Pastoral Counselling and Psychotherapy:
 Personal Reflection

Dr. Jack Finnegan

In opening up a reflection – and hopefully an informed debate – on the nature
 and function of pastoral counselling and psychotherapy, attention has to be paid to
 the core issues of religious, faith and spiritual experiences as these are encountered 
in the therapeutic context. Religion is one of the most powerful forces in society 
regardless of the forms it takes, or the contrasting feelings, emotions and stances it 
evokes. It raises complex historical, social, political, cultural, family and personal 
issues so that the therapist who faces it facilely or ideologically is potentially
 dangerous to self and to others in the therapeutic temenos. On the other hand it is 
also important to suggest that institutional religion – usually in the form of the
 dominant religious system or tradition within a society – in and of itself does not 
necessarily embrace the whole range of spiritual and pastoral experience, nor even 
all of the transcendental and transpersonal dimensions of human life and 
development. Its influence on these issues is not to be underestimated.

The root question that religion, faith and spirituality raise for us as counsellors and
 psychotherapists is the way in which the complexity of the issues involved
 demands an ethical awareness on the part of professionals lest they impose, all 
unawares, their own experiences on others. Part of this ethical stance has to do with
 the quality of religious, faith and spiritual insight we are able to bring to the 
therapeutic encounter. Available anecdotal evidence suggests that this is a bigger 
problem than many realise. As Ireland emerges as a multicultural society, the
 therapist needs to develop a well informed insightful awareness of religious,
 spiritual and faith issues and themes, and their links, not just with the dominant
 Judaeo-Christian tradition, but with the Eastern traditions as well.

The Recent Origins of Pastoral Therapy

Pastoral counselling and psychotherapy can trace many of its sources back to the
 work, experience, and skills of compassionate clergy and practitioners belonging 
to various faith traditions. The situation today is quite complex because of the vast 
range of therapeutic schools and practices available to the contemporary therapist
 who wants to take the pastoral, spiritual and religious aspects of life seriously, even
 though therapy that operates in this context is not essentially different from
 counselling and psychotherapy in general. Parallels are easy enough to find (Lyall
 1995). Whatever the case, pastoral therapists pride themselves on the professional
 quality of their training and the caring service they provide. As a result they have
 felt the need in recent years to come together in professional associations and to 
organise international conferences and meetings dedicated to the special issues and
 interests that arise within and concern pastoral therapy.

Pastoral counselling first emerged professionally organised with the founding of 
the American Association of Pastoral Counsellors in 1963. Moves began in the UK
 in the late sixties and early seventies which led to the founding of the Association
 for Pastoral Care and Counselling in 1972, itself to become a founding division of
 the British Association for Counselling. In Ireland developments on the
 organisational level have come much later with the founding in the past three years 
of the National Association for Pastoral Counselling and Psychotherapy which held
 its first AGM in February this year. This has been largely in response to a felt need
 here in Ireland, but also in response to the broadening European and International 
movement in which the UK APCC has played a prominent part. The move here in
 Ireland was not easy and has been misunderstood in some professional quarters.

The Term “Pastoral”

At this point I want to share some thoughts on the meaning of the word pastoral 
which not only defines the nature and orientation of pastoral therapy, but gives it
 its unique reason to exist. In saying this I am in effect claiming – apropos of Kant’s 
transcendental critique – that without the explicit presence of the pastoral
 dimension something important is missing from the therapeutic field.

In the May 1997 edition of The Harvard Mental Health Letter, Prof. Merle R.
 Jordan has given as fine a portrayal of what is distinctive about pastoral 
counselling and psychotherapy as any I’ve seen. Let me quote the core of his 

What is distinctive about pastoral counselling as a form of psychotherapy? Most
 pastoral counsellors believe there is a God or divine power in whose image we are
 created. They believe that we yearn for a transforming connection with the divine 
and that psychotherapy can mediate the loving and healing nature of being itself.
  Some..(pastoral counsellors).. believe in a therapeutic role for spiritual values but 
not in a divine being. Pastoral counsellors may also make therapeutic use of
 traditional religious resources such as prayer, Scripture reading, and participation 
in the worship and community life of a congregation. They often pay special 
attention to the religious history of the client and the client’s family, noting how it
 may contribute either to the pathology or to the resources needed for coping.

False images of the ultimate can distort one’s concept of oneself. Characteristics 
of a client’s parents or other childhood authorities may have been projected on to 
a divine figure. What appears to he the voice of truth in a person’s life may actually
 operate as an idol or false absolute. Mistaken beliefs about oneself, others and the
 world may result from participation in an implicit theological drama derived from 
family history and erroneously supported by religious institutions.

Prof. Jordan then briefly examines some case histories in terms of the need to
 demythologise and dethrone images from the past which often lie at the root of
 people’s pain. He concludes:

These cases illustrate the unique orientation or listening perspective that pastoral 
counsellors may bring to bear… a search for a revelation of love, forgiveness, and
 good news for people who have been in bondage to their feelings and the past.

At this point I wish to reiterate Prof. Jordan’s assertion that pastorally oriented
 therapists share a unique orientation which underpins and informs their therapeutic 
relationships. At the same time we need to explore more fully what we mean when
 we claim that the term pastoral names a unique orientation, modality, or 
perspective. It is to such questions I now briefly turn in the hope of originating 
clarifying debate not just in the Irish pastoral counselling and psychotherapeutic 
community, but beyond it as well in the broader therapeutic field.

Pastoral: a Unique Perspective

It seems to me that any adequate description of the specific nature or modality of 
pastoral counselling and psychotherapy must take on board its interrelationship
 with other modalities, particularly the academic, scientific, theoretical, curricular 
and technical aspects of the caring and therapeutic fields, as well as those which 
have to do with religious and spiritual studies and practice. In effect, if we desire 
to be holistic we must also be ecumenical in the best sense of that word. Let me
 also note here that there seems to be no necessary intrinsic difference between the
 pastoral and most other modalities and orientations. What is at stake is a particular 
vision, a particular quality of attention to the individual in context. The simple truth 
is that all therapeutic modalities, orientations, visions and techniques are at root 
socio-cultural artefacts and constructs which share a common desire to help us 
understand and care for our own humanity in all its bewildering, scary, wonderful
 diversity. The differences between the different modalities and orientations emerge 
from the social context in which we work, and most often point towards cultural,
 ideological, territorial, hierarchical and related problems rather than to more 
substantive issues.

A particular difficulty for us at present is that the pastoral approach in counselling
 and psychotherapy has been poorly researched in this part of the world and such 
attention as it gets is often hostile, dismissive, scornful, or based on inaccurate 
presuppositions and information, for example, that pastoral names a religious
 affiliation rather than an approach to the whole person and all of his or her
 experiences. As Prof. Jordan points out, religious belief or affiliation is not required 
to practise pastoral therapy. Respect for the client’s religious beliefs and spirituality

My personal view is that the core dispute in this country has more to do with issues
 of primacy, control, and more especially with the issue of who defines and
 regulates “valid” therapy than anything else. Having said this I must also state that 
the reason why pastoral therapy has been largely overlooked, especially in the
 move towards professional organisation, must remain a matter of conjecture given the comparative absence of research in Ireland. Yet the growth and significance of 
pastoral therapy merits qualitative empirical investigation and critical analysis in
 the years ahead, not least the view that the pastoral style can provide a healthy
 counterbalance to more technical approaches, especially those which do not
 acknowledge the spiritual dimension and tend to treat religious experience 
reductively. The pastoral orientation also has a role to play in counterbalancing the
 negative stigmatising aspects of diagnostic labelling so frequently encountered in
 society, the law and in certain areas of therapeutic culture, and is more than ready 
to work with others to this end.

Towards a Working Hypothesis

I would like to share a working hypothesis, one I hope debate and further research
 will sharpen, develop and correct. First, let me suggest that the word pastoral does 
not stand alone: its specific meaning emerges from its relationship to and
 comparison with other approaches. Secondly, I suggest that the word pastoral
 names in particular a distinctive quality of attention. What makes pastoral therapy 
different is in fact a different praxis. As a quality of attention characterised by an
 exquisite care, respect, and concern, the pastoral orientation is likely to be more
 genuinely reassuring and empowering than coldly technical approaches.

This brings us face to face with the core question: what counts as therapeutic
 process? The fact is that pastoral therapy properly understood is organised, 
focused, and systematic. However, it is expressive rather than instrumental and it
 is this that makes it stand out as an orientation and perspective in its own right. By 
describing pastoral therapy as expressive I am attempting to name a complex of themes which make it unique in its way of encountering the other, the person in 
pain, precisely because of its concern with values and valuing, with those things 
that life unaided is often unable to provide. This is particularly true when we are 
faced with the deepest longings of the human heart, with issues of ultimacy, with
 the call to transcend the mundane and reach for the heights.

There is another issue to be faced. The establishment of a professional orientation 
or approach requires the articulation of a systematic, coherent and specialised body 
of theory that will allow pastoral therapists to evaluate and propose practices
 within their own terms of reference. Pastoral therapy draws on a broad range of 
insights and models, which include person-centred models community models,
 developmental models, psychodynamic models, cognitive models self, process
 oriented, and communications theories, family and marriage approaches, child and 
adolescent psychologies, bereavement, addiction, and conflict work to name just a
 few It also values images and themes from prevailing spiritual philosophical and t
heological traditions, as well as religion and the other symbol systems which tend 
to underpin experience in its intellectual, imaginal and sensory dimensions.

Yet pastoral is a warm word that aptly suggests that there is something more to life, 
individuality, the world. The whole person in context is thus the clear point of focus. The core of the pastoral approach is to embrace, support, encourage the 
whole person in thoughtful, non-judgmental, experiential and enriching ways that 
favour more creative sets of personal and social relationships that respect every 
ecology from birth to death, from person to planet and beyond. This is a large 
canvas, but anything less would do poor justice to the broad spectrum of insight,
 facilitation and intervention upon which pastoral therapists may call in the 
therapeutic context.

In effect, the pastoral orientation respects both the visible and the invisible 
processes that are simultaneously at work at every level of human life and 
experience. As a quality of attention it respects mystery, it follows the cues and
signals offered by those with whom it is practised, issues of rank are frankly faced,
and interpretations are not imposed, because caring is central. As a result the 
relationship between therapist and client tends to be set in more equal, parallel
 terms in which the presence and impact of power gradients are – in theory anyway
- attended to and kept to a minimum even though the possession of expertise is
 affirmed and recognised. The client has increased status. His or her core mythos, 
the basis of meaning in a person or community’s life, as well as its primary and
 secondary expressions are respected (Hater 1998).

Danger Signs

It is not my intention to paint a picture of pastoral therapy in unilaterally rosy 
terms. The shadow side of the approach needs to be identified and acknowledged.
 The first problem I want to raise concerns issues of power, rank, privilege and 
authority. In the pastoral orientation it is easy for these issues to become obscured 
(Gula, 1998). Power differences, especially when the therapist is unaware of the 
complexities involved (May, 1972) have a tendency to become less explicit and 
thereby pose an important challenge. The more implicit a power relationship or a 
hierarchical image remains, the more dangerous it tends to become. It turns into an 
invisible presence that, like a ghost present in the room, will continue to disturb and
 confuse the therapeutic encounter until it is identified and brought into awareness.
 Awareness of these factors, especially among male therapists and therapists who
 belong to the clergy, is particularly important for a healthy therapeutic relationship.

This theme raises a second area of difficulty, namely the issue of control, of 
ownership of the therapeutic process itself. Theoretically, all agree that the process
 belongs to the person being facilitated. The promotion of awareness, whether of 
self, behaviour, or whatever, implies this quite clearly. The danger remains,
 however, of the therapist becoming invisible as the controlling agent and at the 
same time believing that power is equally distributed.

A third area of difficulty, which needs to be recognised particularly by those
 working in institutional, familial and communal settings, has to do with issues of
 cultural, social, political, and religious control. Pastoral therapists have to be aware that neither social nor religious adaptation is the goal of their work. Yet culture and
 custom continue, as we must be acutely aware here in Ireland, to be at work 
shaping and forming stories and memories that find expression not just as 
narratives, but in silences, spontaneities, conflicts, enmities, gestures, symptom 
and in a whole range of body mannerisms, expressions and behaviours, not least
 those that carry the threat of marginalisation. The community, the world, is present 
in the individual. The individual carries it, and wittingly or unwittingly suffers the 

This problem is very subtly hidden within the imagery of pastoring. Like the two
 areas of difficulty already mentioned, these are dangerous especially when they 
remain implicit, unheeded or masked. This is why the commitment to personal arid 
professional growth is so important. Without it we run the risk of taking the
 shaping, reshaping and controlling power of culture dangerously for granted. Inner 
messages are only too often the echoes of outer voices that take up residence in our 
heads and hearts.


As I bring this reflection to a close I feel the need to emphasise that what we are
 attempting to do as therapists is to facilitate self-understanding and self-acceptance 
and thereby help intrapsychic and relational changes or growth to take place. But
 we do this in social, cultural, political, economic, and religious contexts that 
implicitly and explicitly influence our understanding not just of theories and 
techniques but their application in the therapeutic field as well. Yet pastoral
 therapists are consciously open to people’s need to become more aware of the 
longing for deeper, more creative relationships, not only with self, others, or even 
the universe, but also with the divine. This is often a fragile flower that needs to be
 treated with great tenderness. We are not in the business of quenching flickering

To sum up: the word pastoral names an intentional form of care-giving and
 facilitation designed to help people to cherish what is most deeply human, most 
unique, but so often most disavowed and mysterious about themselves. This is
 why I have described the pastoral approach as embracing a unique quality of
 attention. This is what pastoral therapists dedicate themselves to learning and
 mastering, what Erich Fromm has called the ultimate concernî of those who wish 
to be good therapists: a deep seated desire to master the art and do it well. In the 
end the pastoral therapist’s task has to do with supporting the move beyond
 knowing to being, to letting be, letting one’s deepest self, one’s dreaming, come 
alive and dance in the sun.


Richard M. Gula, Ethics in Pastoral Ministry, (New York: Paulist Press, 1996).

Robert J. Hater, The Search for Meaning. Myth and Mystery in the New 
Millennium, (New York: Crossroads Publishing, 1998).

Merle R. Jordan, Taking on the Gods. The Task of the Pastoral Counsellor
 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986).

David Lyall, Counselling in the Pastoral and Spiritual Context (Buckingham:
 Open University Press, 1995).

Dr. Jack Finnegan has been involved in pastoral counselling and psychotherapy
 since the mid seventies. A Salesian priest, he lectures in psychology and spirituality
 at the Milltown Institute and is director of a pastoral counselling centre in 
Phibsboro Dublin. He is currently Chairman of the National Association for
 Pastoral Counselling and Psychotherapy. At present he is studying Process 
Oriented Psychology with the Dublin group which is connected to the Process
 Centre in Portland, Oregon.