Thursday, September 15, 2011

Counseling, Psychotherapy, and Pastoral Counseling

I have been a part of several conversations recently that involved questions about the perceived difference between counseling, psychotherapy, and pastoral counseling.  There are volumes and volumes written on each of these things and the differences between them.  I don't know that I have a great deal to add, but I would like to offer my general reflections.  In common usage, counseling and therapy are used interchangeably.  However, technically there is a difference.

Many occupations and disciplines use the concept of "counseling".  For the most part, counseling does involve listening to a person and helping them with some decision, skill, or problem.  For the most part, counseling involves less in-dept responses.  Counseling involves applying a particular body of knowledge to a particular problem.  Counseling is more technique-driven and would be more instructional.

Psychotherapy also involves listening to a persons problems and does operate from a particular base of knowledge, but is generally more focused on insight.  A psychotherapist is going help a client reflect on various aspects of his or her life that might provide insight into the person's current complaints or struggles.  Which aspects of life become the focus of conversation will usually be driven both by the person's presenting issues and the theoretically orientation of the therapist.

In Tennessee, Pastoral Counselors can be licensed.  Those who are licensed are called Clinical Pastoral Therapists.  These therapists or those who are certified by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors are a special type of psychotherapists that use the spiritual resources of faith in their understanding of their clients.   There are numerous books written on pastoral counseling and what makes it unique -- each with its own twist - and each is often quite deep and theoretical.  This is why pastoral counselors often have difficulty articulating what it is that they do that is different from other therapists.  Below is my latest attempt to summarize what we do.  Even in reading this, there are questions about what this theory actually means in practice, but it is an attempt to capture it.  The statement below was recently written for a congregation in Nashville to help them better understand the work of the Pastoral Counseling Centers of Tennessee.

The question about what makes the counseling at the Pastoral Counseling Centers of Tennessee (PCCT) unique is a common one.  The short answer to the question involves some version of the fact that our counselors have a theological education and we offer financial assistance with our fees. The identity of our therapists as representatives of various faith groups is part of our identity; however, exactly what that means is more complex.   The training and experience of our therapists means that they attempt to understand their clients and do therapy with them in a way that is different than the counseling or therapy offered at other places.

In a world where diagnostic labels abound and managed care dictates modality of treatment, length of treatment, and frequency of treatment, PCCT offers something more personal.  We are capable of using the common diagnostic labels of our mental health peers, but we intentionally seek to see each person beyond those labels and understand the richness of each person’s life and how the various components of a person’s life interact to influence their faith, mental status, emotions, and relationships.  This holistic approach to therapy seeks to understand the underlying issues of a person’s presenting problems.  This approach to therapy requires attention to the development of a relationship that goes beyond the application of a particular technique.  This approach to therapy attempts to see each person in the fullness of what they were created to be and help them identify and overcome obstacles to living into that potential. We often refer to this as “Seeking to embody God’s healing presence.”  In the process of relationship, we use the tools that other qualified psychotherapists might use, but we also can call our training in theology, scripture, church history and the traditions of our faith when they might be helpful.  Our goal is to sit with clients as they sort out their struggles and make meaning of their lives.  We do not rush to answer the difficult questions for them and we do not leave them alone and lost. 

The style of therapy that we foster and promote has proven again and again to be healing and meaningful for our clients.  We believe it is the most excellent care.  We are committed to the idea that God does not just love those or offer healing to those with financial means, but God reaches out to all people.  For this reason, we seek to offer our services with financial assistance for those that cannot afford our regular fee.  We want to make our style of therapy available to anyone who wants it.  Because we want to represent the faith traditions in which we were nurtured and the community of faith as a whole, it is part of our identity and mission that we be intimately connected to local congregations.  Our offices are all located in space provided by local congregations.  We seek to offer training and other benefits to local clergy and the congregants they represent.  We are grateful to each individual and each congregation that supports us through their prayers and through their financial gifts.  Through this support we are able to bring God’s healing to the community of Middle Tennessee.