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How to Counsel Effectively

Deacons should know their limits, connect people with professional help

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Martin called into our radio program. He had been struggling with anxiety for several years and was looking for some ways to experience more peace. We asked him if he had sought counseling. He responded: “I did some counseling with my priest. He gave my some Scripture passages to reflect on and suggested I spend time in front of the Blessed Sacrament. It’s helped a little, but I still have at least one or two panic attacks a week.”

Jennifer is married to a man who is emotionally abusive. He reacts angrily to even the smallest offenses, calling her names and making her feel small and ashamed. I asked her if she was receiving any professional help for her marriage. She explained: “I have a wonderful spiritual director. He’s the deacon at our parish. He’s helped me see how I could join my sufferings to the cross of Christ. I know that should be enough, but some days I just feel so lonely.”

Among both the clergy and laity, there can be a great deal of confusion about the different roles of pastoral counseling, pastoral direction, pastoral accompaniment and spiritual direction play in a person’s healing journey. Because deacons often serve as frontline pastoral care providers, it is especially important to know how to help the people you serve identify the most appropriate kinds of help for their particular concerns.

Pastoral Counseling vs. Counseling

The term pastoral counseling can be confusing because, historically, it referred to talking with one’s pastor about personal struggles. But now pastoral counseling is a specific field of mental health counseling conducted by licensed mental health professionals who also have training in the ethical integration of faith and clinical practice.

The Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE, the same body that certifies hospital chaplains) oversees the training of pastoral counselors. They award the designation “ACPE-certified psychotherapist” to those who have met their standards for providing spiritually integrated mental health care.

It can be helpful to think of both professional pastoral counseling and mental health counseling as physical therapy for the brain. Modern approaches to psychotherapy, especially those rooted in cognitive-behavioral therapy, use empirically based techniques to change the way different brain regions communicate with each other.

Functional imaging technologies — for example, fMRI and fPET — show observable, physical changes in brain function in as little as 12 weeks of psychotherapeutic treatment. The most effective, modern therapies (supported by both general mental health counselors and professional pastoral counselors) employ specialized techniques and assignments to change the way the client’s brain processes stress, manages emotions and makes effective decisions.

As an example, all of the therapists that work for the Pastoral Solutions Institute, the pastoral telecounseling practice I direct, are licensed mental health therapists with additional training in both the practical applications of the Theology of the Body as well as ways to integrate Catholic spirituality with clinical practice. For instance, we teach Ignatian principles of discernment of spirits alongside our conversations about cognitive distortions — for example, bad thinking habits.

It’s important for pastoral ministers to help people understand the significant differences that exist between seeking help from a trained counselor and merely “talking things out” with their priest or deacon.

Pastoral Direction

Pastoral direction involves practices like the advice pastoral ministers give at the back of the church after Mass, the prayers or blessings we offer to people at a funeral home or hospital, and the counsel we might provide when somebody stops by the parish for a conversation about a troubling situation that they are dealing with.

Pastoral direction often involves intercessory prayer, simple suggestions for dealing with various problems, or even clarifications about different points of Church teaching. It is, essentially, advice-giving of a spiritual nature that is done, more or less, on the fly with no particular follow-up plan. This is, perhaps, the most common kind of pastoral intervention, but it is also the most limited in terms of its ability to facilitate change or offer real support. One best practice for maximizing the impact of pastoral direction is to always end such exchanges with a specific invitation to have a deeper conversation about the issue in question should the person wish it. This way, pastoral direction can lead to pastoral accompaniment.

Pastoral Accompaniment

Other than spiritual direction, which we will look at below, pastoral accompaniment is the type of spiritual helping that is most confused with pastoral counseling. Unlike counseling (pastoral or otherwise), pastoral accompaniment is less an empirically based process than it is an experientially based one. Where the counselor is interested in teaching the client techniques to facilitate the more efficient processing of stress, emotions and responses to problems, pastoral accompaniment is more about being with the person in pain, helping them bring that pain to God and providing the spiritual resources to help the person respond more effectively to the grace they are being given.

I teach my students that pastoral accompaniment employs the steps illustrated by the acronym LEAD, which stands for listen, explore, accompany and direct.

• Listen refers to the need to not try to fix the person, or present easy solutions, but rather to hear the person’s complaint with willing ears, an open heart and a generous spirit. People often will present us with problems that strike us as simple, silly or even offensive. Pastoral accompaniment requires us to put aside those reactions and approach each person in a manner that makes them feel welcomed, heard and respected.

• Explore refers to the need to always ask questions that enable the person to understand the broader context of their concerns. Instead of merely responding to the immediate, presenting problem someone brings to us, asking questions — “Can you tell me more about what this situation means to you?” or “Have you had other experiences like this” and “Are there times when you’ve felt this way before?” — can help clarify what, exactly, the person is truly concerned about. It is often surprising to see that the presenting complaint is really not so much the problem as is the trigger for a much deeper and more personal concern.

• Accompany reminds us that it is not the job of pastoral ministers to fix anyone or give advice that may or may not be useful. Rather, it is their job to help the person we are serving to bring their problems to God in a more meaningful way and experience his grace and presence more profoundly in the midst of their trials. More important than trying to solve anything, we need to help people pray honestly, learn practices of healthy discernment and discover the myriad ways God may be reaching out to them. Another important role of accompaniment is helping people understand that pain is not meant merely to be endured but rather responded to in a manner that leads us (and those around us) closer to God and enables us (and those around us) to engage the virtues that can help us grow into the best version of ourselves.

• Direct refers to the need to connect the person with additional resources — books, programs or helping professionals who can provide the practical skills and support they might need to respond more effectively to their concerns.

The LEAD process can best be thought of as both a guide for individual sessions of pastoral accompaniment and the overall arc of the entire process of effective, pastoral accompaniment.
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About Pastoral Solutions Institute

Catholic counselors at Pastoral Solutions Institute can help strengthen marriages, celebrate faith and a fulfilling family life or lead people to discover a more grace-filled personal life. The website offers quizzes for self-discovery of information about your life and relationships. Site visitors also can find excerpts from popular books and listen to audio recordings, all designed to achieve greater peace of mind and greater peace in the home. Personal guidance is available at the telephone counseling practice, which enables callers to connect with faithful, effective counseling resources. Visit catholiccounselors.com for more information.

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Spiritual Direction

Where pastoral counseling and even pastoral accompaniment are more time-limited, resource-focused and solution-oriented, spiritual direction is primarily about helping a person use his or her present experience to hear God’s voice more clearly, experience his love more perfectly and respond to his will more perfectly. Certainly problems may be discussed in spiritual direction, but for the most part, if discussions about life and relationship dominate spiritual direction, it is most likely time to refer a directee to a faithful counselor who can provide the appropriate practical support and guidance.

Making a Referral

When possible, it will be important to refer the people you serve to therapists who are licensed in their discipline (psychology, clinical social work, counseling or marriage and family therapy) and who know how to integrate the client’s faith into clinical work. If such a person isn’t available, you might start with a therapist who, though untrained as a pastoral counselor, is simply a faithful Catholic. But for best results, it will be important to encourage such a person to get additional training, both through ACPE and other sources for the ways they can support clients in an effective, faith-integrated manner.

Being able to help clients identify the kind of support they need and connect them with the most beneficial resources is an important aspect of the diaconal call to be facilitators of the gifts of the laity. With this knowledge, you can serve as an even more effective bridge between hurting people and the help that they seek.

DR. GREG POPCAK is the author of many books, the host of More2Life Radio on EWTN and Sirius130, and the director of  CatholicCounselors.com.

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Choosing a counselor: A guide for Catholics

Psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists, mental health counselors, and pastoral counselors, all offer similar services while approaching therapy from slightly different perspectives. How do you know which professional best suits your needs? Let’s examine the different professions that are out there.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors whose primary role is to prescribe and monitor medication. Psychiatrists are best suited for supervising chronic, serious mental disorders. They prescribe and adjust medications, do monthly medication checks and often have counselors on staff to do therapy on their behalf.

Psychologists have, for the most part, received doctorates in psychology. They specialize in psychological testing and counseling.

 Clinical social workers, counselors and marriage and family therapists are primarily highly trained, master’s-level clinicians who specialize in various models of psychotherapy and counseling.

 Pastoral counselors are psychologists, social workers or counselors who are licensed in their clinical discipline and have received additional, extensive training in theology and spiritual guidance.

catholiccounselors.com/choosing-a-therapist-a-guide-for-catholics

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