Pastoral Counseling Comes of Age

by John Patton

Dr. Patton is past president of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and vice-president of the International Committee on Pastoral Care and Counseling. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia and is the author of U>Christian Marriage and Family: Caring for Our Generations (Abingdon).

This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 4, 1981, pp. 229-231. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Increasingly, pastoral counseling centers are more like churches than like mental-health clinics. They are extensions of a central function of the church — the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments.

There is increasing evidence that the pastoral counseling movement has come of age. By "pastoral counseling movement," I mean the several thousand clergy with extensive training in counseling and psychotherapy who practice this function as a major dimension of their ministry. The maturity of the movement may be understood developmentally in terms of the familiar principle that at certain points in life a maturing person must get away from home and family to avoid being stifled in growth. At a later point, the need for separation and differentiation is less strong, and the individual can appropriately move back to a closer relationship to the family of origin.

The pastoral counseling movement’s family of origin is the church -- that is, the ecclesiastical bodies in the United States and Canada to which these clergy are accountable through their ordination. The movement is mostly Protestant, but it includes an increasing number of Roman Catholics.

Perhaps I find myself thinking this way because just last year my older son turned 21 and I turned 50. Whatever the symbolic meaning of those two numbers, there does seem to be a good deal more relaxation and satisfaction in our communication these days. We are listening to each other with some interest. To my surprise and his, we have discovered that the blues chords he plays on his guitar are the same ones I played on my clarinet back in the ‘40s. On occasion, despite our very different tastes in music, we have even played together.

As this family analogy implies, a young person s coming of age can be facilitated by a similar move on the part of the parent. The church of 1980 seems less threatened by clergy attrition than in former days. Uniformity and accountability are not always viewed as identical. Some denominations, in fact, seem appreciative enough of specialized pastoral-care ministry that they are developing cooperative arrangements that delegate to the appropriate professional organization the certifying of competence and make denominational endorsement conditional upon that certification. Despite their differences in age and point of view, the church and the pastoral counseling movement are beginning to "play together."

An Identifiable Witness

Pastoral counseling’s coming of age may be seen at three important points: (1) the emergence of an identifiably pastoral way of thinking and functioning; (2) the development of an appropriate norm for pastoral counseling; and (3) the clearer definition of specialized pastoral counseling as a community-based ministry.

First, let me examine what appears to be an identifiably pastoral way of thinking and functioning. To be sure, chaplains and pastoral counselors have learned the language of the health sciences in order to work effectively in that world. They have learned to provide "good patient care" in hospitals and pastoral counseling centers. Less and less, however, are they "cheap psychiatrists," serving those who cannot afford a better-trained practitioner.

On the contrary, there is probably not a pastoral counseling center in the country where there are not some persons who pay more to see a pastoral counselor than they would have to pay to see a psychiatrist, whose fee would be largely covered by health insurance. More and more people are realizing that there are better ways to get help in a life crisis than by saying, "I’m sick." Pastoral counselors and counselees are rediscovering that understanding oneself as a sinner rather than as a sick person may be the essential element in moving toward health. Incidentally, we are also discovering that pastoral counseling is a better value for the health-care dollar than psychotherapy provided by comparably trained practitioners of other disciplines.

It can be argued convincingly that the distinctive thing about specialized pastoral ministries is the way that their -practitioners think about them -- the way they think Christianly about what they do. Without saying that it is particular religious acts or practices, such as prayer or the use of Scripture for guidance, that make one’s function pastoral, I believe that a case can be made for an identifiable pastoral function as well as a pastoral way of thinking about that function.

It is important here to point out the difference between identifiable pastoral function and unique pastoral function in the practice of pastoral counseling. The administration of the sacraments, for example, is a function in most Christian traditions which is unique to ordained persons, something they do that others do not do. There is not, in my judgment, any comparably unique function in pastoral care which the pastoral counselor performs and the secular psychotherapist does not. Thus there is no territory belonging exclusively to the pastoral counselor.

But Christian ministry, as performed by ordained persons, must be a visible ministry. Part of the pastoral counselor’s calling is to remind the counselee and the community of the religious dimension in life -- that there is more to health than symptom relief. The goal of pastoral counseling is never simply unimpaired function, but function for something, for one’s commitments and meanings. The pastoral counselor is not the only health practitioner who has this understanding of healing. He or she is, however, the only one whose role and identity, as well as function, represent this understanding. The pastoral counselor offers an identifiable witness to Christian meanings and commitments and their relevance for health care.

Relational Humanness

A second important element in pastoral counseling’s coming of age is the development of an appropriate norm. Although there is no generally accepted methodology for pastoral counseling, on the basis of the work of the professional associations in the field a theological norm is beginning to be formulated. Such a norm can enable the pastoral practitioner, whether generalist or specialist, to evaluate the various counseling methodologies. My own description of that norm:

Relational humanness has revealed God’s humanness for us in Jesus Christ. God’s relation to the world through a person strongly suggests that the clue for development of personal meaning in life rests in the quality of relationships and the character of humanness revealed therein [Journal of Pastoral Care, December 1976, p. 218].

Pastoral counseling, then, must consistently reveal the humanness of the counselor in a relational way, as well as something of his or her commitment to the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

What does this mean in the practice of pastoral counseling? How does one identify this "relational humanness"? Without adopting my particular terminology for that phenomenon, the American Association of Pastoral Counselors attempts, I believe, to identify this quality in its evaluation of membership applicants. Although the regional committees that evaluate prospective pastoral counseling specialists do not function uniformly, there is remarkable agreement among them in what they are looking for in their clinical evaluations.

I have participated on these committees for more than ten years and have found them consistently asking certain questions as they interview candidates and listen to recordings of their work: Is this candidate present, alive and available to his or her counselee and to the committee? Is the counselor able to use the counseling relationship as a means for learning and growth? Has the counseling moved from talking about problems "out there somewhere" to experiencing them "between us"?

These questions are experiential ways of talking about the theological norm for pastoral counseling, "relational humanness." They are, I believe, derivative from and in dialogue with the ministry of Christ, as are (or should be) all ministry functions.

An Extension of the Church

The third element in pastoral counseling’s coming of age may be seen in the clearer definition of specialized pastoral counseling as a community-based ministry. One dimension of this development is the increased dialogue between the pastoral counseling movement and the denominations, centering on the issues of accountability and competence. The professional associations in the pastoral-care specialties have helped the denominations take pastoral competence seriously and become more critical about who has it and who does not.

Likewise, these associations have begun to recognize that no matter how good a counselor one may be, it is the ordaining body that must determine one’s legitimacy as a minister of that church in a particular setting. Authority as a pastoral counselor has become more clearly seen as something based on both competency in pastoral function and active involvement in the ordaining community. Counselors who operate in a genuinely "private" practice are not pastoral because they are not accountable; their ministry is not an extension of the Christian community of which they are a part.

There is another way in which pastoral counseling may be understood as a community-based ministry. Specialized pastoral counseling has been included by the United Methodist Church in a category called "extension ministries." It is an extension of the Christian community into a particular area of life to respond to the needs of persons. Traditionally, the church has extended itself to those not sufficiently motivated to come to the church, and the pastoral counseling center is an excellent example of such an extension. Thousands of persons who go to pastoral counseling centers would not go near a parish church. For thousands of others the pastoral counseling center is an intermediate church structure that can be used as an entryway to a more traditional form of Christian community.

Obviously, I am not identifying a pastoral counseling center as a church. I am saying, however, that pastoral counseling centers are increasingly more like churches than they are like mental-health clinics. They are extensions of a central function of the church -- the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments.

Persons may come to pastoral counseling centers because they are depressed. What they receive, however, is not primarily a treatment for depression but a significant relationship and an interpretation of life that are intended to break through their limited way of perceiving the human situation. This is the same thing that the traditional church structures attempt to do through a gathered community of believers that meets to celebrate with Word and sacrament the Christian way of understanding and experiencing life. In its efforts to break through more limited visions, the pastoral counseling center simply uses methods designed more to meet the needs of the one, rather than most of the 90 and nine.

Tolerating Doubt

Through the two major services offered by a pastoral counseling center, relationship and interpretation, persons often experience healing comparable to that which takes place in community clinics and the private offices of health practitioners. As a dimension of their ministry, pastoral counselors who have received the training necessary for certification by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors do good psychotherapy. Such a counselor’s primary identity, however, is not as psychotherapist but as minister of the church, one who offers the type of relationship called for by the Christian gospel and who interprets the predicaments and possibilities of life Christianly.

In order to understand the pastoral counseling center s role in facilitating Christian community, it is important to see it as an extension of the church that can allow the expression and exploration of doubt. Many churches and groups within the traditional church structure perform this function well. Too often, however, there is in the church an expected conformity of belief that limits exploration of the relationship between doubt and faith. Too much doubt is a threat that many believers and churches cannot tolerate. Though it may be theologically designated as a community of sinners, the church many times is a community that connives to deny its own sin. Doubt, therefore, can often best be explored in a community identified with and related to the traditional church structures, but not so closely as to inhibit the expression of lostness and uncertainty.

An analogy may be found in recalling the time when churches would allow certain forms of recreation but only if they took place a respectable distance from the church sanctuary. The pastoral counseling center is an extension of the church -- a respectable distance from its sanctuary.

Finally, the pastoral counseling center is not only significantly related to the Christian community as an extension of its ministry; it is a community itself. Pastoral counseling is not a private practice of anything. It is a community of ministers, both ordained and lay, who work together in order to correct and learn from each other’s theory and practice of the faith.

As one of my colleagues in our pastoral counseling center is fond of saying, "I need someone to check up on my heresies." I need someone to look both at what I am doing in my counseling and at how I am thinking about it. One of the tasks of a pastoral counseling center is to encourage a continuing dialogue among those who practice their ministry there. When such dialogue is taking place effectively, it is not only the individual counselor who ministers to those who come for help; it is also the community that offers ministry.

The pastoral counseling movement has come of age and is living closer to home. I believe that the church can be enriched by that closer relationship.