Solution-focused pastoral counseling
A review of C.A. Kollar's, "Solution-focused pastoral counseling: An effective short-term approach for getting people back on track," by Dr. James Beck.
Kollar, C. A. (1997). Solution-focused pastoral counseling: An effective short-term approach for getting people back on track. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 223 pp. Alk. Paper, $19.99. ISBN: 0-310-21346-0.
This helpful book introduces pastors to a new rage in the counseling field: solution-focused counseling. In the last ten years several prominent and creative therapists in the United States have developed a specific form of brief therapy that is driven by a clear and steadfast agenda. Solution-focused counselors move with predictable swiftness in the very first session of counseling to direct the counselee’s focus onto solutions rather than to allow them to continue to focus on their problems. Solution-focused counseling has arisen out of a larger field of brief therapy, but few of the existing brief therapies are as brief as is the solution-focused model. Advocates often describe one or maybe two sessions as sufficient, and they rarely describe solution-focused treatment that lasts longer.
Charles Allen Kollar (M.Div. Assemblies of God Theological Seminary; D.Min., Fuller Theological Seminary) has taken this new solution-focused approach into the arena of pastoral counseling. Dr. Kollar writes with the heart of a pastor (He pastors the First Church of God in Virginia Beach, VA), the experience of a professional counselor (He is so licensed), and the no-nonsense approach of a Navy Chaplain (Which he was for ten years). The book gives pastors a broad overview of the approach including its theoretical base, its use in a Christian/pastoral context, case studies, and practical implementation steps. If readers come to this book without any other background in brief or solution-focused therapies, they probably will need some additional training with appropriate supervision before they could actually begin to use the method with clients. But this book will surely give them an important start that will whet their appetite to learn more.
Just what is solution-focused counseling (hereinafter Solution-Focused Pastoral Counseling or SFPC)? It is an approach that immediately searches for ways to encourage the counselee to focus on solutions. Counselors trained in SFPC ask a series of questions to help the counselee identify times when the problem is least severe, to identify times when the problem is absent, to identify recent examples of improvement in the counselee’s life, and otherwise to focus on strengths of the counselee rather than his/her weaknesses. In his pastoral adaptation of the model, Kollar assumes that God is working in the life of the distressed person and that God’s activity is positive and aimed at maturation and improvement. So when these exceptions to the problem are discovered, the pastoral counselor can frame these as instances and evidences of God’s work that must be continued. The SFPC model also avoids the problem of allowing a problem to become an identifying feature of someone’s personality. (“He is an alcoholic” instead of “He struggles with alcoholism.” Proper use of diagnostic categories should always be the latter.)
Included in the first session is nearly always a “miracle exercise.” A standard form of the question might be, “Imagine that a great miracle in your life occurred so that when you woke up tomorrow morning your life would be totally free from this problem. Tell me what your life would be like after that miracle had occurred.” The SFPC is then able to enflesh that vision, to capitalize in the hope therein, and to help the counselee begin to see the possibility of life beyond the clutches of the present problem. “Thus the goal of counseling is to gracefully suggest the possibility of life without the problem” (p. 50). Kollar gives several suggestions as to how pastors can use a Christianized version of the miracle exercise based on passages such as Col. 3:2-3, Gal. 2:20, Rom. 6:4, Phil.4:4-7, 1 Cor. 10:13, etc. The book would be stronger if Kollar had not used Rom. 8:28 as the basis for a possible “miracle question.” Using the Romans text in this manner violates good interpretive rules.
The book gives helpful principles about how to use SFPC effectively. Kollar points out the limitations of labeling and problem-focused approaches. The author urges counselors to identify positions that counselees take during counseling as either willing, blaming, or attending.) A strength of the book is in the author’s presentation of different tracks or approaches the counselor can use depending on the mind set and level of cooperation displayed by the counseling (Chapter 11).
Many readers will feel an immediate affinity for the model. SFPC is primarily cognitive rather than affective in tone, a feature that is almost certain to attract pastors. The church has always been tentative about working too extensively with affect in spite of the fact that the Spirit of God appears to show no such hesitancy (see Gal. 5:22-23). Kollar even includes a modified version of the Campus Crusade train illustration showing how emotions and feelings trail at the end of things because this domain of human life is so unstable and unreliable that it must be strictly managed. The model relies heavily on the work of George Kelly and his personal construct theory. Others features that will attract pastors are that the model is short, positive, effective, upbeat, easily integratable with evangelical convictions, and doable. What then could be its limitations if any?
Unfortunately, we do not read about the limitations of this approach in this book. Like many other advocacy titles, we get a thorough review of strengths and successes and almost no information about weaknesses and failures. SFPC is a new approach and empirical validation or refinement of the approach is still forthcoming. Kollar mentions nothing about outcome or follow up studies. Do SFPC counselees permanently benefit from their one or two sessions or do they sustain relapses and other forms of chronicity? Do the people who appear to respond so well to SFPC actually benefit from preparatory time spent on a problem-focus that in turn prepares them to respond to a subsequent solution-focus? Or does any problem-focus, as Kollar suggests, merely hinder and impair? To be fair, more research does exist regarding the model than Kollar cites in his rather thin bibliography. The book would be stronger if he relied less heavily on unpublished public presentations and more intensely on published materials.
Kollar oversells SFPC and overkills all other approaches. Although he does suggest that it may be necessary to refer to another Christian professional counselor, he gives the reader no guidelines regarding the circumstances when a referral should occur. The emphasis of the book is on how extensively and how successfully the pastor trained in SFPC can function. One can argue that the author is overselling SFPC by suggesting that the way to help distressed marital couples is to challenge them to pretend they are on a date all the time (pp. 74-76). Such an approach is surely going to help provide some relief, but is that all couples need to do to achieve a mature and healthy relationship? He states (p. 100) that SFPC does not depend on gathering information yet spends considerable time discussing exactly how to gather information about exceptions to the problem and recent improvements. He claims that SFPC does not control conversations (p. 50) when in truth the approach is one of the most directive and controlled approaches that exists. The author contends that a problem-focused approach elevates the counselor to the position of an expert but that SFPC does not. While the SFPC client is a co-creator of solutions, the SFPC counselor is very much the expert at facilitating this process. He claims that personality theories are not needed as supplements to SFPC because they merely destroy individuality, a claim that is unreasonable in light of the many personality theories that deliberately seek to define and establish individuality. He also argues that SFPC does not depend on any theory of human development since the only developmental knowledge we need to have about a person is an understanding of how God is working in us to produce maturity. Such sweeping statements are unhelpful and misleading. On page 33 he writes, “There is no empirical support for any of the category classifications used in the DSM-4 . . . .” The statement is manifestly incorrect unless the author means something other than what the words suggest.
Many if not most Christian professionals would agree that a model such as SFPC can be effective with many types of people and many varieties of problems. But to imply that the model is sufficient to serve the mental health needs of the Christian community is quite a different matter. In a concluding chapter to the book, Dr. Kollar gives one example each of how the model can be used with even the most difficult of situations: personality disorders, psychotic disorders, and dissociative identity disorders. (Earlier in the book he illustrates how SFPC deals with anorexia.) The author is careful in these sections not to claim more than is merited, but I fear that many readers will infer the exact opposite: SFPC is a one-size-fits-all model that has no limits as to what it can do. Such inferences are dangerous. Kollar is also flatly wrong when he states regarding the use of neuroleptics in the treatment of schizophrenia that “their benefit is of limited usefulness” (p. 211). One can only make that statement on the basis of limited and inadequate exposure to schizophrenia and its devastation in the lives of people. Kollar correctly argues that medications do not deal with the entire problem of schizophrenia, but then neither does SFPC.
Theologically, the book makes a good case for SFPC. The author wisely sates in the introduction that his use of scriptural support throughout the book is not intended to imply that SFPC is the biblical model of counseling. Yet some theological questions arise as the reader works through the book. Are we to assume that God’s will is always for victory, triumph, contentment, joy, and overcoming? Or does not the Bible contain an equally powerful theme regarding the value of suffering, learning through distress, meeting God in extremity, and learning by waiting? Does not the Bible teach that while we do learn through the joy of forgiveness, do not we also learn through the pain and agony of repentance? Does not the Spirit work to produce fruit in our lives as well as to convict us of inadequacy and sin? The subtitle of the book which refers to getting people back on track suggests that God is really interested in bringing maturity to people who are not distracted by struggles, problems, or other annoyances. When people are strong, victorious, and overcoming then God can return to His work and will for people. But do not we risk losing some of the most powerful features of Christianity, namely the presence of God with His people through all of the experiences of life both good and bad?
My hope for this book is that it will encourage and equip pastors to work more effectively with people. I trust it does not exacerbate the already existing chasm between Christian coun- selors and pastors. The book on occasion indulges in excessive criticism of more traditional forms of counseling, a strategy that is as unhelpful as are unbridled criticisms from Christian counselors aimed at pastors and their churches. The great need today is not for more partisanship but for more cooperative interaction among various approaches to working with those in God’s family who are distressed and agonized.
Reviewed by James R. Beck, Ph.D.
Professor of Counseling