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What kind of counseling should you expect from your pastor?

What kind of counseling should you expect from your pastor?

Jon Delger

Executive Pastor

Peace Church

Published On:

November 21, 2023

You’re looking for counseling. You want a Christian perspective. Who better to ask than your pastor?

However, you know that your pastor has a lot of other things on his plate. He doesn’t just do counseling, he also preaches, teaches, and leads your church. Wait… does he do counseling? Does he charge for counseling? I really need some help. What should I expect from him?

I can’t speak for all pastors, but let me try to speak for “the average pastor” on this one. Let me share my standard response when asked for pastoral counseling from someone in my church and suggest some next steps you can take if you are interested in pastoral or Christian counseling.

“Pastor, I am struggling, I think I need counseling, can you help?”

Each time I hear these words, I have two reactions. First, my heart breaks. I want to respond: “I am all yours, I will do whatever it takes, and I will be with you every step of the way.” I want to solve all their problems and heal all their pain. However, by God’s grace, a second reaction then strikes me. A voice inside my head reminds me: “I am neither Jesus nor Superman, I don’t have all the answers, and I can’t do it all.”

Over time, I have come to a few realizations about pastoral counseling:

1) I do a disservice to people by promising too much.

 Have you ever been promised a lot by someone (doctor, financial adviser, mom, dad, spouse) only to have them not deliver? Would it have been more or less painful for them to tell you realistically what they could do for you, even if it wasn’t all you hoped for? This leads to my next two realizations.

2) I keep people from receiving stronger support when I promise too much.

 When someone promises to deliver exactly what you need, what do you do? You stop searching for further help.

 Most pastors are not trained counselors. Sure, we took a couple of counseling classes in seminary, but that is a far cry from being a trained professional. Some pastors may be uniquely gifted, have special training, and feel equipped to provide more than average. However, in many cases, the average pastor is best suited to do triage, not provide full treatment.

3) Giving people realistic expectations from the start is important.

 When I overpromise or am unclear about what people can expect from me, it leads to broken promises, hurt feelings, strained relationships, and often prevents someone from getting the help they really need. As a rule, I offer people a realistic sense of what they can expect from me, right from the beginning.

When asked for pastoral counseling, I let people know that I can offer three things to them:

1) I can listen.

 Sometimes the best medicine is someone to listen to our story, ask good questions, and let us work our way through the issue. This may sound small, but it is a valuable resource.

2) I can pray.

 I cannot solve their problems, but God has the power, wisdom, and goodness to do whatever is needed in the situation. I am always happy to pray with people in person or over the phone.

3) I can share Scripture.

 I still try to be careful here. I am not promising to show you the answers to your problems in the Bible. Scripture doesn’t work that way. God’s Word offers us principles to think through our situation as well as encouragement and hope.

I offer 1-3 meetings of one hour. During these meetings, I seek to do the three things listed above, assess their needs, and direct them to further help as needed. Sometimes this means referring them to a professional counselor. Sometimes I direct them to a support group, mentor, or Christian brother/sister to walk with them through their situation.

Professional counseling is a great resource and no one should be ashamed to take advantage of it. However, the church should also be a community of people who can help each other (not just the pastor or the professionals). In recent years, some of the best biblical counselors around have created [great resources]( to equip Christians to help each other.

“Pastor, I am struggling, I think I need counseling, can you help?”

Here is my standard response: I am so sorry to hear that. I would love to hear more about your situation and see how I can help. Because I care about you and want to make sure you receive the help you need, let me share up-front what I can offer as a pastor.

I am not a trained counselor. As a pastor, there are three things I can offer you: I can listen, I can pray, and I can share Scripture. I typically meet with people from one to three times to do those three things. During that time I also try to help you arrange further support as needed, whether that is a professional counselor, a small group, or a Christian friend who can walk with you through this time.

I would be happy to get together so I can listen to your story, pray with you, and share Scripture. Can I connect you with my assistant to schedule a time to meet?

You’re looking for pastoral or Christian counseling, what are your next steps?

1) Ask your pastor what he offers.

 Don’t hesitate to reach out for help, but give your pastor the chance to be clear about what he has to offer. Consider sending him a link to this article and give him permission to be clear about what you can expect from him.

2) Ask your pastor for a referral.

 If you know already that you want ongoing counseling, ask your pastor for help finding a counselor. Not all “Christian counseling” is equal, unfortunately. Ask for help finding a Bible-saturated, gospel-centered, Christ-focused counselor who will share God’s Word with you, rely on the Holy Spirit, and use the best of what psychology has to offer.

A word to church members and leaders looking on…

If your pastor does not offer all the counseling you think he should, it is not because he is heartless, impersonal, or lazy. If he knows how to say “no” to some requests, it is because he knows his strengths and weaknesses and is seeking to help people in the most effective way possible. This is wisdom. Praise God that he has given it to your pastor.

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