We live in a time when much that is precious to Christian faith and doctrine has been removed from some approaches to pastoral counseling. I know one reason for this development.
One of the founders of the pastoral counseling movement in twentieth century America, Seward Hiltner, wanted to apply modern psychology to the work of the clergy. He sought and received help for doing this from humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. The help Rogers provided turned traditional pastoral care into an extension of humanistic psychology.
Hiltner and Rogers taught pastoral counselors how to show empathy instead of judgment toward counselees. They emphasized that each counselee is unique, and lives within a perceptual field can only be disclosed in an atmosphere of trust and positive regard. This helped pastoral counselors get out of the rut of offering superficial advice or moralist platitudes, and taught them how to listen more deeply and respond more humanly to their counselees.
As a psychologist, I too knew Carl Rogers. I read all of his works and had several memorable conversations with him. I asked him once if he believed in God. He said, "Dan, I am uncomfortable with the personal God that is presented in the Bible. I believe that the highest authority should be a person's own experience." When I asked why he had used the biblical term of "agape love" to describe the bond between people in his encounter groups, he said, "Perhaps it has to do with the Spirit of the Universe."
For all the good that Hiltner and Rogers brought to pastoral counseling, there was a downside.
My friend and colleague, theologian Donald Bloesch, a noted theologian of evangelical theology, knew Seward Hiltner at the University of Chicago. Don said he had felt very disheartened on hearing Hiltner discuss pastoral counseling. "He disallowed any sense of the supernatural, including any reference to Jesus' divine nature and miracles, or the activity of the Holy Spirit in pastoral care."
Bloesch and I agreed, he as a theologian and me as a psychologist, that one of the distinctive elements of Christian pastoral counseling lies in the presence of Christ the Lord during sessions. There exists an unbroken continuity made possible by the Holy Spirit between the soul care offered by Peter and the disciples, and the pastoral counseling we offer to people today. Two months before he passed away, Don said, "Dan, I believe that God has called you to bring the supernatural back into pastoral counseling. My prayers are with you."
We can pray for supernatural intervention and expect the benefits of Christ's atonement to help heal personality conflicts, reconcile damaged relationships, and vitalize lost spiritual lives. We can use Scripture and biblical stories, including miraculous stories drawn from the Old or New Testament, as word pictures that inspire faith and hope. We can delight when the Holy Spirit moves through gifts of the word of knowledge or word of wisdom, in which our own knowledge is augmented by insights or interpretations that come from a higher power than ours. We can respect counselees' unique perceptual world, while inviting them into a larger world of God's in-breaking kingdom on earth.
The Compass Therapy approach to pastoral counseling brings together the tools and principles of therapeutic psychology with a robust faith in the Word of God and Spirit of God to make Christ's presence real in counseling sessions.
For more about Christ's presence in pastoral counseling, see: