On Faith: Pastoral counseling can be a great comfort

Many people today are unaffiliated with religious organizations and are searching for alternatives for support, inspiration and growth. It can be a burden to feel alone with the challenges, worries and disappointments in life. Even those who are actively involved in a church, synagogue or temple — or those who have family and friends — may yearn for a more profound connection.

Spiritual counseling, also known as pastoral counseling, provides a unique setting to explore the ultimate purpose of life, to clarify values and to develop spiritual maturity. Private sessions provide the opportunity to dialogue in a more personal way and to consider the applications of spirituality to one's daily life and specific issues.

It can involve a few sessions or it can be ongoing. Counseling may deal with the usual range of concerns such as grief, aging, anger, career dissatisfaction, parenting and relationships. It can also focus on how to make steady progress in one's spiritual life, for example, to cultivate compassion, wisdom and the capacity to serve others. In the Christian tradition, this spiritual companion is sometimes referred to as a spiritual director or confessor. Often people believe counseling is only for those who have a serious mental illness, but spiritual counseling provides an opportunity for anyone to better utilize his or her gifts.

Professionals in pastoral counseling work with those who have no particular affiliation, those who have left a religious tradition or those who are very actively involved in their religious tradition. They are also a resource for those who are angry about their past religious experiences or have suffered abuse.

Pastoral counselors are sensitive to the universal dimensions of human experience that bridge denominational differences. They respect all religious traditions and are involved in interfaith projects, but they are required to have expertise in one religion, which is usually evidenced by a master's in theology, seminary training or other post-graduate religious education. However, their work is not limited to those from their own faith tradition.

The pastoral counselor must also have expertise in psychology or a related field in the human behavioral sciences, as evidenced by at least a master's degree. Further requirements are courses that specifically integrate spirituality with psychology, and clinical training and supervision. Although pastoral counselors are not licensed in California, they are licensed in many states.

The American Assn. of Pastoral Counselors provides a rigorous national certification, which ensures the quality of training and sets ethical standards. Comprehensive information about pastoral counseling, training opportunities, certification or referrals is available at its website at aapc.org.

Gerald DeSobe, past president of AAPC notes, "not only is this a time of increased emphasis on therapy, but also a time of increased interest in spirituality. Combining these two areas in a person's life in helpful and healing ways is what pastoral counselors do."

Many therapists now see the importance of including spiritual values in inpatient and outpatient mental health therapy. The spiritual dimension of life, regardless of one's belief system, is intrinsically related to mental, emotional and relational health.

The American Assn. of Pastoral Counselors mission statement explains that "Pastoral counseling moves beyond the support or encouragement a religious community can offer, by providing psychologically sound therapy that weaves in the religious and spiritual dimension."

Clergy who are not trained as pastoral counselors often provide valuable short-term counseling, crisis intervention and referrals. When polled, a majority of Americans still turn to their clergy person first in times of need.

Pastoral counselors help people to identify the roots of their spiritual nature and to live with a wider perspective. Too often people wait too long to take this step, and may feel later that time was wasted. It is never too early or too late to begin the spiritual journey.

THE REV. DEBORAH BARRETT is a teacher, minister and counselor at the Zen Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa.

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