So my theory is that a lot of counseling, and a lot of pastoral counseling, creates barriers or problems because the assumption is that counseling needs to be long, in depth, and multi-session. The Freudian psychoanalytic method is so ingrained in the popular psyche that when people hear the word "counseling" they often immediately think of that old saw, "So, tell me about your father..." No wonder a lot of people avoid it altogether.
Personally, I'll be the first to admit that I have benefited from in-depth counseling, especially the counseling all pastors go through when they participate in CPE, but also counseling I've engaged in while serving as a pastor. I figure, if I'm going to be providing counsel, I ought to be receiving it. Over the years, I've seen a clinical therapist, a spiritual director, and more recently, a coach. I value these sessions, the people I've worked with, and the discoveries I've made. It has been worth the time, and I do not mean at all to denigrate this work in what I write here.
However, not everyone is as prone to self-reflection. There's something about pastors, we seem to be constantly asking ourselves about purpose, meaning, call, and so we have to discover grand narratives and descriptions, etc. But not everyone is like that. So it was a relief a few years ago to read Howard Stone's short little book Strategies for Brief Pastoral Counseling (Creative Pastoral Care and Counseling). It offered some scientific rigor to what I had been noticing--that lots of folks want outcome based conversations, and they want them to be short. Here's what I wrote in 2007 about the book in a mini-review on Amazon:
Many pastors do indeed provide brief pastoral counseling. I know I do. Often you don't even know you're providing counseling until your in the middle of it. Stone's book helps prepare pastors for this reality, even to embrace it. This is a great book to read if your idea of counseling has been primarily shaped by longer term forms of therapy and/or psychotherapy.I was reminded of this book, and the concept of brief pastoral counseling, the other day when reading the New York Times article mentioned above. September 11th revealed psychology's limits. Two take aways from the article: first, providing counseling in New York after the attacks was more meaningful to the counselors who provided counseling than those on the receiving end. And second, going too in-depth into rehashing what had happened was often harmful and traumatic to the counselees.
Third and fascinating insight (one that really should be obvious if you just think about the majority of the people that you know)--Most people are more resilient than the psychological community thinks they are.
All of which is to say, as much as I value counseling (and I do value it, and engage in a lot of it every week), I tend to think care needs to be taken not to make it bigger or more in-depth than it needs to be, it needs to truly meet the needs of counselees or parishioners, not the needs of the counselor or pastor; and it's good to be alert that it might be short, organic, in-the-moment, and solution oriented.
A final point. Pastors actually aren't so much counselors as they are hearers of confession. Or at least, that's the historic model. So when people come to us for counsel, they aren't actually seeking psychotherapy (or they may be, but that's not what we're called to provide). What we're supposed to do is help both of us, pastor and parishioner, meet Christ. So pastors should open Scripture. We should pray. We should speak a word from the Lord. We should do all the traditional things you think a pastor would do. Brief and to the point. Often, that is more than enough.