I've been summarizing a few chapters from a book called Strategies for Brief Pastoral Counseling. Although clearly the author, Howard Stone, is fighting a battle I don't know, much of what he says fits my intuitions across the board about the penchant of many Christian personalities to want to determine "who you are" before they address "what you do." The result is often narcissistic navel gazing of which I did a plenty in college. This is one personality preference, but not the only one.
The prevailing model of counseling in the United States for a century has been long term counseling. Especially in the model inspired by Freud, the goal was to dig down deep into a person's head and find the underlying causes of problems. The idea was that a person may not even be aware of the real reasons for their current struggles and that if you cannot get at the root, you are just treating the symptoms rather than the real causes. Any solution would at best be short term. You may have heard the stereotypical question, "Now tell me about your mother."
Research does not bear out this approach. Howard Stone, the editor and primary voice behind this book, argues strongly for brief rather than long-term counseling. Research shows that long-term, get at the root models are no more effective than shorter, get moving models.
"In actual practice, the extensive exploration of a person’s history and the discovery of a problem’s sources generally are not prerequisites for effective and lasting change" (7). Stone is not arguing that a counselor should ignore or gloss over history. Rather, he is claiming that remarkable progress can be made with little or no focus on underlying causes. Indeed, even if one knows the underlying causes of a problem, it is in no way a guarantee that a person will make any progress in solving it.
The task of the counselor is not to make a person perfect but to get them moving in the right direction. Most people resolve their problems by themselves without intervention. The goal is not to change the personality of the counseled or to resolve even most of people’s problems. “Brief pastoral counseling has a considerably more modest goal: to get people moving in a positive direction of their own choosing and then get out of the way” (16).
"Motion brings emotion." Theory is an abstraction from doing, and it is only one personality that wants to complete the whole abstraction before actually doing anything. That is a legitimate personality (and one that often dominates academics and theology), but it often assumes it is the only valid approach. Treatment can begin before the diagnosis is completed--because when it comes to the human psyche, the diagnosis may never be completed.
The "theory, then practice" approach tends to dominate academics, but we can raise some theoretical questions about it. Ideas do not exist apart from the world of which they are abstractions (Plato was a moron). The purpose of ideas is to help us manipulate the real world. The larger the ideological system, the greater the skew of the real world. (By the way, the Bible is a collection of local ideas--the grander the theological system of reading the Bible, the less of the real Bible it actually is)
A more effective pedagogical (as well as theoretical) model is to present a critical mass of ideas in order to begin to engage the real world. Then return to ideas and refine. Then return to the real world. For most people this cycle of "running the car, looking at the engine, then running the car again" will be the most effective style of pedagogy... or counseling.