There are all sorts of counselors out there - could a pastoral counselor help us?
There are so many types of counselors out there. If your relationship is in trouble, who can you turn to? An LPC? LMHC? LMFT? LCSW? Psychologist? Pastoral Counselor?Lucy from Peanuts? Some other designation? Is a pastoral counselor qualified to handle relationship difficulties?
Mental health professionals do come in a wide variety of flavors and even within a particular type of mental health professional there is a lot of variability about the expertise and specialization of individuals. It is always important to be careful in the selection of a mental health professional and to understand the strengths and limitations in their training and background.
What is a pastoral counselor? To address the question of whether a pastoral counselor is qualified, this question must first be answered. There are individuals that call themselves Christian counselors (or other similar titles within other faith groups) whose training is primarily or exclusively within their church or faith group. In contrast to this, pastoral counselors are qualified mental health professionals that also have specialized qualifications and training to integrate the spiritual dimension into their therapeutic practice. In a few states, pastoral counselors are licensed as pastoral counselors. However, most pastoral counselors hold regular licenses as mental health professionals (such as as professional counselors, mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, social workers, or psychologists). As a result, pastoral counselors are able to help people with relationship difficulties if they are able to do this using the techniques and training of the counseling profession that they are a part of.
Clearly, this means that a pastoral counselor trained and qualified as a marriage and family therapist should be able to help handle relationship difficulties (unless they have a very narrow specialty). Pastoral counselors whose background is in one of the other mental health professions may be able to help, depending on their training and experience as well as state law governing that mental health profession (for instance, there are some states that do not allow professional counselors to work with couples).
In evaluating a particular pastoral counselor, here are some things you might want to explore to determine if you feel they are qualified to work on your relationship difficulties:
- what are their credentials as a mental health professional?
- do they have training and experience for working with couples (or families)?
- how much of their experience has been around relational difficulties?
- do they have any special training or credentials for working on issues like yours?
- if your situation is volatile or severe, do they have the ability to provide additional crisis help?
- how do they keep up on the latest developments in the field?
The Benefits of Pastoral Counseling. There are studies that show that spirituality can provide positive outcomes when applied to a variety of life crises including relational difficulties. There are clear examples that the fostering of joint spiritual or religious activity [my article] can be a positive force for a couple to stay together. Thus, having a counselor that is able to bring in these dimensions and help you explore them can have a positive effect on your counseling process. The advantage of a pastoral counselor is that while able to include the spiritual dimension in the counseling process, the pastoral counselor will not be neglecting the benefits that can come from standard counseling techniques. Especially if there is a spiritual dimension to the difficulties in the relationship or if one or more of the parties involved are very spiritual, a pastoral counselor would be particularly well situated to help around relational difficulties.
Caveat: A Pastor is NOT Necessarily a Pastoral Counselor. It should be noted that in all of the above discussions about pastoral counseling, the reference is being made to counseling from a trained mental health professional with additional specialized training. This is not necessarily counseling offered by any pastor. Most pastors are not qualified mental health professionals and only have a little training in counseling. With this training these pastors are able to help in cases that are not too serious and will generally refer to a mental health professional if the situation is more complicated. Likewise, a pastor who is a mental health professional will usually not provide professional counseling for members of their faith group in order to be able to maintain the pastoral relationship.
Seeking the counsel of a pastor may be helpful, but if the situation requires it this should not be seen as a substitute for getting quality mental health care. In seeking quality mental health care, you may want to look to get this from a pastoral counselor or you may seek to get this from another type of professional. This will depend on your comfort levels, your desires as well as the availability of pastoral counselors trained for your issues in your community.
When you do get quality mental health care, including that from a qualified and trained pastoral counselor, it is possible to move towards greater peace and wholeness even when you are currently facing relational problems.