Pastoral counseling is a special form of counseling with many unique characteristics and techniques. Not only does it have the benefit of the traditional modes of counseling, it also has the benefit of incorporating divine assistance as well as a wealth of historical examples and teachings that date all the way back to the foundation of the world.
One of the blessings of being a pastoral counselor is that one can freely incorporate prayer into the counseling sessions. I personally think it is important to open each session with prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to come in and lead the session. Taking a moment to center oneself on Christ and not so much on the stressors of one’s life, help clients to become more focused when they share about their lives. Moreover, praying together has a way of uniting the counselor with clients, thus building rapport and trust. In this united spirit, clients feel that they are not alone and that the counselor is their with them, helping and encouraging them in their struggles.
Another blessing is that, due to both counselors and clients knowing that faith is integral to the counseling process, both counselors and clients are more receptive to noticing God in the counseling process and where He is present in the clients’ lives. Thus, regular open conversations about God’s will and where He may be present in the clients’ lives can occur. This is important because clients can gain deeper meaning to their experiences, which in turn will help them to carry their joys and sorrows in a healthier way.
An important tool for discerning God’s will and where He is at in the clients’ lives is the scriptures. I believe that pastoral counselors should know their scriptures quite well so that they can easily navigate the bible to get to a scripture verse at a moment’s notice. Fostering homework which encourages clients to pray over scripture that pertains to issues they are going through can be a great way of helping clients integrate the scriptural teachings into their daily lives, and thus helping them to become more whole and well balanced.
Moreover, another way I see the scriptures being used effectively, besides getting to know God’s will and where He is present in the clients’ lives, is through showing parallels between certain persons in the bible and the client. Showing clients how they are similar to people in the bible has a way of helping clients feel they are not alone in their struggles. It shows them how others have dealt with similar circumstances in the past. It can also be a learning tool to help clients think about the consequences of their decisions if the path they are heading down may have self destructive ramifications.
People like stories and can easily identify with the figures in a story. In counseling, using the stories and figures of the bible can be a way of breaking down walls and helping clients feel safe. This happens because clients decide for themselves what the significance of the stories are, how the characters of the story are similar or dissimilar to them, and what, if any, they can take from the stories and apply to their daily lives. Through this process, clients come to see themselves through the eyes of the characters, and this makes them feel a little safer to admit and acknowledge those areas within themselves that they find difficult to look at. Stories have a way of reaching the depths of a soul and leaving a lasting impression that simple conversation doesn’t come close.
Furthermore, pastoral counselors have the unique benefit of encouraging and challenging clients to grow in their faith through a deeper prayer life and becoming more connected with the church. They can do this in various ways. First, they can call the lost sheep to Jesus by asking clients to reflect on how they can draw closer to Christ. Secondly, they can reflect with clients ways in which they currently feel a sense of belonging to a church community, ways in which they feel part of something bigger than themselves, and how they can increase that sense of belonging. Additionally, they can exhort clients to embrace the corporal and spiritual works of mercy that all Christians are called to.
Of course, all of these encouragements and challenges need to be discerned carefully. It is important to consider the clients’ current mental health and physical state of life as well as what they came to counseling for before proposing such ideas to clients. While pastoral counseling has many unique benefits, it needs to be presented to clients in the amount clients are ready to receive. Furthermore, while faith is integral to the counseling process, the traditional counseling methods should not be overlooked in the counseling process.
Pastoral counseling will continue to offer many unique benefits that traditional modes of therapy cannot give. It will continue to unite and infuse the spiritual with the traditional forms of counseling, which will lead clients further into wholeness and well-being. Thus, in uniting the spiritual with the traditional, it will continue to have an advantage over purely traditional forms of counseling.
For anyone going into Catholic pastoral counseling, a strong understanding of Catholic Social Teaching is important. The teachings of the Catholic Church shed wonderful light on the dignity of the human person and man’s relationship with other people and the world around him as God intended it to be.