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.
It probably feels like we’ve been talking a lot about counseling and still haven’t gotten to the words of counsel that you might actually say. Well, it feels that way because we haven’t. It’s time to change that. This lesson is about the different types of counsel you might offer.
Think of this lesson like examining different types of exercise: strength training (getting big muscles), cardiovascular conditioning (building your endurance), and flexibility work (maintaining a limber frame). All are important. If you were a physical trainer, you would want to be proficient in each. The same is true for pastoral counseling. You want to be competent in each of the types of counsel below.
Towards that goal, we will do four things for each type of the four types of counsel we will discuss:
- Name each type of counsel
- Define the benefits that can emerge from each type of counsel
- Describe the context in which each type of counsel may be beneficial
- Provide examples of what each type of counsel might sound like
The intent for this lesson is that you are not only biblical in what you say during counseling, but also strategic in why and how you say it.The intent for this lesson is that you are not only biblical in what you say during counseling, but also strategic in why and how you say it. Click To Tweet
Counsel Type One: Directive
We describe directive counsel first because it is what most intuitively comes to mind when we think about giving counsel. When we go to counseling, we want practical advice on what to do or stop doing to make our situation better.
Pastorally, directive counsel is usually combined with biblical instruction and a moral guidance. Pastors should provide a biblical basis for their directive counsel. Biblically based, directive counsel makes clear what the next God-honoring steps towards hope and wholeness could be.
Directive counsel is most effective when confusion, distraction, or rebellion are at the root of a given life struggle.
Examples of what directive counsel might sound like are:
“When you talk about your anger, you talk more about what’s going on around you than what is going on within you. In Luke 6:45 Jesus says, ‘Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.’ This means our words reveal what we value most. In Matthew 12:36 Jesus says, “People will give account for every careless word they speak.’ My recommendation is that you begin to speak of your anger as something you are doing rather than something that is happening to you. Until this is your consistent pattern, you are not really working on your anger. You are seeking compassionate support for blame-shifting. Owning your responses is an important step towards repentance and towards restoring relationship with those your anger has harmed.”
“It seems like that when you are anxious your attention span gets shorter. It’s like you think God is upset with you for being afraid. Then your sense of guilt accelerates your anxiety. In Psalm 56:3 it says, ‘When I am afraid, I will trust in you [God].’ That is an invitation to turn towards God in our fear. I Peter 5:7 invites us to rest in God’s care when we’re anxious, ‘Cast all your anxieties on him [God], because he cares for you.’ God doesn’t want you to be anxious, but He does want you to feel safe with Him when you’re anxious. I think it might help you think clearer if we allowed these verses to view God as being for you in the midst of your anxious moments.”
Counsel Type Two: Narrative Reframing
If directive counsel is narrow – a clear, next step – then narrative reframing is broad – placing a life struggle in a larger, redemptive context. Narrative reframing is helpful when someone is struggling to resolve a life challenge not because they don’t know what to do, but because they inaccurately defined that challenge.
For example, someone might think their car won’t start because the battery is dead. In this case, jumper cables would be a logical solution. But if the alternator has gone bad, then jumper cables – while logical and often effective – will not help their car engine start.
Pastorally, narrative reframing is helpful when someone has inaccurately defined one of the key elements in their life struggle. Often narrative reframing focuses on the moral nature of an individual’s response (i.e., sin or suffering) or the disposition of God towards them in their struggle.
Examples of what narrative reframing might sound like are:
“You speak as if God is upset with you for not enjoying your job. It seems like you think it’s sinful that you don’t find your current job fulfilling. [Pause for person to respond to this possible interpretation of their experience] Being unfulfilled in a job is not necessarily the same thing as discontentment. You’re not slacking off in your work, badmouthing your boss, or creating a negative work environment for your peers. Those things would be indicators that your lack of fulfillment was sinfully expressing itself as discontentment. How much cognitive and emotional relief would it create if you felt free to explore other employment possibilities while continuing to honor God in your current job?”
“It seems that you are interpreting your current hardships as God’s punishment; as if God is trying to get your attention for something you’ve done wrong, but you don’t know what it is. [Pause for person to respond to this possible interpretation of their experience] I admire your willingness to respond in repentance and learn anything God wants to teach you. But I think your willingness may be making it feel like God wants repentance from you when in fact he wants to give comfort to you. How would it change your experience if you viewed God as compassionate towards your hardship instead of as if God was trying to teach you a lesson you were too stubborn to learn?”
Counsel Type Three: Reflective
In pastoral counseling circles, there is a tendency to be all-or-nothing with reflective approaches to counseling. Some believe reflective approaches are a near panacea, capable of resolving any life struggle. Others believe reflective approaches are rooted in heresy, teaching that everything we need for life can be found by looking within. Neither extreme completely accurate.
Reflective questions are helpful when an individual lacks self-awareness. A rudimentary example of this kind of interaction would be the classic parental interaction:
Parent: Why did you hit your brother?
Child: I was mad at him.
Parent: Why were you mad?
Child: He had the toy I wanted to play with.
Parent: Did your brother take it from you?
Child: No. He just had it and I wanted it.
Parent: What you are experiencing is called jealousy. It is something we all experience and tempts us to do bad things. Let’s talk about jealousy before we talk about consequences…
Reflective counsel is effective at identifying motives so that calls to repentance (directive counsel) can be about more than outward behavior. Reflective counsel is also an effective precursor for narrative reframing for individuals who are wrongly interpreting their experience because they do not perceive themselves accurately.
Examples of what reflective counsel might sound like are:
“Let’s try to put your experience of depression into words a bit better. If your depression could talk, what would it say? What might your depression want to change about your life? Is your depression responding to hurt, frustration, disappointment, or something that’s hard to identify? [Pause for person to respond to this possible interpretation of their experience] Too often I think we try to ‘feel better’ before we listen to our emotions and discern what they’re telling us about our life. The Psalms are a place where we see the value of listening to and articulating even our unpleasant emotions as we seek to honor God in hard times.”
“You describe yourself as being angry at God. But I don’t hear you being hostile. Actually, you come across as being more upset with yourself than anything else. What I hear is that you’re struggling to figure out what life is going to look like after your injury and wishing things would just go back to the way they were before. Grief might be a better name for your experience; grieving the loss of the abilities you had before. How well does grief capture what you’re feeling? [Pause for person to respond to this possible interpretation of their experience] If you understood your primary emotion as grief, which often has a component of anger, how would that impact our conversation and the way you relate to God during this season of hardship?”
Counsel Type Four: Relief-Focused
Relief-focused counsel seeks to address the symptoms of a struggle more than the cause. Both sin and suffering have residual impact on the body, mind, emotions, or relationships. Part of a holistic redemptive response is to provide as much relief as possible from the impact of sin and suffering.
Early in counseling, relief-focused strategies may be used when the symptoms of a struggle are becoming severe enough to impair someone’s ability to address the cause. Later in counseling, relief-focused strategies may be used to mitigate the impact of sin or suffering once the cause is resolved as much as it can be.
As you counsel someone, it is wise to be overt about whether you are offering relief-focused counsel to create more emotional bandwidth to address a central element of their struggle or whether you are seeking to help them experience the full relief their work earlier in counseling has afforded them.
Examples of what relief-focused counsel might sound like are:
“It seems like the level of anxiety that you are experiencing makes it difficult for you to engage the things that would help reduce your life stress. You’ve mentioned several panic attacks in the last week and an increasing difficulty sleeping at night. I think it would be wise for you to speak with your primary care physician about medication that could help you manage your anxiety as we continue to think through your level of over commitment and financial debt. In I Timothy 5:23 Paul advised Timothy to use the best medical practices of his day. It seems wise that you would do the same. You don’t get any extra points with God for addressing your stress without medication. If you’re able to sleep better and had fewer panic attacks, I think we would be more effective at the other things we are trying to do to make life more manageable for you.”
“I’m really proud of the hard work you’ve put in to being sober. I know it’s been hard. But you’ve persevered well and allowed people to support you. You keep mentioning that the hardest times for you to resist relapse are when something reminds you of [traumatic experience]. I think it would be wise for you to meet with a counselor who has more experience in helping you manage the physical response that occurs with those memories. Fear is not just an emotional experience. It is also a physical experience. There are techniques you can learn that I think would really help you solidify the recovery work you’ve done. I’d love to continue meeting with you as you practice these techniques and help you think through how they’re an aid to your goal of honoring God in all things.”
Now that you’ve got an introduction to these four types of counsel, what should you be able to do?
- First, you should be more self-aware and intentional about the type of counsel that you offer.
- Second, you should be clearer about the indicators prompting you to offer a particular type of counsel. These first two points increase your confidence and comfort in the counseling role.
- Third, you should be able to orient the counselee to why you are advising them as you are. This third point increases your counselee’s confidence in the care they’re receiving.
If you can do these things, you’ve learned what this lesson intended to teach.
Follow Up Resources
- If you want to learn more about helping someone think through the use of psychotropic medication, consider reading “6 Steps to Wise Decision Making About Psychotropic Medications.”
- If you want to learn more relief-focused counseling strategies, review the Step 6 material in the responsibility-based seminars and Step 7 material in the suffering-based seminars in these resources on emotions.