In our ministry, we are inevitably called upon to provide spiritual counseling; whether we call it that or not, it is an intrinsic part of the ministry. This raises the question of the minister's role and responsibility in pastoral counseling, particularly how this is provided within the context of ministry in our church.
Some ministers may prefer not to engage in counseling, which is okay personally; however, as ministers of a church, we must ensure that this need is met effectively. If spiritual counseling is delegated to another, we are responsible for ensuring that this person is qualified and competent to engage in this function. We must ensure that this counseling process is consistent with Iwigá's Principles.
If we do choose to perform spiritual counseling personally, then we must operate from a clear understanding of the purpose and benefits of spiritual counseling, as well as its limitations. And we, as pastoral ministers, must engage in our own self-discovery and spiritual practice process. We cannot take someone else any further than we are willing to go ourselves.
In the Iwigá context, the purpose of spiritual counseling is to facilitate the discovery of the divine presence within ourselves in the midst of life’s challenges. Indeed, times of personal crisis are often when individuals are most open to great change and transformation. It is the spiritual counselor's role to facilitate that change if the congregant is willing to allow transformation to occur.
At other times, and with other individuals, the work may be a spiritual presence to let the person know they are not alone, that they have someone willing and able to listen to them and be present in a deep way. The greatest gift that we often have to give is an open heart and a listening ear. Our own grounding in Truth speaks more than any words might convey.
Most pastoral (spiritual) counseling focuses upon relatively healthy persons who encounter situational crises in their lives or individuals who are experiencing spiritual “growth pains” (aka chemicalization). Sometimes, spiritual counseling is not enough; it may be necessary to refer a person to a professional psychotherapist. If we do this, we must inform our congregant that we are still available for spiritual support and further spiritual counseling, if deemed necessary. It is also important that we have a list of professional psychotherapists we trust and have personally interviewed.
Two errors can be made in this regard: one is to fail to recognize the need for psychotherapy and attempt to heal someone heals through prayer or affirmations alone (this is sometimes known as the “spiritual by-pass”) when psychological work is also needed. A second error is to attempt psychotherapy when we are not licensed or qualified to do so. Neither of these approaches is recommended and often leads to problems for both the congregant and minister.
The spiritual by-pass typically leads to a lack of coming to grips with the root of the problem and at best ends up treating just the symptoms; at worst, it leads to greater repression of the root cause of the person’s problem with continued suffering and/or problematic behavior. Conversely, an attempt to perform psychotherapy when we do not have the skills or training may become even more problematic. We may uncover some buried trauma in which the individual cannot cope with healthily. When these traumas are unearthed, they typically require more time, skill, and training than most of us have as ministers of the Church.
Likewise, while individuals experiencing a form of mental illness can benefit somewhat from spiritual counseling, we will be very limited in our impact on these folks until they receive the therapy and/or medication indicated for their condition.
As ministers of the Church, much of our work lies in providing proper referrals. Few of us would try to practice medicine without a license; it is equally important that we, as pastoral ministers, do not practice psychotherapy without a license.
Once again, if the minister entrusts others in the church to provide spiritual counseling, the minister is still responsible for ensuring that the individual, such as a licensed Church teacher, is qualified and competent to offer spiritual counseling and is aware of- and avoids- the errors of spiritual by-pass or attempting to perform psychotherapy. The minister must also confer with others who provide spiritual counseling to ensure that people who may need psychotherapy are referred to qualified, licensed mental health professionals.
In the proper context spiritual counseling, as it is provided within the context of Church ministry, can be very powerful in healing. There are no limits to Spirit’s ability for transformation. However, to be effective as spiritual healers and teachers, it is important to recognize our personal limitations and to call upon professional assistance as is necessary and appropriate.