The Pastor As a Counselor
Often we assume that the pastor is the go-to person for counseling in the church. After all he likely possesses the most biblical knowledge in the congregation since he teaches from the pulpit each week. Naturally if you have a life issue you are dealing with, it’s a good idea to sit down with the pastor and talk about it, and get some wise advice, right? Most often, the answer to this question is “no”, because most pastors are neither qualified nor gifted to do serious psychological counseling. Before one fills their pastoral calendar with counseling appointments, three crucial questions must be asked:
Are you qualified to counsel? If the pastor does not possess an advanced psychology degree and is not a licensed professional, he is not qualified to counsel others professionally. If you are the rare pastor who is also a licensed professional counselor, consider that the world may need your skills as a counselor more than it needs you as a pastor. Seriously! To have the bona fides as a counselor, as well as giftedness in that area, and not use it for God’s glory is questionable.
Practically, all pastors give spiritual counsel of a sort—that is, teaching, reminding and encouraging others in the knowledge of and obedience to God’s Word. But this is really discipleship and not counseling. To disciple another as a fellow believer is God-ordained. To counsel another as a professional without qualification is just plain dangerous. A pastor must clearly know the difference between the two.
No pastor who is not a licensed professional should counsel on topics like marriage and divorce, suicide, sexual issues, social or mental disorders, eating disorders or other serious life issues. Beyond speaking biblical wisdom into these situations, it is pastoral malpractice not to refer these individuals to a licensed and experienced professional. Without the proper training, the pastor will simply miss important conversation points and clues that help open up the real underlying issues of a person in need of counsel.
Additionally, “common sense” advice is often just the opposite of what a person needs in a particular situation. Some patients possess clear mental conditions, others physical conditions that require medication to regulate. Seldom will a pastor be able to successfully diagnose and then navigate the treatment of someone in need of professional counseling. Before a pastor takes counseling appointment, he must draw a clear line as to what counsel he is qualified to give.
Finally, do not discount the danger of malpractice in the area of counseling. To represent oneself as a professional counselor without the qualifications, and then to give advice which may endanger the patient or those around him, leaves the door open for one heck of a lawsuit. A pastor who accepts a counseling appointment does represent himself as a counseling professional. At the beginning of any pastoral counseling, a pastor should spell out what the parameters of discussion are, and keep them centered on spiritual and biblical teaching.
What is the counsel you are giving? When a pastor does counsel in areas of spiritual growth and discipline, his advice must flow from God’s Word. A pastor’s knowledge and experience is limited, where God’s is unlimited. That does not mean to treat the Bible like a dictionary of disorder, looking up a verse to go with the member’s particular need. Rather, it means having a good base knowledge of the whole counsel of Scripture, in order to give the broad interpretation of God’s Word accurately in a given situation. Perhaps, though, the best advice you can give is a good referral to a professional.
By example, I was sitting in my office at church one day when someone came by and wanted to talk with a minister. As the minister on call that day I invited the man into my office to talk. He had never visited our church before, but stopped by because he saw our sign and he was troubled. He shared a long and twisted story of his wife’s infidelity, bad business deals and bankruptcy, lack of communication, issues with his kids and his own anger over the situation. I listened intently. When he finished, my first question was, “Where do you attend church?” He didn’t. “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” He said yes. I took his word for it. “Well, then, as a Christ-follower, let me give you a couple of Scriptures that may be applicable in your situation.” And I did. I printed the references down on a page which I handed him, then we opened the Bible and read the verses together. I did not give commentary or embellishment.
He asked if I had advice about what to say to his wife, or his kinds, and how to handle his situation. I referred him to several verses in 1 Corinthians and then added, “I don’t have the knowledge or experience to offer you any advice here beyond what the Bible says you and I as Christ followers ought to do. Clearly you need more help than I can offer. I want to strongly suggest you and your wife see a professional counselor about your issues.” I gave him the card of a licensed professional counselor our church partners with and added, “If you visit this person, mention you came by the church and talked with me, and give them permission to call me to talk about our conversation.” Which leads me to the third question:
Do you have a good counseling partner? Every pastor and every church should have a good working partnership with a local licensed professional counselor (individual or agency). Many of these will advertise themselves as faith-based, where Christian counselors interject biblical values where appropriate to a given counseling situation. There is great comfort in knowing that you can call someone trusted to take over a counseling relationship who is going to give a person what they really need in terms of professional counseling.
Some people really do need just an hour or two of spiritual counseling. When someone is grappling with surrender to Christ, or wondering what a particular Bible verse means, it can be helpful to talk to a pastor about it. Beyond this, though, you must quickly determine whether you are talking to a person or to a patient. Often a pastor may not know where that line is drawn in a given situation. So a professional partner is important, even just serving as a backup to biblical counsel.
Finally, when it comes to counseling there is the issue of money. Often a pastor is a first-call for those in need of counseling because their time is offered for free. Or an individual may be undergoing a hardship that makes it difficult for them to pay for counseling. In these instances, where professional help is needed, counseling must be considered in the same light as a doctor visit or medication. The same person who may be unwilling to pay for professional counseling may be perfectly willing to spring for a needed medicine to maintain their health. Mental health is no less important than physical health.
The church can take the lead at times and help underwrite the cost of a counseling session or two. We give out food and clothes and pay the electric bills of members out of work or close to foreclosure—so counseling certainly falls in line with gracious and merciful giving on the part of the congregation, if funds are available. However, an individual who sees no reason to pay for professional counseling when needed should be regarded as no different than someone who needs a given medication or treatment from their doctor, and refuses to take it.
Counseling is an important aspect to mental health, and through proper professional partnerships, a tool the pastor can use to strengthen and heal individuals and relationships within his congregation and the larger community.
Author: Eugene Mason, Communications Director for Cross Pointe Church under the leadership of Dr. James Merritt.