What Makes Counseling Pastoral

By Rev. Dr. Robert Phillips
Rev. Dr. Robert PhillipsHave you noticed in your readings on pastoral counseling that the experts do it right? They always do it right, always succeed, always come to closure and otherwise answer the mail for the ‘living human document’ who sits folded, spindled and mutilated in the next chair. What is particularly curious is that these experts can approach the storm-tossed and afflicted from various and even contradictory points of view. They can summarize the same situation using conflicting insights and still effect dramatic cures.

Joe Saint brings his burden to the pastoral counselor. Counselor A uses rational-emotive therapy to cogitate him into clear thinking and fresh living, while Counselor B feeds him Oates. Counselor C uses Rogerian touches to feel his pain. Counselor D lifts the sufferer with Clinebells and Counselor E uses a Nouwen then. Counselor F approaches the sinner in a shared search for existential meaning, while Counselor G walks the sinner through one of the Book of Lists that often satisfies more evangelical tastes for clear, crisp and quick answers. And you know what? They all work. I mean, they all work!

Cut me some slack. Pastors who jump daily into the trenches to pour the balm of Gilead on the emotional Humpty Dumpties know better. The reason a person seeks out a pastor for counseling is that the train has jumped the tracks. Like any train wreck in a Hollywood action movie, the next move is never predictable and never sanitary. The brother or sister who sits in yonder chair with a steaming bag of angst refuses to fit into any of the wonderful grids of grace that seminary training has cleverly prepared us to use.

I long for a book on how not to counsel successfully. I dream wishfully about poring over pages from the hand of a great and famous counselor in which he or she shares stupidity, misstatements, busted verbatims, and borderline illegal advice. I look for confessions of dumb moves and yearn to run my fingers through case after case in which Boy or Girl Wonder created carnage by trying theories and practice that didn’t work.  

Some of the Geniuses protest that their books have the aroma of authenticity in counseling and that failures are faithfully shared. Yea, sure they do. Read the fine print. It usually is a student who has played the role of the banal goofus, with the Genius riding to the rescue with wise and insightful advice. Occasionally a situation may be described where serious pathology emerged, such as a professional consultation with Hannibal Lector.

Even then, do the Wise Ones confess, "This bird was out of my league and defied all my theories?" Nope. The language quickly grows complicated and swirled in psychological profundities but the outcome is the same tiresome thing. So-and-so was referred to competent professionals who enabled him to live happily ever after.

 A man once came to see me for counseling. With trembling lips and tear-stained eyes he sat in the chair and poured out the depth of his passionate love for his wife. I thought to myself, "This is a problem?" Then came the punch line, as he shifted scripts but retained the lip and eye work in confessing equal love for his mistress. He did not want to hurt either one or lose either one.

In my mind, the experts lined up to save the day. My Rogerian side wanted to mumble, "So, you say that you don’t want to hurt either one or lose either one. That must be a scary. How do you feel about this?" My Rational-Emotive side wanted to snarl, "Snap out of it, man. Their pain is their pain. If they choose to love you, they are responsible for their decision. Think about it!" My existential side wanted to inquire, "And tell me, what is the nature and meaning of love?" My evangelical side wanted to hand him a card with 23 reasons against adultery and 16 steps to break off skirt chasing behavior. Some recent counselors from the Liberation Theology mode left within me whispers that wanted to tackle the guy with an impatient snort, "Yes, yes, but what are you doing about the oppressed in Palestine?" My Nouwen side wanted to tell him it was safer to go clowning in Rome than to be playing with fire. My gestalt guru whispered that now was a great time for a primal scream.

Merged with these and a dozen other conflicting voices, was a still, small voice that I call, for lack of a better name, the Elijah therapy. It urged me to respond, "Get out of my office, creep." No one was saved, saw the light, self-actualized, became a new being, got in touch with anything, became rational, or moved from loneliness to solitude.  Failure! 

I will continue to browse among books on pastoral counseling, for wrath if not for conscience’s sake. Occasionally I will buy one, since they tend to have impressive covers and can be good for a tax write-off. I still will continue to long for the day when I open such a book, probably by a hitherto unknown, and read with tumultuous joy, "I tried this with Miss Jones. Conditions were perfect. Empathy was complete. The client/counselee/patient/parishioner/dummy was totally responsive to my wise and insightful guidance. All the therapeutic ducks swam neatly in a row. Then the ducks drowned and Miss Jones ran off with the barber."

Rev. Dr, Robert Phillips is the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Peoria, IL. Before serving the local church, Bob spent 28 years serving as a Chaplain in the United States Navy. He is also a member of the Pastoral Care and Counseling Board.