Pastoral counseling is not a game show like Wheel of Fortune or Name That Tune, where the object is to buzz in with the right answer having just a minimum of clues. While the pastor certainly recognizes that there are recurring themes in people’s lives and some common patterns in certain behaviors and problems, good counseling and good listening in general strive to hear and understand nuances.
It’s not painting
Imagine this conversation with someone hired to paint your living room.
Painter What color are you thinking about?
You We’re thinking a shade of blue that …
Painter Blue. Got it. I’ll get started right away.
You Wait, what?
Painter I’ve got blue in the truck. Just need to grab brushes and rollers.
You But don’t you want to know what shades of blue we’re thinking about?
Painter Blue is blue. I’ve been painting a long time. I know all about blue.
You But we’ve got these color sample cards from the paint store and …
Painter I don’t need to see those. I’ve got the only blue you need right here.
People’s history, relationships, problems, and needs are not a small palette of a few primary colors. Solutions to our problems are not a one-size-fits-all garment. Winston Churchill said, “For every complex problem there is a simple and tidy solution … and it’s usually wrong.”
It’s not plumbing either
Actually, I have knee-jerk reaction to the idea that counseling is to provide solutions, because that makes counseling sound like plumbing or auto repair, something akin to an expert using the right tool to “fix” the problem. People are not a problem to fix.
Whether we are veteran therapists or very young pastors, I realize that people come to us looking for guidance. But don’t confuse being a guide (the root word for guidance) with being Mr. Goodwrench.
Counseling involves helping people feel understood
I’ve been a therapist for three decades, but I’d venture to say that the feeling most of my clients have at the end of a first session is not that they had just drunk deeply from the vast well of my knowledge and expertise, but that they felt heard, understood, and cared for.
Counseling involves asking good questions
A significant part of listening involves asking good questions, questions that invite someone to say more, questions that seek to clarify feelings, statements, and even the subjective meaning of certain words used by the client. In any given session I ask a number of clarifying questions because I genuinely want to understand.
Counseling involves good listening
A common mistake of ministers in counseling is to talk too much. Let’s face it, it’s not easy for leaders to listen, especially pastors and preachers who get paid to talk and who are supposed to have Bible verses and ready answers for every question or problem. Larry King, who had a long career as an interviewer and talk show host, attributed his success thus: “I never learned anything while I was talking.” If in counseling you are doing all the talking, then you’re not listening; if you’re not listening, then you aren’t understanding the other person; and if you are not understanding the person, then you are not helping the person. That’s the bottom line. No listening = no understanding; no understanding = no helping. And if you’re a pastor, I know you want to help people; that’s one of the main reasons why you went into ministry in the first place.
We’d like to hear your analogies of “What pastoral counseling is not …” and “What counseling involves …”! Feel free to share below.