I don’t know about any of you readers, but I have never been to a pastoral counselor. I have been in counseling and in spiritual direction, but never pastoral counseling. So when I entered a pastoral counseling class I didn’t really know what I was getting into. We have spent the first four weeks of class reading articles and discussing what pastoral counseling is and what it is not. And to be honest, it’s still confusing. Definitions seem to vary by counselor. But I am tasked with writing this blog to try to define it. My goal is to give a very simple definition and use examples to illustrate my points. I will also talk about the context of pastoral counseling and how it differs from clinical counseling.
Pastoral counseling is the place where psychological issues meet a spiritual focus. I personally like to think of it as being on spectrum between Christian clinical counseling and spiritual direction. It incorporates pieces of both dimensions and buds off to form a unique pastoral ministry. The overarching goals of all three dimensions are somewhat similar: to liberate the person from bondage in order to strengthen their relationship with God. But the process of obtaining that goal varies among these disciplines.
In spiritual direction, the focus is primarily on the person’s relationship with God and how the person can grow more in holiness. The issues brought up in spiritual direction will more directly relate to the activities of the spiritual life. Some of these issues may include vocational discernment, combating habitual vices and working toward virtue, discerning prayer revelations, spiritual dryness, and what mortifications one should take up or lay down. These issues are not psychological in nature, but may indirectly influence any underlying psychological issues. Spiritual direction is typically not the place where you try to work through any major relational, emotional, or psychological issues. The director is more of an advisor rather than a counselor in this setting.
Clinical counseling deals primarily with psychological disorders.
Many people go to clinical counseling for issues like depression, anxiety, trauma, and eating disorders. While these issues will affect the spiritual life, simply having the client pray, read scripture, or give up bad habits will not treat the disorder nor move the client to a place where they are truly free to follow the Lord. Instead, the focus in clinical counseling is on symptom alleviation, psychoeducation, skills training, and cognitive restructuring. Christian resources can sometimes be used in the clinical setting, and the client’s spiritual life can be a good resource to tap into. But again, the focus is not directly related to the client’s relationship with Christ.
Pastoral counseling is sort of between these two opposite stances. I like to think of pastoral counseling as dealing with relational, emotional, or psychological issues that directly interfere with one’s relationship with God. The pastoral counselor can use counseling techniques, church teachings, and Christian resources to help clients work through these issues to strengthen their love for God. Some examples of why people may go to a pastoral counselor include a crisis in faith, struggles with addiction, shame due to past sins, marital discord, distorted images of God, or loss of a loved one.
However, some people that see a pastoral counselor may have different issues that aren’t clinical in nature or that don’t deal directly with their relationship with God. These clients may be parishioners who want the convenience of counseling within their own parish, clients who want a counselor with a Christian perspective, or clients who are more comfortable seeing someone they know for counseling. I think it is up to the discretion of the pastoral counselor as to whether they want to take them on as a client. This will depend on the severity of the client’s symptoms and the counselor’s training in treating the presenting problem.
Pastoral counseling also takes place in a unique context. It is usually grounded within a faith tradition that primarily serves a church or parish congregation. Their office is usually in the church or parish office. If they’re employed by the church, they may also have other roles within the community, like leading prayer services, retreats, or faith formation classes.
Boundaries within pastoral counseling are flexible. Pastoral counselors are not restricted to following the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics, as with clinical counselors. They may have to see and interact with their clients outside of their office, which is usually frowned upon in the clinical counseling setting. Pastoral counseling training is also not as standardized as clinical counseling. Qualifications vary by church, agency, and state. Some pastoral counselors may have more clinical training while others are more theologically based. This will of course influence the kind of treatment they offer for clients.
Wow, that was a lot of information. And I feel like I’m just scratching the surface! Like I said before, the definition and views of pastoral counseling will vary. You may not agree with everything I have said, and that’s okay. Chances are I missed some good bits of information. But this is just an overview. I personally find it helpful to differentiate between spiritual direction, pastoral counseling, and Christian clinical counseling, as they all overlap. For more information about pastoral counseling, please refer to the other blogs, as I’m sure they’re more interesting and better written than mine.