What does Pastoral Counseling look like in Practice?
In my first post I mentioned that a deeper exploration of what a pastoral counseling session might entail would require a separate post. Well now is the time for a deeper exploration of what pastoral counseling looks like in practice. For those who did not read the first post a brief excerpt provides a good summary.
Jesus provides the best model for what pastoral counseling (soul care) looks like. He is concerned with the flourishing of the whole person (physical, mental, and spiritual health). His deepest concern is the salvation of each person. Thus the pastoral counselor has a particular desire to bring the saving love of Jesus to each client. This will be manifested in different ways. At some times it may look very much like Christian counseling, with a focus on removing psychological obstacles to love (such as depression and anxiety) and at other times it may look more like spiritual direction in focusing on development of a relationship with Christ.
In practice, pastoral counseling begins when a parishioner approaches their pastor or a pastoral counseling to discuss something going on in their life. What exactly this something is and how the parishioner wants to address it helps to determine if it is actually pastoral counseling. A request for material aid, a desire to know how to pray particular devotions, a complaint about church music, or a theological question are most likely not starting points for pastoral counseling, although they could be. For example a parishioner may have a question about what the church teaches about predestination and hell because they are having thoughts about suicide. (Or a parishioner might want to learn more about the communal nature of the Trinity because they are struggling in developing relationships).
Thus while the seemingly non-counseling examples given above may usually be just about the particular issue brought up by the parishioner, at times the issue is really something deeper. But pastoral counseling typically begins when a parishioner comes with a particular concern, such as such as anxiety, depression, marriage, or addiction, which is clearly a counseling issue. If the counselor and the parishioner determine that there is work that can be done on a concrete issue they will next set up a plan of regularly scheduled meetings. These appointments might be every week or every other week and could last from 50 to 90 minutes each time.
The example of generalized anxiety disorder is useful in illustrating the unique aspects of pastoral counseling compared to secular counseling or spiritual direction. Purely secular counseling can do good work with someone with anxiety by helping the individual pay attention to distressing thoughts and rejecting what is untrue in them or by teaching relaxation and mindfulness techniques.
A pastoral counselor can use these approaches as well but can also incorporate distinctly Christian aspects. One intervention for those suffering from anxiety is to experiment with certain behaviors that seem anxiety provoking to determine if the actual experience is as negative as feared. Take for example a young man wanting to get married but who is so afraid of rejection that he will not ask out any women on dates; and is even afraid of trying to do things together as friends with women. A pastoral counselor in this case may suggest small experiments (like talking to women he is more comfortable with about doing things as friends) to test this belief but also incorporate a Christian aspect to it. This Christian aspect could be done through reminding the young man of God’s providential shepherding care, by teaching the Jesus prayer with breathing to relax, by inspiring him through reading about the Christian call to holiness through the vocation of marriage, or by making a spiritual communion before talking to a girl. A pastoral counselor could also explain that if he is turned down it will be with Christ in him and he will be with Christ in a deeper way through that suffering. A spiritual director might teach such Christian ways of acting but it is the pastoral counselor who ties it directly to a specific problem and incorporates it with proven counseling techniques.
Pastoral counseling is similar to spiritual direction in that it is not enough for a parishioner to just come to a session and talk about problems and expect to get better. There is no magic cure through talking alone, although this can be restorative. The real growth occurs through putting the ideas into practice each day. Some specifically Christian homework assignments are: assigned scriptures to meditate on, gratitude lists thanking God for his fatherly care, cultivating positive emotional experiences that make the good life more attractive, and journaling about how suffering has been a time of growth in the past. Living in the moment though mindfulness is a common secular intervention; this can be elevated to a Christian intervention through using the concept of the present moment as the only contact we have with God.
Pastoral counseling also explores how God is active in a person’s life. This could be seen in gratitude for the little things of the day, an awareness of God’s presence throughout the day, and a sense of mission of building up God’s kingdom. This sense of mission gives meaning to a person’s life, in fact it is the ultimate meaning that makes life worth living. This meaning can be a vital help in lifting depression.
The use of religious resources is another thing that makes pastoral counseling distinct. This can include things like prayer in session and the encouragement to pray and meditate outside of session, the use of sacraments (such as communion and confession), the encouragement to use sacramentals such as holy water and scapulars, and displaying religious artwork in the office of the counselor and the home of the client.
In a pastoral counseling setting sin is a legitimate topic for discussion. With a parishioner whose sins are creating significant damage in their lives the pastoral counselor can share, using appropriate empathy and listening techniques (to enter the client’s worldview and to be gentle) how they see the negative consequences of sin for this particular individual.
While beauty can move all people, and thus any counselor may use it, a pastoral counselor will have a deeper appreciation of the healing power of encountering true beauty. The transcendental nature of beauty means that it can lead to an encounter with God. (A deeper exploration of how this works would require another post) An effective pastoral counselor will encourage their clients to engage with beauty through nature, art, poetry, literature, or music.
While the subject being discussed and the approaches and techniques used in pastoral counseling all contribute to it being a distinct means of counseling it is the pastoral counselor’s conviction in the truth of who Jesus is that truly distinguishes pastoral counseling from other types of counseling. In pastoral counseling it is vital that the parishioner understands that the pastoral counselor is convinced that only Jesus provides the path to wholeness, happiness and flourishing. The way that this is communicated will vary based on the spiritual devilment of each individual parishioner. In some cases the parishioner may not yet be convinced of this truth. The counselor does not need to bludgeon this point into a resistant parishioner but this hope in Christ must be made manifest if this counseling is to be considered truly pastoral.
 For further reading on the present moment see “The Sacrament of the Present Moment” by Jean-Pierre de Caussade and “How to Be Holy” by Peter Kreeft.”