Let’s say a woman comes to you feeling stunned and confused because her husband died that weekend. Relatives are arriving from out-of-town to assist with the funeral. She tells you through tears that she doesn’t know how to act around them. Then she bites her lip, as though apologetic for her show of emotion.
After looking pensive for a minute, during which you relax your body and respectfully await her next communication, she takes a deep breath and says, “Should I be brave and make everyone comfortable? Or should I just cry when I feel how much I miss Brad?”
You explore this and find that her heart is aching terribly over the loss of her husband. She can barely even conceive of life without him. Yet she needs a way to behave in the midst of her many relatives.
“It’s like you are torn between concentrating on your feelings of loss and trying to watch after your visitors. Is that right?” Asking if your interpretation is on track lets counselees focus even more clearly on what they are experiencing. If they agree with you they will automatically move forward. If they disagree, they will add the nuance of thought or feeling that provides greater detail.
“Exactly,” she says. “I’m trying to make sure people have enough to eat and somewhere to sleep, and then suddenly I feel like I’ve been hit in the chest with a two-by-four.”
Now you want to expand the emotion behind the chest metaphor so that she can literally get the pressure off her chest.
“This deep emotion about Brad…what name would you give it?”
Her eyes grow distant, as though lost in thought. Then her shoulders slump and she sighs from her depths. “I feel…lost. Like there’s no ‘me’ inside me. Like I have tunnel vision and feel numb all over.”
She tears up, a good sign that you’ve said the right thing, for her expression is no longer simply blank, but rather conveys the relief of expressing a core feeling and being understood. Aware that the session time is nearly over, you offer a tentative suggestion.
“Do you suppose it might work this week to go ahead and say when you’re feeling overwhelmed, so that you’re taking care of yourself as well as interacting with your relatives?”
Closing her eyes, she nods. “Yes, I think that’s what I need to do.”
Notice in this counseling transaction the sense of forward movement, even to the point of offering a creative plan. Counselees need more than having their feelings accepted; they need ideas to consider, perspectives to try on for size, tentative plans that steer them in a productive direction. In brief situational support the coaching dimension of pastoral counseling provides these elements.
You close the session with prayer, inviting Andrea to come back if she needs further support.
Other situations appropriate for brief situational support might include talking with a college student who is so homesick he’s considering dropping out of school; brainstorming with a counselee who has lost his job and feels submerged in a whirlpool of failure feelings; or comforting a woman who confides that she’s gone through the motions of religion for years without ever feeling close to God.
Brief situational support occurs most often within the faith community and reflects the heart-pulse of pastoral counseling and coaching. When parishioners speak transparently to a pastor, a church becomes a home. Pastoral counseling in this context helps to stabilize, nurture, guide, inspire, and lend a helping hand. The mere availability of pastoral counseling helps people feel the presence of a safety net underneath them, as the Psalmist recognized when he wrote: “Underneath are the everlasting arms.”
Long before I embarked on my counseling career I had a single session with a gifted pastoral counselor. I described how awkward I felt around people and how my way of emotionally blurting things out often backfired.
“So it seems like your impulsive style of speaking works against you more than you’d like,” he said.
“Yes,” I replied, amazed at the warmth that his eyes conveyed. “And I’m afraid that not even God can change me.”
He folded his hands together and looked thoughtful. Then he exhaled slowly and said, “Dan, I think the Lord is giving me a visual picture about you. If I understand it correctly, I see you as a boulder in a river filled with rapids. While you may seem rugged right now, in due time the Holy Spirit is going to rub off and polish your rough edges. I believe that someday you’re going to become a rock of support who helps other people know that God loves them.”
That visual metaphor has traveled with me these forty years. I hope I’ve become a source of God’s love to others as much as that pastoral counselor was for me.
Contemporary models that can strengthen your capability for providing brief situational support are found in books like: Strategies in Brief Pastoral Counseling, by Howard Stone (2001); Counseling: How to Counsel Biblically, by John MacArthur (2005); and Christian Counseling: An Introduction (2007), by H. Newton Malony and David Augsburger.
For more about the Compass Therapy approach to pastoral counseling, read: