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Pastors Shouldn’t Counsel

I have been a pastor for over 40 years. I have counseled hundreds of people with a wide variety of concerns. Many have been helped by the time we have spent together. I have seen marriages healed, families brought together, and heart problems eased. Frankly, I consider myself to be a competent and effective counselor.

Pastors often serve on the front line of real life. They see problems and concerns before doctors, therapists, or lawyers. Pastors have the unique opportunity to interrupt the lives of their people, to confront without invitation when necessary. There is no other role like that of a pastor in our society.  The pastor of a small church can touch lives with the message of God’s love and grace in powerful ways.

I continue to serve a church, but I no longer counsel as a pastor. I have concluded that pastors shouldn’t counsel. The counseling I do today is outside the church relationship. 

This is not written to pastors called to counseling ministries within the church. Many churches today have counselors on their staff to help with the needs of their people, and those counselors may be called pastors. Instead, this is written for pastors of mid-sized or small churches, many of whom serve alone.

Pastoral Counseling

This isn’t about training. Pastors do receive training in counseling today, and many pastors understand people and relate Biblical truth in effective ways. Pastors are usually qualified to counsel for basic needs. Those who specialize in counseling (therapists, psychologists and other professional counselors) have the advantage of a community and vocabulary within which to operate and may have wider experience with complicated problems. Yet, pastors have access because of relationship and connection with people outside of the counseling office. Pastors often know the extended family and sometimes have insights into the community of the person that a therapist cannot. Pastors may find certain disorders beyond their expertise and should be ready to refer to suitable professionals, but most pastors may very effective counselors.

Things are becoming more complex!

My concern is not with the qualifications of the pastor but with the culture of counseling today. Years ago, pastors visited their people regularly in their homes. These visits could be anticipated around the common coffee breaks of the day and were appreciated by the family. The pastor would offer a word of prayer and friendly encouragement and the family would feel included and valued. As the concept of “parish” changed, and jobs made workers unavailable until evenings, pastoral visits became more difficult. Often, only the wife was home during the day and a visit from the pastor seemed awkward or inappropriate. As time went on, the wife went to work and no one was home during the day. Pastors found visitation to be increasingly difficult.

Visitation was also felt to be less than some families needed. As the culture became more complicated, so did the lives and relationships of church people. Crisis ministry, such as death or accident and illness, grew to include marriage and family struggles. Pastors took counseling classes and tried to meet the changing needs of the people.  “Pastoral counseling” became a fundamental part of seminary and Bible school training as an important front-line ministry.

Counseling today demands time and energy that most pastors cannot afford. Counseling is listening to the concerns of a person’s heart and offering guidance to minister to those concerns. It takes time. It takes significant attention and energy. Counseling doesn’t happen in five minutes between worship services. It rarely happens on the golf course or in the fishing boat. In those situations, words of encouragement can be given and maybe even words of caution, but counseling means digging through life issues, ways of thinking, and giving careful guidance.  Good preaching may be a way of helping people understand how to apply Scriptural principles and right theology to the struggles of life, but preaching is not counseling. Counseling is personal, individual, and usually private. Counseling changes the important relationship a pastor has with church people.

This is just between us, right?

Churches are complex organizations. People are called to participate in programs, work on projects, share financially, grow spiritually, and build relationships with others. An individual member can wear many hats. The pastor must be prepared to relate with people according to the roles or positions they hold without focusing on the information raised in a counseling session. For example, if the paid custodian is a member of the church and is doing a poor job, the trustees may want to replace him. The pastor’s knowledge of extenuating circumstances may not be appropriate to share. This creates a point of pressure for both the pastor and the church as a whole.

The pastor’s roles are also varied. The day’s responsibilities may shift from manager to teacher to team leader to prayer guide. Sometimes these responsibilities conflict. Expectations of one may not be consistent with needs of another.

Most counselees today assume confidentiality. However, a pastor/manager with responsibility toward others in the church or to the church organization and have a desire to share what he has learned in counseling. For example, suppose a member confides to the pastor that he wants to change jobs and move to another community. He may not want that information made public, because it might endanger his current job. When the nominating committee wants to present the man for leadership, the pastor could be in the dilemma of either sharing confidential information or withholding important information. If the man would be good for the position, the pastor may even feel tempted to talk him out of a move for the good of the church.

Suppose another man shares compromise in his moral life. The pastor cannot allow the man to serve in particular roles where that struggle could cause a problem for the people. Yet, the pastor may have to share information to prevent these situations. The pastor may also be compelled to share that information with legal authorities. The expected confidentiality becomes a burden beyond the counseling relationship.

Most pastors who counsel will find themselves in multiple conflicts like these. The professional counselor has none of these “conflicts of interest.” The counselor will see the counselee without regard to his position of church leadership, his work with the youth, her relationship with the other women, or even her role as church secretary. If the counselee disagrees or is angered by something that comes up in the counseling, the conflict aims toward the counselor, rather than the pastor or the church. Keeping the counseling separate from the pastor’s leadership and ministry will help to avoid these struggles.

Some pastors may argue the counseling relationship is a benefit to the church because it reveals hidden information the pastor/manager needs to lead the church. Some say it will guide the pastor/teacher in presenting relevant material. Still others might suggest it allows more specific prayers. While these may be true, the inner conflict of the pastor cannot be ignored. Unless counsel without confidentiality is sometime to which the person agrees, this conflict lies in potential.

When they know you know

Pastors often relate how they have worked many hours with a couple in counseling only to have the couple leave the church within weeks or months after the counseling has ended. Counselees also feel the conflict of sharing their personal information with someone who has so much other access to their lives. They become afraid of being compromised or even blackmailed. They hear a sermon and wonder if the pastor is speaking about their situation. When they know you know their secrets, they may hear things you do not intend.

I knew a pastor who did this with purpose. He would use his counseling as illustration material in his messages. Even though he didn’t give identifying information, many people were uncomfortable and felt the need to leave his church. Sometimes he would even look at certain people as he preached on moral situations. At one point three-quarters of his congregation had found it easier to worship at a new church, where the pastor did not know of their problems. When the pastor is the counselor, the people may have reason to fear the power gained by knowledge of their most personal concerns.

Oh, Mrs. Robinson!

All pastors know of the most practical dangers of counseling. Few small churches provide structurally or even organizationally protection from temptation, compromise, or accusation that can come from counseling situations. In many small churches the pastor is in the building alone much of the time. A pastor may be caught off-guard by his own feelings or shocked by the revealed feelings of another. He may guard himself during the counseling time, but be less guarded at other times of interaction with church members. Inappropriate relationships have time and opportunity to develop within the structure of pastoral connections. This has happened far too frequently for any pastor to ignore or dismiss.

While professional counselors are not immune to either temptation or accusation, a professional relationship does not lend itself to casual interactions in the same way a pastoral relationship might. (How often do most of us socialize with our doctors?) Professionals who minister to the more intimate struggles of life (therapists, doctors, attorneys, etc.) socialize with people who are not their clients. They also are far more aware of the legal ramifications of compromise. A doctor accused of an inappropriate relationship with a patient knows he has a great deal to lose.  Professionals carry substantial malpractice insurance and know risks and limitations of their profession. When a professional fails, the focus is on the professional himself. When the pastor fails, the whole church suffers.

“It’s free, like the pencils at the home show!”

 Some pastors believe they are helping their people by offering counseling without financial consideration. Money problems intertwine with marriage and family struggles. Adding the expense of counseling to existing difficulties seems hard to justify. Knowing that many will avoid the additional expense of counseling, pastors want to help.

However, most counselors offer a sliding fee structure that takes into consideration the family’s financial position. Counseling ministries, funded by donations of those who value their message, can offer free or discounted help. Those who need the specialized knowledge and treatment offered by medical or mental health professionals can appeal to health insurance or job benefits.

Some churches have found it profitable to relieve their pastoral staff of counseling pressure by a retainer-type relationship with a counselor or counseling ministry. Churches make a payment to the ministry and the church’s pastors have an appropriate amount of counseling time available. This allows the pastors to offer quality counseling without charge while remaining free of the demands of that counseling in their own ministry. Some larger churches have professional counselors as part of their staff. They offer service to their members but may also welcome people from outside their congregation.

It is also important to note something that many pastors have noticed. Some people simply do not value free counseling. When the pastor is easily accessible, he or she may be abused by those with needs or the counseling provided may be devalued. Some pastors have suffered through late-night phone calls, “emergency” cries that are not real crises, and many hours of unproductive office or home counseling. The professional distance maintained by vocational counselors holds couples and individuals accountable and helps to prevent manipulating the counseling relationship.

Paying for counseling motivates people to move toward solutions. They have an interest in real progress. Many pastors have found that counselees enjoy the attention and encouragement offered in the pastor’s office… sometimes too much.  When required to pay for counseling, the enjoyment is tempered by the expense, and counselees do the homework and make changes with greater incentive.

Summary

The pastor of a small or mid-sized church faces a variety of job expectations and challenges today. He or she is the primary leader for worship, teaching, governing, managing, and relationship building. Church growth, service in the community, personal study and development, denominational work, and crisis intervention all take significant contributions of time and energy. Pastors often find it difficult to give adequate attention to their families. Adding the stress and drain of counseling, when there are others able and qualified to do it, seems unnecessary. Referring church people to vocational counselors may be the best ministry a pastor can have for them, for the church, and for himself.

Using vocational counselors to supplement the church’s ministry won’t relieve the pastor of all counseling. The pastor will still be available to minister through crises and will still come alongside the people in a wide variety of ways. In most communities there are a number of counseling services available and the pastor’s wisdom will be of great value in guiding people to the right service. Counselors should be available to pastors, as a professional courtesy, to answer questions and to define services. Of particular benefit are those times when a counselor and a pastor can discuss a case to share insights and concerns, provided the counselee gives appropriate permission. When a pastor refers an individual or couple to a counselor, it is not to maintain a distance from the problems of the people, but to continue to be available to them in the multi-faceted role of a pastor.

The expectations of ministry and the complicated nature of counseling today make pastoral counseling problematic. I would recommend that pastors find other options for their church members and avoid the entanglement of counseling relationships.