What is the difference between Christian, Pastoral and Spiritual Counseling?
Christian Counselors, Pastoral Counselors, and Spiritual Counselors have some things in common. These counselors desire to see individuals healed and restored, and they understand that the spiritual aspect of the person’s life is as important as the psychological, physical, social and environmental factors that are involved in the client’s distress. However there are sometimes subtle differences to their approach.
Pastoral Counselors though generally from Judeo-Christian backgrounds, can also belong to non traditional religious perspectives. They however are usually clear about their religious affiliations, and their client’s come from that same perspective. They counsel member of their congregation and are usually expert on doctrinal issues within their denomination. Using that religious perspective they approach the client’s issues and will work with them.
Spiritual Counselors is a term that can be used by both Pastoral and Christian Counselors, but doesn’t necessarily mean that the counselor adheres to any particular religious thought or belief system. Most Spiritual Counselors have a respect for the spiritual dimension of a person’s life and will address it in counseling, however the counselor’s core values may be influenced by Eastern philosophies or New Age beliefs and views of life that are not consistent with Judeo-Christian values and beliefs.
The Christian Counselor identifies himself that way because they are committed to biblical values and view them as healthy in providing direction and instruction for a person’s life. A Professional Christian Counselor in addition to the above has a degree from an accredited school in a field that works with mental illness, and perhaps a license from the state to practice in the field of counseling.
A Professional Christian Counselor in addition to completing a psychosocial assessment will pay close attention to spiritual aspects of the client’s situation at the start of their therapeutic relationship with the client. They will integrate psychological theories but hold to biblically based values as the foundation of their counseling. They encourage clients to evaluate their life, choices, and responses in light of biblical standards
What kind of clients seek out Christian Counseling?
Jane* came into counseling reporting that her husband was engaging in religious practices that were scaring her and undermining her security in the marital relationship. She believed that the religious rituals that he conducted, which he insisted she participated in were in violation of her more traditional religious beliefs. She was torn between her desires to support him as a leader of the family’s spiritual life and her fear that he was involved in a religion that was not compatible with her Christian beliefs. She had been getting very ill lately, and she felt that her illnesses were in some way related to her husband’s rituals. She reported that other than this concern she felt that her marriage was happy and that her husband was a good person. Jane sought out a Christian Counselor because she wanted someone who would be more sensitive to the degree of distress she was experiencing due to her husband’s actions.
Jane could have gone for pastoral counseling on her issue, however she like many of clients who come to Christian Counseling identify themselves as “Christians”, but may not be involved in any specific organized religion or group. There is a large group of individuals who have strongly held beliefs about God and his place in their life, and would like these beliefs incorporated in their counseling experience, but have not committed to a particular religious group or organization. For them seeking out a Christian Counselor is a good alternative.
For Jane the counseling experience allowed her to explore her spiritual history with some one who asked her good questions and challenged her to come up with answers that could be articulated to others. She was then able to communicate these beliefs to her husband and discuss her discomfort and her expectations regarding their spiritual life. Together they were able to decide on some core beliefs about God, spiritual rituals, virtues and values.
Mary* had been a victim of sexual molestation by a pastor as a teenager and as a result felt that God had abandoned her. Due to trust issues she was no longer connected to a religious organization. This lead to feelings of isolation and left her without access to sacraments and religious rituals which she had grown up with and missed. Despite her abuse she had not abandoned her belief in God. Her belief however was cocooned in much anger and feelings of betrayal. Mary wanted to speak with a Christian Counselor who would understand her strong desire for a healthy view of spiritual things and would help her work through her anger.
Like Mary, some clients have had some negative spiritual experiences. These clients however still desire to explore it and it’s meaning in their life. They desire that the Christian Counselor be knowledgeable about spiritual matters and respect the value of these spiritual experiences along with respecting their autonomy and self determination. They may not be ready to reconnect to a religious group or organization, but still feel the need to talk with someone regarding the meaning of spirituality and how it affects their life.
Mary was able to speak her deeply held anger and hurt to someone who respected and valued spiritual things. In this way she did not feel like she was blaspheming or dishonoring God, in whom she still believed.
Won’t the Christian Counselor just tell me to Pray, Believe God and my problem will be solved?
NO! A Professional Christian Counselor, though acknowledging that they believe that all answers are found in God, respects the individual. A Christian Counselor will be able to puts choices in front of their clients. These choices are biblically based, but they respect the rights of their client to reject these choices and make other choices. Some choices, though not harmful, may not be viewed as helpful as ones founded on biblical principles.
Christ didn’t force healing on anyone; he presented them with an option and told them the consequences of certain actions. He educated, He listened, He encouraged, He rebuked, and He comforted; all these things are compatible with Christian Counseling. Depending on the individual counselor, some Christian Counselors are more directive than others, but these interventions are made in an atmosphere of acceptance and love.
Will the Christian Counselor use the Bible in counseling?
A Christian Counselor will be comfortable with the Bible and may use it as a resource for the client. Many clients however may not feel comfortable with the use of the Bible, due to their own religious beliefs and core values. They however should know that biblical viewpoints are influencing the treatment process.
Will the Christian Counselor support my use of medication?
Most Christian Counselors will have no problems with a client taking prescribed medications for their mental illness. However, biblical understandings can differ on this subject. It is best for the client to check with the Christian Counselor they wish to see.
Will the Christian Counselor pray with me?
A Christian Counselors will pray for their clients, and sometimes pray with them. The core belief for a Christian Counselor is that they are not conducting a counseling session armed only with psychological theories and knowledge. The Christian Counselor believes that they are working in tandem with the “Holy Spirit”, who helps them to understand with greater insight the needs of their client. Therefore engaging in prayer is consistent with the idea that the client is not only interacting with the counselor before them, but also with the “Holy Spirit” who gives greater understanding. Praying with a client however is handled with great sensitivity and is engaged in according to client’s comfort level.
It is important to know that the Christian Counselor will seek to help the client reconcile their spiritual beliefs and their life experiences in a positive healthy way. They however are not ambiguous regarding their core values and beliefs, because they have identified themselves by the label “Christian Counselor”. Therefore the client understands and there is no myth of neutrality.
* No real names are used. Clients described are fictional reflecting issues seen in professional Christian Counseling. Any resemblance to real persons are purely coincidental.