Key Assumptions of Brief Pastoral Counseling

In my last post, we looked at how short-term spiritual direction differs from the more tradition, long-term approaches to spiritual direction.

(A long-term example: I’ve been seeing the same spiritual director on a monthly basis for the last two years or so. I would never expect a pastor to see a single individual that frequently for that amount of time.)

In this post, we’ll look at some of the key assumptions that short-term spiritual direction shares with brief pastoral counseling.

(Short-term mean three to five sessions, tops.)

In his book Short-Term Spiritual Guidance, Duane Bidwell says “it can help for the director and the directee to borrow a technique from brief pastoral counseling: making a covenant to meet for a certain number of sessions and then to review whether the relationship should continue.”

In addition to that helpful tip, there are these “eight key assumptions of brief pastoral counseling lend [that] themselves to the practice of brief spiritual direction.”

  1. Avoid diagnostic labels and pathologies.Keys
  2. Emphasize people’s existing strengths and resources.
  3. Find exceptions to the difficulties people face.
  4. Establish clear and specific goals.
  5. Negotiate rather than impose goals and solutions.
  6. Focus on the present and the future.
  7. Affirm small changes as a means to bigger changes.
  8. Tailor care to the individual.

That last assumption, by the way, connects directly to John Roberto’s notion of “differentiated faith formation” that I wrote about here.

Indeed, Bidwell also notes that “brief spiritual direction recognizes there is no ‘protocol’ or universal process that serves all directees equally well.”

Whether it’s long-term or short-term, “the process of spiritual direction is shaped by the Spirit in ways unique to each directee.”

These eight assumptions help the pastoral counselor/spiritual director tailor their care for each individual, starting with the first session.

And what is that first session like, anyway? Bidwell helps “to relieve the anxiety” associated with first sessions by exploring how pastors can

  • decide whether brief spiritual direction is a good fit with a particular directee
  • determine the structure and flow of the first session of brief spiritual direction
  • hear the directee’s initial story
  • set goals for the direction relationship
  • understand typical concerns raised in a first meeting
  • establish a covenant of care between the director and directee.

The first point is crucial. Bidwell notes that “the first step in providing spiritual direction, short- or long-term, is to clarify the sort of help the person expects from you.”

Pastors should not assume they know what a person wants or expects from spiritual direction but should listen carefully to identifying what people hope to accomplish through the spiritual direction conversation. Some individuals might not want spiritual direction at all but instead may want counseling, case management, or companionship. The best way to clarify expectations is to ask.

Bidwell offers a terrific opening question: “How do you hope your relationship with God or others will be different as a result of spiritual direction?”

If the answer indicates that the person is in need of spiritual direction, then it’s on to the first session!


2 thoughts on “Key Assumptions of Brief Pastoral Counseling

  1. Just read a bunch of student journals talking about practicing beginner’s mind with clients – not looking at charts or prior assessments but just listening without knowing their past. Breathtaking Aha moments.

  2. I thought that this article was really insightful about pastoral counseling. Specifically, it’s suggested to emphasize people’s existing strengths and resources, and I agree because this helps establish positivity, openness, and trust. Additionally, I think that keeping this open dialogue with the person will help you to more effectively establish specific goals, and I think that it will establish trust that you are there to help them succeed and fulfill those goals. Thank you for sharing!

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