We want everything we do as pastors to result in the spiritual development and personal flourishing of those under our care. This could be taken to mean that everything a pastor does is counseling. But it is helpful and appropriate to distinguish between things like: one another care between members, general pastoral care, formal pastoral counseling, and professional counseling.
In this brief, eight lesson series you will be equipped with the basic categories, processes, and skills of serving as a pastoral counselor. The intent is to equip you to utilize your current level of awareness regarding particular life struggles to your fullest pastoral potential.
There are two things you want to accomplish in a first meeting: (1) hear the person well, and (2) establish goals for counseling. The previous lesson was about listening. This lesson is about goal setting.
Towards the end of the first session you want to be able to make a pivot statement something like this:
“Based on what I’ve heard you share; I think there are [one to three] things that are most important to you that we could work on together. [concisely articulate possible counseling goals] How well does this capture what you were hoping to accomplish?”
When you and the counselee have agreed upon shared goals and identified what can be done before the second meeting to move towards at least one of those goals, the first meeting is complete.
That’s where we’re going. Now we ask, how do we get there?
There is a sense in which you will reverse engineer this process. Begin the first session with this question in mind, “Based on the challenges this person is facing what are the most helpful and realistic things we could focus on over six to eight meetings (two to three months) to help them improve their life?”
Caveat: What if the challenges this person is facing are larger than can be resolved in six to eight meetings? Be honest. Recommend a more long-term care option and identify the pastoral support you can provide to supplement that long-term care. In these instances, your pastoral counseling goal will likely be to help them established in a good-fit, long-term counseling option.
If this is the case, you could recommend several counseling options to research. At the next meeting, you can help them discern the best fit. After that, you would likely schedule meetings with them monthly to hear how things are going and identify ways the church can be supportive. That is still good pastoral care.
But let’s not allow the more severe cases to distract from learning how to fruitfully conclude a first session of pastoral counseling. As we focus on pastoral counseling goals, we also need to consider a theological distraction that can hamper goal setting.
Theological Reflection: Areas of lifelong sanctification are not the same thing as pastoral counseling goals. If we equivocate sanctification with counseling goals, counseling will never end. There will always be something to work on.If we equivocate sanctification with counseling goals, counseling will never end. There will always be something to work on. Click To Tweet
Sanctification is about character formation (becoming Christ-like). The result is holiness. Counseling goals are about alleviating life struggles or navigating a difficult life transitions. The result is healthiness. We must remember that holiness and healthiness are not in competition with one another.
We always want to work on counseling goals in a way that contributes to our sanctification, but the possibility of greater sanctification does not necessitate the need for further counseling. A person who is healthy in their emotional and relational life does not need counseling but can always grow in virtue.
This is why establishing counseling goals begins with the question, “What is the acute life struggle or difficult life transition we are trying to navigate?” The focus of goal setting and the remaining pastoral counseling sessions is on alleviating the answer this question.
You’ll notice that the verb of choice is “alleviating” rather than “eliminating” or “remedying.” It is wise to use humble verbs. This is partly for theological reasons – sanctification is never finished – and partly for logistical reasons – trying to make things “completely better” often decreases our satisfaction with things being “significantly better.” Goal setting should foster the virtue of contentment.
As you begin to set goals, it is helpful to keep in mind the popular acronym SMART. Goals need to be:
Let’s consider poorly-constructed and well-constructed counseling goals for each of these criteria.
- “I want to feel better. I want to worry less.”
- “I want to communicate better with my spouse.”
- “I want to be able to take a test without anxiety adversely impacting my performance.”
- “I want my spouse and I to be able to express disappointment without becoming defensive towards each other.”
Ambiguous goals aren’t bad. They are a starting place. If someone comes to counseling and articulates their goals like the first set of examples, the follow up questions would be, “What would be the clearest or most meaningful thing that would be different when you ‘feel better’?,” or, “What is the most difficult or dissatisfying part of your marital communication that you’d like to improve?” The intent of these questions is to narrow and clarify the goal setting process. Helping someone make their goals more specific raises their level of self-awareness and cultivates their readiness to change.
- “I want to be less depressed.”
- “I want a better relationship with my teenage son/daughter.”
- “I want to cut the number of things I avoid because I’m unmotivated by 50%.”
- “I want us to have two meals together as a family per week without any technology present.”
Subjective goals leave us at the mercy of recent events and provide little direction on the pivotal ‘choices of consequence’ in our lives. Our depressed friend might say, “I don’t know how to ‘just feel better.’” Identifying loneliness (avoiding people) and purposelessness (not engaging meaningful activities) as driving factors in their down mood can make key moments of change clearer. Our parent friend may be discouraged that their most recent interaction with their teenager was poor and miss the overall quality of interaction that has emerged from having regular family meals together.
Attainable / Personal Agency
- “I want to be debt free. I’m tired of having money stress.”
- “I want my spouse to listen to me more. I feel uninteresting to them.”
- “I want to create and follow a budget with enough margin that unexpected expenses don’t create a high level of stress and I only have mortgage debt remaining after two years.”
- “I want to understand what my spouse finds interesting and learn how I can use those things to prompt higher quality of conversations between us.”
Goals can be unattainable because they are grandiose (debt free) or because they are third person (about another person’s actions). Again, this doesn’t mean they are bad goals. It means additional conversations are needed to determine the parts of the struggle that the counselee has influence over and what attainable progress towards their goal would be. In short-term pastoral counseling, you need to keep in mind that attainable means six to eight session (roughly, two to three months) in duration.
- Spouse of an Alcoholic: “I want to increase the level of appreciation in our marriage.”
- Student Failing School: “I want to spend more time with my friends.”
- Spouse: “I want to identify a few friends in whom I can confide why things are hard at home and tell them why their appreciation means more to me than it normally would.”
- Student: “I want to figure out what I need to do differently with my studies so my time with my friends isn’t just an escape from stuff I don’t want to deal with.”
Some of the most difficult counseling situations emerge when someone gives goals that are not relevant to the primary struggle in their life. Goals that lack relevance are usually towards good things that don’t change the main thing causing the problem. In the first example, even if the spouse is appreciated more for the many extras they do because of their partner’s addiction, the overall quality of life is still likely to decline. In the first reframing of goals, the less relevant goal was redirected to a different context. Appreciation is unlikely to eliminate addiction, but appreciation is something that would increase the spouse’s resilience to persevere in a difficult context. In the second example, the less relevant goal is reframed as a beneficial outcome of focusing on the more relevant goal.Goals that lack relevance are usually towards good things that don’t change the main thing causing the problem. Click To Tweet
- “I want to overcome my struggle with gambling.”
- “I want to be less anxious.”
- “I want to overcome my struggle with gambling before I consider dating.”
- “I want to have three months without a panic attack before I add anything to my workload.”
Imagine playing a game without a time reference (i.e., basketball without timed quarters or baseball without innings). It would make score keeping less relevant. You could be “winning” but you would never “win.” Goals without a time reference generally create apathy via frustration. Time references can either be units of time (the example of “three months”) or a significant life event (the example of “before dating”).
Observation: Helping someone create SMART goals may be one of the most impactful things you do in counseling. Setting good goals is an opportunity to teach effective problem solving. Often the helpfulness of counseling is not just in the content of our counsel but in the process of arriving at the destination.
In the same vein, if someone is resistant to engaging a wise problem-solving process, they are unlikely to effectively engage counseling. Going through a goal setting process in the first session is a way to assess someone’s readiness to change. Unmotivated counselees often claim that the Bible “doesn’t work” when counseling is ineffective when, in reality, the primary problem is their lack of engagement. Garnering commitment towards a well-defined goal is an effective way to remove this excuse.
After articulating well-crafted goals for counseling, there are two remaining things you can do to pass the baton to the second session well: (a) sequence the goals and (b) identity a transition assignment.
Sequencing: The ordering of goals can be practical or motivational. The practical ordering of goals answers the questions, “Which of these goals must be accomplished first in order for the accomplishing of the other goals to be viable?” The motivational ordering of goals answers the questions, “Completing which of these goals would create the most emotional energy for the counselee to complete the others?” There is not a universal best-choice between these two options. The choice should be made based on what serves the counselee and addresses their life challenges best.
Transition Assignment: This final element addresses the question, “How do we pick up next time where we left off this time?” If you done much counseling at all, you know this is harder than it sounds. You might ask the individual to track the frequency of an emotional experience, make a list of friends who could provide support, create a list of expenses to create a budget, or journal about a pivotal question. The possibilities are almost endless. The big idea is that you want to give them something to do between sessions that allows you build on the momentum you’ve built in the previous session.
Follow Up Resources
- If you want to learn more about the challenges of using the word “better” in goal setting, consider reading “The Dangerous Double Meaning of Better.”
- If you want to learn more about identifying a good-fit counselor, consider reading “How Do I Find a Counselor Who Is a Good Match for My Needs?”
- If you want to learn more about the complementary nature of pursing holiness and pursuing healthiness, consider reading, “Does Your Healthiness Aid Your Pursuit of Holiness?”