What is pastoral Counseling? My first thought when I hear those words is an office inside the parish of my Catholic Church. Even though I have not experienced pastoral counseling in that setting, the stories of other parishioners begin to flood my memory. The wife seeking answers about the lack of communication in her marriage after thirty years, or the friend who just heard that it was best if she aborted the baby because there was something wrong with the “fetus.” The possibilities of this human encounter are endless and it provides the pastoral counselor the opportunity to be a vessel of healing for the Lord. Many of us do not even bother to take the time to explore the difference between a pastoral counselor and a clinical counselor. However, as the need for clinical counselors and pastoral counselors increases in our society the question begins to emerge.
What is the difference between the pastoral counselor and the clinical counselor? Benner in his book Strategic Pastoral Counseling explained that “Pastoral Counseling can be both distinctively pastoral and psychologically informed.” In other words, the care of a soul by the pastoral counselor requires the spiritual components as well as an understanding of therapeutic psychological interventions. The pastoral counselor invites the presence of God in a session by the openness of heart to the awareness of God working through him. He listens, encourages, provides resources and utilizes both psychological and spiritual techniques to assist the individual. However, how different is this situation from the visit to a clinical counselor who chooses to pray for their clients?
The clinical counselor also utilizes the psychological interventions and clinical training to listen, encourage and provide resources, but has a responsibility to offer solutions based on evidence-based practices grounded in research. The individual that makes an appointment for a counseling session normally has expectations of a diagnosis and a solution to a problem. Yet, in my experience with clients God can work in mysterious ways. As I pray silently for the individual in front of me, the Lord reveals Himself in unexpected ways. All of a sudden the client remembers grandma’s stories from the bible, a mother’s prayer taught at a young age or the father’s sacrifice of tithing. Allowing clients to share their stories opens the doors for them to understand spiritual aspects of their lives that were forgotten by the stress of daily struggles and emotional concerns.
Faith and spirituality are important resources which provide strength for the journey of life. The clinical counselor helps people to deal with emotional, social and developmental concerns and may not see himself as a vessel of God. In reality the clinical counselor has the same opportunity as the pastoral counselor to allow God to use him in the healing process. Rather than relying only on his training and education, the clinical counselor could invite God to bring him wisdom, the gift of counsel and the opportunity of healing.
Maybe the main difference is the posture of the counselor. Whether you are a pastoral counselor or a clinical counselor, the services provided to our clients could be guided by the presence of God. A quiet prayer in the middle of a session would change the atmosphere in the room, the openness of the client and the creativity of the counselor in a clinical counseling visit or in a pastoral visit. In my opinion, God has given us a gift and an opportunity as professional counselors to bring healing to His people. I feel honored by the individuals who share their lives with me and inspired by their resilience. They have brought healing into my life and a desire to become more aware of God’s presence during a counseling session. God has no limits and he uses us as vessels of healing as pastoral counselors or as clinical counselors if we allow Him.