Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Characters of a Professional Helper

I was recently asked to comment on what some consider to be the seminal character traits of a professional helper: Congruence, Unconditional Positive Regard, Empathy, Humility, Patience, and Honesty. I have examined them through the lens of my service as a priest, but I share them here, because they are more a part of who I am than a product of my calling. I hope some of this resonates with you.

Congruence, Unconditional positive regard, and Empathy, or CUE, are what Carl Rogers refers to as the Core Conditions for listening. (Kollar, 2011, p. 142). His model is seminal to current works on how the pastor shows up in counseling space. Congruence is the way the body language matches the words the pastor speaks, unconditional positive regard is the ability to hold the client in high regard and with respect at all times, and empathy in a complete understanding of the client’s thoughts and feelings. These three core conditions must be met in the pastoral setting in order to build the trust necessary for the congregant to openly engage in the process. These core conditions speak to our personal character as well as our pastoral character.

Unconditional positive regard is a “thorough, caring acceptance of others” (Milne, 1999, p. 155). In a pastoral setting, the manner in which we receive what our congregants are telling us is as important, if not more so, because it is the unconditional positive regard that allows the pastor to refrain from judging the congregant and their issues. When the regard for others is based on conditions for acceptance, the pastor creates an environment in which they disagree with the feelings of the congregant and loses the ability to develop higher connection such as those experienced through empathy. Unconditional positivity ultimately leads the pastor to accept the congregant, just as they are, encouraging continued self-expression and earning trust. (Milne, 1999, p. 156). As Rev. Kevin Gardner (2009) puts it, unconditional positive regard means the pastor “respects the client unconditionally and genuinely cares about the client’s welfare and worth as a person” (p. 25).

Genuineness, or congruence, is the level to which the pastor’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors match what they say (Gardner, 2009, p.24). We speak far more when we are silent than we realize, but these nonverbal cues will not be lost on the congregant. Folks who are experiencing stress are often hyper-aware of their surroundings, which means they will pay close attention to our body postures and facial expressions as they are unfolding their tale. Congruence between our words and our nonverbal cues is proof to the congregant that they can trust us. If we speak words of affirmation yet fold our arms in front of ourselves, they will not believe our words to be true.

Empathy, or the ability to understand the situation, thoughts, and feelings of another as though they were our own, is the foundational principle of pastoral relationships (Gardner, 2009, p. 25). Empathy leads to both verbal and non-verbal cues that prove the congregant may place their trust in the pastor, fostering an environment where the congregant feels safe enough to share deeper, more intimate details that will aid the pastor in creating the space necessary for them to work through the root causes of their concerns. Empathy is the avenue through which the other characteristics are welcomed and recognized into the session.

Humility, patience, and honesty are the “big three” virtues we must strive to possess in all relationships, but especially in those where our folk have come to us to disclose personal information and seek assistance with difficult life choices. It is these virtues that will speak to our personal character.

Interestingly, humility is not listed in any of the resources for this course. In a pastoral setting, humility is best viewed through the lens of modesty and humbleness.  Modesty is the ability of the pastor to be unassuming in speech and behavior. A humble demeanor in which the pastor rests in a place of quiet reserve (without showing big emotion or strong reactions) invites the congregant to relax and share. After all, this is their meeting. The counselor who is arrogant and who knows all the answers will only serve to either push the congregant away or worse, to create a relationship in which the congregant is dependent upon the advice of the pastor.

Patience, as I like to tell my children, is waiting without getting mad. It is the ability of the pastor to hold space, even through cycles of repetition or silence, while the congregant parses out their situation and feelings. With the third-person perspective of someone outside of the situation, it is often easier for the pastor to see the road or decision that is most logical that may potentially lead to the best resolution. As situation-based counselors, we are not here to give people instructions on how to live their lives. We are here to create space, and wait in it with them, while they figure out what they want to do for themselves…without getting irritated.

My favorite definition of Honesty is “operating in the truth regardless of circumstances and political climate or consequences of the same” (Roberts, 2013, p. 13). To operate in the truth is to commit to speaking for the facts without harshness or criticism. In a time when our culture has grown so politically polarized, many of our decisions have been clouded by opinions and adherence to beliefs about right and wrong. Operating in the truth allows us to focus on the facts and help to open the perspective of the conversation to include them as more real than the beliefs and feelings of the congregant. The danger here is in framing or guiding the congregant to agree with us or to change their minds to what we think is best. Careful attention must be paid to focusing on the tangible parts of the situation when the time comes to approach a decision. Honesty, even in the face of someone else’s despair, must always be the policy.


Gardner, K. (2009). The pagan clergy’s guide for counseling, crisis intervention, and otherworldly transitions. New York, NY: Waning Moon Publications.

Kollar, C.A. (2011). Solution-focused pastoral counseling: An effective short-term approach for getting people back on track. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Milne, A. (1999). Teach yourself counseling. Lincolnwood, IL: NTC/Contemporary Publishing.

Roberts, Rabbi S.B. (2013). Professional spiritual & pastoral care: A practical clergy and chaplain’s handbook. Woodstock, VT: Skylight Paths Publishing.

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