Much of the emphasis of my last two blogs has been purely theoretical in terms of understanding the foundation from which a Pastoral Counselor operates. And while Pastoral Counseling encompasses endless amounts of theoretical ideas and stretches across the various disciplines, what the process looks like in practical terms is just as important to note.
A person may seek Pastoral counseling for a multitude of different reasons. Maybe they’re struggling with anxiety or battling depression, they may have current relational problems or past trauma to work through or self-esteem related issues. Whatever the reason, the Pastoral Counselor always takes into account each person’s unique circumstances. In their initial session, they would begin by exploring the central concern that brought the person to counseling in the first place. This offers the individual a chance to share their story, express how they’re feeling and give a general history that is related to the presenting problem. For example, if a woman comes in with marital problems, the Pastoral Counselor would want to know what the specific concern is, how long it’s been persisting, how the woman is feeling about the situation and any other information that would be relevant to helping the Pastoral counselor understand the marital dynamics.
The Pastoral Counselor may also want to explore the person’s spiritual well-being in relation to their presenting problem. They would do this by asking questions to help them understand the individual’s awareness and attitude towards God. In the case of the woman with marital issues, does she see God as a loving Father who will help walk with her through her trials or might she possibly project the qualities she doesn’t like about her husband onto her perception of God? These questions might seem irrelevant to the outsider, but to the Pastoral Counselor who takes a holistic approach, the individuals answers might prove telling to their overall openness and receptivity to God’s guidance throughout the counseling process.
An important element in the whole beginning stages is the exploration of the individual’s feelings. While many people of faith often have distorted views of emotions, Pastoral Counselors recognize the essential role emotions play in the human experience. After all, God gave us our emotions and our emotions, while they shouldn’t be the primary driving force behind our behaviors, give us great insight when used in conjunction with our reason. It is important for the individual to have a healthy understand of their emotions and to be free to fully express them within the context of the counseling process. “Feelings have to be faced and even expressed in order to be known (Benner).” The woman with marital problems may be feeling hurt, angry, neglected, and confused or a mixture of them all, or she may not be able to verbalize what she is feeling. Either way, it will be part of the process to uncover her emotions in order to understand the implication of them on the current situation. The Pastoral Counselor never tells someone what to feel, but rather helps them understand why they might be feeling what they’re feeling and how their emotional response may contribute to or inhibit the resolution of their problem.
The main premise of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is that how someone thinks about something, will shape how they feel about it. This is why it’s extremely beneficial for Counselor’s to have a grasp on how each individual thinks about their current situation. If the woman thinks her marriage is hopeless and she doesn’t want to salvage it, then she naturally will begin to feel hopeless. Pastoral Counselors may need to challenge the individuals thinking or help correct their distortions if they are going to help them move forward in their current situation. In the case of the woman whose struggling in her marriage, this may mean helping her to see all the positive things about her relationship, or it may require getting her to think about the way she’s thinking. So often we jump make assumptions, jump to conclusions or misinterpret neutral ques, so re-evaluating how we analyze a situation may prove significantly helpful in itself. “For healing to occur, they must see themselves, the one who hurt them, and the entire hurtful event in a new light. Then and only then is healing possible (Benner).”
The Pastoral Counselor also seeks to understand the individual’s behavioral response to their problem. They may examine what the individual is doing to handle the problem and what behavioral changes they may need to make to help alleviate or work through the problem. For example, is the woman ignoring her husband? Trying to reach out and communicate with him? What has she tried? What is she willing to do to make things work? These are all practical questions to helping her move forward in her marriage.
The Pastoral Counselor may also wish to point the individual in the direction of additional resources. Some resources may include books on marriage, conferences, contacting other women or couples that may have similar situations or referring to a Clinical Counselor if the individual seems like they may benefit from a longer or more thorough counseling experience.
While this is just a brief snapshot of what the initial stages of the counseling process may look like, it by no means gives an adequate portrayal of what actually takes place within a session. Each experience will be different because each person is different, but the support, empathy and prayer a Pastoral Counselor can provide are irreplaceable. People that seek out Pastoral counseling may be drawn to the spiritual aspect of the process, but the spirituality of the counseling doesn’t negate the practicality of it. Our tendency to spiritualize our problems, should not be a barrier to receiving God’s healing and grace through practical means as well. This is the balance the Pastoral Counselor needs to foster in working with each child of God.