As a student in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling graduate program, I have learned to do assessments, diagnose, create treatment plans, and use techniques and skills to help my clients attain their goals. Many of my classes involve thorough discussions about ethics, legal issues, and boundaries (document everything!). Clinical counseling has a pretty systematic approach; for those of you who have been in more than one counselor’s office (no judgment), you know that counseling can look different from one counselor to the next, but the basic setup is there. Plus, they are all abiding by the same code of ethics and within the same boundaries—which is, hopefully, VERY apparent. The goal of psychotherapy is to help our clients modify problematic behaviors and process troubling emotions and traumas that get in the way of normal and healthy daily functioning. This process requires using counseling techniques and forming a strong therapeutic alliance.
Trying to define pastoral counseling is about as easy as trying to catch air in your hand. For the past four weeks, I have read numerous articles that attempted to answer the question: “What is pastoral counseling?” Before taking the Pastoral Counseling class, I would have given an answer that sounded something like: “It’s talking to a religious person (with our without psychological training) about your problems, while praying and relating your issue to Jesus’ life.” After reading, I do not think my definition has changed much, but I would put it in more eloquent terms. The definition that goes most in line with my view of pastoral counseling comes from Larry Yevenes’s article Pastoral Counseling: The Ignatian Contribution to the Dynamics of the Helping Relationship. He says, “[…] pastoral counseling is understood as a form of help which is informed by spiritual values and is open to the possibility of exploring spiritual and religious issues in the counseling relationship.” Pastoral counselors not only understand and can help with the struggles of life, but they take on a holistic view of human beings. This means that spiritual themes like suffering, hope, and forgiveness are discussed in the midst of problems facing clients.
Discussing spiritual themes with a pastoral counselor is easy to do because pastoral counselors usually (but not always) come from the same faith tradition as the people they are working with. As a clinical counselor, this is not so. As a Catholic woman, I have to be prepared to have men and women from all different faith backgrounds, who most likely have differing views on spirituality, in my office. The reason I can do this as a clinical counselor is because I address psychological issues. While values may come up in the conversation, I must not allow my own beliefs and traditions to impact my client in any way; I have to enter into their worldview and tackle issues from their perspective. Pastoral counselors, on the other hand, have a sort of automatic personal religious integration. When contacting a pastoral counselor, a person would most likely already know the counselor’s faith background (especially since they are likely part of the same church community) and what their central values and beliefs entail. I think this is a benefit of the pastoral counselor and client relationship; knowing that your pastoral counselor shares the same belief system as you is likely the main reason someone would choose to see that counselor.
One disadvantage that I find to the pastoral relationship is the looser boundaries. As a clinical counselor, I value the fact that if I see a client in public, I cannot acknowledge them. I cannot exchange home phone numbers. We cannot get dinner together. My potential unborn children will never play with my client’s children. These boundaries cultivate a more therapeutic setting so that dual relationships do not occur, thus hindering the honesty, openness, and trust in the counseling setting. For pastoral counselors, they might worship right next to a client at church. They could give out their personal cell phone numbers. Their children might be best friends and always at each other’s homes. In my opinion, this could create a conflict of interest. It might result in the counselor being less confrontational or the client not disclosing all that is problematic in their lives for fear of being judged or outcast. I appreciate the strict boundaries of clinical counseling because I will still have the opportunity to walk along with clients in distress, but I will never enter so fully into their lives that the therapeutic process might be damaged. I can assure you that I will never end up like Dr. Leo Marvin with a client like Bob showing up at my vacation house. (Go rent What About Bob? Immediately! If you don’t laugh, we will never be friends …)
While I am excited to become a licensed clinical counselor, I see much value in pastoral counseling. I believe pastoral counselors in the Catholic tradition can be both religious persons or lay people, with or without psychological training, who are able to help people make meaning through the transitions and struggles in their lives, while drawing on Jesus’ life and other spiritual resources. The spiritual resources available to pastoral counselors are usually missing in the clinical setting, especially if the client is from a different faith tradition. Spiritual resources like prayer, sacraments, and scripture are vital to the spiritual well-being of clients. While some problems are strictly psychological and would need psychiatric attention, the bottom line is that it is all connected. Psychological affects spiritual and vice versa. If you are interested in going to counseling, find what works for you. Ask questions about the counselor’s training background and prepare yourself for the hard work of transformation and healing.