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Foundations of Pastoral Counselling by Neil Pembroke

13 October 2017

Ann Holmes considers the related disciplines of counselling and spiritual direction

THESE two contrasting and wide-ranging books complement each other. Neil Pembroke has written a seminal text that integrates theory and practice in pastoral care and counselling. Peter Madsen Gubi has edited a broad set of reflections from practitioners on the growing convergence of counselling and spiritual direction.

The first is a leisurely and scholarly distillation of the thinking and practice of an experienced Australian pastoral counsellor working in a tradition that values the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training of pastors, usually more rigorous than the Church of England’s more haphazard pastoral training. The second brings together nuggets of experience from a variety of practitioners, who, with one exception, work within the UK. Well referenced, they each lead the curious and conscientious reader to an expansive literature.

Pembroke offers the reader the fruits of many years of reading and reflection on the contribution of philosophy and theology to pastoral counselling. Acting as a go-between, he deftly and accessibly summarises difficult texts, and makes an original contribution to the multi-disciplinary field of practical theology, as evidenced by Stephen Pattison in his foreword.

The book is divided into two parts: fundamental attitudes and skills, and fundamental interventions and strategies.

The four chapters constituting the first part embrace Emmanuel Levinas and the “totalising” impulse (to limit the autonomy of the “other” by imposing rational themes and categories); empathic relating, informed by “participatory sense-making” (PSM); deep listening, via Simone Weil’s “de-creation”, traduced to self-emptying (kenosis); and genuine dialogue inspired by Martin Buber’s philosophy.

The five chapters of the second part include a commitment to relational justice; an application of the Socratic method to the “self-doctoring” of “belief-sickness”; our proneness to blind-spots, approached through the indirect method of Kierkegaard; the therapeutic value of metaphor; and the contribution of rituals, helped by the pastoral counsellor’s access to a worshipping community.

I suspect that some of the writers harnessed by Pembroke to enrich his discussion are more familiar and accessible to pastoral carers than others. Sure-footed, he clears the path through difficult concepts and abstruse language, to give the reader various “aha” moments, as with our human tendency to “totalize” and the limits of “de-creation”.

Notions such as “empathic dance” stay in the mind, as does the importance of an ubuntu-inspired affirmation of the importance of community.

My one concern is that, like many writers who offer a critique of the psychoanalytically influenced psychodynamic approach to therapeutic encounters in favour of a more person-centred approach, Pembroke does not do justice to good psychodynamic counselling or analytical psychotherapy.

The old Freud/Jung tension about the importance of religion still echoes in this discussion; so it is assumed that a thoughtful use of psychoanalytic abstinence is not seen as a kenotic equivalent to the self-emptying stance of Weil. I missed any reference to John Bowlby, and am curious to know what Pembroke would make of the work of Wilfred Bion.

Gubi has drawn together an impressive array of contributors to consider the differences and similarities between counselling or psychotherapy and spiritual accompaniment or direction. He believes that those who were trained in one or the other discipline accentuate differences more than those who are trained in and practise both.

The nine chapters cover a range of issues relevant to both disciplines, and include exploring discernment; the use of prayer in counselling and spiritual accompaniment; creative methods in spiritual education; contemplative approaches to training spiritually literate counsellors; the use of reflexive practice groups in spiritual development; the silence and spirituality of personal loss; spirituality and sexual abuse; trauma and spiritual growth; and a discussion of counsellors and religious pastoral carers in dialogue.

Each contributor cites current practice and research, and the self-contained chapters offer an invaluable resource to a wider range of practitioners than those practising the two disciplines intentionally brought together.

All Christians might benefit from Lynette Harborne’s thoughts on discernment. Trainers could reflect on R. Jane Williams’s use of contemplative practice; and accompaniers might try Phil Goss’s creative approach to spiritual exploration as long as they are well-trained and in good supervision.

The reader is introduced to vicarious trauma in the chapters discussing personal loss (Ruth Bridges) and sexual abuse (Valda Swinton), which is mitigated by the accompanier’s vicarious post-traumatic growth and its connection with spirituality (Nikki Kiyimba).

As an ordained group analyst, I am interested in Gubi’s discussion of the use of reflexive groups in the interests of spiritual development. Such groups could, perhaps, be aligned with an NHS plan to offer GPs reflective groups. In the final chapter, William West’s appeal for “best practice in training, supervision and continuing professional development” for all relevant practitioners is one that I heartily endorse.

I recommend both of these books, not only to those engaged in practical theology, but also to those offering serious pastoral care, their supervisors, and those in lay and ordained ministerial training and their tutors.


The Revd Anne Holmes, a former NHS mental-health chaplain, works as a psychotherapist and SSM in the diocese of Oxford.


Foundations of Pastoral Counselling: Integrating philosophy, theology and psychotherapy
Neil Pembroke
SCM Press £25

Church Times Bookshop £22.50


What Counsellors and Spiritual Directors Can Learn from Each Other
Peter Madsen Gubi, editor
JKP £18.99

Church Times Bookshop £17.10 

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