Hello blog readers of the world,
Welcome back to round two of virtual lessons in pastoral counseling. I’ll be your host, M Mullan. A few weeks ago we talked about what pastoral counseling is theoretically. Now we have the mission, if we should choose to accept it, to draw a more practical picture of what pastoral counseling might look like in practice. This distinction is comparable to other forms of therapy. One has a theoretical orientation to which they subscribe, such as psychoanalysis, client-centered, cognitive-behavioral, or pastoral counseling. Then, the actual therapy, including each session must utilize different techniques and strategies that reflect that school of thought.
The one characteristic solidly established of pastoral counseling is that it always offers a special contemplation of the divine, the transcendent…God. God, by nature, is mystery and cannot be encapsulated by research, science, or therapy, but God can be reflected in their practice. This can be done for counseling in many different ways, according to the particular denomination and its beliefs. I would propose that most religious practices could be incorporated into sessions. Even ones that are communally celebrated or must take place under certain circumstances could be assigned as homework. Some professionals might consider this controversial and others might wonder why they would need to go to counseling if all they are going to get is what they have for free at church services and ministries.
My response to these objections would be that religious customs should not be assigned indiscriminately and are never the sum total of therapy. This is not a comment on the inherent value of the practices but rather what counseling is. Counseling is a unique relationship, for specific purposes of healing and growth. The measure of a technique’s inclusion then becomes whether it supports that relationship and its goals, especially those of the client. In other words, anything from the client’s faith orientation that would be clinically significant, helpful to the therapeutic goals, or a source of strength, could, and I would argue should, be made available. A phrase I use often, from twelve-step tradition is “take what you like and leave the rest.” I believe this is applicable and “what works” can easily be added to its criteria of preference. This results in the standard, if it works, take it; if it doesn’t, leave it.
Still, many in the mental health field are not convinced. Just the other day I was at a conference talking to a professional who became very uncomfortable at the notion of including spiritual and religious practices in sessions. She stiffened and said, “that’s really touchy.” I wanted to ask her to whom it was touchy. To her, her secularized training, or the client? If it is for the client, then I would say to most certainly not go there, but if it is for the professional and their comfort level, then I would suggest some professional growth might be helpful. To me, it is irresponsible to ignore that which is deemed important and positive to the client and, indeed, many cite these rituals and practices as the most important and useful coping mechanisms to them. Missing such would be, at best a blind spot.
Thus, with full disclosure of the difficulties encountered in utilizing some of these materials, I will now exemplify how they might be included. Hopefully, this will alleviate some concerns of the unknown. While pastoral counseling is not limited to Christian denominations, this often is its perspective, and, as such will provide the basis for my examples.
One of the most obvious resources for Christian pastoral counseling is the Bible. Believers see it as the living Word of God and, from my experience, can hear things from scripture that they might not hear any other way. Even for non-believers, the stories, parables, and “one-liners” can be incredibly powerful. There is no denying that there is some sage wisdom to be found in this book. A wonderful example of its use is how it can correct distorted thinking. The very popular cognitive-behavioral therapy addresses cognitive distortions or lies that people have bought. Normally, they are righted through a process of telling oneself more accurate statements. How much better though would be the Word of one’s God to treat these misconceptions?
Take an individual who is doubtful of their goodness or has low self-esteem. When they experience these associated thoughts, a counselor might have them say sections from Psalm 139, such as “O Lord, you have searched me and known me!….I praise you for I am wondrously made.” If something more structured is desired, a specific study could be utilized. Kerry Kerr McAvoy, a Christian psychologist has written two such Bible studies with reflections for healing. The first book is Jesus, the Ultimate Therapist: Bringing Hope and Healing and the second, Jesus the Ultimate Therapist: Healing Without Limits. They address Jesus, and the Holy Sprit, as exemplars for healing and can easily be used in sessions or as homework.
If the Bible is not amenable, lyrics to Christian music could also be used in similar fashion. Songs could be played in or out of sessions and combined with journaling or other expressive arts. Music activates different parts of the brain and often bypasses normal defenses. Thus it can be a particularly helpful reinforcement to counseling. Furthermore, there seems to be some song for every occasion, emotion, and musical taste, which allows selections to be tailored to the client. My current, inspirational favorite is “Overcomer” by Mandisa. Music leads to the idea of praise and worship and, with that, prayer practices in general. These could be included in counseling, but vary greatly from denomination to denomination. For the Catholic, praying the rosary; quiet time in adoration; and Mass could be used whereas the non-denominational Christian could take advantage of youth groups or prayer services. These are not mutually exclusive exercises and would need to be chosen with the client based upon their comfort. What is ultimately important is not agreement over doctrine or theology, but what helps the client center and be able to work toward their counseling goals. So what are you really paying for? For healing the way you desire it to be done, which can include God and all that is most important to you.
Until next time,