I have often been told, normally as a result of some pastoral care encounter, that if ever I gave upon the priesthood I would have a career in counselling. I suspect most clergy will get something similar. Normally people say these things as a way of saying thank you, just like when they like you they say you would make a good bishop. I’m pretty clear that I would neither be a good bishop or a good counsellor, but I thought it might be interesting to think about the differences between counselling and what clergy and others do as pastoral care. Other than the very obvious – one is based on living out a faith in God – there are significant differences, more, I think, than similarities.
What I do in pastoral care is pretty simple. I try and show people by any means I can, that God loves them, and therefore there is hope, they are blessed, and that whatever they suffer at this moment can be overcome.
That’s a pretty basic description, and of course it doesn’t mean saying “but Jesus loves you” all the time – often silence and shared tears can convey what “Jesus loves you” far better than just reciting those words. But that’s basically the point of what I’m there fore, I think.
There are two main differences between counselling and pastoral care in my own faith context: one is that in pastoral care, I do not try and help them sort of their problems. I don’t focus on their problems. The other is that I make myself as vulnerable as they do, in lots of ways.
Often in a psycho-dynamic form of counselling, and behavioural therapy, there is a desire to unpick the reasons why people are unhappy at this present moment in time, and that often involves going back into their history and finding out the reasons that they behave in certain ways today. In other methodologies, there is a preponderance of focussing on the emotions of the moment, and often allowing the “client” carte blanche on what is being talked about.
I find people who have been in counselling for years and years, who have used counselling as a crutch, and feel a heavy reliance on it and on their counsellor. It feels very important to them, and it feels as though what happens in their counselling sessions is vital to helping them lead better lives. But much of their time spent in counselling is going back to unhappy times and places, trying to work out what went wrong.
But if I spend all my time dwelling on the unhappy parts of my life, whatever conclusions I come to about those times, I end up unhappy. More problematic for me, however is that often counselling in this way gives an intellectual justification to people as to why they behave in ways which are upsetting for them – and often as a result locks them into this behaviour.
Knowledge of self can be a dangerous thing – I know people who have come out of a Myers-Briggs or Eneagram process feeling fully justified in being excessive in their behaviour. I have heard people say “I’m not a good listener because I’m an INTJ” or “I’m sometimes rude to people, but I’m not being rude, I’m just an [insert personality-type here]” Well being rude is being rude whatever your personality. But having a self-diagnosis like this can relax people into patterns of behaviour which are not helpful to them or to others in the long run.
So when I engage in pastoral care, I do so as a friend – a friend in faith, who knows God loves the person I am talking to – that God is in fact love, and that God is in the room with them at that moment. I try and focus on that moment if possible, and find the light in their lives, and enable them to see what is good, loving, kind, generous, about themselves and about the people who are around them. I focus on the good, and I do so, not as an impartial sounding board, but as a friend – a friend who has lived and suffered and rejoiced just like everyone in life, and a friend who is prepared to talk about their own experiences if it’s helpful to the person.
That’s the second major difference as I see it – one which I have been told is fraught with danger. Which is that I am involved in a relationship of trust and love with the person coming to me for pastoral help. That can have a great danger of dependency, or inappropriate relationships built up – or so counsellors have told me. In fact, thought I’ve found that the sort of dependency, crushes or obsessions which I have been told will be the result of this form of pastoral care, are in fact far more common with counsellors, whose relationship with their clients are far more removed and careful – and to my mind, permit the clients to build up an imaginative relationship rather than a real one.
I suppose the form of counselling which is most like what I do is what’s called “client-centred counselling” which, according to the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists, is mainly about allowing a relationship of trust to build up between client and counsellor so that they are able to talk about emotions and feelings that they have. I would say that is the first stage of any pastoral encounter, but only the first stage. Often wearing a dog-collar is something of a short cut to that level of trust (for some I suppose the opposite, but they don’t come to clergy for pastoral care).
It is no surprise that what we often look for in a counsellor is someone who has the skills that we would hope to find in a friend. But the professional consequences of charging a fee do alter that dynamic. Clergy do not charge fees, but counsellors do, and when there is money involved, it no longer becomes two people who look after one another, it becomes one who looks after the other, and can easily become a form of dependency. It also means that a sense of perspective on our own problems can be lost in the process, and the client can feel that they are the only ones in the world with difficulties. As I understand it, counselling rarely if ever involves the counsellor sharing anything of their own life with the client. But one of the most useful things I can do as a pastoral carer is to lay alongside some aspects of my own life in conversation – to show the person involved that bad things happen to everyone, that they are not alone in their pain, and that people who experience the problems they experience, can move on and feel good about life again.
I don’t think I’m doing anything exceptional in this, and I know that where often people call for a priest, what they really need (and wonderfully, often get in our churches) is a good group of friends, who can do a good deal more good than I can.
But anyway, that’s why I hope I’m a good pastoral carer, and would make a rubbish counsellor.