Pastoral Counseling Part 1


Counseling: Its Uniqueness

I was once about to enter a church to address a group of pastors, and at the last moment I whimsically turned to a couple of solid laymen and asked, “What shall I say to them?” Like a flash they answered, “Talk to them about preaching, organizing, and counseling. ” Obviously counseling was high on the agenda of their concerns.

How would these two laymen have defined counseling? Since I do not know, I will attempt a definition without their help. Counseling is the act of verbally helping another person find the proper solution to a particular problem. The problem may be conceptual: intellectual help is wanted. It may be dispositional: how can I change? It may be situational: what should I do!

Counseling involves listening to the recital of the problem, mutually exploring and uncovering its facets, exploring possible answers, and ultimately settling on an answer. The answer may involve a change of attitude or a course of action or both. In a sense the solution is arrived at mutually. Yet if helpful change is to occur, the solution must be the counselee’s. It will not be
enough for him to submit to the counselor’s solution, no matter how wiseand correct it may be. Sooner or later the counselee must embrace it and in every sense make it his own. He must be able to say to himself, “I see what I must do.”

Totally avoiding counseling is virtually impossible for any pastor who takes his calling seriously and has in any measure a shepherd’s heart. People are problem-prone. These are days of incredible complexities and confusions. The daily media bombard the minds of our People with clashing ideals and brazen challenges to everything held dear. Centuries-old traditions and standards are mangled everywhere. The licentious and lawless mood of the day seeps into our
homes, creating rebellion in the children and tension between spouses. The two or three cars which take family members in different directions every day, the several TVs blaring at night in different parts of the house, the frenetic pace to keep up with too many activities, including the activities of the church, keep our people at nerve’s end. They live too near the snapping point. Out of this modern social cauldron suicides multiply at all age levels. Mental illness has become almost epidemic. Our technological knowledge explosion leaves people confused and depressed because they feel helpless, unable to keep up. The age has outstripped the coping ability of many. For relief they turn to drugs, sex, excitement, affairs. Even Christians are not unscathed. These are the people who listen hungrily to the pastor’s sermon, and who welcome him into their homes, or appear at his study door, reaching desperately for a stabilizing and guiding word.


Most problems fall into the following categories:

1. Spiritual. These people are uncertain about their spiritual state. They may be struggling with temptationsand/or guilt feelings. They are troubled about their reactions, and trying to sort them out in relation to heart holiness. They may be beset with doubts, even unbelief. They are deeply puzzled by the mysteries of Providence. The enigmas of accidents, natural evils, and death challenge their faith. The Bible raises questions in their minds. They desire a deeper understanding of the Bible and of the basic tenets of their faith. Or they may have trouble praying. God seems not to answer. Perhaps they have discovered their double-mindedness and feel a growing hunger for the fullness of the Spirit. But questions plague them about this experience which they need to talk out.

2. Moral. These people may be struggling with some overwhelming temptation. Perhaps they have already sinned, and find themselves caught in a home-wrecking trap. Or they have been defeated by old habits. At the office or in an ungodly home, they feel that they are almost to be swept off their feet by the powerful undertow of worldliness and fleshliness. Or they may be facing ethical decisions at work, respecting “tricks of the trade” expected of them.

Or students have cheated and now don’t know what to do about it. Perhaps the ethical questions with which they are wrestling may be the vexing issue of church rules; or, more broadly, the permissiveness of the day respecting sex before marriage, living together unmarried, abortion; or in another area, civil disobedience or struggles about such things as military registration. About all these painful issues the plausible arguments swirling around them may have made the lines of right and wrong less clear-cut. Of course such ethical problems are spiritual also but in a special category of their own.

3. Domestic. This is the most common type of problem which brings church members to the pastor’s study (or prompts them to phone or ask for a home call, or which sends them to a public altar hoping for help there). And in this category spouse trouble dominates. Most of these flaps are practical and emotional, but they may be in the moral category also. Experienced pastors are no longer shocked to discover that some of their “first” families are not free from internal stress. It may range all the way from incompatibility to physical abuse. It may cover mental cruelty, “kinky” sex, sex deprivation, illicit infatuations. At worst, actual adultery. In some cases, even incest. Or husband and wife may simply seem to be drifting apart, and do not know how to rekindle the flame of their love and reaffirm their basic commitment.

A close second to spouse trouble is the hurt and perplexity of having lost control over children. Perhaps drug use has been discovered, or teen-age sexual activity, even pregnancy. Or it may be generalized rebellion, with adoption of unwholesome peer standards, combined with defiance and disrespect. These are crushing experiences for Christian parents who thought they were doing well and who had hoped for better things. When the children were small they glibly, even smugly, quoted Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it’ ‘ (KJV). They are silent now, filled with guilt and grief. They need a wise shepherd.

Or the domestic problem may be financial. Authorities say that money is the number-one cause of quarrels and separations. I am inclined to think that in many cases money disagreements are only symptoms of deeper rifts. However, at times money really is the primary issue. But the culprit is not money but diverse and even opposite approaches to money. A husband who is a tightwad and secretive; who always has money for what he wants but never for what his wife
wants; or who keeps the family up to its neck in debt-such husbands are a menace to home happiness, for they drive wedges, breed resentment and bitterness, incite perpetual bickering, and create a generally oppressive atmosphere.

But the shoe fits the other foot equally well. In many households it is the wife who is the compulsive, undisciplined spender and who keeps her husband in financial hot water. Or she is a nagger about money, always needling him because he doesn’t make more, and provide for her more affluently.

The potential for trouble in the money sector of family life is limitless. Where does pastoral counseling come into this picture? Normally, not at all until strains have reached the explosion point. Then the pastor will be fortunate if they come to him first rather than to a lawyer.

4. Interpersonal. Trouble with other persons is a prime category of problems that will consume a pastor’s time in counseling. People have a great facility for drifting into painful dislocations and strains in their human relationships. Many times the origin is not evil intent but immaturity, misunderstanding, super-sensitivity, lack of tact, even forgetfulness. The rupture may be with neighbors, relatives (especially in-laws), or fellow-workers on the job. Or the break may be with fellow Christians in the church. People will be hurt by others and come to the pastor with their hurts. Or they may be ashamed of their own role and come for counsel concerning possible solutions.

5. Physical. Health problems normally take people to medical doctors but often to their pastor too, many times first. They hope for healing and want anointing and prayer. Or they may need counsel concerning how to relate their illness to the will of God and the promises of the Bible. Or even respecting the choice of physicians though this is more uncommon.

When life is too crowded and hectic, the body sooner or later will rebel in some form of illness. These people need help in slowing their pace, rediscovering their priorities, and taking the surplus irons out of the fire. Fatigue not only breeds physical illness but is a prime cause of  interpersonal ruptures and spiritual confusion.

6. Emotional. This is a catch-all category, as problems in any of the above areas will affect the emotions. The peril is always that the emotional upset may become a greater problem than the problem which occasioned it. If emotions get out of hand and become disabling so that normal, mature coping is prevented, the result may be what Australians call a “cot case. ” Depression,
hysteria, panic, anxiety, fear are all debilitating emotions that may arise out of stressful situations, even those which in themselves could be surmounted by good management and common sense. When persons give in to runaway emotions they only compound their problems.

With a carnal person, the matter is even more aggravated, for the emotions may include temper tantrums, pouting, orgies of self-pity, resentment and bitterness, perhaps a retaliatory spirit, or even ugly, unrestrained outbursts of verbal venom.

Happy is the pastor whose people come to him with their problems when they are relatively fluid, and the persons involved are still open to reason. In the development of a problem, a point is reached when attitudes, forged in the heat of intemperate emotion, become less amenable-soon not amenable at all-to calm counseling and rational thinking. At this stage the attempt by the pastor to bring sanity back into the situation requires great wisdom. In fact, the poison may have progressed so far that people will turn on the pastor instead of submitting to him. It is sad when persons, perhaps a family, will monopolize a pastor’s time and energy for weeks, then in the end become he is worst enemies.

There are other various serious emotional problems, many of which are beyond the average pastor’s expertise. But he should know how to recognize them and when and to whom to refer them. An example is post-traumatic stress disorder, which is a prolonged syndrome of reaction to extreme trauma, such as war, civilian catastrophe (e. g. , plane crash), or natural disaster (such as a tornado). Such emotional upheavals may be deep, complex, and persistent. The
pastor can stand by and give unfailing support, but he may also need the aid of Christian psychiatrists or psychologists.


No facet of a pastor’s ministry is more delicate and downright dangerous than counseling. It is the occasion of a pastor’s undoing perhaps more often than any other form of ministerial activity. Yet it does not need to be one’s Waterloo, if one will simply bring to this service some reasonable degree of common sense. Usually, when things have gone awry, common sense has been lacking. Every pastor should place a prayer on his desk: “Lord, help me to be like Zechariah-a `wise counselor”‘ (1 Chron. 26:14-).

The underlying principle in pastoral counseling is the necessity of making sure that the counseling is Christian. This requires certain corollaries.

1. First is the necessity of divine love. This is more than humanitarian interest in people, which secular professionals might have. It is a grace-generated love that feels for and with the total person, in full awareness of the eternal as well as temporal dimensions. This love is compassionate, patient, perceptive, and gentle, without being maudlin. This is the most essential ingredient in successful counseling-not Solomonic wisdom or great learning. For in many instances the most effective thing a pastor can do is listen with understanding, offer a prayer, and give an encouraging word. The troubled person goes away helped. He or she has new courage to face the impossible situation.

2. A wise pastoral counselor never forgets the nature of his calling. At this point, it is necessary to say that common sense needs the foundation of a sound philosophy. Earlier an attempt was made to define counseling. But does the addition of “pastoral” make any significant difference! Yes, a radical difference, for the controlling term is not “counseling” but “pastoral.” Here is
not a counselor who happens to be a pastor; rather, here is a pastor who happens to be counseling and whose counseling will be authentic only if it is done in fidelity to the primacy of the pastoral role.

This defines the pastor’s role before God and also defines his role with his people. Before God he is called to represent God in Christ, in total fidelity to all the implications of the gospel. His guidelines therefore are not to be found in secular psychology but in the Holy Scriptures. His viewpoint is thoroughly religious. His objective is to bring men and women to God, direct them in the path of holiness, and seek by all means to shepherd them all the way to heaven. Their salvation is his uppermost objective, always; their happiness, health, prosperity, and mental soundness are only secondarily his objectives. These are humanitarian interests about which he feels profoundly-probably much more deeply than those who talk most about them-but his involvement in these earthly matters must never become such a pre-occupation that he forgets the primary consideration: their relationship with God. Other practitioners can treat people as patients or clients; the pastor must see them as never-dying souls.

In his searching critique of modern Protestant trends in pastoral care, Don S. Browning observes that too many pastors “are aspiring to fashion their ministry more and more according to the’ model of the secular psychotherapist. “‘ They “are envying and imitating a bit too much the tidy focus and apparent expertise of the secular counselor and psychotherapist.”2 In doing so they sacrifice what is most germane to their special calling. He says that the uniquely religious viewpoint of the pastor “should be clear and obvious both to the general public and to the people who come for help in times of need. ‘”

Dutch theologian Jacob Firet states the matter in even more radical terms. The most essential element in pastoral role-fulfillment, including the role of counselor, he declares, is in the fact that here is a person “who acts, not on his own, not by virtue of his own superiority . . . but in the name of the Lord of the church, and with the word of God. ” It lies, he says, in the fact that
the pastor is being “sent by a specific mandate of the Lord, who wishes to ‘make an appearance’ himself in the role-fulfillment of the pastor, by means of the word of his revelation laid on and entrusted to him.””

This is a staggering conception. But its validity lies, in part at least, in the fidelity with which the pastor knows the Word of God and allows himself to be its authentic voice.

Wise pastors therefore, who know their calling, are well aware of the incongruity of relying on the concepts and tools of secular therapies. The objective in secular counseling is adjustment with the environment: people, situations, self. The desired adjustment is that which will bring optimum peace and normalcy in life’s relations. Methods stress acceptance and non-judgmentalism on the part of the counselor and self-acceptance on the part of the counselee. The only behavioral or emotional modification deemed essential is that which seems necessary for the achievement of social homeostasis. The counselor resorts therefore to “eductive counseling” in which solutions are sought within the framework of the counselee’s own insights and viewpoints. No attempt is made to influence these mores or viewpoints in a direction more in harmony with the counselor’s personal beliefs.

But as Browning points out, while such a neutral, open, accepting approach has much to commend it, “its overemphasis signals a default on the part of the Protestant community.”” That default is nothing less than shameful betrayal of the Christian faith. For the premise of the Christian counselor is that every person’s primary need is not adjustment to his environment but adjustment to God. Since the secular psychologist or therapist will not operate on such a
premise, the Christian pastor had better! With him this is the true focus of all of life. If this is not clear, there cannot possibly be ultimate solutions at any other level or in any other category.

Such a sobering awareness of the uniqueness of the pastor’s role and mission, which sets him apart from all other counselors, prompts one pastor, who is much in demand, to draw the lines in his first interview. He says, “I am interested in you and your situation. I want to help you if I can. But I must tell you in advance that I will talk to you about God and the salvation of your
soul. If you do not want religion, you should go elsewhere. ”

This is a strong, even radical approach; but it has not driven many away. He still has more counseling than he can comfortably handle. A few go elsewhere, thus saving the pastor much time and heartache. Most accept his help on his terms and respect his stand. The chances of being able to help them meaningfully and lastingly are multiplied many times if the relationship is on such an unequivocal basis right from the start.

3. A third corollary is the radical difference between the pastor’s role as a counselor and the role of the nonpastoral counselor (whether secular or Christian). The pastor may counsel, but he is not a professional counselor. This is true even if he is well trained and certified. The relationship of a pastor to a church is a different kind of relationship than that of a professional
counselor with his clientele. Woe be to the person who tries to ignore or break down the essential wall between these two kinds of relationships.

In addition to the radical difference inherent in the nature of the pastor’s calling, there are profound psychological and sociological differences. A professional counselor has an office, a program of appointments, specific fees, and often adjacent colleagues. His contact with his client is normally limited to the counseling session. He is a true professional. As such, like a
physician, he can query, probe, pursue areas that ought to be out of bounds to a pastor. Why? Because the professional does not relate to his patient or client socially but professionally. The pastor relates to his people socially, all the time. He is their shepherd, their confidant, their friend and brother, their teacher, exhorter, if need be their rebuker, not professionally but fraternally and with true identification, as a sinner saved by grace and as a shepherd with
his sheep. Then on Sunday this one who listened to their woes during the week stands up to preach. Those who confided in him during the week should be able to look up to him as God’s prophet and God’s voice-without too much intimacy.

The bond between this counselee and this Sunday morning preacher is extremely delicate. If in that counseling session he has attempted to be anything other than a pastor leading to God, it will be hard for the counselee on Sunday morning to think of himself as a worshiper and learner. Remembering the counseling session, there may be feelings of embarrassment, uneasiness, distrust, or, worse, cozy attachment, as being someone especially important to
this person in the pulpit. All of which injures the relationship both ways: to the pastor as a counselor and to the pastor as a person of God.

Therefore, it is important that a pastor never think of himself as a professional counselor, or allow himself to be perceived as such by others. He is first and always a pastor, and any counseling he does must be adjunct to that. Not only adjunct but compatible.

4. A Fourth corollary is the necessity of the pastor being thoroughly conversant with Christian theology, including anthropology, hamartiology, and soteriology. This should include (to repeat) a familiarity with the Bible that enables him to wear it “like a glove” as P. T. Forsyth said. He should understand sin, and know how to distinguish sin from infirmity. This competence in theology can be enriched by supplementary studies in modern psychology,
especially by such works as General Psychology for Christian Counselors by Ronald L. Koteskey (Abingdon, 1 983). The writings of Paul Tournier and more recently the books and films of James Dobson are extremely valuable. But familiarity with and even expertise in contemporary therapies will not compensate for biblical and theological neophytism.

A pastor should have a sound understanding of human nature. This will include a full recognition of its complexity. On the one hand endemic to human nature is aspiration. There is desire for improvement, for betterment, for answers, for solutions. It is aspiration which brings people to the pastor’s office. Moreover, people have a conscience, quickened by the Spirit as a boon of prevenient grace. The conscience is the pastor’s surest ally. But on the debit side of the ledger is the incredible complexity of motives. Rationalizations and other defense mechanisms stick out all] over the place, generally completely hidden from the counselee.

But above all, the pastor needs a realistic understanding of the profound deceptiveness of the human heart. Deep within are lies, lusts, covetousness, hatred, selfishness, cupidity, pride, rebellion against God. These bents and sins of the spirit color one’s view of one’s problems inevitably and inescapably. There are blind spots and prejudices, combined with stubbornness
and trickiness. Let not the pastor be sirened into a rosy optimism by the prevailing pelagianism all around him. The realities of human nature are grim-every bit as evil as the Bible says they are. This helps the pastor avoid naivete, and thus be more like his Lord, who refused to commit himself prematurely to professed believers, “for he knew what was in man” John 2:25).

Notwithstanding the complexities of human nature, while the biblically informed pastor will not be easily taken in by a shallow optimism, he will operate on a grander optimism than any counselor around, for he knows not only the depths of sin but the magnificence of the cure. And no one knows this better than a Wesleyan minister. He rejoices in the possibilities of saving and sanctifying grace, which not only can transform the counselee as a person but revolutionize his attitudes and insights into his problems. He knows that a problem not solved along spiritual lines is not solved at all-only whitewashed.

But he also knows that Christ can get into seemingly impossible situations and bring about radical and permanent changes, either in the situation or in the counselee, or both. Therefore his pastoral counseling will seek to build faith, and include large amounts of prayer and Bible application.