at her church. I was in love with the way she ran the session I was able to sit in on. It started out like a “normal” counseling session. They discussed what had been going on since they last met, as well as homework. In discussing the client’s anger issues, my friend the counselor was able to bring up the fact that the other people need to see the love of Christ in her. Christ loves all of them and in being a good Christian she needs to take time when she is upset to calm down and think about how she can show love to them. I almost jumped out of my seat and cheered when she said that to the client. I so wish I could tell more people in sessions this point of view. And in that moment I really noticed how different pastoral counseling can be. The pastoral client can receive the soul care that is lacking in counseling. Calling another person bad names and knocking their lights out won’t help your soul get closer to Christ, but recognizing your anger and realizing it as a moment you can show God’s love to another is a way to help your soul.
tl;dr (which, in computer lingo, means “too long, didn’t read,” and generally precedes a short summary of what was said above): People are body-soul composites. Counseling cares for the body and mind. Spiritual direction cares for the soul. Pastoral Counseling is a unique combination of care for the body and the soul.