By Brad Hambrick
When is a pastor a counselor? What emotion-laden conversations count as “counseling” conversations? Is it only the ones that happen in your office by appointment or do the tearful ones between services count too? When am I just a “friend offering advice” and when am I a “pastor offering counsel”?
Before we can know how to do pastoral counseling well, we must know when we’re actually counseling as pastors. This is not as clear as most people think it would be.
Three Questions to Consider
Let’s start by considering three questions that help you determine if someone is interacting with you for general pastoral care or is asking for pastoral counseling. If the answer to any of the following questions is “yes,” then you need to have a clarifying conversation; what professional counselors call “informed consent.”
1. Is this person accelerating the rate of their disclosure?
Stated more simply, are they sharing more with you than the depth of your relationship would warrant? Do you know this person well enough that, if you were not their pastor, they would be sharing this information with you? When the rate of disclosure is faster than the depth of relationship would warrant, then this person is talking to you in your official role as pastor. It doesn’t matter if you are in your pastor’s study, in the foyer of the church, or at a coffee shop.
2. Is this person giving artificial weight to your words?
Again, to simply state this question, are they treating you like an expert? Do they have more confidence in what you’re saying than you do? When someone is giving heightened weight to our words, we have an obligation to either ensure that our words merit this weight or let them know that their confidence may not be warranted. As an important side note, we need to realize that our competency as a counselor and the sufficiency of Scripture are not the same thing. Acknowledging our personal limits is no insult to our Bible.
3. Does this person want more than comfort and prayer?
Sometimes people share weighty things with their pastor, but simply want prayer and encouragement. We don’t need to overly formalize these interactions or pressure someone to engage in a degree of care greater than they are requesting. We can easily fall into the “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail” trap. Just because we are talking about formal, pastoral counseling doesn’t mean that formal, pastoral counseling is what every emotion-laden conversation with a church member should become. As a general rule, the church member should decide if general pastoral care becomes formal pastoral counseling, and, when this decision is made, the pastor should inform that person about the implications.
Notice what I didn’t give you, because I can’t. I didn’t give you a T-chart with life struggles that pastoral counselors should address in one column and life struggles that professional counselors should address in the other. That’s what we want. It would make life simpler. So why didn’t I do that? When we think in terms of a T-chart we add to the stigma and isolation commonly associated with counseling. The person experiencing a life struggle that would merit professional counseling still needs Christian friends and a pastor.
We want to be pastors and lead churches that decrease the stigma and isolation associated with counseling. That means we need to think of counseling in terms of “styles of relating” rather than for “a certain class of struggles.” Friendship, pastoral care, and professional counseling are each a style of relating which can be helpful for any life struggle. When done well, these styles of relating complement one another.
So that brings us to the question, “What do we say when an informal conversation begins to move towards formal, pastoral counseling?” Here are a few guiding principles:
- Let the individual finish describing the situation and framing their request before speaking.
- Thank them for trusting you as their pastor with this information.
- Affirm the wisdom and courage this person has shown by reaching out for help.
- Transition to an informed consent (i.e., expectation management) conversation as an extension of your desire to care for them well.
For additional training on this topic, check out our FREE The Pastor as Counselor course on Ministry Grid.