Mode of Therapy – Pastoral Counseling

Religion plays a vital role in the lives of thousands of people. For practitioners of a specific faith, seeking therapeutic support within their own religious community makes sense. Of the many different types of psychotherapy, all approaches have one major component in common: an established relationship between the client and the therapist based on trust, empathy, and understanding.

This same type or a similar kind of relationship often already exists within the church community — between a devout, church-going individual and the pastoral leaders of the church. Pastoral counseling presents an opportunity for a church leader to provide the members of his or her congregation with individual counseling regarding a particular concern or family issue. This counseling is structured to align with the guiding spiritual principles of the church.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of pastoral counseling when compared to other forms of discussion therapy is that the troubled individual and the therapist have an already-established relationship prior to the beginning of counseling. To an active church member, the prior relationship often makes pastoral counseling a more comfortable option, especially for those who prefer a spiritual-based counseling approach. Of course, many church leaders offer pastoral counseling to anyone who reaches out for support, regardless of church membership or past relationships, but pastoral counseling is provided by pastors trained in both spiritual and psychological concepts.

Pastoral Counseling History

Religious groups have always offered spiritual support to members of a faith community. In fact, in ancient cultures, the role of the religious leader was much larger than it is today, and faith leaders provided the same type of pastoral counseling to everyone, including political leaders and monarchs.

A range of counseling opportunities exist within the religious community. To some extent, all members of the church community receive a degree of pastoral counseling: The role of the pastor and his or her weekly message, often delivered in a sermon, is, in many respects, a form of religious-based counseling. For some individuals, however, the need for support grows beyond the scope of this semi-public sermon, and one-on-one pastoral counseling may provide an ideal solution.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, religious communities have offered pastoral counseling in a psychotherapeutic context. Following the traumas of World War I, the need for therapeutic support increased drastically, and many individuals sought support from the church rather than from the medical community. As the therapeutic model continued to develop, it branched out to include aspects of traditional Western psychotherapy, including some cognitive behavioral therapy methods and a focus on mindfulness and the importance of individual choices. The integration of psychotherapy and religion was not evident until the 1930s, when Norman Vincent Peale, the famed minister, and Smiley Blanton, a psychoanalyst of noted repute, collaborated to form the American Foundation of Religion and Psychiatry in New York City.

Pastoral Counseling Scope of Practice

Pastoral counseling uses many of the tools of traditional psychotherapy, but it supports those counseling methods with theology, faith, traditional knowledge, and the additional resources available within faith-based communities.

Pastoral counseling works to provide support by meeting these six goals:

  • Enlivening the mind
  • Revitalizing the body
  • Deepening of the individual’s relationship with nature and surroundings
  • Personal growth within the chosen social systems, including family and career
  • Deepening relationship with God

Providing these tools means that a pastoral counselor can become a helpful resource for congregants to address many of the same issues for which people traditionally seek counseling, including personal concerns such as anxiety, depression, and relationship problems. Pastoral counseling often is ideal for individuals who are coping with grief resulting from the loss of a loved one, who are facing a terminal illness, or who are having a crisis of faith and who may benefit from talking to a theologist in addition to a traditional mental health counselor.

Pastoral counselors should become familiar with the following therapeutic modes:

  • Behavioral
  • Gestalt psychology, with an emphasis on human potential
  • Relational
  • Spiritual growth, with an emphasis on Carl Jung’s principles, including the concept of the collective unconscious and extraversion and introversion

The pastoral counselor’s job is to seamlessly integrate spiritual values, as determined by the specific faith practiced by the believer, with the scientific aspects of psychotherapy. While pastoral counseling invites religious principles into the counseling session, the pastoral counselor must abide by psychotherapeutic guidelines to provide the best care for the individual seeking counseling.

Pastoral Counseling Short Term and Long Term

While pastoral counseling is typically associated with the church, pastoral counselors may practice mental health counseling in any number of different settings. The length of treatment is determined by a number of factors, including:

  • Individual preferences
  • The facility in which the pastoral counseling is taking place
  • The reason the individual is seeking counseling

In addition to the church, pastoral counseling is typically offered in hospitals, at both inpatient and outpatient mental health counseling facilities, including addiction and rehabilitation facilities, as well as in private practice. The length of the counseling program is based on the types of issues being addressed.

In some cases, long-term pastoral counseling is recommended as a means of providing ongoing assistance as individuals overcome obstacles or transition into coping with personal problems on a daily basis. In other situations, short-term counseling is sufficient to assist with issues addressed during pastoral counseling sessions. Short-term counseling is especially common for those coping with grief following the loss of a loved one or for church members coping with a terminal illness diagnosis.

Pastoral Counseling Evolution

Pastoral counseling is a useful tool for helping individuals who are experiencing mental distress or dysfunction because of rigid religious beliefs or issues with their faith. While some aspects of faith-based ideas are typically incorporated into pastoral counseling, this form of therapy should not be confused with traditional sermons or the type of faith-based leadership support that is offered within the church community. Instead, pastoral counseling is an arranged form of mental health counseling that addresses the needs of the whole individual by incorporating religious- and faith-based ideas into the existing therapeutic model.

Pastoral counseling is founded upon the core beliefs of the world’s most dominant religions. References to the importance of pastoral counseling appear in religious texts from the creed of every faith, from the ancient Hebrew Torah to Martin Luther’s 16th century precis. While the church has made pastoral counselors available for centuries, it was during the 20th century that pastoral counseling developed as a profession, complete with therapeutic guidelines that align with other counseling models in addition to church foundational principles.

In fact, from the beginning of organized religion, religious leaders have provided counseling to those who sought support from the church. In some religions, the concept of meeting with your church leader for guidance and support is still practiced and utilized in mainstream religious culture. In some regard, the concept of the sacramental confession meets counseling guidelines, in that an individual and a church leader meet in a private and confidential environment to discuss the personal issues plaguing the individual.

In 1890, when William James wrote his famous text The Principles of Psychology, much of the basis for the counseling described incorporates principles from the church community. He wrote in detail about the nature of human consciousness and addressed issues that were further explored by Sigmund Freud, who simultaneously was making some of the same discoveries as James. Less than 10 years after the publication of these pivotal texts in the field of psychology, studies of the link between religion and psychology were already well underway. E.D. Starbucks published The Psychology of Religion in 1899, just three years before James published his follow-up text to Principles, The Varieties of Religious Experience. From this point on, the principles of psychological intervention often were utilized by many religious leaders, who found therapeutic methods helpful in supporting their church communities.

When Is Pastoral Counseling the Correct Option?

Pastoral counseling is just one option in a wide variety of different therapeutic counseling approaches, and, like any other type of counseling, pastoral counseling isn’t for everyone. Ultimately, the determinant of pastoral counseling as an option is an individual’s background in the church and his or her issues with faith. For some, coping with problems outside of the church provides better outcomes; for others, the ability to receive counseling within the church allows for increased personal comfort and insight.

In general, pastoral counseling is ideal for anyone who is looking for a faith-based perspective when dealing with a mental health issue. Pastoral counseling may be best suited for individuals who:

  • Are not entirely comfortable in a traditional or secular counseling setting
  • Who are facing end-of-life issues and want to discuss faith-based perspectives on death and dying
  • Who are coping with the loss of a loved one and wish to understand faith-based existential concepts
  • Are concerned about the connection between secular counseling and their personal religious beliefs
  • Have had negative experiences with other methods of psychotherapy and wish to find support through the church

Pastoral Counseling Credentialing and Licensure

Today, pastoral counselors are not simply church leaders, but individuals who have a counseling background and training, who are interested in playing a supportive role within the church. While many ministers opt to provide some level of counseling, they typically limit this service to individuals who are part of their particular church congregation, parish, or community. This allows the minister to have a personal background or an ongoing relationship with the individual in need of counseling, which often improves therapeutic outcomes.

To become a pastoral counselor, a candidate must be part of a church community and have a religious background. Ordination as a minister or clergy member is the first step toward becoming a pastoral counselor; it ensures the proper background in church theology to provide counseling on the church’s behalf.

In addition to being ordained as a minister of the church, the pastoral counselor is expected to be credentialed through the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC).

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