Over these past few years, I have spent my time learning more and more about psychological theories, theological concepts, Marian apparitions, Group dynamics and so many other things as I study to become a Pastoral Counselor at Franciscan. I have been blessed to be able to study on this campus where faith and knowledge truly collide in a way that has given me a solid theoretical basis. However, as I have learned these things, I also came to realize that, no matter how much psychology or theology I study, there is no list of ten commandments in regards to how one applies this knowledge.
Pastoral counseling, much like was discussed in my previous blog, is a world of mystery, of complexity, a world where two worlds collide and must learn to live in harmony with each other, and the practical side of it is no different. The practical side of pastoral counseling is not simply choosing the “correct” objective psychological theory or technique, nor is it simply quoting scripture or Christian dogma to the client. Rather, pastoral counseling once again finds itself in the middle ground where both sides of the field must work together, find proper theories or techniques that fit both sides, and also create a safe Christian environment to meet in. Much like the missionary who comes to a new land or the therapist who encounters a new culture, new battle plans must be made, new techniques adapted, new knowledge gained, all of which changes how we serve, how we speak, and what we do with the people we meet. This is no easy task to do, and along the way, each counselor discovers their own interests and their own practical application of what they have learned. In my own life, I have had a decent amount of exposure to pastoral work and to theories that I have been able to begin formulating my own vision of what pastoral counseling will look like in my own life.
As I considered the faith aspect of pastoral counseling, I began to ask myself how I would employ my own faith and the teaching of the church in psychology and I came up with 2 main answers, support, community, and reflection. You see to me, the Christian faith life is a journey that is focused around building each other up, trusting in God, and being strengthened by him. In this regard, I would find it very easy to use Christian resources, such as Bible passages, the lives of the saints, church teaching and even theological concepts as a means of encouraging the client, emboldening them in their moments of weakness through the examples of other humans that have made the journey already, and to help them to realize where they are in their own lives ad where they want to go. Much like how you would use research or examples to make psychological concepts seem real and tangible, you can use these aspects of the faith to make concepts more personal, more relatable, and more powerful. Also, the community of faith would play a huge factor in pastoral counseling in that support groups, bible studies, prayer groups can be utilized and formed to help the client to recognize that they are not the only ones struggling that they have other people they can turn to for support, and that there is more that they can do to seek healing and strengthening through others and through effort outside of the office
The other aspect of faith that I find very psychologically important is that of reflection. Within our faith, we are constantly called to look at ourselves, to daily examine our conscience, and to recognize who we are in God’s eyes. As a result, I find that this innate reflective nature of the Christian faith could be magnified greatly and focused through the use of personal and spiritual journaling in order to reflect on our emotions, that scripture can be combined with this in lectio devina where one would reflect on what God is speaking to us through the books of the Bible and then applied to our own lives, or that Ignatian practices such as the daily examination of conscience can be given as homework as a means of grounding the self in reality, of recognizing one’s own strengths and areas of growth.
Finally, in regards to the psychological aspect of pastoral counseling, I believe that there are many theories, and thus many techniques, that can be utilized in a Christian perspective. However, there is one theory that has always rung true with my own beliefs and that I believe can be extremely useful in regards to pastoral counseling, and that is Person Centered. You see, pastoral counseling is more than just treating a symptom or overcoming a problem. Pastoral counseling is about meeting another human being, encountering another soul, and adding to their lives in some small way. Thus, the skills found in person centered, such as active listening or giving the person unconditional positive regard, are found to be completely in line with the Christian mission and the goal of pastoral counseling. Sure, the perspective from which the skills are used would be different than that of a secular counselor, but I still believe that psychological skills or techniques, such as CBT training or relaxation exercises hold a huge place in pastoral counseling and will often be included within the treatment of the individual. Maybe the journaling will focus on specific scriptures or the relaxation trainings might include forms of prayer, but nevertheless, they are simply psychological skills tailored to fit the process of pastoral counseling.
In the end then, the practicality of pastoral counseling is not trying to figure out how you are going to balance the usage of two different approaches. Rather, in my opinion, it is about taking what is good of both worlds, combining them to work together, creating something tangible that includes a hint of the mystery of faith, and all folds nicely into the treatment of the individual. Much like the saints preached by identifying the faith to the new culture or by presenting it in a method understood by the civilization of the time, we must find and present the middle ground to our clients, the middle ground where the works of Alfred Adler meets the work of St. Francis.