In some ways, “pastoral counseling” is a very precise phrase that is used to describe a very vague idea. Professionals in the counseling field have put forth a wide variety of ideas about what it is that distinguishes pastoral counseling from clinical mental health counseling or spiritual direction, the two fields that are most closely related to the general concept of “pastoral counseling.”
Some definitions center on the “who” of the pastoral counselors themselves. If you are a pastor (or someone in a very closely related ministry), this line of reasoning suggests, then any counseling-type activities that you engage in with your flock should be considered pastoral counseling.
No, but wait! an opponent of this view might say, If you are not trained, and preferably accredited as a counselor, then you are not engaging in counseling! Pastors giving advice and providing feedback to members of their congregations are performing pastoral care duties, not actually counseling.
Other definitions look to the explicit, stated purpose of the counseling relationship (does the counselor envision his or her job as guiding clients simply toward greater mental health, or specifically as assisting them in removing clinical stumbling blocks on their paths to God?), or the environment in which the counseling actually occurs (if you’re offering counseling services in a church building, parish office, or similar, this definition would identify you as a pastoral counselor). There is a great deal of validity in each of these definitions, but the burgeoning professional (or interested hobbyist) is left with the daunting task of defining the deceptively simple title of “pastoral counselor” to their own satisfaction.
My own understanding, while still fledgling in nature, would be most concisely stated as follows:
Pastoral counseling is a counseling relationship that exists within the context of at least one larger community of faith between a client and a professionally trained counselor who is well-grounded and actively participates in their faith tradition.
A counseling relationship. I am here defining this as the type of relationship that is generally understood by members of the counseling profession to exist between a professional counselor and a client. This entails adherence on the part of the counselor to all relevant laws and codes of ethics, including practices of confidentiality and clearly establishing the boundaries of the relationship and purpose of counseling. On the part of the client, this relationship confers the responsibility for participation in the counseling process and accountability for progress towards self-identified goals. This relationship is also what distinguishes pastoral counseling from spiritual direction, identifying the end-goal of the process as helping the client to move forward in the healing of or coping with a clinical or personal issue (and, in doing so, hopefully moving further along in their relationship with God), rather than focusing specifically on the quality of the client’s relationship with God (the purpose of spiritual direction).
Within the context of at least one larger community of faith. To me, this is what distinguishes pastoral counseling from “Christian counseling.” Both will appropriately use “secular” counseling techniques, supplemented by Christian teachings and discussions of how the client’s relationship with God is affected by the issues that brought them into counseling. However, I would view the more general term “Christian counseling” as a relationship that could exist independently from a community of faith, even though the counselor and client share a common faith. On the other hand, pastoral counseling is intimately bound to the community life of at least one faith community—be it a specific parish or church, or a Catholic diocese. At the most general, this faith community may exist within a non-religious entity, such as a hospital setting or hospice. Many pastoral counseling relationships may take place within multiple faith communities (a specific parish, the diocese, and the Church as a whole, for example).
Professionally trained counselor. Whether the counselor is a licensed clinical mental health counselor or not, I believe that pastoral counselors should receive professional training within the field of counseling. This will better prepare them to deal with the clinical issues that their clients may face in ways that training in ministry and theology alone will not; perhaps just as importantly, it will help them to recognize when a particular concern or issue is outside of their area of competence and should be referred. It would also be helpful if professionally trained counselors acting in this role made a point of familiarizing themselves with the most recent developments in counseling within their own faith tradition, and would be ideal if they worked to contribute to this (often small, but growing) field of research, as it is the responsibility of professional counselors to advocate for their clients, and people of faith are frequently in need of advocates and representation within the mental health profession.
Well-grounded and active participation in the faith. It would be very difficult for a counselor with no grounding in their faith to actively engage with clients in a pastoral setting. Aside from the “big ticket” issues of not wanting to encourage individuals in sin or heresy, many clients would not take seriously a pastoral counselor who demonstrated only a rudimentary understanding of the faith. Further, it is not unusual for clients who are active in their faith life to incorporate elements of their pathology into their understanding of God, scripture, Church teaching, and so on; the counselor must be confident in their understanding of these concepts to be firm within themself on these points.