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Good books logoStrategic Pastoral Counselling: A Short-Term Structured Model.
By David G. Benner. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003.

Review by Song Cheng Hock
Adjunct Faculty, Counselling, BGST

Christian counsellors over the past three decades (since Jay Adams’ reactionary “nouthetic” counselling in the early 70s) have been wrestling with one simple and yet paradoxically complex problem: defining the essence and role of pastoral counselling. The popularity of modern psychology has initially provoked two diametrically opposite knee-jerk reactions among Christians: the rejection of (even useful) psychological insights, and the uncritical embracing of everything in modern psychology. The intervening years have seen various attempts to interface psychology with theology, resulting in new hybrids of pastoral counselling models. Still, the debate continues unabated because proponents cannot agree on its primary goal, which Benner unapologetically and simply states “is the facilitation of spiritual growth” (p. 35). This seems rather self-evident but many proponents often miss it or avoid it. This goal is the pivotal point upon which Benner bases his model as he claims the “uniqueness of pastoral counselling lies not in the problems it addresses but in its goal” (p. 36).  

As the title of the book suggests, Benner’s definition of pastoral counselling “involves the establishment of a time-limited relationship that is structured to provide comfort for troubled persons by enhancing their awareness of God’s grace and faithful presence and thereby increasing their ability to live their lives more fully in the light of these realizations” (p. 40). It is primarily written for pastors, who in the course of their ministry would be called to do counselling. The inevitable question is, what sort of interventions or counselling orientation should they adopt? “Pastoral counselling can be both distinctively pastoral and psychologically informed” (p. 14).  

Benner’s proposed model is time-structured (five sessions), consisting of three main stages: the encounter stage (the first session), the engagement stage (the next three sessions), and the disengagement stage (the final session). The time structure is a deliberate attempt to help the pastor optimise his time (as it would be unwise to spend the bulk of his time counselling and neglecting his other duties) and free him from the complications of triangulation that might arise from a long-term counselling relationship. Benner is aware that most pastors only have rudimentary training in counselling and that anyone requiring long-term counselling should be referred to trained professional therapists.  

The strategic pastoral counselling model is systematic and therefore relatively easy to follow. In the first session, (the encounter stage), the counsellor sets the boundaries of the sessions, explores the central concern and conducts a pastoral diagnosis, upon which he and the parishioner agree on a focus for the counselling. In the next three sessions (the engagement stage), the pastor would follow through the counselling process (i.e. exploring the parishioner’s feelings, thoughts and behaviour), and required interventions. In the final session (the disengagement stage), he would then evaluate the progress of the meetings, assess any remaining concerns, make referrals (if required) and terminate the session.

One principal strength of the book is that it gives a case study of how the model is applied through a hypothetical case of a woman who was stricken with guilt after she had an abortion, which was further complicated by the need to do a partial hysterectomy. In this case study, Benner intersperses the dialogue with commentaries on the counselling process, explaining and uncovering the intricacies of the model. One of the surprises of the case study is that the dialogue does not sound “canned” as he weaves into the third session an unexpected and unplanned turn of events and shows how the counsellor deals with it.

Benner’s book is a genuine attempt to put forth a working model of pastoral counselling that is both credible and applicable. It is not a middle-of-the-road, safe proposal sandwiched between two extreme views. Besides its time-structured sessions, the book has another unique distinctive -- it insists the strategic pastoral counsellor “is responsible for directing both the content and the process of the session”  (p. 49), which is contrary to Carl Rogers’ widely accepted nondirective therapy. Controversial perhaps, but its unpretentious advocacy makes it compulsive reading.


  1. Courses commencing in September:
    ·         Who Is Jesus? (NT210, 1.5 credits), by Dr Aquila Lee, starting 15 September.
    Sermon on the Mount (NT215, 1.5 credits), by Dr John Lim, starting 16 September.
    Curriculum Theory & Development for Education Ministry (CE256, 3 credits), 
           by Dr Ng Peh Cheng, starting 21 September.

  2. Dr Ng Peh Cheng taught a course, “Research Paper Writing” on 1st September at the Asian Cross-Cultural Training Institute.



TENT 2005
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This is a part-time modular course specially designed to equip and prepare professionals for ministry and service in a cross-cultural context.  It covers areas such as:

  •  The Biblical Basis of Tentmaking

  •  The Theology of Work

  •   Personal Ministry Skills

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A Blessed Birthday to…

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Ms Ang Siew Lin  9/9
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