We have talked a great deal in all of my counseling classes thus far about counseling in general being a certain walking or journeying with our clients. By this, I mean to say that counselors do not simply stand there at the finish line of “health.” Rather, we try to meet our clients where they are at and help them along to a better place. It seems that the biggest element of this “walking with” that would distinguish pastoral counseling from other kinds of counseling, at least in the Christian sense, is the idea of helping another to carry his or her cross. All people have their own burdens to carry, all of us are weighed down, and when that burden becomes too much for one person to carry on his own is the point at which someone else (like the pastoral counselor) can be given the grace to step in and help for a time until that person has regained the strength to carry it on his own again. This process requires discernment on the part of both the pastoral counselor and the client both in terms of entering into this special relationship and in finally terminating it when the grace that had been given for the pursuit of this relationship has been used and there is no advantage in the counselor helping to carry the client’s cross any longer.
Something else I was thinking about in this metaphor of the journey is the pastoral counselor’s journey. We are all on a path of growth, to become the best version of ourselves that God intended for us to become, and that growth does not stop for the counselor when we enter the counseling room. Though the focus of the relationship is on the client’s journey, the counselor does not hit pause on her journey to wander off onto another’s path. Rather, it is like the two have joined their walks together for that period of time. It is a mutual accompaniment. The counselor is not the expert, but a fellow journeyman who can learn from the client as much as the client learns from her. Of course, this growth is often more professional than personal in its orientation, but the two still deeply inform each other and as the counselor learns to navigate the counseling relationship and establish healthy boundaries there, so she is concurrently learning to do so in her other relationships. Our journey does not stop when we choose to accept the grace to help support another along the way. Instead, we use that grace to continue to grow so we can better navigate the future twists of life better than we might otherwise have done.
And when it is time for the counseling relationship to end, we must be able to trust that the client has once again regained the strength and the will to carry his cross on his own – that he has not become dependent on us for his success and emotional and spiritual well being. The pastoral counselor cannot wait for the client at the finish line, because often she will never even see that person’s finish line. Health, whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual, is dynamic. It is always changing. If we are not working to keep or improve it, we will lose it. So perhaps we might help our clients to achieve the goals we set for them at the beginning of the relationship, but that is not their finish line. If they stop growing upon the termination of the counseling relationship, then we are not doing our job, which is to help lead them into a deeper relationship with Christ so that he, the Divine Physician, can continue to work on them as they journey with Him even after their counseling is done.