Hey there, Reverend! I know it’s been a while since I’ve written. If you ever choose to go public with your thoughts about sexual harassment or sexual violence in the church, I suggest building in several months off afterward to deal with all the mail.
On a not wholly unrelated note: I don’t know about you, but I found my seminary training to be a bit lacking in the pastoral counseling department. I did take one class on something called “spiritual care,” during which I learned a great deal about the love lives of my classmates and very little else. If I am ever again in a position to counsel someone who is heartbroken after desertion by a paramour from the back row of Old Testament II: Histories & Prophets, I will be ready to roll.
Somehow, though, I had a feeling that my friends in the mental health field were developing skills a bit more sophisticated than “mirroring” and “active listening.” They were learning to notice their clients’ thinking errors and challenge them, directly but kindly. They were learning how to help people name their struggles and — even more important — start to imagine being able to overcome or endure them.
I wanted to be able to do those things too. So, this year, I started reading the books they were reading and trying out some new strategies in pastoral counseling. What captured my imagination the most was the work of Dennis Saleebey, a social work professor who popularized the model now known as strengths-based practice. You can read all about this in a surprisingly interesting book called The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice. (Alas, I cannot do anything about the price. Get it from the library or borrow it from a social worker friend.)
Saleebey’s idea, no doubt shared by many others, was simple and brilliant:
If you want to help people make positive changes, help them build on positive things.
If someone’s goal is to stop drinking, it’s easy to focus on the problem of drinking. But what if we shift our focus to the desired solution of non-drinking? Has this person had a time in her life when she was drinking less? What was different then? Where was she living? Who was she hanging out with? Would it be possible to grab onto any of those protective factors now and put them to work again?
If someone’s goal is to stop losing his temper and hitting his toddler, the problems are violence and anger. But the solutions we want are nonviolence and calm. Does this person ever react to frustration more calmly or nonviolently than he is doing right now? What is special about those moments? If the answer is “quiet” or “getting a break” or “my kid being less of a pill,” could we work together on finding some noise-canceling headphones or some respite care or some new behavior strategies to help?
It’s usually not too hard to see the patterns in our destructive behaviors: We get cranky when we’re tired or eat too much when we’re sad. Saleebey’s insight was that positive behaviors also follow patterns, and if you can coach people in learning to spot those patterns for themselves, they might just start to trust in their own power to change.
I’ve been thinking about how pastors can put this philosophy to work in our own approach to counseling. I am a parish priest, so the problems people bring to me are most often spiritual in nature: How can I trust that God really loves me? Why can’t I concentrate when I pray? What should I do if the wellspring of my faith is all dried up?
Saleebey came up with different types of questions that can help people identify their own strengths — support (who has helped you?), esteem (what makes you feel good about yourself?), motivation (why do you want to change?), exception (what was different when things were better?), and more. I cribbed shamelessly from his secular work to come up with the following list of questions. I’ve since been trying them out in pastoral care settings, to startlingly good effect. Lest you think I am trying to nose around in everyone else’s spiritual life without tending to my own, I’ve been working through them in my prayer journal too.
SPIRITUAL STRENGTHS INVENTORY
- Which people have supported or inspired you in your faith?
- What places, objects, songs, or experiences have made you feel especially close to God?
- Who are the people upon whom you can depend within your faith community?
- How do these people support you? What do they do that makes you feel cared for and loved?
- What faith communities have been especially helpful to you in the past?
- What was special about these communities? Is there a way for you to find a similar community now?
- When God looks at you, what do you think God delights in most?
- What is it about your life and accomplishments that gives glory to God?
- How do you seek to do God’s will?
- What gives you a genuine sense of peace?
- How do you find meaning in your vocation or daily work?
- What are the sources of transcendence in your life?
- When do you feel most fulfilled?
- What do you think God is calling you to do?
- How do you want your prayer life or your relationship with God to change?
- How do you want your relationship with your faith community to change?
- What steps do you think you need to take to begin these changes?
- What is the smallest step you could take to initiate one of these changes?
- How can the people in your support network help you with these changes?
- How can God help you with these changes?
- How have you managed to hold onto your faith thus far, given all the challenges you have encountered?
- How has your faith helped you rise to the challenges set before you?
- What was your relationship with God like as you faced these challenges?
- What have you learned about yourself during your struggles with faith or vocation?
- How have the challenges in your faith journey given you special strength, insight, or skill?
- What are the qualities of God upon which you can rely?
- When your relationship with God was stronger, what was different?
- When your spirit felt more nourished, what about your life, beliefs, relationships, or community was different?
- What parts of your faith would you like to recapture, reinvent, or relive?
- What moments or incidents in your life have given you special understanding or guidance from God?
- What do you want your relationship with God to look like now?
- How do you like to pray? How do you know when you are connecting to God through prayer?
- What are your special talents and abilities? How have you already used them in service to God? How could you use them in service to God in the future?
- How will you know when your relationship with God is stronger? How will you feel, think, and act?
I’m all about the strengths perspective these days, so do let me know if you have any questions, comments, or suggestions for further reading. And I would love to hear if you get any use out of these questions yourself.