Often, one of the toughest jobs a pastor has to do is counsel others. Preaching? It’s in the bag. But counseling . . . “Um . . . I’ll pass,” you say. Why is that? Oh, kindhearted pastors would probably offer a variety of reasons, but let’s be real: With preaching, you don’t really have to deal with anybody. They’re faces in the pews. But with counseling, the people—and their troubles—are in your face. Congregants have problems—and they expect you to solve them.
So, you offer wisdom. And they don’t like it. Sometimes they listen. But other times they don’t. And when they don’t, they often “reap the whirlwind,” having gained even more problems . . . then you get the joy of having to deal with them—again. How frustrating.
Sometimes it’s a couple, and they’re fighting. He says—she says. Occasionally, couples take your advice, and their marriages are spared. Other times, you sadly witness a divorce in the church body.
But I don’t have to tell you. This is what you do.
But maybe you’d rather not.
Let’s face it: some pastors are drop-dead-awesome preachers, great administrators, but they hate counseling. I know one pastor (I’m a PK, so actually, I know dozens) who absolutely refuses to counsel. He’ll tell anybody, with complete candor, that he has a short attention span and little patience. So, he has qualified associates on his staff who do counseling for him. He takes care of all the other pastoral responsibilities, and they counsel with parishioners. That’s a great system—if you can make it work for you.
But what if your church is smaller, and you don’t have staff to whom you can turn to counsel church members? Or worse, what if you really want to counsel, but you don’t feel qualified?
I once heard a pastor’s wife say she didn’t feel qualified because she didn’t have a “testimony.” She’d never used alcohol or drugs, didn’t have any “real” sins on her record, so how could she help anyone? she wondered. Of course, her true testimony was God’s “keeping grace”—His ability to spare people from ever indulging in grave sins in the first place. But she didn’t see it that way. Her lack of past transgressions actually made her feel inferior when accompanying her husband in counseling sessions, or attempting to offer counsel herself. Some pastors feel the same way. Say, you’ve been married to the same wife for 30 years; how are you expected to counsel a young, divorced man? Or, growing up, you were as “pure as the driven snow,” so to speak, and now you’re face-to-face with someone with a drug problem, a sex addiction, or a rebellious teenager (and you only have toddlers). What do you do?
Of course, one doesn’t have to have firsthand experience with every sin a congregation ever committed or every situation the members have faced in order to counsel. Dr. Phil could tell you that. Of course he hasn’t done all the things he hears about in his counseling sessions. Neither has he “lived” every situation with which he comes in contact. But he is university-trained and degreed to offer counseling. Many pastors these days are also getting counseling degrees, in addition to their seminary training.
But not everyone can do that. Small-church pastors may not even be seminary-trained; my father wasn’t. He certainly didn’t have a counseling degree. What then?
First, we must never forget the power of God’s Word. Second Timothy 3:16 says Scripture is “useful for correcting faults and teaching the right way to live” (erv). And whether or not we have walked the road of another, the Word doesn’t change. What it says about sin is true for all, and the counsel it gives is for everyone. Even so, a pastor without firsthand knowledge of a particular struggle or lifestyle can still feel ill-equipped to help someone facing that struggle or trying to overcome an errant lifestyle.
One of my pastor friends has a smaller congregation; he doesn’t have a lot of paid staff to turn to. But what he does have are some very mature board members/elders from various walks of life. One had been a drug addict in his younger days and can now speak with both empathy and authority to those struggling with addiction. Another was divorced as a young man, but his second marriage has been long, lasting, and happy, and he has raised good children. Still another once had a foul, violent temper but today is a model husband who long ago overcame his rage. You get the idea. These men are not ordained or degreed. But each has some past experience, which, coupled with his present spiritual maturity, qualifies him—accompanied, of course, by a pastor—to counsel individuals who are walking the same difficult road he once walked. Perhaps that is an option for you to consider: a qualified elder—accompanied by you or another staff member—offering counseling in areas where you may feel weak. Or perhaps a counselee could meet with a group of such seasoned elders, with a pastor serving as spokesperson. The Bible does say that “in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14 esv).
Of course, if none of these are options, there are always professional counselors. Where I once lived, churches of one denomination referred some parishioners to a licensed, master’s-trained counselor whose husband, now retired, had planted one of the largest churches in the area. She was not only a former pastor’s wife, but a mother, a grandmother, and an MSW (or NCC, or whatever the letters are). Maybe there are similar counselors where you live.
In short, if counseling has become an issue for you, know that the Lord is with you. He will give you wisdom where you lack it, even giving you the right words to say. Or, as He did for Moses, He may provide you an “Aaron” to speak for you. Either way, God is for you—and He’s for your flock. Ask; seek; knock. He will show you the best way to handle the unique task of counseling.
by Rene Chavez