Benner provides an excellent model for counseling with just enough counseling content and technique to communicate how it would work.

strategic pastoral counseling - benner

From the back cover, Benner (Ph.D., York University) is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Spirituality at the Psychological Studies Institute (Atlanta) and a practicing clinical psychologist. The author or editor of over twenty books, he is the founding director of the Institute for Psychospiritual Health.

Benner’s preface to his first edition (1992) defends the need for a new book on pastoral counseling, specifically the need for an approach to counseling that is explicitly Christian, holistic, pastoral, fruitful, disciplined, well-founded, and workable. His preface to the second edition (2003) highlights improvements over the first edition. The first chapter locates pastoral counseling in the context of Christian community. The second chapter focuses on how pastoral counseling differs from other kinds of counseling. The third chapter describes Benner’s three-stage model for strategic pastoral counseling: encounter, engagement, and disengagement. The last two chapters provide cases studies. An appendix addresses ethical concerns in counseling.

If all knowledge were organized into the categories of (1) revelation (religion), (2) speculation (philosophy), (3) investigation (science/wisdom), and (4) mystification (mysticism), then Strategic would fall squarely within the wisdom category since it is largely grounded in and directed toward how pastors, parishioners, and churches can function more wisely. Wisdom is therefore in the forefront. People need counseling (wisdom) because (1) they have made unwise choices and need to recover from them or (2) they are reacting unwisely to situations not of their choosing and need to learn how to react more appropriately.

Pastors also need wisdom to know how to counsel more effectively. More specifically, they need a “wise” model for counseling. They need to know their limitations as counselors. They need to know the unique advantages and disadvantages inherent to pastoral counseling. And last but not least, they need to know how to counsel.

Benner provides help for all these needs. That help involves a mix of biblical and secular wisdom– (1) secular wisdom in terms of understanding the interplay of the social self, psychology, and sociology and (2) biblical wisdom in terms of evaluating and applying secular wisdom in counseling to help Christians facing problems. Biblical and secular wisdom, of course, can be brought to bear in many different venues. Benner is helpful in identifying those venues and in distinguishing pastoral counseling from other places of Christian help, such as Christian friendship, pastoral care, and spiritual direction.

Secular wisdom is prominent but religious considerations are primary. Benner affirms Christian values as the overarching context for counseling. His use of scripture, however, is sometimes superficial in playing off biblical quotations without regard to their original meanings. For example, the Holy Spirit’s help in knowing what to say in times of crisis (John 14:26) has nothing to do with pastoral counseling.

Much of Benner’s religious message though is grounded in a value system that is simply “humane” rather than explicitly Christian. For example, Clinebell’s criteria for healthy religiosity (which Benner apparently approves) include 20 questions, none of which necessarily demands a uniquely Christian response. Such observations are not so much criticisms of Benner as they are a reflection of how difficult the task of Christianizing the secular substitute for religion (i.e., psychology) can be.

Benner emphasizes spirituality in terms of three components: thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Although Benner identifies spiritual growth as the main and unique goal of pastoral counseling, the word “spiritual” is notoriously slippery. Apart from its mystical aspects, spirituality is most appropriately anchored in emotionally and behaviorally charged propositions about the meaning of things. Although spirituality is rooted in propositions, it is not merely cognitive because it does have behavioral and emotional components in addition to its mental aspects. None of this analysis of “spirituality” is necessarily Christian, but it is consistent with a Christian understanding of spirituality.

Nor should any of the above diminish enthusiasm for Benner’s book. His approach is well-suited and much needed by pastors. The notion of a religious status assessment is powerful. The discipline and practice of taking a person’s religious history should be a mark of competence. The relative attraction of hurting people to pastoral counseling and the relative success of pastoral counseling compared to other sources should encourage those who practice it. The greater return on investment from short-term counseling (vis-a-vis long-term counseling) is counter-intuitive and Benner provides a necessary and worthy defense. Benner’s observation that “people see what they are looking for” explains the blinding effects of both secular and religious professionalism. Secular counselors mostly see the distorting effects of religious beliefs– hence their generally negative view of religion. If they are any negatives to posit about Benner’s presentation, they generally lie in the inherent difficulty of contextualizing a secular discipline within a biblical worldview.

Where contextualization is not possible, Benner usually comes down on the right side in such things as the rejection of a therapeutic approach to sin. He is also right in rejecting the compartmentalization of humanity that is so characteristic of secular approaches to counseling. The human mind understands itself in terms of a personal narrative, so many people can be greatly helped simply by “re-storying” themselves. Dysfunctional behavior does have payoffs. Counseling is a roller coaster– up after the first visit and down after the second once the hard work begins. Values become destructive when they are elevated above their rightful place. Pastors should find all of these insights helpful.

Sometimes though, Benner misses the mark a bit. Assessing an individual, for example, in terms of “how well faith is serving him” is too utilitarian to be biblical. Expressions of emotion can be cathartic, but they can also make individuals more practiced in inappropriate expressions.

Benner provides an excellent model for counseling with just enough counseling content and technique to communicate how it would work. Practitioners will have to fill in the gaps with their own practices and understandings of biblical and human nature. Some things I would add would include more attention to the problem of pride. Pride often surfaces in unexpected ways– low self esteem may be traceable to self-punishment arising out of a prideful self-understanding of oneself. Use of emotional energy for positive purposes would also be powerful. Humans need emotional energy for motivation; and ironically, they get more energy from negative experiences that positive ones. Wisdom is needed to know how to use that energy in constructive ways. Gender counseling to address the distortions inherent to an increasingly androgynous culture would also be an intriguing approach to the problems of many people. Finally, special attention to the function of conscience in demanding confession, justification, reconciliation, and atonement may be one of the most unrecognized dynamics in counseling.

As previously noted, Benner’s intent in writing Strategic Pastoral Counseling was to produce a book on counseling that is explicitly Christian, holistic, pastoral, fruitful, disciplined, well-founded, and workable. He achieves those goals in a concise, readable way.


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2 Comments on Strategic Pastoral Counseling by David G. Benner

  1. k clar says:

    where could i get a copy of this book, “Strategic Pastorial Counselling

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