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What is pastoral counseling? This has been the question with which I have been wrestling for almost a month now. You know those times when we flip and twist and cramp our brain muscles over something? I have become an Olympic champion at mental gymnastics. I wish I could say I have had an epiphany of the “correct” answer to this question but I don’t think that is the correct perspective. As can often be the case in life, perhaps it is more about the process than the answer. That is not meant to be a neglect of inquiry or the existence of truth but a means to open one’s mind to something bigger than any of us can easily define, something of the divine. I recall the tale of St. Augustine walking on the beach and encountering a child who was trying to fill a hole with the ocean’s water. Upon Augustine pointing out the futility of this endeavor, the child looked at Augustine and said that was what he had been trying to do mentally with the Trinity. Pastoral counseling involves a human dimension and certainly is not the Trinity, but any time we are in the realm of faith, I believe we have to build a tolerance for mystery and resist the urge to fit everything into a knowable box. The divine has a funny way of not reducing to mere, observable constructs.
Albeit mysterious, there are lessons we can learn and comprehend of pastoral counseling. After all, one cannot practice what does not exist and something cannot exist without some sort of essence. I have found what does not exist is simply consensus in the field. Still, there is merit in studying the confusion, even if it cannot be contained or explained in a simple definition. In case you were looking for a simple solution, the dictionary does not offer a definition of pastoral counseling. The professional organization of pastoral counseling does, however, have an insightful mission statement. The American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) states, the mission “is to bring healing, hope, and wholeness to individuals, families, and communities by expanding and equipping spiritually grounded and psychologically informed care, counseling, and psychotherapy” (www.aapc.org). This sounds nice, but what I have had to ask in the last few weeks is what words like “wholeness” and phrases as “spiritually grounded” really mean and how this differs from being the possible subject matter of ordinary counseling.
It is useful to turn to preeminent voices in the pastoral field. Our class started by looking at the field’s history. While history once seemed boring to me, I have come to appreciate how it offers an important perspective on what something has been and is becoming. Despite informal pastoral care being provided for hundreds of years in the Catholic Church, the actual term has Protestant roots and has been understood as the practical psychological care that pastors provide their congregations. Many models of such therapy persist in the field and operate from these assumptions (Brenner, 2003). Brenner states, “Pastoral counseling involves the establishment of a time-limited relationship that is structured to provide comfort for troubled persons by enhancing their awareness of God’s grace and faithful presence and thereby increasing their ability to live their lives more fully in the light of these realizations” (40). While this may seem general and inclusive, Brenner continues to describe the proper administer as being a pastor and the setting as ecclesial.
To provide some context, psychology, the undergirding of counseling, was not born until the late 19th century. According to the AAPC, there were many individuals who brought awareness to the connection and possible integration of mental health and religion, which was crucial in the formation of pastoral counseling. More formal pastoral practice is indebted to minds such as Carl Rogers. Rogers is thought to be the great influence behind the third wave of psychology, known as humanism and from which pastoral counseling grew. He championed a client-centered therapy and believed in every client’s ability to reach their full potential through the conditions of empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard portrayed by the counselor. This positivity was quite revolutionary in the 1940s and 50s. Substantial contributions to this therapy, including express application to pastoral counseling and special attention to environmental effects, were made by Howard Clinebell (Snodgrass, 2007). Some, such as Clark Power, have drawn our attention to the need to now distinguish pastoral counseling from humanism, such as by rectifying their different values (1990).
I personally feel it is important to take the best from any domain and leave the rest. And what I would suggest best is what works for the client. In general, the counseling field leans toward culturally sensitive and evidence-based interventions and you, the client, are the most important consideration in that. If God is important to you and you want Him present in your journey of growth, tell your counselor. If you are Catholic or desire a certain type of prayer or spirituality to be involved in your experience, share this. Experts show this is professionally possible (Cheston, 2000). If it cannot be provided by your counselor, try another. While some are caught up in distinctions or assert pastoral counseling must have certain requirements, such as a religious setting, a clergy or theologically trained counselor, a spiritual problem, or a divine purpose, the one thing that is always evident is an appreciation for the divine and you. Room is made for your higher power to be involved in the therapeutic relationship. While pastoral counseling cannot give the answers, even to the question of what it exactly is, it is open to exploring your most important questions.
Until next time, live well,