Top 5 ways pastoral counseling is like — and unlike — its ‘secular’ counterpart

December 8th, 2015

Many of you know that I spend a fair amount of my time in a role commonly described as “pastoral counseling.”

People make appointments, come in either as individuals or as couples, and share their burdens with me, seeking at some level to have both a human and a divine solution to their dilemma.

And so I sometimes wonder: How is this ministry any different than — much less better or worse than — what a conventional psychotherapist would provide?

(Well, aside from the fact that what I and other pastors do here isn’t fee-based.)

So, here are some answers. The top five ways pastoral counseling is both similar to and different from its marketplace counterpart.

1. Both pastoral counseling and conventional psychotherapy hope to raise awareness of the influence of the past on the present. Almost all of us have mommy issues or daddy issues or both. One purpose of both counselor and therapist is to help the congregant/client to recognize all the ways yesterday impacts today. As one seminary professor memorably told me: the role of therapy is to turn down the volume of the tapes (family history) so that you can hear the voice of God.

2. In both pastoral counseling and conventional psychotherapy, good listening is both art and science. I am grateful for the counseling classes I had in seminary. I am even more grateful for the summer I spent in Clinical Pastor Education, working as a student chaplain at a Lexington, Kentucky hospital. Both those experiences taught the skills and techniques of listening for the often subtle clues as to what is really taking place in people’s lives.

3. Posture matters. Whether a pastor or a therapist, how you position your body communicates volumes to the person who has come seeking help. Whether sitting back or leaning forward, body positioning is a vital part of serving as a “non-anxious presence” in a time of turmoil.

So those are three similarities. What about some differences?

4. Opportunities to tell the truth. I sense that as a pastor, I possess a slightly greater freedom than my therapeutic colleagues in stepping out of counselor mode and into exhorter mode. In other words, when I hear the congregant articulate plans or thoughts that are a) self-destructive; b) unbiblical; or c) self-destructively unbiblical, I have the freedom — even the responsibility — to call them out. The key is to say a hard thing in a soft way. On one occasion I was able to help a friend see that he was using the poor example of his father (see point #1, above) as an excuse for his own misbehavior rather than as fuel for his rehabilitation. Telling the truth liberates both counselor and counselee.

5. Ability to enter into spiritual warfare. Some time ago, a fellow pastor and I were trying to help a young woman through a difficult season of life. As the young woman shared some of what other people had told her about herself, I realized (Or did the Spirit tell me? Did God prompt me?) that this was no longer “just” pastoral counseling; instead this was spiritual warfare. The woman had heard and believed lies that ultimately came from the father of lies, Satan himself. So we stopped the counseling, prayed with the laying on of hands, and rebuked Satan. We became Christian soldiers in the midst of spiritual warfare.

Just as important, the young woman became part of her own triumph, as she prayed with us, declaring herself to be a blood-bought daughter of the King and no longer a product of lies. Counseling became battle with the forces of darkness and, on that occasion at least, the True Light came into the world.

Talbot Davis is pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina and the author of Head Scratchers: When the Words of Jesus Don't Make SenseThe Storm Before the Calm, and The Shadow of a Doubt, all from Abingdon Press.

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