Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Setting Up a First Pastoral Counseling Session

Let’s speculate a little, for the purpose of enhancing empathy with counselees, about what goes on within a person before making a first contact with a pastoral counselor.

It’s awful when individuals feel bound up with a knotty life problem that won’t go away and doesn’t get better, no matter what efforts they make, no matter what advice they receive from trusted friends. The problem can even defy heartfelt prayer, a sense of helplessness accruing alongside inner anxiety.

It may be that a third child, unlike the first two who were calm and sociable, climbs the walls day and night, paying no attention to parental pleas or reprimands. Or it may be that sexual issues have come to haunt the marriage bed. Or what about a person who has recurring anxiety attacks and doesn’t know why?

Every counselee feels anguish. They would not contact you if pain and perplexity didn’t compel them. And once they are resolved to reach out, there is the added uncertainty about how you will respond to them.


Treatment fearfulness is commonly underestimated by counselors, but nevertheless acts as a genuine obstacle in seeking help. Further, men especially may have some culturally determined resistance to counseling because of the intimate sharing it requires.

Take heart, though. Research shows that counselees have a greater probability of experiencing healing in their area of need than do patients who seek a physician’s care. And generally speaking, the more anxious and distressed people are when they enter counseling, the more likely they will continue with it and the more benefit they will likely derive.

Keep in mind, too, that many people prefer seeing a counselor who is sensitive to spiritual values over one who is secular-minded. Fears and all, then, many hurting persons reach a point where they decide to pursue pastoral counseling, mustering the courage to make a first contact. They may know you from church, hear of your work from someone you’ve counseled, or find your site on the Internet.

In their moment of reaching out, a touch of hope stirs within them, a warranted hope, since God is encouraging them to make a counseling connection with you.


Now, for our part, what goes on inside us to prepare for a first session with a new counselee? Personally, I am helped by an open-ended prayer conversation that says to the Lord, “Please send me only those individuals that in your providence you want me to see, and please guide us from beginning to end.”

This steadies my confidence in God’s superintendence of my counseling practice, helping my unconscious to accept that the Lord is guiding people long before they see me, and will continue to help them long after our counseling is over. I want God’s multifaceted involvement in my counseling and coaching practice. After all, Christ is the one who originally called me to this profession!

Another way of preparing for new counselees is simply not scheduling more appointments than you can handle in a given week. This requires that you diplomatically saying “no” to a prospective counselee who would create an overload in your counseling practice: “I’m very sorry but my practice is full just now. Let me give you a few names of other counselors who might be able to see you.” This is hard for me, since I want to help every person who needs me, and, at a less mature level, I am flattered when people call upon my expertise. The tendency to overbook threatens the delicate balance of a healthy pastoral counseling practice. 

Seeing too many people—even one too many counselees—leaves us irritable or exhausted after a day of counseling. This in turn deprives spouses and children of rightful energy needed to nourish them. It doesn’t take long for a spouse to think, “My husband (or wife) cares more about taking care of other people than about me!” I suggest placing your spouse at the top of the list of those who need nurturing love. An intimate marriage deepens the reservoir of energy required for serving counselees effectively.

If you are single, this overload appears more as a secret depression: like being crushed under a heavy load that no one else knows about. Either way, you learn to place your physical and psychological wellbeing as a primary priority, recognizing that by showing this love for yourself, you’ll have energy to care for others.

In either case, watch out for the isolation that comes with over-exposure to counselees. Counter this isolation with the development of hobbies and social outings that keep you interested in life and rejuvenate your spirit. You want longevity and career fulfillment, not burnout. 


 I know. I've burned out twice in accruing 35,000 hours of counseling experience. Each time it took several months free from counseling to recover my health, identity, and sense of enjoyment of this challenging vocation. However, I'm happy to report that the older I've gotten, the more relaxed I've become in counseling, and the more joy in this calling I have come to experience. Even though it's still hard work!

How are you doing?

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