The Continuum of Pastoral Care

What’s the difference between pastoral counseling and spiritual direction?

It’s a question that comes up repeatedly during the Clergy Seminar Series in Congregation-Based Spiritual Direction. It’s a good one, too.

After all, many clergy have been quietly and competently doing pastoral care and counseling without any training in spiritual direction. They seem to handle the spiritual needs of their congregants quite nicely, thank you.

Pastoral CareNo doubt that’s true. After all, spiritual nurture is the heart of pastoral care.

For some folks this may not sound very revolutionary, but for me it was a concept that took me awhile to understand and accept.

Why? Because the model of pastoral care I was trained in looked to counseling for its foundation.

Here’s what has to say about it:

Pastoral counseling had its beginnings as a separate discipline in North America in the first half of the twentieth century, as various religious organizations began to incorporate the insights and training of psychiatry, psychology and social work into the training of clergy.

The emphasis was on the relationship between the pastoral counselor and the counselee. “Pastoral counseling uses both psychological and theological resources to deepen its understanding of the pastoral relationship.”

Psychology, yes. Theology, yes. But no mention of the spirit or spirituality. However, “pastoral counselors are representatives of the central images of life and its meaning affirmed by their religious communities.”

That’s where the spirit finds its way in to pastoral counseling—through those central images of life and its meaning.

The spirit finds its way into spiritual direction from a completely different place.

First, in spiritual direction the primary relationship isn’t the one between the pastoral counselor and the counselee. The primary relationship is between the person seeking spiritual direction and the spirit.

More precisely, it’s among the directee, the director, and the spirit.

And second, the director is usually not representing the central images of the religious community. The role of the director is more of a companion and a guide.

A very different perspective from pastoral counseling in my book.

Yet despite the difference in orientation, both pastoral counseling and spiritual direction do tap into the same desires. Both ultimately deal with issues of life and faith.

In fact, some people see this as a continuum, with pastoral counseling on one side and spiritual direction on the other. The needs of most people fall some where in the middle.

The general term I would use for what clergy do when they try to address those needs is pastoral care, with spiritual direction and pastoral counseling being specific approaches to that care.

And, as I said earlier, with spiritual nurture at the heart of it all.

I believe a clergy person with some training is spiritual direction is going to have a few more tools in their toolbox when it come to that care.

Is the presenting issue a problem to be solved? Or a mystery to be explored?

Solving problems may require the kind of pastoral relationship counseling teaches. Exploring mysteries may require the kind of presence spiritual direction offers. Both can be seen as pastoral care.


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