Let’s face it: the word “pastor” can have a lot of different meanings. Within the diverse and rambling culture of the American evangelical church this loosely defined title can be made to cover a wide range of wildly disparate roles – everything from expositor of the Word to shortstop on the church softball team.
If you’re pastoring a church, you probably know exactly what we’re talking about. It’s not always easy to figure out what’s expected of you or how many hats you’re supposed to be wearing.
One of the biggest and most frequently posed questions in this regard has to do with the challenge of pastoral counseling. There are many, many pastors who have serious doubts about their ability to handle the counseling component of their responsibilities. Some admit quite frankly that they’d rather avoid it altogether. Most have had little if any formal training in this area. To make matters worse, large numbers are bi-vocational: they’re burning the candle at both ends, trying to lead a congregation while simultaneously holding down a “day job.” “Is it reasonable,” they ask, “to expect myself to function as an effective psychologist or life coach simply because I happen to be a good speaker and a diligent student of Scripture? Why can’t I leave the counseling to someone else and devote myself to prayer and the ministry of the Word?”
These are good questions, and they deserve a thoughtful response.
“Feed My Sheep”
Part of the answer is tied up in the significance of the pastoral calling. The word pastor originally meant shepherd. Jesus summed it up when He said to Peter, “Do you love me? Then feed My sheep” (John 21:15-17).
If you’re a pastor, there’s a vital sense in which you can’t not get involved in individual counseling. After all, it’s your responsibility to feed and nurture your flock. When a lamb gets hurt or goes astray, it’s up to you to chase it down, bind up its wounds, and carry it home on your shoulders. Whether you call it therapy, exhortation, or just plain friendly advice, this kind of activity is integral to your job. At some point or another you will have to get personally involved in the lives of your people, if only because they will eventually come and ask you to do it.
To put it another way, the importance and inevitability of one-on-one pastoral counseling is implied in the very meaning of the term “ministry.” It would be wonderful if those of us in church work could forget about the noun and put more emphasis on the verb. “Ministry,” after all, is something you do. “To minister” is “to serve.” As Jesus told His disciples, “Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all” (Mark 10:43, 44).
Ministering to people is about getting up close and personal with them. It’s about sharing their hurts and hopes, their dreams and disappointments. It’s not just a question of giving them a memorable message from the pulpit once a week. It’s a matter of getting inside their joys, sorrows, and most devastating doubts.
We can take this a step further by asserting that the time you invest in caring for your congregants is time far better spent than the hours you might pour into the meticulous crafting of a sermon. Why? Because it precisely this kind of real-life ministry that draws individuals into the fellowship of the church community. And it’s precisely in the context of that larger fellowship that your people’s biggest and most profoundly felt needs can be most effectively addressed. As the pastor – the “up-front” person whose name and face are already known to everyone in the church – you are in the best position to get that ball rolling.;
Making It Happen
Counseling, then, is a vital part of the pastor’s job description. So what do you do if you sense that God has gifted you as a preacher or teacher of the Word, but don’t necessarily see yourself as a natural born “therapist”? What if you’re a part-time minister who struggles just to make ends meet? Or a megachurch leader who can’t possibly devote personal attention to each and every one of the 5,000 members of your congregation? If any of these hypothetical scenarios fits your situation, we’ve got good news for you: you have options. Here are a few simple strategies to help you start moving in the right direction.
- Take ownership.No matter how you decide to handle the nuts-and-bolts of your counseling responsibilities, this first step is indispensable.It’s a matter of recalibrating your attitude.Make up your mind that the sheep belong to you.Face up to the fact that, as a result, it’s your place to figure out a way to nourish their souls, heal their hurts, and provide for their spiritual needs.There may be aspects of this that you can’t touch personally, but it’s still up to you to oversee the process somehow.Ultimately, the buck lands on your desk.
- Educate yourself.As we’ve seen, relatively few pastors have received much training in the field of counseling.Bible colleges and seminaries rarely require coursework in this area, so the folks who get it tend to be those who are motivated to seek it out.If you have an opportunity to return to school for a brush-up in counseling, by all means take advantage of it.If you can’t afford to make that happen in a formal setting, there are lots seminars and classes available on DVD and via the Internet.The American Association of Christian Counselors offers several such courses by way of its LightUniversity website.
- Delegate if necessary, but stay involved.Remember, taking care of the emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually wounded is part of your calling as a pastor.If for one reason or another you aren’t in a position to do this personally, take steps to link your parishioners up with someone who can – preferably a trained and licensed Christian counselor.This doesn’t mean, of course, that you’ll simply be “handing them off” to a nameless professional.On the contrary, we suggest that you stay involved from beginning to end.Initiate the process by listening closely and making sure you understand exactly what’s going on.Then direct the individual to a therapist who is qualified to address the need. Focus on the Family’s Christian Counselors Network can provide referrals to licensed clinicians who have undergone an extensive application process for membership in our network and have stated that they are in alignment with Focus’s beliefs.Once the connection has been made, work closely with the therapist and the congregant, supplementing the strictly clinical work with your own pastoral care.
If you’d like to talk about any of this at greater length with a member of our staff, please feel free to call and speak with one of Focus on the Family’s pastoral counselors. You can reach them for a free consultation Monday through Friday between 6:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. Mountain time at 1-844-4PASTOR. The Family Help Center staff member who answers the phone will arrange for a counselor to call you back. One of them will be in touch just as soon as they’re able.