A Fresh Approach to Pastoral Counseling with Students

Many youth pastors feel like they aren’t equipped to have counseling conversations with students.

Perhaps that is because pastors find themselves in a subordinate position to psychiatrists, psychologists, and pharmacists on the accepted hierarchy of mental health.

Pastors, it is assumed, have something to say about spiritual matters but psychological issues should be left to the experts.

It’s true that some students should be referred to a specialist for specialized help. But we shouldn’t rush to that conclusion.

Instead of having a problem-focused, referral-first approach, what if there was a different way? It turns out that there is another way.

A solution-focused, short-term approach can help with most of your students’ needs.

According to Charles Allen Kollar, “A solution-focused approach encourages positive change through an emphasis on outcome and a carefully described vision of a track to this outcome” (Solution-Focused Pastoral Counseling, p. 48).

In Kollar’s system, Solution-Focused Pastoral Counseling (SFPC), is guided by nine assumptions:

Guiding Assumptions of Solution-Focused Pastoral Counseling

In contrast to long-lasting, ongoing counseling techniques, SFPC is shorter in duration and smaller in scope. Instead of looking at problems in the past, you should look for solutions in the future. Also, instead of meeting for months on end, you should adopt a short timeframe. If the counselee isn’t making progress toward the agreed upon solution after four weeks, then a referral should be considered.

If these nine guiding assumptions are true (and I believe they are), then SFPC will help you make a big difference in your counseling efforts with students.

Let’s talk about the process…

Kollar suggests “a change in focus, from problems to solutions, while encouraging forward progress toward specific, mutually agreed upon goals. These goals suggest outcomes that are clearly described” (p. 89).

Step 1: Listening

When you meet with a student, make an effort to engage in active listening. Ask, “What’s going on? What’s your story? How can I help you?” Then listen.

If the student doesn’t feel like you have heard, understood, and validated his experience of the problem, then you will not get very far.

That’s why theologian Paul Tillich said, “The first duty of love is to listen.”

Demonstrate to the student that you are with him. You can do this through both verbal and nonverbal cues.

Keep the student talking by asking questions like:
How did you decide to do that?
How do you explain that?
How do you do that?

While the student is talking, you want to listen for exceptions – times when the problem wasn’t happening, recent times when life felt better.

In that way, you’re acting on your assumption that God has been working in the student’s life (even if he can’t see it). If he says, “Yes, but…” then you know you need to keep listening more.

You’re waiting to be invited into the student’s story.

Step 2: Questions

The intention of your questions is to help the student get a vision of what life will be like without the problem.

Kollar says, “Working toward a desired outcome begins with the use of questions that open up new possibilities” (p. 102).

The easiest, most effective question to ask is what has on various occasions been described as “The Magic Question.” It goes like this: If I had a magic wand or magic pill that would eliminate your symptom immediately, what would be different in your life?

Another variation of the question asks: If right now you had what you want, how do you imagine that your life would be different?

From a biblical perspective, you could read Romans 8:28 and then adapt the Magic Question to ask, “What if tonight while you were sleeping this passage of scripture came true for you? The problem you have been experiencing is gone. But you were asleep and didn’t know it. When you wake up tomorrow morning, what will you notice that will tell you this miracle has happened?”

After the student answers, follow up:
Tell me more about that…
What else will be different?
What will your friends (or family) notice that is different about you?

Kollars says, “once the counselee makes a shift in perception from a problem focus to a future focus, counseling starts to move forward” (p. 111).

Step 3: Clarification

In this step, you should help the student clarify the goal and next steps in concrete, vivid terms. Kollar says, “At this point, the counselee’s vision of a future without the problem needs to be sharpened and clarified” (p. 123).

Use words like “specifically” or “exactly.” For example, “Specifically, what does that look like?” Or, “How, exactly, will you be doing that?”

With a clear vision of life without the problem, steps should be created to make progress in that direction. The best steps are put in a positive form, not negative. In other words, you want the student to state what he will do, not necessarily what he won’t do.

Kollar suggests, “When the counselee expresses his goal as what he will not be doing, the counselor wants to encourage a hopeful depiction – what he will be doing” (p. 128).

Additionally, the word “how” is important. A good question is, “How will you be doing this?” It’s a good question because it puts the impetus for action on the student. The answer will come in the form of a positive step in the right direction.

If the goal seems too far away, then you could ask something like, “What will be the first sign that you are on the right track to getting a little better?”

To measure progress, the use of a scaling question will be helpful: “On a scale from 1 to 10, where 10 stands for how you want things to be and 1 stands for the worst things have been, where would you say you are right now?”

With these questions, you will be able to clarify the present situation, the goal, and the next step.

In the following meetings with the student, you should continue using these steps to evaluate progress and establish next steps. Over a short amount of time, the student should be well on the way to becoming healthy again.

Your Move

When a student or parent calls you, looking for help, you don’t have to refer them to a mental health professional right away (unless, of course, they pose a threat to themselves or others). Instead, agree to meet. Listen to them. Ask questions. Don’t focus on the problems. Work toward solutions.

You might be surprised at how much you’re able to help.

Suggested Resource

Solution-Focused Pastoral Counseling by Charles Allen Kollar

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Trevor Hamaker (DMin, McAfee School of Theology) is an author, adjunct professor, and youth ministry coach. He helps youth pastors see their potential, develop their skills, and reach their goals.

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