As, both, a Christian and aspiring Counselor, I find the idea of pastoral counseling pretty intriguing and attractive. The question is: what is TRUE pastoral counseling?
There is a plethora of different interpretations of what pastoral counseling truly consists of. Some believe pastoral counseling is any opportunity for the pastor to guide or comfort, in a particular setting. Some believe that in any context, counseling is to be considered pastoral, because it involves healing. The possibilities of potential definitions goes on and on.
I believe the first step in defining this discipline would be to accurately define the terms.
The word Pastoral is defined as follows:
pas·to·ral 1. used for or related to the keeping or grazing of sheep or cattle. 2. (in the Christian Church) concerning or appropriate to the giving of spiritual guidance.
Counseling is defined as: coun·sel·ing 1. the provision of assistance and guidance in resolving personal, social, or psychological problems and difficulties, especially by a professional.
The integration of these two concepts would assert that pastoral counseling is giving assistance and guidance to resolve personal, social, psychological, and spiritual guidance, as well as keeping and feeding the flock.
Right about now, you may be thinking: “so, does that mean the counselor is responsible for housing and feeding his/her clients?”
The Bible frequently refers to the Word of God, Jesus Himself, and other teachings, as food. (See: 1 Peter 2:2, Hebrews 5:12-13, Jeramiah 3:15, John 6:5, and many others.) The Bible also refers to Jesus and God, the Father, as shepherds. With this perspective in mind, what does that mean for the pastoral counselor?
Logically and theologically, alike, it means the counselor has a duty to be like Christ, practicing His principles, and guiding the flock to a place (spiritually, psychologically, and socially) where the sheep can be fed and healthy.
David G. Benner beautifully sums up how Christ was the perfect counselor, in his book Care of Souls: Revisioning Christian Nurture and Counsel. I will highlight my favorite qualities in Christ, that Benner listed “Jesus: • met them where they were • was compassionate • acted out of an explicit moral context but was never condemning • invited choice • asked probing questions • affirmed faith responses • dealt with each person uniquely and individually • related in a manner that affirmed people’s value • was never coercive or manipulative • challenged people to never settle for less than God’s best for them • gave what people needed, not just what they asked for • gave Himself, not just advice”
The list goes on, but hopefully, you get the idea.
As a pastoral counselor, I believe the greatest task is to be Christ-like. The pastoral counselor has a responsibility to guide people to a better place (socially, psychologically, and spiritually), while feeding them truth, and facilitating their well-being and health.
The nature of the encounter is up to the counselor. Does the counseling need to be formal? Does it have to be a standard length of time/duration? What do the boundaries look like? In what context and setting, must this occur? Is it a ministry or a career? These questions must be answered by the individual counselor, and based on the needs of the person seeking counsel. While there are still questions about the semantics of the pastoral counseling encounter, the core qualities of a pastoral counselor are constant.
Psalms 23:1-4 1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,[a] I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.