Is pastoral counseling at risk?

August 1st, 2014

I know of no recent research studies that can offer an answer to the question “Is pastoral counseling at risk?” Nevertheless, I want to assume in this article that pastoral counseling is in decline and to suggest two reasons why this may be the case. Then I will argue why any decline in the practice of pastoral counseling needs to be reversed. First: some history.

The modern pastoral counseling movement developed in the years after World War II, in response to what we now call post-traumatic stress syndrome and to the family problems related to it. At that time, there was a great need for more mental health counselors, and in response to that need, training in explicit, psychologically informed counseling began to be developed in seminaries and in various centers for clinical education.

The situation in the world today is both similar and different. It is similar in that we are still dealing with many human problems related to the stress of war, and we continue to need counselors who are knowledgeable about this and the family issues related to it. The situation is different in that there are now many more mental health counselors available who have been trained to deal with identified problems through particular skills and techniques. Thus, the first reason pastoral counseling may have declined is that there are more counselors available today.

The second reason is that there is a common assumption today that all human problems should be handled by specialists who are trained to deal with specific problems. Because of that assumption, pastors and religious leaders very often believe that if they don’t have training in dealing with specific mental health problems, they should not do any kind of counseling. Unfortunately, the primary understanding of counseling has been narrowed to something pastors may not think of as a part of their vocation.

This assumption about counseling is particularly unfortunate in the kind of world we live in today, where people’s abilities to be technically in touch with each other has radically increased, but where contact through technology is constantly being substituted for direct, more personal relationships. There are many people who stop at being in contact with another person, rather than moving beyond simple contact toward more significant relationships. In this kind of technically efficient but impersonal world, pastoral counseling comes as a radical counterpoint and correction.

Theologically, pastoral counseling grows out of religious communities’ faith in a God who cares for people and who empowers the caring behavior of communities’ members for people both inside and outside of the community. Certainly, that is not the only business of religious communities, but it continues to be one of the most important, particularly today. And it is important not only for counseling that may take place in a church or parish, but also for counselors who represent religious communities, such as institutional chaplains.

The first step in attempting to reverse the apparent decline in pastoral counseling is to reaffirm pastoral counseling’s essential connection to pastoral care. Pastoral counseling is a specific type of pastoral care that takes place when a person needing help takes the initiative to ask for it. Pastoral care in general does not require such a request—it’s simply offering a caring relationship to someone based on the community’s faith that relationships are an essential part of the community’s ministry. The conviction of the pastoral tradition is that the need for care exists in our response to all human problems.

For many years in my writing and teaching, I have echoed something I first heard some time ago from Baptist pastoral theologian Wayne Oates. Pastoral counseling is a ministry of availability and introduction. Although there are more counselors available today, for many people mental health treatment is just “out there somewhere” and not much related to them. The religious community is generally nearer and more available, even for those who are not members of it. Pastors need to be available to begin the counseling process.

Their calling to be available to respond to people in all kinds of human situations does not mean that they need to be there to finish the task as well as to begin it. Parish ministers need to recognize both their limits in counseling knowledge and also the problems for counseling that their context for ministry presents. In a parish, there are too many different kinds of relationships with people to be able to focus only on the issues presented in counseling. Thus, as a minister of introduction, the pastor needs to know and refer to various kinds of specialists in a way that is as personal as possible. And in doing this, pastors maintain and affirm the continuing relationship of the church’s care to any help that may take place outside it.

Whatever the context for ministry and the problem presented, counseling that is pastoral counseling involves developing and practicing a kind of relational wisdom. I spoke of this several years ago at a conference of the Association of Professional Chaplains:

The institutional world in which the chaplain works is populated with all kinds of specialists. To be sure, the chaplain is trained in religion and spirituality and now, to some degree, in ethics; but the chaplain’s real specialty is the practice of relational wisdom. Whereas most specialties within the institution involve particular knowledge and skills applicable to the problem of the individual person, the chaplain’s concern is broader. It involves the patient’s relationships with family, the institutional staff, people within the community, and with God.

This affirmation about the importance of relational wisdom is not unlike a major conclusion about healing in a study of fifty physicians identified by their peers as expert healers. The authors affirm that healing “always has to do with the connections between people that make us whole and restore us to the deep sources of meaning for our lives” (David Shenck and Larry R. Churchill, Healers: Extraordinary Clinicians at Work [Oxford University Press, 2012], xiii) (ISBN 9780199735389).

That statement can certainly be a description of what pastoral counseling is intended to be. If pastoral counseling is actually declining today, that decline needs to be addressed by reclaiming and revaluing the essential connection between pastoral care and pastor counseling and the importance for ministry of relational wisdom.

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