by Dominique Peridans, MA, MS, LGPC

There is much talk about Pastoral Counseling, but is there a reasonably precise clear definition of it? If there were, I would not venture to make my humble contribution to the conversation, offering a perspective. Indeed, let us try to say something about “the pastoral”, first by saying that, for the pastoral counselor, counseling is couched in the pastoral. The pastoral is more than a dimension of counseling. It is the ground upon which the therapeutic relationship is built.

But, what is the pastoral? For me, it means more than simple appeal to existential themes—themes such as meaning and connection and responsibility. Appeal to existential or existentialist themes makes one an existentialist counselor—like Rollo May or Victor Frankl. These themes are important, and definitely, in my opinion, must have place in counseling. But, as I see it, the pastoral counselor explicitly appeals to the Divine, to “God”—as this Supreme Being is referred to in many religious traditions. Some people would prefer to maintain the “broader” definition (one actually more vague, in my opinion), but I would argue, nonetheless, that those pastoral counselors who appeal to the Divine, to “God” are in a fairly unique position as counselors—with all due respect, with no sense of entitlement or superiority. For our purposes, and given his/her unique position, let us consider the pastoral counselor as the counselor who explicitly appeals to the Divine, to “God”.

In my particular case and experience, I believe that this God is revealed in a special way in the person of Jesus Christ, “God from God, Light from Light”—to reference the early Christian creed issued by a pivotal Council that took place in Nicaea (present-day Turkey) in 324.

Now, it is important to be clear regarding what is meant by the pastoral counselor’s “appeal to the Divine”. It might sound like appeal to a set of therapeutic principles presumed to come from God—which understandably makes some non-Pastoral-Counselors very nervous. If such were the case, I would be very nervous! I am not speaking of what sometimes therapeutically occurs in certain Christian circles in which there is an attempt to draw counseling theory directly drawn from the Bible. In my theological world, such is not the purpose of the Bible, and to attempt to do so is to do injustice to the Bible and to the human mind. Although in the Bible there are elements of philosophy and even psychology—because in the Bible there are human persons, the Bible is primarily a place of revelation regarding God—beyond any possible counseling theory. Moreover, as we shall see, the theology developed based on such revelation is distinct from and respectful of human understanding that emerges from reflection upon human experience.

What I am beginning to sketch here stems from a particular understanding of the relationship between faith (and what is received in faith, that is, revelation) and reason. First, however, it is helpful to articulate that this understanding is couched in an important broader understanding. There is a theological axiom that has rung true throughout the centuries in (most) Christian circles: “grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Prima Pars, question 1, article 8, reply to objection 2). Another way of putting this is “the kingdom of God respects human reality, from which it is distinct”.

Within the understanding of this respectful relationship, we articulate that faith does not replace reason. The same God who bestows the gift of faith (which takes root in the mind) so that the revelation of Himself can be received, created the human mind. The human mind, even gifted with faith, can and must function autonomously when it comes to the “stuff” of daily life. Indeed, our experience shows that all human beings come to some knowledge of reality. And they can, on their own, if deliberate, truly understand, for example, what it means to love or what the physical world is or the nature of healthy community. Such knowledge is, of course, never exhaustive but it is real. And, again, such knowledge is autonomous, and distinct from what one knows in faith.

There is another Christian theological axiom, found in most ecclesial circles, that sheds further light: the work of the Redeemer respects the work of the Creator. The renewing work wrought by Christ respects the natural order come from the Creator. The “structure” of who we are as human beings is not changed by our encounter with God in Christ. Something deep inside of us is touched by God, and we are granted access to the mystery of God. But we must still, while guided by God in a way that is deeply respectful of human freedom, think for ourselves, and make our own political and personal choices, and plan our own futures, and decorate our own homes, and play our own games, and wiggle our own toes, and navigate our psychological issues.

Thus, as I understand it, the therapist’s connection to the Divine and the therapist’s theological perspective inform the heart and mind of the therapist in a deeply personal way, but the principles that are immediately operative in the counseling room are drawn from “human understanding that emerges from reflection upon human experience”.

What is, nonetheless, my theological perspective distinct from and respectful of my counseling theory, which makes me a Pastoral Counselor? From a theological perspective, the human person—and thus the client— is a child of God. We are created out of pure love. Love is the only explanation for Creation by a God who is complete unto Himself (I refer to God as “Him” not in reference to gender—indeed, “God is spirit”—but to denote transcendence). The God who is complete unto Himself—not selfishly but because He is alive to the utmost—is a God of love, and love, by nature, radiates. We are thus created, not out of necessity, but out of the superabundance of God, as free-willed beings because, for us, true love presupposes freedom. We are created in love, and we are invited in love freely to enter into an ever-deepening, mysterious relationship. This is true for everyone—whether or not they know it or even care.

Now, this Divine relationship, because it informs the heart and mind of the therapist in a deeply personal way, ought to translate somehow in the counseling room. In other words, how I am received and welcomed by God in unconditional love, with my brokenness, respectful of my freedom to refuse such goodness, ought to translate into an acute pastoral sense. The translation is not, as some may think, and as suggested, talking about God. There is no need to articulate the theological for it to be operative in the counseling room. In other words, as a Pastoral Counselor, I need make no mention of God for God to be present, for the client to be engaged in the light thereof, or for the insights regarding the Divine Presence to influence positively the counseling process. There is no one more respectful than God. The Pastoral Counselor ought to strive towards such respect. In fact, the client can be considered a burning bush, and the adjacent ground upon which I tread as counselor is sacred. I must respectfully remove my sandals so to tread lightly, so not leave a sole print.

How then does the Divine relationship and the resulting theological perspective impact the counseling relationship and translate in the counseling room? In at least 11 ways:

1. The Pastoral Counselor ought to be filled with a sense of awe-some privilege in welcoming a fellow child of God.
2. The Pastoral Counselor, after the manner of the Divine relationship, seeks to create a hospitable, safe space, a space in which the client experiences unconditional welcome.
3. Knowing that, pastorally speaking, the client ultimately comes to see God, and to discover self in the light of God—whether she or she knows it or not, the Pastoral Counselor seeks to be both present and self-effaced: two seemingly opposed movements.
4. The Pastoral Counselor is aware that counseling is a participation in Divine mercy, that is, in Divine love which encounters the client where he/she is wounded.
5. Believing in this participation in Divine mercy, the Pastoral Counselor particularly avoids the caricature of counseling: the one who knows treating the one who does not know.
6. As discovered in the Divine relationship, the Pastoral Counselor knows the therapeutic relationship to be a place where the client explores and deepens his or her own sense of solitude and his or her own sense of communion.
7. Having experienced it him/herself in Divine relationship, the Pastoral Counselor more clearly knows that the client must engage personal responsibility. Indeed, Saint Augustine is attributed with having said, “He who created us without our help will not save us without our consent.” (St Augustine, Sermo 169, 13 (PL 38,923)). The client must, as he or she can at the time, given his or her struggles, freely take ownership, if the therapeutic relationship is to be a healing partnership.
8. Much like God who precedes yet is co-sojourner, the Pastoral Counselor knows that he/she, in a sense, precedes the client—not with all the answers, but in the deliberate journey towards wholeness, and thus in intention and overall vision.
9. Although there is a relational power differential, the Pastoral Counselor knows that both therapist and client together are, in fact, seekers of and collaborators in divine light.
10. The Pastoral Counselor is acutely aware that the therapeutic relationship is characterized by hope.
11. Given the nature of the Divine relationship, the Pastoral Counselor considers the therapeutic endeavor to be teleological in nature, that is to say, to be most properly about goals.

Now, because faith does not replace reason, it important to explore philosophical perspective. The counselor—pastoral or other—operates within a broader human vision which informs his/her counseling theory. Indeed, psychology is always part of the larger philosophical perspective on the human person. I think what happened historically is that modern science, with its focus on the quantitative, led to an extraction of psychology from philosophy and its erection into a “science” unto itself. Psychology is generally considered the study of human psyche and/or human behavior. But the psyche (which, for me, is the fabric of the senses and the emotions and memory) is that of a human person, and behavior is that of a human person. Thus, the psyche and behavior only makes sense couched in the larger philosophical perspective. Psychology is a form of practical knowledge meant to contribute to human well-being, the well-being of the human person. Thus, it is important for the counselor to have a sense of his/her vision of the human person. The following is mine, inspired by Aristotle, taught by my seminary mentor Marie-Dominique Philippe, a brilliant man, and confirmed by daily life.

Alfred Adler (1988) says (p. 432), “Psychic life is movement and direction, both placed under a goal”. The larger, necessary framework for the work of therapy is that of direction. Indeed, the underlying question of life, and thus of therapy, is “Where are you going?” The clarity sought in therapy is ultimately with respect to direction. Fundamentally, the therapist seeks to help the client to articulate direction, whose basic question could be framed: “For the sake of what are you living?”

Aristotle, in his treatise on happiness, tries to discern, in human experience, which human goals are primary, and thus most purposeful. In the process, he makes an important distinction between “goals” and what are traditionally called “ends”. A goal can be a mental construct, such as a value or an ideal. An end—in the Aristotelian sense, in the realistic sense, is always an existent reality. People at least need a goal in life, or they wither and fade. People thrive if they have an end. With precise analysis, Aristotle (350 BC) seeks to uncover the truest human end, the “chief good” .

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? (Book I, 2)

Aristotle goes on to say that (350 BC) “happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action” (Book I, 7) and that (350 BC) “happiness is an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue” (Book I, 13).

If I may dare interpretation, by combining both statements: happiness follows or is the consequence of communion with a self-sufficient end, which is had only by “activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue”, that is, by an activity stemming from the deepest part of the person, with strength such that nothing impede the person. Aristotle’s analysis of happiness eventually leads to the question of friendship. Aristotle seems to suggest that the “thing” we most seek for itself—this side of God—is another human being, in the experience of friendship, a person, and thus a spiritual being, who can only be reached by activity of the soul. This is our human “end”. He so beautifully states (350 BC):

Friendship is besides most necessary with a view to living. For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods; even rich men and those in possession of office and of dominating power are thought to need friends most of all. (Book VIII, 1)

One of my favorite therapists, William Glasser (who recently died: August 23) speaks similarly when he says (p.14), “We recognize that good friends are our most reliable source of long-term happiness”. Friendship is the most meaningful experience in human life, and thus is a central consideration in therapy.

There is, however, another fundamental experience which, in addition to interpersonal relationships, which gives direction to our lives: the experience of creativity, of productivity, of work. Indeed, these two experiences—friendship and artistic activity—are interwoven and form the fabric of daily human life.

It is interesting to observe this appear in counseling theory—inevitably appear, because, again,l counseling is for the sake of vivere bene, of living well! Living well is living these two experiences well.

Alfred Adler (1935) speaks of these two “ends”. He speaks of them as a therapist, of course, and not as a philosopher. He speaks of them as “problems”: “I have divided problems for clarity into three parts: problems of behavior toward others, problems of occupation, and problems of love. The manner in which an individual behaves toward these problems and their subdivision—that is his answer to the problems of life” (p. 4). Or, as he says elsewhere (1957), “All problems of life merge into the three social problems of neighborly love, work, and sexual love” (p. 14). These three “problems” are life’s tasks, as Adler articulates them. In the end, when distilled we have two basic experiences: interpersonal relationships and work or friendship/love and artistic activity.
According to Erik Erickson (1959) even Freud supports the foundational and meaningful nature of these activities (p. 157):

Freud was once asked what he thought a normal person should be able to do well. The questioner probably expected a complicated, a “deep” answer. But Freud simply said, “Lieben und arbeiten” (“to love and to work”). It pays to ponder on this simple formula; it gets deeper as you think about it. For when Freud said “love”, he meant the expansiveness of generosity as well as genital love; when he said “love and work”, he meant a general work of productiveness which would not preoccupy the individual to the extent that his right or capacity to love be a sexual and loving being would be lost.”

If Pastoral Counseling is to be purposeful, and thus effective, it necessitates an exploration of what it means to love and what it means to be creative and productive. If, as Freud says, a normal person is a person who loves and works well, then, practically speaking, therapy seeks to assist the client in eliminating all obstacles of mind and will to love and creativity.

Adler, A. (1988). Personality as a self-consistent unity. Individual Psychology, Vol. 44, no. 4, 431-440
Adler, A. (1935). The fundamental views of individual psychology. International Journal of Individual Psychology, 1(1), 5-8
Aquinas, Thomas (1947). Summa Theologica. (Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Trans.) New York, NY: Benziger Brothers. (Original work published in 1274).
Aristotle (2005). Nicomachean ethics. (W.D. Ross, Trans.). Stilwell, KS: Digireads. (Original work published in 350 BC).
Erikson. E (1959). Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: NY: W. W. Norton & Company
Glasser, W. (1965). Reality therapy: A new approach to psychiatry. New York, NY: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc.
Glasser, W. (1998). Choice theory: A new psychology of personal freedom. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.