Question Box: Explaining the differences between forms of counseling

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By Fr. Thom Hennen
Question Box

Q: What is the difference between pastoral counseling, spiritual direction and mental health counseling?

A: Pastoral counseling tends to be more episodic. Someone may be dealing with a difficult situation in their personal life and simply want to talk to a person of faith who can listen to them, offer some advice and help guide them through this. They might meet with a priest, deacon or qualified layperson once or twice and then they’re good to go.

Spiritual direction is more of an ongoing relationship. Those in formation for the priesthood or diaconate are expected to meet with their spiritual director on a regular basis (typically every 4-6 weeks), regardless of the ups and downs of life. It is less about “urgent care” and more about patient accompaniment (or “preventative care”) of a person seeking to deepen their relationship with God, to discern and to grow in their spiritual health.

Spiritual direction also assumes a few things. It assumes that both the director and directee are approaching life from a perspective of faith, whereas in pastoral counseling someone seeking me out may be more tentative about their faith or be of no faith at all. Spiritual direction also assumes that both the director and directee have a fairly solid prayer life. They are not novices to prayer, even if they are still growing in their prayer life.

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When I meet for the first time with someone for spiritual direction, I explain that this is less about our (director-directee) relationship and more about the person’s relationship with God. I am there to help facilitate a deeper conversation with the Lord, to listen, to notice things, to ask good questions and maybe to suggest some things for their prayer or spiritual reading; other than that, I should get out of the way. God is doing the real work of spiritual direction.

As for mental health counseling, let me be clear: I am not a trained or licensed mental health professional in any way. Most priests are not. This requires years of specialized training. Priests and deacons may get a taste of this in seminary or formation but our primary area of study is in theology. That is not to say that our own areas of pastoral expertise do not often overlap with these disciplines, but I am quick to make referrals when I know I am out of my depth. The last thing a person dealing with mental illness needs is an “armchair psychologist.” At the same time, I do believe our faith and our profound understanding of the human person over thousands of years in the Judeo-Christian tradition has much to offer.

I see spiritual direction, pastoral counseling and forms of mental health counseling/therapy as complementary to each other. Many of the people I meet with for spiritual direction or occasional pastoral counseling also have a regular counselor and I encourage this (so long as that person’s faith is not being undermined).

Something I dream about is how we as the Catholic Church can do mental health care better, looking at the whole person —body, mind and soul. What if we took the very best of the psychological sciences and combined them with our rich Christian anthropology and worldview? What if we had well-staffed Catholic mental health centers? I would love to see us at the forefront of mental health in the same way that in centuries past we were at the forefront of the other sciences, healthcare or education.

I think this is starting to happen in some places, but we have a long way to go. For starters, check out the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD), which has a Council on Mental Illness that provides resources for persons with mental illness and their family (ncpd.org/disability-ministry/mental-illness).

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport. Send questions to messenger@davenportdiocese.org)


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