Effective pastoral counseling

Pastors have a unique opportunity and advantage when it comes to counseling. The shared worship community opens avenues for understanding that no other counselor can make use of. We should understand the specialness of our profession and how to capitalize on our unique advantage.

B. Preston Bogia is director of chaplaincy services, Topeka State Hospital, and a faculty member of the Menninger School of Psychiatry, Topeka, Kansas.

The most common approach in pastoral counseling is to focus attention on the identity of the counselor (a pastor) and the counselee (a parishioner), and to evaluate the specifically religious tools and resources available for the counseling process, which is an interaction between counselor and counselee. But what if the distinguishing characteristic of pastoral counseling is really to be found within the wider context of the worshiping community of which the counselee is a part? This thought-provoking question has arisen in the course of reading and discussions in the clinical pastoral education program at Topeka State Hospital. The premise that has emerged out of our discussions is this: A counseling process is pastoral counseling only when both the counselor and the counselee are members of a worshiping community; that which is done by a minister with a person who is unchurched may be considered as skilled clinical counseling, not pastoral counseling.

Importance of the counselee's community

This definition can be refined much further; if it is true—or only partly true—we can elaborate on several implications for the importance of the community in pastoral counseling:

1. The counselor's identity as a minister becomes fully operative only when there is a common background of knowledge, experience, and history shared with the counselee. The two persons may be greatly unequal in the amount of religious background, but the important factor is that they share a spiritual community that enables and enhances the counseling process so that it becomes fully pastoral. Charles Wheeler Scott reminded us of this when he wrote in an editorial: "It should not be forgotten that one of the advantages the pastoral counselor has over his secular counter part is that he works within the context of a worshipping community."—Pastoral Psychology, February, 1972.

2. The worship community becomes an integral part of the counseling process. Of course, this does not have to be understood in the narrow sense of a particular congregation, or even denomination; there may be many shared images and symbols taken from the whole context of religious belief that can become a part of the process. But the strong implication is that the counseling room must include a community, not just two individuals. The sense of belonging that is communicated by the community provides a context for understanding problems and solutions in the counseling process. In theological terms the community helps to define both sin and grace for the counselee. Thus there can be less dependence on the wisdom (or lack thereof) of the counselor.

3. The community is a worshiping community, and thus it introduces another dimension—that of God's relationship to His people. Although the minister, as counselor, may represent this dimension, there is even more power in the sense of belonging to a group that defines itself in relation to God. Personal worth may sometimes be found in the act of giving wor(th)ship to God, in addition to depending on Him for guidance. That is, some counselees may find that their sense of self-worth returns when they consider themselves worthy enough to offer something to God.

4. The term pastoral denotes an environment, rather than suggesting dependence on a role or the use of specific tools. Prayer, for example, may be nearly meaningless when utilized in a counseling process with someone who is unrelated to the church. On the other hand, prayer acquires a richness when it is accepted by both members of the faith community—counselor and counselee—as important and effective. Similar things may be said about sacraments, the use of Scripture, and personal meditation or faith. It is only within the supportive, accepting atmosphere of the community of faith that these resources become fully effective and powerful. Their use by a minister outside of the context of the community may be perceived as an appropriate "religious" response, but they may be ineffective in the helping relationship.

Practical applications

Let's examine some of the practical ways the involvement of the community of faith may affect the course of a counseling relationship. In other words, how can a pastor effectively capitalize on the common religious beliefs present in the counseling room.

1. Practice listening skills. An effective pastoral counselor will master the art of being a good listener. Special skills need to be developed through intensive training that will allow the counselor to listen with a "third ear" to the counselee. It is amazing how often listening is enough. Often a counselee will leave a session with effusive thanks even when the majority of the counselor's time has been spent in listening and merely reflecting the content of the spoken words. Frequently beginning counselors believe that they must have advice to offer or answers to give to nearly every utterance. More often than not, this approach interferes with the process more severely than almost anything else. The counselor must have skills in listening above everything else.

Once this competence is proven, then the importance of the faith community becomes clear. When there is a shared belief system, the counselee comes to feel that listening is done with an ear to shared values. Even when the topic under discussion is controversial, the trust level may move rapidly to a high point, because there is an assurance of understanding.

2. Utilize references to Scripture. References is an important word here, for it is meant literally. When counselor and counselee hold in common some knowledge of stories and passages from Holy Scripture, it is seldom necessary to do extensive reading or quoting.

For example, a counselor may say something like "I am reminded how Joseph's brothers reacted negatively to his status as favorite son. I wonder if there is any similarity between that experience and your feelings of rejection." The counselor need not go into detail, but only suggests a direction. The counselee is left free to develop the theme further, if desired, or to move in an entirely different direction. The important point is that the counselee's faith stance allows the counselor to utilize references to Scripture effectively as a pastoral and counseling tool without resorting to proof texts or preaching.

3. Draw on repeated themes. Just as the worship community is present in spirit in the counseling room, so the counseling situation can be a part of corporate worship experiences if it is handled very carefully. A sensitive pastoral counselor will be able to identify readily themes that emerge over and over and are indicators of the human condition. For instance, counseling may highlight communications problems as a major factor in broken relationships. This issue is not confined to the lives of those who seek counseling, but it has an impact on all people. Thus conflicts and problems that are revealed in counseling situations can be indicators of needs in the congregation.

While extreme care must be exercised to avoid any hint of breaking the confidence of any counselee, a pastor in preparing sermons can be guided by the recurrence of such problems. If themes that emerge during pastoral counseling are really repetitive, they will certainly reflect issues within a congregation at large, thus providing sermon material.

4. Pray with the counselee. Prayer with a counselee who does not share religious beliefs may be strained and awkward; prayer with a member of the worship community acquires a richness and provides a sense of community.

Both opening and closing a counseling session with prayer may be beneficial to the process. At the beginning of an hour the counselor's prayer establishes a mutually held context and reminds the counselee of the presence of God and of the worship community. The time together can then proceed with the assurance that all that is said and done is offered to God.

At the end it seems natural to give thanks, to submit painful, unresolved problems to God, to request guidance. If the entire session has been conducted with an awareness of commonly shared beliefs, prayer is often welcomed by the counselee—not as a magic solution, but as a recognition of a source of strength both acknowledge/or recognize.

Counselor must still be a pastor

Clearly, the counselor's pastoral identity is important. In effective pastoral counseling it still seems that ordination or being identified as a religious professional is essential. There is some thing about pastoral authority and leadership within the religious community that provides an indispensable element in such a relationship. A trained clinician who also is a member of the worshiping community cannot provide counseling that would be recognized as pastoral in the fullest sense of the word.

In the past the uniqueness of the role of the minister in pastoral counseling has often been explored. The ideas presented here are intended to supplement this concept and to expand horizons and definitions. I believe that we have been overlooking an important dimension when we have focused on the counselor and excluded the counselee's commitment to the worshiping community. At least the question deserves consideration.

Selected Bibliography

Robbins, Paul, and Terry Muck. "The Demands, Dilemmas, and Dangers of Pastoral Counseling. " Leadership, Fall, 1980.

Scott, Charles Wheeler. "Therapeutic Worship." Pastoral Psychology, February, 1972.

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B. Preston Bogia is director of chaplaincy services, Topeka State Hospital, and a faculty member of the Menninger School of Psychiatry, Topeka, Kansas.

September 1984

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