The what, why, and how of pastoral counselling

Trouble man for post on Pastoral counselling
Why do church members think that they can, or should, ask their pastors for counselling? Why do pastors think that they are equipped or mandated to provide counselling?

A retired pastor I know used to spend an average of 16 hours a week counselling. The man who took over from him when he retired is experiencing the same sort of counselling load. Why?

Why spend so much time ‘counselling’ when there are so many other functions that need a leader’s focus and priority, like leading, preaching, teaching, and praying.

I have difficulty justifying the current role of Pastor (with a capital ‘P’) because I just do not see it in the New Testament church or in the life of the Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church. Ask a Pastor how he spends his time and you will find that his days are filled with administration, meetings, weddings, funerals, baby blessings, more meetings, preaching, and yet more meetings… and counselling.

In 2002 Frank Viola and George Barna wrote a controversial book titled ‘Pagan Christianity?’ In their chapter dealing with the Pastor’s role they write; ‘There is not a single verse in the entire New Testament that supports the existence of the modern-day pastor! He simply did not exist in the early church.’ Now if Pastors, as we know them today, did not exist in the early church, and their role is not even hinted at in the New Testament, then why do they dominate local church culture throughout the world? However, this article is not about the Pastor’s role in general, but about one of his or her main functions… counselling.

The definition of counselling is, ‘giving advice, giving professional psychological help, or recommending a course of action’.

Church members queue up to seek these things from their local church oracle called The Pastor: “Pastor, should I take this job offer or stay where I am?, and, Pastor, my husband drinks and is having an affair, what should I do?” The ‘pastor’ either groans inwardly while offering up the plea, “What am I supposed to say Lord”, or he puffs himself out and pontificates. However, what appropriate education has our Pastor received that qualifies him as an ‘expert’ advice-giver? Perhaps a course in Nouthetic counselling, or a couple of days training in Theophostic prayer ministry, or a 12 credit course from his seminary? Many of today’s pastors are young and inexperienced, have yet to raise their own families, and most have never had to deal with the harsh realities of business life. Yet people expect counsel from them, and they in turn feel obliged to provide it.

Surely, we can see that there is something very wrong with the picture I am presenting. Perhaps I have it all wrong, but then I do have 30 years of pastoral leadership experience and the scars that go with this.

Here is what I think:

ALL mature Christians should be available to others to help and comfort, and to pray with those who are confused or in emotional pain.

Teachers within the Body of Christ, and that includes the ubiquitous ‘Pastors’, should teach what the Bible sets out as principles for living, point those in need to Jesus, and pray for the infilling presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives and situations. However, sometimes people are traumatised by the problems that confront them and need what I would call crisis counselling. But in my book, this form of counselling should seldom stretch beyond three sessions altogether and can and should be conducted by ANY mature, biblically literate, Jesus-centred, and Spirit-filled believer. Other than genuine crisis situations, most genuine disciples of Jesus know what they should or should not do and it doesn’t really help them to have a Pastor reinforce what they already know or refuse to ‘know’.

Now, consider the unfortunate Pastor who has to soak up hours and hours of bad news, negative emotion and angst… almost every day! Is it any wonder that more Pastors fall into sin, burn out, or give up in disillusionment than any other profession… other than psychologists!

Did Jesus spend 16 hours a week counselling His disciples? No! How about 1 hour a week? No evidence of this either. He led them by example, He taught them, and He equipped them, but He did not ‘counsel’ them, as we usually understand the term.

Before any reader gets the impression that I am one of the disillusioned and burnt-out Pastor’s I am writing about, I am not. I started as the pastoral leader of our local church at the age of 40 and I retired, healthy in body, mind, and spirit at the age of 68. I loved leading the local church and I did indeed give some of my time, when really needed, to crisis counselling. However, I had some ‘rules’: “unless it’s a dire or potentially life-threatening crisis then make an appointment at least a week in advance, and once we meet please understand that we will only be spending time together three times, and after that you need to get on with working out your own issues”. No, this is not unloving. Actually, it frees people to grow in the Lord and it frees church leaders to focus on the things that make the most difference to the most people, and to the Kingdom of God.

I have more to say on this topic but if you are interested then you will have to listen to the ‘TruthTalk’ audio and the Q&A that follows it.

May God bless all who pastor but know that they are not ‘Pastors’ May God bless all those who counsel from the Word of God yet know that they are not ‘Counsellors’. Jesus is the source of truth, the Bible reveals Him, and the Holy Spirit illuminates the scriptures and points us to Jesus. In doing this God becomes our comforter and counsellor in a very real sense. The best service church leaders can render to Jesus-followers is to teach the Bible, point to Jesus, and minister the grace and power of the Holy Spirit.

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