Sunday, October 28, 2012

Healing Through The Human Nature Compass

The work of pastoral counseling shares elements of reconciling people to themselves, others, and God; imparting skill-sets for living effectively, and blessing them with good will and compassionate understanding. In the context of the Human Nature Compass, this therapeutic healing stimulates spiritual growth in counselees, in rhythm with cognitive clarification, emotional modulation, and physical relaxation.


Thinking is a cognitive event that occurs in the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex. Persons can think thoughts with or without emotion or movement. In 1902 Auguste Rodin created a sculpture titled, “The Thinker.” By reading the body language, you can tell that the man is pensively meditating about some inner struggle.

This is how counselees look when they are inwardly absorbed, trying to sort out what to tell you. They’re not sure what is relevant to the current problem and what isn’t. That is why Freud developed the psychoanalytic dictum, “Say everything that comes into your mind, without censoring anything.” Beyond struggling to know what to disclose, counselees usually want to keep up a good front to convince us that they are, after all, good and capable human beings, despite their needs and vulnerabilities.

The pastoral counselor’s mind is also at work, in the form of providing new knowledge, suggesting interpretations for the counselee’s consideration, offering perspective on a problem, and developing periodic summaries that state what has been covered and what lies ahead.

Additionally, your counselee is thinking between sessions about how to apply new insights toward the solving of current problems. How well counselees can analytically reflect on their therapeutic experience defines the quality of their participation, and may well be the single most influential factor for a positive outcome in counseling.


Feelings reflect arousal of the limbic system deep inside the brain. Feelings possess psychological, physiological, and even spiritual dimensions. Part of effective counseling is helping people recognize when they are having a feeling, and learn to label it accurately.

Some perennial emotions that may need sorting out include the range between feeling joyful and sad, hopeful and despairing, elated and depressed, loving and angry, excited and numb, secure and anxious, confident and guilty, trusting and jealous, appreciative and resentful, serene and frustrated, interested and bored, intrigued and repulsed, ecstatic and agonized, proud and ashamed, reassured and terrified, or caring and indifferent.

E-motions represent physiological energy that is “in motion.” Emotions express the energy of personality and are always changing, like the flow of water in a river. It is when some inner conflict has dammed up the flow of feelings like a beaver dam that persons become mired in anxiety or depression. This accounts for the unconscious pressure that floods out in cathartic expression when the beaver dam is therapeutically removed.

In order to develop a healthy personality and fulfilling relationships, all counselees need practice not only in identifying their feelings, but also in thinking about them constructively, and expressing them diplomatically to others and to God.


The field of physiological psychology reveals that there are two different nervous systems in every person. The first is the central nervous system (CNS), which allows a person to stand up and walk, drink a glass of water, or open and close a door. The central nervous system connects skeleton with muscle, and is innervated through the sensorimotor band across the top of the cerebral cortex.

The second nervous system, though less conspicuous, is by far the most important one in counseling. This is the autonomic or “automatic” nervous system (ANS) where respiration, circulation, digestion, elimination, and systemic regulation occur, as well as the daily maintenance of every cell in the body. The ANS can be influenced in dramatic ways. For instance, a professor walks into her class and announces that she’s giving a surprise pop quiz that will account for one-fifth of the semester grade. Within microseconds, blood pressure shoots up, pulses quicken, hands clench, and a few students practically stop breathing.

It works the same in counseling, only you can use the ANS for beneficial results. With a few well-chosen words, or even a purposeful shift in your body language, you can easily influence your counselee’s attitude and bodily state. This week when a counselee starts manifesting anxiety, try relaxing your own body by letting your voice have resonance and breathing from your diaphragm, slowly and easily. Remember to let your hands melt into your lap. Watch how, before long, your counselee begins to relax, since you are giving such strong environmental signals that everything is okay. What is happening is that the direct communication of your “at-ease” body language becomes an unconscious suggestion that your counselee’s ANS translates into a physiological relaxation response.

This “stay and play” mode of the autonomic nervous system is the opposite of the “fight or flight” mode that the slightest hint of threat can trigger. So especially when you are offering a novel interpretation of a counselee’s behavior for consideration, or when you are exploring an emotionally-charged past memory, you’ll want to do so in a warm and relaxing way.


When working with non-religious counselees, or counselees who adhere to the teaching of various world religions, human spirituality can be thought of as the realm of values, meaning, and ultimate concern that promotes serenity and truth.

Adherents of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, the New Age movement, and agnosticism reveal significant differentiation in their perception of spirituality. Nevertheless, a common theme often echoes Christ’s teaching to love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself.

Or, if the person doesn’t believe in a theistic conception of God, surrendering to a Higher Power is valuable in order to find meaning beyond the autonomous self. And if a Higher Power is excluded from religious belief, then there is usually a quest for truth in terms of freedom from illusions and commitment to social justice.

Whatever the spiritual orientation of the counselee, the pastoral counselor can personally draw upon the unique message of Christian faith and doctrine that God is a loving Trinity, providing a platform for therapeutic helping that spiritually interfaces with Christ as mediator between God and persons, the Holy Spirit as Advocate or “One called alongside to help,” and God the Father Almighty, who together form the ontological foundation of human nature and hold the key to its fulfillment. For an in-depth exploration of this theme, I refer you to:

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Your Body Language in Pastoral Counseling

The Countenance of a Counselor

The first impression a counselee will receive from you, and the impression that may stay with them for some time, lies in whether you are warm and personable—not casual and unprofessional, mind you, but simply human and accessible. While attorneys and surgeons may have the option of being cool and remote, pastoral counselors do not.

Everything rests on your counselee’s sense of whether or not they can open up to you, whether you are trustworthy or not, whether you prize them or not. I remember watching Carl Rogers counseling a volunteer counselee at a weekend workshop. It wasn’t what he said that moved me, as much as how humanly present he was with this woman. There was the hint of a smile on his face and in his voice, even though he was conveying thoughtful reflection about what she said to him. 

I thought to myself, “Dan, you’ve got to lighten up with your own counselees. You’re too poker-faced. You’ve got to convey more warmth.” Indeed, I had been trained at the University of New Mexico that counseling and psychotherapy is a serious profession, and that by giving counselees a look of objective neutrality throughout the session I would help them to concentrate on their inner material. It took years to get over that aspect of my training, and to replace that blank look with facial expressions that flowed from whatever the counselee was confiding.

Carl Rogers, Virginia Satir, Rollo May, and other master counselors whom I’ve observed in person helped me discover that good counseling involves human-to-human communication. Inspirational teachers and coaches know this. They’re not afraid to greet you with a smile, pat you on the back when you’ve achieved something significant, or frown when they are perplexed. So when you invite each counselee into your office, enjoy giving a warm smile and a firm handshake. This sends the message: “I respect your courage to come in for counseling; now, how can I help you out?”

Your Body Language Matters

While we’re on the topic of a counselor’s body language, let me mention three more cues. Watch your hands the next time you are counseling. Make sure they are not fidgeting or locked together in an ironclad grip. Use selective relaxation to connect the occasional smile you offer during a session with a relaxed pair of hands. Then look at your legs. Is one of your feet bobbing up and down like a cork in water? 

Mouth, hands, legs, feet: all are visual cues that convey attention or inattention to your counselee. Opt for a relaxed body in which you are breathing easily and making natural gestures when you speak. This conveys relational connection. 

Beyond this, you can use the style of communication with which you are accustomed. Some counselors have a dramatic and histrionic style. Others are more calm and composed.  This is fine. But do become aware of your body language so that you can maintain an accurate picture of how the counselee is seeing you.

For more, read:

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Pastoral Counseling and the Year of Faith

It has come to my attention that the Catholic Church has declared October 11, 2012 to November 24, 2013 as The Year of Faith. As a committed Christian and theologian-psychologist I applaud this emphasis. It accentuates a goal shared by Compass Therapy: How to help people deepen their personal faith in Jesus Christ and experience the benefits of Christ in personality health and wholeness.

I believe The Year of Faith expresses the heartfelt cry of Christians worldwide to draw close to the Lord Jesus Christ in our modern day. As Paul says, There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4-6). This especially speaks to pastoral ministry, where daily challenges call for active faith.

When the Catechism of the Catholic Church first came out I read it cover to cover in a week. It is a profoundly spiritual, Scriptural, and psychologically sensitive work. Pope Benedict XVI, when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, was a chief architect of the Catechism. 

I want to share with you one powerful paragraph from Pope Benedict's apostolic letter Porta Fidei that has introduced The Year of Faith. I do this with admiration for his spirit of pastoral care—and with the conviction that he is speaking on behalf of the Body of Christ, Catholics and Protestants alike:

The Year of Faith is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Savior of the world. In the mystery of his death and resurrection, God has revealed in its fullness the Love that saves and calls us to conversion of life through the forgiveness of sins (cf. Acts 5:31). For Saint Paul, this Love ushers us into a new life: “We were buried ... with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). Through faith, this new life shapes the whole of human existence according to the radical new reality of the resurrection. To the extent that he freely cooperates, man’s thoughts and affections, mentality and conduct are slowly purified and transformed, on a journey that is never completely finished in this life. “Faith working through love” (Gal 5:6) becomes a new criterion of understanding and action that changes the whole of man’s life (cf. Rom 12:2; Col 3:9-10; Eph 4:20-29; 2 Cor 5:17).
As the Pope says, personal transformation is a journey never completely finished in this life. We can benefit from psychological and spiritual tools that help us move forward. One of these is the Self Compass. As pastoral counselors, the Self Compass helps us renew our personal conversion to Jesus and cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our counseling ministry. 

This Vatican has endorsed the Compass Model of personality because it supports "shaping the whole of human existence according to the radical new reality of the resurrection." Applying the Self Compass growth tool in counseling sessions will help people undergo "purification and transformation" during this Year of Faith.


Faith is deeply connected to personality health. Faith helps to counter the corrosive effects of anxiety, depression, and anger. The Self Compass promotes personality health and thereby increases a person's faith

Love and Assertion are two complementary compass points within every person's Self Compass. What is the connection between faith and Love? In order to love God or another person, we must reach out to them. We must open our hearts. We must risk caring for them. This requires faith! I have counseled hundreds of people who suddenly received this insight and gasped: "Oh no, now I realize I've lived my whole life to be safely self-contained. I've been too afraid to ever really love anyone." 

To grow in Love requires the courage of Assertion. Mary risked trusting the Angel Gabriel's message to her. Though she no doubt felt some fear, and though she certainly didn't know how she could become the Mother of our Lord, she ended the conversation assertively: "May everything you have said about me come true" (Luke 1:38). Mary dared to assertively express faith in the God whom she loved and trusted. Human beings can become more like Mary.


Spend a few concentrated moments today or tonight hungering and thirsting for Christ’s presence in your pastoral ministry. Don’t be afraid of any Weakness. Integrate your vulnerability and even self-doubts into your faith in God’s Strength. The Catechism says, “Only faith can embrace the mysterious ways of God’s almighty power. This faith glories in its weaknesses in order to draw to itself Christ’s power” (273). Out of Weakness we are made strong. This humble Strength is what God loves to foster in us. A rhythm between Weakness and Strength never makes us arrogant.  

The Self Compass helps you cooperate with grace, so that in Pope Benedict's words, your "thoughts and affections, mentality and conduct are slowly purified and transformed." Undergoing our own transformation helps us counsel others with empathy and confidence. 

In case it might help your own personal journey of faith this year, I'm including a link to God and Your Personality: The Newly Revised Catholic Edition. You can imagine my humble gratitude when Pope Benedict's personal theologian wrote and told me that this book had been added to his personal library

Paul Cardinal Poupard of The Vatican has this to say: “God & Your Personality is no New Age influenced waffle clouded in a mystique of blurb, but a useful tool for all those who seek to address personality issues and quench their innate spiritual thirst with the living-water which truly satisfies.”

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Restoring the Supernatural to Pastoral Counseling

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.

Seward Hiltner

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.

Carl Rogers

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."

Donald Bloesch

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.

Dan Montgomery

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: