Upon my conversion to Catholicism, and after some general soul searching about the path that God had set before me, I found myself at Franciscan University pursuing a degree in Mental Health Counseling. I also came into the program with the full intention of getting the Christian Counseling Certificate. It’s an excellent plan for anyone who is passionate about counseling and their faith combined, especially if you don’t intend on having a life throughout the process. Part of the certificate involved taking Christian counseling and the pastoral counseling classes, which in my mind came with images of us learning secret techniques only Christian and pastoral counselors knew, not unlike kung fu masters with their rare and specialized skills.
This has been far from the case.
In fact, after my Christian counseling class I began to quickly discover that Christian counseling, and for that matter pastoral counseling, is more a state of mind than a set of skills that have been locked away by the Vatican, only to be utilized by Christian counseling masters. What’s more, the first three weeks of my pastoral counseling class have been devoted to just trying to answer the question: “What is pastoral counseling?”
It’s a fair question, and one that doesn’t really have much in the way of an answer. Many authors, psychologists, and spiritual directors have poked and prodded this question, tilting their heads and scratching their chins as they try to weed out what exactly makes pastoral counseling so special.
One might say it’s an overall concern for the soul of the client, but another could argue what Christian counselor, spiritual director, or even secular psychologist does not, in many ways, have the same concern? Is it the location in which counseling is done? Not really, after all, pastoral counseling could be made available outside of a church and even outside of a church community. Some authors have suggested that there really is nothing special or different about pastoral counseling, and others, like Clark F. Power, have advised that pastoral counseling should find it’s place in dealing with religious issues that arise in a person’s life, and not so much in day-to-day problems and pathologies.
So what really makes pastoral counseling so special? In my opinion, it comes down to a variety of factors, but the most important is that pastoral counseling gives particular attention to the relationship between the client and Christ.
Christian counseling seeks to mend a pathology with an awareness of the client’s faith. Spiritual direction aims to help a client be open to how the Lord is trying to lead them. But Pastoral counseling realizes how crucial our relationship with Christ is to our mental and spiritual wellbeing.
Pastoral counseling can take Christian counseling a step further, beyond the preferred techniques a therapist likes to use, the language, and the theology of human nature. Pastoral counseling encapsulates the understanding Christian counselors have about humans, an understanding that we are all made in the image of Christ, that we have all fallen from grace, and that we have all be redeemed in the blood and passion of the Lord. It considers the pathology a client suffers from, be it a broken behavior or a false core belief. Finally it asks: How are you and Christ?
Many of our deepest wounds stem from lies that we were told, or that we told ourselves. We hold onto those lies our entire life and we react to others based on those lies. As Theodore Millon said: “The mind seeks to validate what it already believes.” If someone sincerely believes they are unlovable, they’re going to react to others as if they are, in fact unlovable. Others will react to that person’s maladaptive responses, and in some way ‘validate’ the person’s idea that they are incapable of being loved.
A typical Christian counselor can work on a spectrum with this issue: from just utilizing standard techniques to some Christian-focused interventions, such as the sacraments, prayer, and mindfully selected Bible verses. They know that life comes with suffering and they must be willing to sit with the client in their suffering and not rush to alleviate pain from their client’s life.
But as I said, a pastoral counselor will go that step further. They will bring Christ fully into the room with them. They know that our Lord is a dynamic part of the counseling experience. Christ is the greatest Counselor, and when we offer our wounds to Him and let Him work through us, there is a deeper level of healing that takes place. We don’t just stop at patching up mental distortions. We begin to cure our souls, and the darkness of the lies that we have believed will begin to be scoured clean from our spirits and soothed with a balm of truth and acceptance for who we are realistically.
Christ is more than our Counselor though. He is our greatest friend, our Lover, and our Protector. When our relationship with Him is in disarray, when we’ve neglected His role in our lives or closed ourselves off from awakening ourselves to His presence, when we’ve sought out other gods, gods of addiction or gods of false truths, then our lives are also in disarray. It is time to look at that relationship and analyze what we can do to open ourselves up to Him once more and put things right, and the pastoral counselor leads us side by side with Christ through that process like a martial counselor with a couple hurt by the infidelity of a broken lover. Christ, the neglected spouse, always forgives. Then it is up to us to work in sync with our Savior, to be His loving servant and give Him the attention He deserves. When the relationship with our Protector is in right order once more, healing comes, perhaps not with ease, but on a much deeper level.