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Adventures In Private Practice: Pastoral Counselor Rev. Christopher L. Smith, LMHC

The Reverend Christopher L. Smith combines his spiritual insight as an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church with impressive mental health and marriage and family therapy training in his New York City private practice Seeking Shalom.

Christopher offers a variety of mental health, EAP, and consultation services with the overarching theme of helping clients and professionals seek peace in their life. See how Christopher balances his ministry and private practice.

Why did you decide to open a private practice? As someone who has been gifted in different ways and who enjoys the peace that comes from balancing different interests, I was interested in working on a part-time basis and to preserve some degree of flexibility.  The easiest way to do this while being able to maintain control over the way I would practice in helping others was to formalize my own practice.

Formalizing a practice in the same building that I also serve as a pastor both added a degree of efficiency in my work as well as adding to the quality care in a community (Harlem and Washington Heights) that was lacking in some of the services that I offer.

Clients that therapists find to be the most "difficult" are sometimes the ones who can teach them the most. What have you learned from your toughest clients? "Difficult" clients come in a variety of forms.  Difficult clients with complex symptoms motivated me to seek training, consultation and supervision in new areas strengthening the breadth of my knowledge and abilities.  Clients that are difficult in terms of their methods of interacting with people (especially those who are working on or need to work on personality disorders) strengthen my own interpersonal skills, especially around boundaries and providing clear expectations, which then makes me better able to work with a wider range of individuals.

Clients that are difficult because their situation touches on personal issues help me both develop better boundaries (remaining focused on the client and not working on my issues through the work with the client) and to learn of areas that I need to work on for myself in other ways.  Then there are those difficult clients that have helped me learn my limits whose tough issues had to lead to the end of the therapeutic relationship in order to protect my own physical safety.

What's your biggest pet peeve about private practice? My biggest pet peeve is the way that economies of scale cannot be reached in private practice, especially on a part-time basis.  This is exacerbated in my case, as New York requires me to practice through two professional corporations as I am licensed in two mental health professions that are not allowed to be practiced in the same professional corporation.

How did you discover or develop your practice "niche"? I was fortunate that my "niche" is what led me into being a mental health professional.  My motivation began within counseling and pastoral care work within the seminary building on other experiences that made this calling evident to me. While my career has involved practicing outside my "niche", there was no question that pastoral counseling would be the focus of my own practice.

What resource (book, website, person) helped you the most when setting up your private private? There was not one resource that most helped me while setting up my private practice.  My original private practice was small to help maintain my skills and was possible because of the support of a number of pastors.  In developing a larger (but still part-time) practice that is more formalized, a wide variety of resources were helpful.  Probably most critical, though, was the encouragement and faith of a number of people in my relationship circles.

What has surprised you most about being in private practice? The largest surprise has been that the clients that have been attracted to my practice have almost exclusively been ones within the area of my niche.  Prior to moving in this direction, most colleagues have talked about needing to start out with a broad base of clients to make their practices work.

Has your private practice helped you grow professionally? How so? Being in private practice has forced me to become much clearer and to be able to more concisely describe what I do professionally.  This clarity is clear professional growth.

Has it helped you grow personally, too? How so? Being in private practice the way that I am has helped in my overall balance.

Being a therapist can be emotionally exhausting. What do you do to care for your own emotional and psychological health? While I care for my emotional and psychological health in the standard ways (such as meditation, walking, music and friends) that are the case for other therapists whether they are in private practice or practicing in a different form.  As my practice is in the same building as another role, I do not have to see large blocks of clients without breaks.  I am able to see clients for a little while, then go down to my other office and do something different as a respite before coming back to work with another client or two.  Additionally, I take time each week to be out of town.  While away, I am engaged in another role but it also tends to provide sort of a weekly mini-retreat.

How do you cope with the inevitable stressors involved with being your own boss? These stressors are not things that I cope with as they are positive stressors for me.   Rather than coping with them, I enjoy the challenges and exploration of the possibilities.

What personal strengths have helped you succeed in private practice? Patience, self confidence, motivation, my own spiritual understandings of vocation and social networks are probably the personal strengths that have most helped me to succeed in private practice.

To learn more about Rev. Christopher L. Smith, LMHC visit SeekingShalom.org