HELPFUL COUNSEL FOR PASTORAL COUNSELORS
Pastoral counseling is one of the primary aspects of the ministry of a shepherd. For most pastors, counseling is not an option. As a shepherd who loves the congregation, it is impossible to counsel with a disconnected heart. Pastors often find themselves in counseling sessions where they unexpectedly fulfill the command to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). I came to realize very early in ministry that I was unsure how to shepherd my own heart after a church member confessed a particularly heavy personal burden. We all know that it is very difficult to resume your day after a weeping church member opens up and reveals the guilt and shame of an irreversible past decision. It’s not easy to jump back into sermon preparation when a dear couple shares their hidden marriage struggles and utters the possibility of divorce. The list could go on and on.
Personally, the struggle isn’t over “my opinion of them as persons.” God knows we are all deeply broken and in need of grace. The struggle is rooted in my love for these treasured members of the church family. How are pastors supposed to process grief related to shepherding those who confide in us for pastoral counseling? I’ve realized that after I have walked into the darkness or pain and regret with someone, I need a strategy to fight my way back out of it. To ask the question from another angle, how do I prepare for the unexpected emotional and spiritual burdens that accompany pastoral counseling? I would like to offer three practical suggestions and two theological truths to help my fellow pastors in this area.
THREE PRACTICAL SUGGESTIONS FOR THE PASTORAL COUNSELOR
First, as much as you can, block off chunks of your schedule for appointments so they happen at specific times rather than randomly interspersed throughout your week. That way you can prepare for them and decompress after them all at once (or twice) in a week rather than multiple times throughout the week. This allows you to prepare your heart and mind for pastoral counseling, it also allows you to effectively plan your week to focus your energies on the totality of duties related to pastoral ministry. We all know that pastoral ministry often happens in times that are unexpected, like when a member walks into the office with an urgent crisis or a particularly heavy burden. In other times, when people call ahead, it is helpful to schedule them at certain parts of the week.
Second, have a pre-determined agenda for each appointment. This will help you avoid an hour long rant or chaotic counseling session. Having a plan before also helps you maintain the structure of being their pastor, and not just a friend for them to use as an emotional unloading point. My friend, Ryan Showalter, a pastor and biblical counselor, has provided me with a helpful intentional agenda for the first pastoral counseling meeting.
- Offer them a warm welcome and assurance that, no matter what they’ve come to you for, you believe that God wants to help them and has the ability to help them. Your hope for them isn’t in you or in them; it is in God.
- To establish an open environment, share your story with people when you meet them for the first time. It is hard for many people to open up to a complete stranger. 5-7 minute overview of your life and how God has helped you, let's them get to know me and gives them a template to share their story with me.
- As a way of transition to center the discussion on God, give specific, biblical hope from a passage like 2 Peter 1:3-5 to reassure them that God really has given them what they need for this.
- Pray for them before they’ve begun to share. This helps set their minds and hearts at ease and reminds them who is really at work in them.
- Now, it is their time to share. First, about their life in general. “Help me understand you better.” Then after, “Help me understand why you are here today.”
- Be prepared to give a few observations when they finish. Ask them if that is a good assessment of what they just described.
- Lay out initial agenda items for the future. What are next steps for them? You don’t have to unpack it all in the first session, but give them a sense of where this may be headed.
- As you begin to close the session, offer hope again from the scriptures, something related to what they’ve shared.
- Secure their commitment to meet again (with a homework assignment), or assure them that you will work with them to find a certified or licensed counselor and resources related to their concerns.
- Pray for them once more, reminding them of God’s power and promises related to their particular areas of concern.
Third, be ready to point the counselee to trained pastoral counselors as your partners in the ministry. Point them to someone you can trust, someone who is trained and experienced in providing biblical counseling. It is ok to admit that you cannot walk them through these issues with the proper focus and duration while also effectively upholding your other responsibilities at the church. Most pastors have not received advanced training in pastoral counseling beyond required seminary courses. In the most acute cases, it is important to know your limits and admit and lack of experience or training in these areas. While the church family should provide support and encouragement through the process, there are times when a biblical counselor should be utilized to provide help and point to Christ-centered hope and healing for the hurting.
TWO THEOLOGICAL TRUTHS FOR THE PASTORAL COUNSELOR
While these three practical suggestions can be helpful in preparing before and after for these instances, there are also two theological truths that are necessary for our grounding as pastoral counselors. The first truth seems obvious, but it needs to be said. As their pastoral counselor, you need to turn to the same God you pointed the counselee to. Remember that you are an under-shepherd, and Christ is the true shepherd of your church family. You have not been called to be their savior, but to point them to their Savior, Jesus Christ. It is not a stretch to argue that many pastors struggle with the desire to be the pseudo-savior when a member of the congregation is hurting. The Christ we point our people to is the same Christ that we must turn to when the burden of pastoral shepherding is particularly heavy. It is important that we remain confident in the truth that He who began a good work in them, will carry it on to completion in the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). Remember, God is the cure-giver we are simply the caregivers.
Second, enter into a time of focused prayer after each appointment as part of your debrief. "God, I can't fix them. Only you have that power. What can I do to best connect them to your love and power to change?" That reminds you of your rightful place in the process and asks for God's wisdom in helping you plan next steps. In prayer we are able to find comfort in the arms of our Father, trusting that he is working all things for the good of those who he loves, especially those he has entrusted to our pastoral care. To pray is to accept that we are, and always will be, wholly dependent on God for everything. On a practical level, I have also found it helpful to walk out of the office and into the worship center or outside for focused times of personal prayer and Scripture reflection after a particularly heavy counseling session. A change of scenery, much like a change of posture for prayer, is a helpful way to re-focus your thoughts and center your heart.
Pastoral counseling is both a privilege and burden. Paul Tripp has aptly reminded us that “We must not let ourselves become comfortable with the casual, where ministry is limited to offering general principles that would fit anyone’s story. The genius of personal ministry is that it is [deeply] personal…This means that effective, God-honoring, heart-changing personal ministry is dependent on a rich base of personal information. You cannot minister well to someone you do not know” (Instruments In The Redeemers Hands, 165). The nature of pastoral ministry, true biblical shepherding, means that we will know more about those in our congregations than others will. Sometimes that knowledge deeply affects us as pastors. In heavy pastoral counseling situations, we must understand that grief will often accompany us as we journey with the counselee towards healing. We need to have an intentional plan for our own health, and the counselees good. Having a plan can help forge a path to walk with a hurting church member towards hope. More importantly, we must intentionally walk them towards our only hope, the great physician, Jesus Christ. So when we weep, we weep with perspective. When we weep, we do not weep as those who have no hope. As pastors, it is important that we cast all of our pastoral burdens on God, because he cares for us, just like he cares for those under our spiritual care (1 Pet. 5:7).