jc_sherman-01Solution-Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT) is recognized for its empowerment of the individual through developing a positive perspective inviting the client to assess strengths and resources that may not have been previously identified. Thus, while creating a new perspective for problem solving the individuals seeking support are encouraged to review successes and challenges and formulate a collaborative approach toward problem resolution. It all has to do with perspective!

The importance of this is not to be underestimated. Journeying back to Plato’s time, his narration of The Republic examined the reality of life perceived through shadows and world representations (Bloom, 1991). The chains of our life may blind us to the true perception of the reality around us limiting our ability to address possibilities around us. In working within the SFBT approach, perspective and additional insights may be gleaned from communicating and goal-setting.

For clergy and other pastoral counselors, the ability to touch this reality with empathic responses and individual insight is necessary as they lead individuals in reviewing life experiences and interaction with others. This creates a constructivist approach in which we are able to assist clients to find a significant reality that is meaningful and purposeful (Presbury, Echterling, & McKee, 2002).

For those providing pastoral services across cultures, the challenge of meeting the needs of the people may be daunting. Working within unfamiliar traditions with role distinctions creates an opportunity for those in the ministry to provide support, in many cases without an appropriate degree designation after their name. Although most seminaries and spiritual direction courses provide some information on diagnosis and counseling skills, without certification one may feel unprepared to provide support to those they will encounter. This challenge is lessened, however, when one considers the valuable tools and techniques in Solution Focused Brief Therapy (SFBT).
SFBT surfaced in the 1970s through the efforts of Steve de Shazer and his wife, Insoo Kim Berg, employing strategies that were simple to learn and apply. These strategies included deconstructing negative thoughts, setting small, attainable goals, and focusing on strengths and resources that have made one successful in the past. Using tools like scaling questions and the miracle question, pastoral workers incorporating these techniques, in spite of cultural variations, can provide a tremendous resource for those approaching them with concerns. The self-narratives that will emerge with each individual encounter guide the pastoral counselor in understanding cultural influences and options for the client.

Like SFBT, coaching is evolving as a strong force that removes the focus on mental health (Williams and Menendez, 2007) and asserts a supportive relationship that is appealing to individuals and the culture in which we live. Similar to coaching, which encourages individuals to master challenges in a positive and creative manner with a directive inquiring focus, SFBT provides a format that is flexible in situations that are not assisting severe mental health issues.

SFBT focuses on supportive relationships that enlighten and looks at past efforts that were successful. This future-focused strategy employs the use of positive movement to guide individuals into growth while utilizing ethical standards for direction.

Implications for pastoral counselors

Clergy are identified “as frontline workers, that is, the gatekeepers of the mental health system ... because people with emotional or psychological problems are often more willing to seek help from clergy than from other professionals” (Weaver et al., 2003, p. 165). In our culture today, not only clergy, but lay missionaries and pastoral care providers fulfill this role as they serve individuals and communities facing challenges. Instead of interpreting information and problem solving (even if this is what the client is seeking), the individual’s presentation of information from their culture through narrative format supports the pastoral caregiver, providing them with insight to the traditions and communication patterns of various cultures. Thus, one is able to work with various cultures, communicating efficiently and effectively while adapting to interpretations and role distinctions provided by the client.

The integration of theoretical and clinical information provides a strong basis for enhancing individual stories and empowering an expansion of future possibilities. No longer limited by the past, the use of future prospects supports the client’s perspective and provides strength to move beyond experience into possibilitie. Pastoral counselors are vessels of hope (Kwan, 2010), that encourage individuals to use their own ability to change. Counselors use a brief therapeutic intervention or coaching to support the efforts of individuals, continue to develope them, and achieve some success.

SFBT Tools

SFBT uses tools such as deconstruction of negative thinking, the miracle question, and scaling. These tools help the individual with the present moment of understanding behavior and looking into the future for solving problems. Although it is a non-judgmental process (Frederick, 2008), the focus on problem resolution incorporating an individual’s strengths, traits, and values, helps to guide the pastoral counselor by integrating the understanding of faith and hope in the individual’s life.

Scaling uses the option of evaluating a behavior or attitude on a scale from 1–10 for assessing the client’s perception and progress in a specific area of their life. It helps the individual to determine their goal and to encourage a future incorporating success and not just representing failure (Presbury, Echterling, & McKee, 2002).  Expectations of change are immediately present with a focus on the future enabling the constant development of the client toward successful outcomes.

The miracle question helps the client by envisioning a change that indicates the possibility for success. With this question one is able to open the doors for discovery and wished for options. Cultural input will impact the client’s perception of options and one can thus see this framework as providing support for any culture.

The task assignment asks the client to complete some type of homework through suggestions and an optimistic focus utilizing hope. The client and pastoral worker are thus able to collaborate on work that will enhance the client’s efforts and help them to see positive changes.

In addition to using listening, mirroring, and reflecting, simple tools to encourage communication, it is possible to provide a directed option for those seeking help. Working together and incorporating the faith-based strategies individuals possess, we can see the advantages of using such an approach.

Cultivating awareness helps clients to discern thoughts and behaviors that also develop a trusting relationship with the provider. How do they use strategies to succeed? What has worked previously? How can that strategy be adapted into the present situation?

Any metaphors and narratives that an individual uses encourage an expanded perception of ideas and can foster deeper examination of personal growth. SFBT supports this effort by journeying with the client and taking the role of a partner in growth.

Assisting the individual who perceives events in their unique way requires an understanding that this is a result of their beliefs and experiences, among other things. Supporting them in awareness of why and how they perceive their experiences requires their involvement and suggestions. Through this invitation to share goals, metaphors, and narratives to help explain their focus, one is able to assist change in the direction they aspire to grow. By creating a clearer picture and responsibility to the client, the pastoral counselor guides without providing answers and responds without expectations for a definitive result.

Typically, pastoral counselors are called up in times of crisis, for a brief consultation, or when it is usually untimely to respond (Sherman, 2005)!  The expectation, built on trust and an enduring relationship, requires a response that is hopeful. Focusing on the future, clients who are looking for comfort will find their ability to take control and utilize their personal strengths, providing a platform for building future decisions and goals. With SFBT, it is possible to provide easy-to-use tools to help clients secure their own options for responding. By reviewing these tools and strategies, pastoral counselors will find that their ability to respond by assisting others on a journey instead of providing a solution is greatly enhanced.


J. Catherine Sherman is a life coach, consultant, and public speaker. She presents workshops on grief, communication, and goal setting skills. Her work focuses on supporting individual and relational goal-setting. She is also the author of Grieving: Inviting God into My Pain, available from the Oates Bookstore at Amazon.


Bloom, A. (1991). The Republic of Plato, second edition. (Translated with notes and an interpretive essay). New York: Basic Books.

Kwan, S.M. (2010). "Interrogating 'hope'—Pastoral theology of hope and positive psychology." International journal of practical theology, 14(1), pp. 47–67.

Frederick, T. (2008). "Solution-focused brief therapy and the Kingdom of God: A cosmological integration." Pastoral psychology, 56. 4., Mar. pp. 413–419.

Presbury, J.H., Echterling, L.G., & McKee, J.E. (2002). Ideas and tools for brief counseling. Upper Saddle River: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Sherman, J.A. (2005). "Teaching communication and counseling skills in a multicultural context," Seminary iournal, Fall.

Weaver, A.J., Flannelly, K.J., Flannelly, L.T., & Oppenheimer, J.E. (2003). Collaboration between clergy and mental health professionals: A review of professional health care journals from 1980 through 1999. Counseling and Values, 47(3), 162–171.

Williams, P. & Menendez, D.S. (2007). Becoming a professional life coach. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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