Pastoral Counseling as Proclamation

Kathie Kurtz, DMin, LPC

In my work as a pastoral counselor I use many metaphors.  Sometimes I experience myself as a midwife, sitting beside another, not doing the work for her but coaching her in the process of bringing forth new life.  At other times I see myself as a story-teller, helping another discover his story, or tell it in a new way that brings hope and deeper meaning.  I also offer hospitality to my clients.  This metaphor grows out of the theme in Hebrew scripture of offering hospitality to wayfarers and strangers.  Because the Israelites had wandered and knew the need for hospitality, God reminded them again and again to show the same consideration to others.  Hospitality, as I understand it, creates an open and welcoming space for “strangers” in what might otherwise be a hostile, non-supportive environment.

While these represent ways I go about my work, I also use an overarching metaphor that encompasses them all.  As a pastoral counselor I proclaim the good news of God’s love and acceptance for all people.  The tradition of proclamation lies deeply embedded in both Jewish and Christian tradition.  The message of the scriptures, proclaimed by prophets, preachers, and teachers, carries the central truth that God sees each human being as a person of worth and value.   The Psalmist pictures God lovingly forming us in the womb, and protecting us as a mother eagle protects her young.  The Hebrew prophets speak of God as a loving parent who calls us by name, and sees us as precious.  The prophets not only remind Israel of God’s unfailing love for them, but call for justice and mercy for all people.

Within the Christian tradition Jesus taught a new way of life in which personal value exceeds the value of institutions and things.  He told shocking stories–a lost son who broke all the rules and was loved with abandon, insignificant seeds that grew into amazing plants, and valuable treasure hidden in an ordinary field.  He healed the untouchable and refused to condemn “sinners.”    God’s way of viewing us is the good news that I have experienced and long to experience more fully.  When I reflect on my own life I know clearly that the points of change and growth, and the times when I have been most aware of God’s presence, have been those times when I have glimpsed in a new way the reality that I am of infinite value in God’s eyes.  Realizing that I need do nothing to earn God’s acceptance and love, I can live out of freedom and the abundance of God’s spirit springing up within me.

Since I am frequently seen as a quiet person, it may be surprising to those who know me to see me as a “proclaimer.”  Proclamation brings to mind radical prophets and pulpit pounding preachers; but proclamation can happen in many ways.

In my work as a pastoral counselor I proclaim God’s love by listening–listening carefully to what is said and to what is left unsaid.  Listening creates space in which others’ realities can be named, examined, and thus valued.  By listening to the stories of others I can help them hear, perhaps for the first time, their own stories, and in hearing, to discover their own good news.

I also proclaim by silence.  In the presence of the holy the most appropriate response is often awe and wonder.  Words can distract.  Words pull us back into measuring and defining rather than helping us to open ourselves to experiencing reality that pushes beyond our painfully limited categories.  Silence welcomes and respects deep emotions.  It creates an open space free of words that condemn and confine.  Silence respects the depths of others and lets others know that I will not intrude into their holy space.

I proclaim the good news of the value of others by my presence.  Presence begins with my ability to be present to myself, to be aware and accepting of all that I am.  When I am present to myself I do not need to make others take care of me, or to hide from unacceptable parts of myself.  My freedom to face myself creates an open, accepting space for others where they too can become free to face all of themselves.  For example, the most painful places in the lives of many I see are connected to their experiences of being devalued, experiences that lead to deep shame.  When I am able to sit with clients and stay present with them in their shame, not turning away or being frightened by it, I communicate to them that their value exceeds the shame they feel.

Finally, I proclaim with words.  Using words that clarify and name, I can offer clients my expertise as a counselor and the understandings that have come to me as I have listened, sat in silence, and been present to them.  Words can be used to name evil that has masqueraded as “the way things are” in their lives, making clear a reality that has been obscured by the chaos of life.  Words can be a gift, proclaiming the truths about themselves that no one has ever told them.  Words are used to explore, and to search out the elusive threads that lead to the stories clients need to tell and to hear with new meaning.  Words help create new constructs or frameworks enabling clients to turn stories of fear and helplessness into stories of hope.  Words expand and enrich impoverished views of life.

Words proclaim support.  When I share with clients part of my own experience, I am offering them companion­ship in the struggles we all share, letting them know they are not alone in facing pain, living with anger, and searching for hope.  There are times when I give specific information or suggest ways to deal with a life situation.  Words from scripture, or stories of others can also give support.

Proclamation of the good news works as a two-way street in therapy.  My clients proclaim to me also.  They proclaim by telling their stories and by allowing me to be present as they search for new life.  I find healing in the hospitality they offer me, and in the silence through which we both are touched by the holy.  As they struggle I gain hope for places in my life where I continue to work toward health.  Their acceptance of me and my mistakes teaches me of God’s acceptance.  Our work together reassures me of God’s love for me as well.

In this process of proclamation my clients and I work together toward healing.  Sometimes it seems that healing occurs because of what the client and I do; sometimes it comes in spite of our best but misguided intentions.  God who loves us both brings healing.  God’s spirit, present within and between us, creates new life in ways that continually surprise and humble me.  God’s spirit is present in our struggles, our listening, and the insuppressible urge for growth and hope that keeps clients coming back, week after week, to look at the difficult places in their lives.  God’s spirit is present in the energy I feel for my work.

I do not understand healing to mean complete mastery, or the end of struggle.  Health is the ability to live with openness to life’s experiences, to accept our humanness, and to live with the awareness that God’s presence among us gives meaning to our lives even though pain and difficulties remain.  Health means that we begin to live out God’s loving vision for ourselves individually, and then collectively, as the people of God.