It seems that every source on this topic and every person asked has a different answer to the question, “What is pastoral counseling?” Some are in agreement; others are not. To answer this question, I think it’s first necessary to ask why we are asking this question in the first place. What is the purpose of distinguishing pastoral counseling from other forms of counseling or from other modes of being in day to day life? If we are seeking to distinguish pastoral counseling from other modes of being, it must mean that there is some merit in this form of a helping relationship that deserves being defined and recognized. I believe this to be true; pastoral counseling is important and needs definition and recognition.
First and foremost, pastoral counseling is caring for the souls of others and encouraging a life of mental and spiritual wellness and wholeness. Pastoral counseling means operating from a Kingdom lens rather than a treatment perspective. I believe pastoral counseling means bringing each individual’s issues into the bigger perspectives of life and seeing the spiritual nature within each interaction. This turns a conversation about depression and sadness into a discussion on the meaning of redemptive suffering and the depths of the human heart. Pastoral counseling is caring for the entirety of the human person—mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual—and recognizing that each sphere touches the other and that we are spiritual beings through and through.
While pastoral counseling is certainly more easily carried out in a church setting, I believe this kind of counseling should not be restricted to this setting. In an ideal world, we would not have to worry about the boundaries of discussing spirituality and religion within counseling. In actuality, we are told not to bring up religion, to wait for the client to express interest in the topic, and to avoid imposing our beliefs at all costs. Too often our religious and spiritual beliefs are seen as a hindrance to doing our jobs as effective counselors. What if our beliefs were seen as strengths to be used to help people understand and find meaning in their struggles? What if the conversation turned from setting aside our beliefs to integrating them into our work as counselors? This is what pastoral counseling aims to do. Sadly, this is often only acceptable if employed by the Church or self. Insurance companies usually don’t care to hear that they’re paying for our clients to come to know Jesus more intimately through their suffering and pain.
Though the reach of pastoral counseling in the community may be limited to certain office spaces, thank goodness that reach exists. People are out there who want to help us heal from our mental and emotional pain and also help us understand these trials in the light of something bigger than ourselves. This is just one perspective on pastoral counseling. Just as we each reflect different sides of God’s goodness, each of our perspectives can reflect a different element of pastoral counseling that, when taken all together, creates a tapestry of ideas and views of ways to help the human person thrive here on earth and continue walking to our true Home.