I was asked to give a testimony at this past summer’s Defending the Faith Conference on the way that Franciscan University has helped me grow in my faith and as a person. While preparing for this talk, I thought I’d like to share with you the same. Because this school certainly has changed my life! I learned…
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.
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.
So, what is pastoral counseling exactly? Is it counseling with a priest/pastor? Am I just going to be talking about my faith life? Or do I talk about my personal problems and struggles with someone who prays a lot? These were some of the questions I had in regards to what pastoral counseling is before I started taking the class.
Basically pastoral counseling is a counseling relationship that enables individuals to share about their problems and struggles while at the same time incorporating spirituality into the discussion. This is different from “regular” counseling in that the opportunity to discuss what God is doing in your every day life is more available in pastoral counseling. It’s also different from Spiritual Direction in that a pastoral counselor has the ability to work with mental disorders and isn’t solely focused on how much you pray or how you’re going about it. Pastoral counselors listen to what’s going on in your life and are able to help you develop the tools and strategies to work thru obstacles, while at the same time incorporating a faith aspect and bringing God into the mix. Also, you don’t have to meet with just a priest/pastor for pastoral counseling, but anyone who is trained in this line of work such as a layperson (like me!) or religious sister. And hopefully, this person still prays a lot! Make sense?
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.
The goal of pastoral counseling is freedom—freedom from whatever prevents the person from living life to the fullest. Fulfilling one’s greatest potential is the goal in all types of counseling, whether in a pastoral or clinical setting. But what makes pastoral counseling unique is that this type of freedom finds its roots in Jesus Christ. This freedom originates from a God who gives so willingly and so generously to those who ask. Like a father who longs to give gifts to his children, even more so does our Heavenly Father wish to give to those who ask. As Jesus promises in Scripture, “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened. For whoever asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10).
Despite what some may believe, pastoral counseling is not about saying the right thing, memorizing a set of rules and regulations, or taking full responsibility of “fixing” the individual. It is about allowing the Holy Spirit—the “Wonderful Counselor (Is 9:6),” the “true counselor”—to work through the pastoral counselor and to uniquely minister to the individual in whatever way he or she needs.
Pastoral counseling is basically giving the Holy Spirit full reign to do His thing.
Pastoral counseling is an interesting field. In this field your main goal is to guide your clients into a deeper relationship with God. The goal is stated very simply, the challenging and cautionary part comes in when you think of what that one goal entails. We are all children of God, and as a counseling…
Do you know what Pastoral Counseling is? Probably not. Before I started taking this class I wasn’t so sure about what Pastoral Counseling was and how it differed from spiritual direction and “normal” counseling. There is definitely some gray area between these three disciplines, but the following is how I personally internalize the differences.
In the first chapter of Strategic Pastoral Counseling by Benner, he discusses pastoral counseling as “Soul Care.” This idea really struck me. Taking Theology classes in my undergraduate career, the idea of the fusion of body and soul really struck me. We are not just physical beings. We have an immortal soul and a body and the two are one and what happens to one can affect what happens to the other. When our bodies commit a sin, it influences the soul. Many times after going to confession I feel physically lighter and better, now that my soul is in a better condition.
I know the burning question that must be on your mind right now. What is a pastoral counselor? The obvious answer is…wait for it…a pastor, who is a counselor. Right? Well, the answer is maybe! I myself, as a pastor, decided to pursue my graduate degree in Mental Health and Counseling. However, my intent was not so that I could be a pastoral counselor, but rather become a better pastor who has the ability to counsel. Clears the whole subject up doesn’t it? Ya I know, about as clear as mud. So let me back up a bit and give some differentiating definitions, as I see them. Keep in mind that as a pastor, I will be speaking to these points from that perspective. Sorry, can’t help it!
With the word pastoral, it is often assumed that we are speaking of someone who has been ordained. This can certainly be the case. However, I believe that no- clergy can also be pastoral. As a pastor I have seen countless examples of the church members showing care, compassion, generosity, accountability, and counsel to each other. So while yes, a member of the clergy is expected to be pastoral, I do not feel that pastoral actions need be limited to only member of clergy. As Christians we all have that calling.
This semester I am blessed to be studying at Franciscan University’s study abroad program in the foothills of the Alps at the Kartause in Gaming, Austria. When people told me about the program it was a little bit difficult for me to picture, so the picture to the left is hopefully worth 1,000 words. The semester here…