Spiritual and Psychological Counseling
The folks at Unity Worldwide Ministries asked me to write an article for Unity ministers that clarified the distinction between psychological and spiritual counseling.
In Unity ministry we are inevitably called upon to provide spiritual counseling; whether we call it that or not, it is an intrinsic part of ministry. This raises the question of the role and responsibility of the minister in pastoral counseling, and in particular, how this is provided within the context of ministry in a Unity Church.
Some ministers may prefer to not personally engage in counseling; which is okay, however, as minister of a church it is our responsibility to ensure that this need is met in an effective way. If spiritual counseling is delegated to another then we are responsible for ensuring that this person is qualified and competent to engage this function, and we must ensure that this counseling process is consistent with Unity Principles.
If we do choose to personally perform spiritual counseling then it is crucial that we operate from a clear understanding of the purpose and benefits of spiritual counseling, as well as its limitations. And it is crucial that we as pastoral ministers engage in our own process of self-discovery and spiritual practice. We cannot take someone else any further than we are willing to go ourselves.
The purpose of spiritual counseling in the Unity context is to facilitate the discovery of the divine presence within ourselves in the midst of life’s challenges. Indeed, times of personal crisis are often those times when individuals are most open to deep change and transformation. It is the role of the spiritual counselor to facilitate that change if the congregant is willing to allow transformation to occur.
At other times, and with other individuals, the work may be to simply be a spiritual presence to let the person know they are not alone; that they have someone who is willing and able to listen to them and be present in a deep way. The greatest gift that we often have to give is an open heart and a listening ear. Our own grounding in Truth speaks more than any words might convey.
Most pastoral counseling focuses upon relatively healthy persons who are encountering situational crises in their lives or individuals who are experiencing spiritual “growth pains” (aka chemicalization). But sometimes spiritual counseling is not enough, it may be necessary to refer a person to a professional psychotherapist. If we do this it is important that we inform our congregant that we are still available for spiritual support, and further spiritual counseling, if deemed necessary. It is also important that we have a list of professional psychotherapists whom we trust and have personally interviewed.
Two errors can be made in this regard: one is to fail to recognize the need for psychotherapy and attempt to heal someone heal through prayer or affirmations alone (this is sometimes known as the “spiritual by-pass”) when psychological work is also needed. A second error is to attempt psychotherapy when we are not licensed or qualified to do so. Neither of these approaches is recommended and often leads to problems for both the congregant and minister.
The spiritual by-pass typically leads to a lack of coming to grips with the root of the problem and at best ends up treating just the symptoms; at worst it leads to greater repression of the root cause of the person’s problem with continued suffering and/or problematic behavior. Conversely, an attempt to perform psychotherapy when we do not have the skills or training may become even more problematic. We may uncover some buried trauma which the individual is unable to cope with in a healthy way. When these traumas are unearthed it typically requires more time, skill and training than most of us have as Unity ministers.
Likewise, while individuals who are experiencing a form of mental illness can benefit somewhat from spiritual counseling, we will be very limited in our impact with these folks until they receive the therapy and/or medication that is indicated for their condition.
As pastoral ministers much of our work lies in providing proper referrals. Few of us would try to practice medicine without a license; it is equally important that we as pastoral ministers do not practice psychotherapy without a license as well.
Once again, if the minister entrusts others in the church to provide spiritual counseling, the minister is still responsible for ensuring that the individual, such as a licensed Unity teacher, is qualified and competent to offer spiritual counseling, and is aware of- and avoids- the errors of spiritual by-pass or attempting to perform psychotherapy. The minister must also confer with others who provide spiritual counseling to ensure that people who may need psychotherapy are referred to qualified, licensed mental health professionals.
In the proper context spiritual counseling, as it is provided within the context of Unity ministry, can be very powerful in its ability to heal. There are no limits to Spirit’s ability for transformation. However, to be effective as spiritual healers and teachers it is important to recognize our personal limitations and to call upon professional assistance as is necessary and appropriate.