Wednesday, July 15, 2015

What is the Pastoral Counseling Center?

One of the best kept secrets at St. Paul’s Cathedral is The Pastoral Counseling Center of San Diego which sits just below the main offices facing the Olive St. parking lot. It’s an unassuming office with no signage but it is a vital part of a holistic pastoral care program that St. Paul’s offers not only to its parishioners but to the larger community as well. As part of my studies at The School for Ministry this summer, I am sharpening my pastoral skills, akin to an internship, with a field study at the Center.

What is pastoral counseling?

I am often asked how pastoral counseling differs from pastoral care that we might receive from priest. (By the way, I hope we all know that offering pastoral care is 100% not something that is limited to clergy, but that is the topic for another blog.) But in comparing pastoral counseling with the more traditional pastoral care from a priest, the first distinction is that pastoral visits with clergy tend to be limited – usually one or two visits pertaining to a particular issue or concern. Pastoral counseling on the other hand, is typically longer term and can extend for months or even years. In that way, pastoral counseling more closely resembles traditional, secular counseling. (In fact my studies this summer have included a review of the major psychotherapeutic schools of thought and methods.) But more than just psychotherapy, which often avoids spiritual or religious beliefs, pastoral counseling deliberately seeks to bring those issues into the conversation in order to offer a more holistic approach to treatment. One of my dear friends and pastoral mentor, The Rev. Canon Gerry Walcutt used to refer to that kind of integrated care as “wellness” – care that included attention to mind, body and spirit.

Pastoral counseling can therefore be seen as a special form of counseling which uses spiritual, religious and theological resources as well as psychological understanding to facilitate healing and growth. Pastoral counselors are trained mental health professionals who also have theological training with a goal to integrate both disciplines in the course of care. But it is also important to point out that pastoral counselors are not “theology police” in any way. That is, they do not seek to ‘correct’ anyone’s beliefs, but rather to incorporate and integrate them into a larger treatment plan that respects beliefs. A pastoral counselor can be relied upon to be empathetic and compassionate and unlike secular counselors who might stay spiritually detached from their patients, a pastoral counselor is free to explore with you where God is at work in your life.

Because you are seeing trained professionals on an ongoing basis, pastoral counseling is offered for a fee to be worked out with each client. Fortunately The Pastoral Counseling Center at St. Paul’s is committed to offering their services to all who need them and fees are offered on an affordable, sliding scale with the goal that no one would be turned away. As such, under the direction of Brooke McGillis, the Center has become an invaluable resource for members of the Cathedral as well as the larger community (you don’t need to be a member or even an Episcopalian to take advantage of their services).

When should I consider seeing a Pastoral Counselor?

Of course, one of the reasons that the PCC is such a well-kept secret is that seeking therapeutic help remains a huge taboo in our culture. It’s somehow considered a sign of weakness or brokenness (I am reminded of that famous stereotype of men who refuse to ask for directions). And while that reluctance may reflect our cultural values, as followers of Jesus, we are called to move past that reluctance and do the exact reverse. We are called to admit and name our weaknesses, not to hide or deny them. Our brokenness is a reminder that we cannot live life alone; that we need God in our lives which means we need others in our life because it is through others that we experience God’s love and healing.

Moreover, our brokenness can lead to healing and growth, to experience the love of community, to see God in those who care for us and to be healed so that we might one day offer to others. In the same way that Christians live in community, we all need help from time to time (if not a lot of the time if we are honest). I saw a therapist for a year or so following the break-up of a 10-year relationship and not only did it help me to make sense of what I was going through, but it helped me learn something about life and relationships, and gaining that insight has helped me to offer help to others.

We are all in this life together. Stumbling along as best we can. Falling down. Hurting ourselves and others along the way. Letting go of our false perfectionism and reaching out for help in life is one of the first things we can do to start to really live life. There’s an old saying in the recovery community, that just when your life is falling apart, it is actually coming together. If we avoid the crashes, we miss out on the new creation. With no Good Friday, there can be no Easter Sunday.

Do I need to be in crisis?

In short – absolutely not. In addition to denial, the other obstacle that keeps us from reaching out for help when we are suffering, is the idea that we can handle it on our own. We tend to minimize situations and try to talk ourselves out of getting help by telling ourselves it’s not that bad, that we are not in crisis. Let’s wait until I really need it! (By the way, do we do that with God as well? Do we hold back our prayers for ourselves until we really need it? Do we sometimes act as if we have a limited amount of credit with God and don’t want to waste God’s time on the little things?) While we often wait until we are in crisis – when we have nowhere else to go – we need not wait until events in our lives come to dire difficulty.

When I sought counseling, I certainly was in crisis. But looking back, I should never have waited. There were things wrong in my relationship that looking back I was well aware of, but we didn’t have the language or a way of talking about it. It was too scary to contemplate. Keeping the peace was easier so we avoided and distracted ourselves and over time we grew further and further apart. In hindsight, that would have been the time to seek help, but part of what kept me back was that I wouldn’t be honest with myself. Might that be happening in your life right now? Are there things in your life or in your relationships (whether it is with your spouse, with your church or with God) that aren’t working? Are there aspects of your life that are unhappy and preventing you from flourishing? (You do know that we are called to flourish, don’t you? That is not something to be shy about. We are called to flourish so that we can be agents of God’s grace and healing in the world. If we aren’t flourishing, then we become inwardly focused. Too wrapped up in our own problems and needs, we ignore the needs of our neighbors.) Are there things in life that are holding you back from being the person God made you to be? If so, you might benefit from talking to a pastoral counselor.

How can I get started?

If you or someone you know would like to learn more or would like to set an appointment with a counselor, call the Center at ‪(619) 295-5871‬. All communication is confidential. I am also available through the summer to meet with you if you would like to learn more and see if Pastoral Counseling is for you. I have referred many parishioners to the Center over the years and in each case, it was a blessing in their life. ‬

Chris Harris is Canon for Congregational Development at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral and candidate for holy orders. His passion is helping people integrate their faith and a sense of call into all aspects of their lives -- workplace, finances and relationships -- while designing a life of purpose and mission. He can be reached at or connect with him on Facebook at:

(Want to join me and others from the Cathedral at the School for Ministry this fall? There are 4 classes to choose from that are open to anyone who is interested in auditing a class. Check the out here: )

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