Dear Pastor . . . You Have Wonderfully Unique Opportunities to Counsel

This article is part of the Dear Pastor series.

Pastoral counseling is unlike any other form of counseling because of the many unusual opportunities a pastor has to engage lives. Here are seven unique facets of the pastoral life that open doors.

1. You have opportunity to pursue people.

Jesus Christ goes looking for people. He takes the initiative in loving. Even when people seek him out with their sufferings and sins, they are responding to what they’ve heard about who he is, what he says, how he cares, and what he can do. In a fundamental way, our Redeemer always makes the first move, and his entire modus operandi is active. The good shepherd goes after the one that is lost, until he finds it (Luke 15:4). Good shepherds do likewise, creating counseling opportunities. You can ask, “How are you really doing?” or, “How may I pray for you?” in any context. The person’s answer, whether candid or evasive, can become an opportunity for a significant conversation. When you hear that someone is facing trouble or going through a hard patch, you can stop by to care.

In contrast, all other counseling models are passive, responding rather than initiating. Psychotherapists must wait until a troubled person seeks aid or a troublesome person is referred by a concerned third party. But a pastor pursues, and people respond in a unique way to being actively loved.

2. You have opportunity in crucial life situations.

You have natural access into people’s lives at decisive moments of transition, hardship, and joy. They invite you in. You have license to simply show up. The door is open to you whenever important events unfold:

  • engagement and marriage
  • injury, illness, and hospitalization
  • dying, death, bereavement, and funeral
  • birth of a baby
  • move into a new neighborhood
  • loss of a job or retirement
  • betrayal, adultery, and divorce
  • a child on drugs or in trouble with the law
  • catastrophic victimization by house fire, crime, or storm

No other counselor has natural access at the most significant moments.

It so happens that these events are the major stressors on every stress scale. It also happens that the inner reality of a person becomes more obvious and more accessible in exactly such circumstances. Is he living for true hopes or false? Are her fears realistic or distorted? Are their joys and sorrows appropriate, inordinate, or oddly absent? What do these insecurities or angers reveal? Where is this confusion coming from? The heart lies open. Furthermore, it so happens that people become unusually open to seeking and receiving counsel at exactly such times.

The Pastor as Counselor

David Powlison

This resource, written by late counselor David Powlison, seeks to gracefully and humbly encourage pastors to think of counseling as a relational and pastoral task focused on the care and cure of the souls of God’s people.

3. You have opportunity with both the struggling and the strong.

Biblical ministry is not only for troubled or troublesome people. Pastoral care serves both weak and strong, able and disabled, talented and limited, successful and failing. The gospel speaks life-rearranging truth into every person’s life, “comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable.” Those whose lives overflow need to learn gratitude, humility, generosity—and alertness to temptations of presumption, superiority, and pride. Those whose lives run on empty need to learn hope, courage, patience—and alertness to temptations of despair, grumbling, and covetousness. All of us need to learn what lasts and what counts, whatever our conditions of life. All of us need to learn to comfort others with the comfort we receive from God. The Vinedresser’s pruning shears are in every life. As a pastor you understand that every person you meet today needs to awaken, to turn, to trust, to grow, and to love God and others. Everyone needs counseling every day (Heb. 3:12–14). Even God’s thriving children need counsel (and counseling training) in order to better help their struggling brethren who are straying, discouraged, or helpless (1 Thess. 5:14).

No other counseling role has a vision for everybody. Other counseling models define some class of human beings as needing help and others as essentially okay. Christian faith defines every human being as needing the cure of soul that is a pastor’s unique calling.

4. You have opportunity with both rich and poor.

A pastor has a huge advantage over other counselors in that the counseling relationship is founded on loving concern, not fee-for-service. Pastoral counseling is a gift to the needy. It is funded by freewill offerings of the people of God, whether or not they are counsel seekers. Broken and distressed people rightly wonder about professional counselors, “Do you really care? Are you really my friend?” The gift of ministry takes questions about divided or suspect motives off the table. The exchange of money for time, care, attention, and friendship always brings a high potential for warping a relationship.

In contrast, a pastor has great freedom to work. With people who have money, you are in the unusual position of not allowing them to buy the services they want. With people who lack money, you are in the unusual position of not excluding them from receiving the help they need. A pastor is uniquely able to incarnate God’s freely given mercies and wisdom. Counseling is caring candor (Eph. 4:15). When no fee is involved, your care is less ambiguous and your candor less constrained.

5. You have opportunity with people who already trust you.

What is the first issue in every counseling conversation? Though rarely verbalized, every person who sits down to talk with someone is always asking: “Why should I trust you? Are you giving me good reason to trust you? Do I trust you?” If the bottom-line answer is yes, then the conversation might head somewhere constructive. Basic trust leads to two further questions that also determine the success or failure of the conversation: “Can I be completely honest with you?” and then, “Will I listen to what you say to me?”

Of course, questions of trust, willing honesty, and willingness to listen are often worked out gradually. But it is a unique aspect of pastoral work that you will counsel people who have already decided to trust you. They come committed to being honest and willing to listen. This trust arises because you are a known quantity. Pre-answering these questions in the affirmative gives an incalculable boost to the efficacy and efficiency of your counseling. You don’t need to spend months building trust. You can cut to the chase because counsel seekers cut to the chase.

Other counseling models define some class of human beings as needing help and others as essentially okay. Christian faith defines every human being as needing the cure of soul that is a pastor’s unique calling.

6. You have opportunity with people you already know.

Not only do others know and trust you; you know them. As a pastor this creates another unique opportunity. If you’ve made any kind of effort, you already know your people. You are continually getting to know them better. Such firsthand knowledge gives you an incalculable advantage over the office-bound professional counselor. You know people by name, personality, and life context. You’ve seen them in action. You already have a sense for strengths and weaknesses, besetting sins and flourishing graces, good habits and bad. How does a man treat his family? Does this woman pitch in to help? Is this a man who keeps his word, or have you learned to wait and see what he does? What is her reaction when she faces frustration, hardship, and conflict? How does he talk about the blessings he receives? How does she worship? You may know significant history and circumstances. You may know someone’s family. You have natural access to many involved parties.

Wide-ranging knowledge helps protect you from some of the pitfalls that beset counselors. For example, counselors often hear only one side of any story. They are always vulnerable to spin and disinformation—facts and reactions may be true and plausible as far as they go but steadily mislead and prevent accurate, balanced assessment. Given various instincts of our fallen hearts, counselors are easily tempted to side with whomever they happen to be counseling (Prov. 18:17). When an aggrieved twenty-five-year-old paints her mother as a monster, is it so? Perhaps. But if you happen to know both mother and daughter, you may have more nuanced insight into what’s going on. The fact that you may already know people and know them in context is a unique strength of the pastoral setting for counseling ministry.

No other counselor has a regular opportunity to get both a head start and a reality check on what you hear in private conversation.

7. You have opportunity with people who already have a wise change agenda.

Not only do people know you, and you know them, but as a pastor you will counsel people who already have a pretty good idea of what’s wrong and of where they need to grow. Such up-front acuity is never guaranteed, but when it happens, it gives your counseling another huge head start.

We mentioned earlier the basic questions of trust, willingness to be honest, and willingness to listen. The next watershed question in all counseling concerns agenda: “Why are we here? What are we aiming to accomplish?” In general, most counsel seekers come with defective goals:

  • Change how I feel.
  • Change my circumstances.
  • Vindicate me.
  • Give me a formula.

Counseling with any modicum of wisdom works patiently to change that agenda into “Help me to change.” Christian faith and ministry fleshes out the change agenda in a particularly rich way. If your church has any clear-thinking vitality, you’ll sometimes—often?—counsel people who already have a feel for what’s really at stake. Even having a roughly accurate agenda makes a big difference.

No other counselor gets regular opportunities to work with people who already have an inkling of what they most need. Like your responsibility to cure souls, your opportunities are unique. I hope this vision thrills you. I hope it nerves you for the long fight to bring pastoral achievement closer to pastoral aspiration.

This article is adapted from The Pastor as Counselor: The Call for Soul Care by David Powlison.

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