A mental-health commission has reported finding that of those persons with problems who seek help outside the immediate family, 42 per cent turn to clergymen. A pastor, then, unless he is entirely inept and doesn’t belong in the ministry at all, will find himself counseling, whether he is trained in it or not.
How does pastoral counseling differ from other forms? First, it begins with the sovereign God as revealed in Scripture, not with men. Perhaps this can best be understood when pastoral counseling is seen in contrast to secular psychotherapy or counseling. The many secular theories fall roughly into two general emphases: biological or environmental determinism and humanistic indeterminism.
Biological or environmental determinism, represented by, among others, the psychoanalytic theory of Sigmund Freud and the stimulus-response theory of John Collard and Neal Miller, views man as a product of inherited determinants or environmental influences. Man is an irrational, conditioned or determined animal. Often he is seen as evil or at least as a tabula rasa, a clean slate, upon which life writes its experiences. In either case he is not guilty, because he is not responsible. This school generally takes a pessimistic view of man.
Humanistic indeterminism, seen in the client-centered counseling of Carl Rogers, depicts man as a responsible being capable of self-enhancement or self-actualization. This school of thought is generally quite optimistic: given the proper psychological climate, man can become what he chooses.
The Christian view, starting with the sovereign God, takes these two contrasting views and unites them in hope.
God’s sovereignty, in contrast to the hopelessness and irresponsibility of psychological determinism, guarantees the hope of surmounting circumstances and undergirds man’s personal responsibility. Rather than destroying human freedom or negating human intervention in circumstances, God’s sovereignty is the very ground of such possibilities.
God’s sovereignty, in contrast to the optimism of psychological indeterminism, reckons realistically with the crippling problem of evil in man and provides the basis for hope of change through Jesus Christ.
Secular counseling can be very effective; but its effectiveness is due to the common grace of God and to the application of his truth, though often out of focus or context. The secular counselor is dependent upon God, though he may not know it. But only the pastoral counselor—or the Christian therapist—enters the counseling relationship with a realistic view of man and a genuine hope of healing.
Unlike forms of counseling that stress the horizontal relation between man and man, pastoral counseling has in view a two-dimensional relationship. The pastor is aware that God is involved also. He sees the counseling relationship as a divine communication as well as a human one. This does not mean that there is a division in the counseling relationship so that the pastor first talks on a human level and then turns to God on another. Nor does it imply a Barthian emphasis, where to be consistent the counselor must remain silent so God can speak. There is a sense in which God is over and in all that takes place in counseling. Yet it is helpful to be aware of these two dimensions.
The human communication is generally the initial stage, and it continues throughout counseling. It is the level of exploring the problem. When people come into the pastor’s study, they are not just looking for solutions. Very often they do not recognize, or are unwilling to face, the real problems. The pastor’s godly love, sincerity, and knowledge of human nature are most important in helping these persons face themselves honestly. During this exploratory phase, the pastor should concern himself with active listening and empathetic understanding. He must hear the total person. He must learn to listen not only to what is said but to how it is said—to be aware of both the words and the feeling.
For example, try saying aloud, “Pastor, do you really mean God can love me?,” in several tones, emphasizing different words. Notice the variety of feelings—ridicule, doubt, hope, and others—that can be expressed. Very often human communication is a major part of pastoral counseling, but its purpose is to prepare the way for the second dimension, divine communication.
In the divine phase, the pastor communicates, either directly or indirectly, God’s perspective and God’s resources in relation to the person’s need. By his life and by the words he speaks he bears witness to God. The parishioner may need to be sustained by the pastor’s faith in his behalf until he is able to trust God personally.
Use of the Scriptures can be the major means of bringing the divine dimension into counseling. Here are some guidelines:
1. Refer to the Scriptures only when it is appropriate to do so. If a parishioner says, “Pastor, do you really think God answers prayer?,” he may mean, “I have real doubts and want to talk about my doubts.” Or he may mean, “I would like to see what the Bible says.”
2. It is better to turn to a passage and read it with the person rather than to quote proof texts. Of course, it is good for the pastor to memorize Scripture; but he should know both the text and context and be able to turn to the passage so the parishioner can see the words himself.
3. Remember to let the Bible be its own authority. One goal of pastoral counseling is to develop dependence on God through his Word, rather than on the pastor. By referring to God’s authority, the pastor stands as a fellow human being, not as an authority in God’s place who elicits dependence on himself.
4. The pastor doesn’t have to prove the inspiration and authority of the Bible in order to use it. Unless the parishioner questions this, it is better to assume that the Bible is inspired and use it. As Spurgeon has aptly said, release the lion and let him defend himself!
5. Try to explain biblical truth in common language. The pastor need not refrain from using such words as sin, guilt, and grace, but he must be sure the parishioner knows what they mean.
6. Do not assume that the person understands the passage. Discuss it. Let him say what it means to him.
7. Give Bible homework if the person shows interest. This may help develop habits of personal study and encourage direct dependence upon God.
8. Finally, use the milk of the Word and not the meat. The person in need must be met where he is and helped as he is willing and able to grow.
The divine dimension may also be communicated through prayer. When it is specifically related to what has been taking place in counseling, prayer is the means of turning together to God and recognizing his authority in life.
Although the Christian pastor does not, of course, have all truth, he does have a unique orientation for counseling and unique resources in God through his Spirit.
—GEORGE ENSWORTH, assistant professor of pastoral psychology, Gordon Divinity School, Wenham, Massachusetts. The Minister’s Workshop: Two-Dimensional Counseling
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