Not An Option
You must counsel. It’s not optional. You can’t say no as if it were simply a career choice, a matter of personal preference, or an absence of gifting. This does not mean that every pastor will have the same balance between public and private aspects of ministry. How much you’ll “formally” counsel (i.e., meet with particular persons at agreed-on times) depends on many factors. Some pastors will do a great deal of hands-on cure of souls, some relatively little. But every pastor ought to dedicate some percentage of his ministry to the delicate art of intentional conversation as well as being continually on the lookout for the informal opportunities latent in every human interaction.1
A pastor’s calling to counsel is significantly different from any of the other counseling professions. We’ll consider a couple of aspects of this uniqueness.
1. Your call to personal ministry is woven into all the Scriptures.
Many passages express the significance of hands-on cure of souls. The classic texts include Acts 20:20; Galatians 6:1–2, 9–10; Ephesians 3:14–5:2; 1 Thessalonians; Hebrews 3:12–14; 4:12–5:8; 10:24–25; and scores of other “one anothering” passages. In fact, every place that addresses the specific concerns of a named individual can be considered a counseling passage. A pastor’s counseling responsibility is unique. What other counselor is called by God himself to both counsel and train others to counsel?! Briefly consider three passages.
First, Jesus said that the second great commandment is, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (see Matt. 22:35–40). Love engages your neighbor’s specific personal needs and struggles. Love encompasses many things: attitudes of patience and kindness; actions that meet material needs and offer a helping hand. And love includes honest conversation about what matters. Interestingly, the original context for the command (Lev. 19:17–18) makes a personal counseling illustration and application:
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
God chooses to go after one of the most difficult of all matters: how will you love kith and kin in their shortcomings? Love of neighbor is illustrated by an example of candid, verbal problem solving, in contrast with the judgmentalism, avoidance, bitterness, and aggression that come so easily. You yourself act on this command by doing personal pastoring with your neighbors. And when those you counsel have problems with interpersonal conflict, you help them to learn constructive, verbal love. What a promise you have! “I am the Lord” (gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, forgiving . . . while honestly reckoning intransigence). Personal pastoring depends on this God and then lives out the very image of this God amid the exigencies of helping broken people. You live out what is inside those last parentheses. Exodus 34:6–7 displays the goodness and glory of God . . . and goodness and glory are communicable attributes, the image of Jesus forming in us.
Conversational love takes many other forms as well. You will ask, How are you really doing? Would you like to talk? How can I pray for you? Where are the pressure points? What are your joys and your sorrows? Any secret gardens? Conscious struggles? Delightful victories? How are you doing with God and with your nearest and dearest? What burdens are weighing on you? When you did/said _, what were you after? How are you processing anxiety, anger, or escapism? How are you handling this wonderful achievement or blessing? In asking and answering such questions, we enter each other’s lives. These are doors for grace, because these are the places Jesus meets people. As a pastor, your most obvious neighbors (beyond family) are the flock for which you have personal responsibility. “Love your neighbor as yourself” calls you to counsel.
God alone saves from death, from sin, from tears, from weakness, from ourselves.
Second, consider the book of Proverbs as a whole. It’s not wrong to preach from Proverbs. Wisdom herself calls out in the streets, inviting all comers to listen (Prov. 8–9). But you had sure better counsel Proverbs. Verbal wisdom is highly esteemed, and most of what Proverbs commends reads as warmly personalized individual counsel: like a father, like a wife and mother, like a true friend, like a good king, like any wise person. Wisdom is a counseling gift. When it comes to distributing this most valuable, life-renewing gift, God’s generosity is blind to differences of gender, ethnicity, age, wealth, status, or education. Surely he will not lavish the desirable gift of counseling skill only to everyone else in the body of Christ while leaving out pastors! You are called to become one of the wise men.
Finally, consider Paul’s letters to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. They are examples of personal counseling captured on paper for all time. Each is addressed to a named individual, discusses particular circumstances, considers specific strengths and weaknesses, and builds on the actual relationship between counselor and counseled. As counselor, Paul is tender, knowledgeable, self-disclosing, pointed, relevant, encouraging, and challenging. Can you legitimately preach on what amounts to a personal counseling text? Of course. But would you only preach on a personal pastoring text, and not also do personal pastoring? Pastor, these epistles call you to pastor.
2. You are called to do the impossible.
It is curiously comforting to know that your calling is beyond your capability. This is another way that a pastor’s call to counsel is unique. You can place no confidence in your gifts, experience, education, techniques, professional persona, credentials, maturity, or wisdom. You are called to do what God must do.
In 1 Timothy 4:6–16, Paul exhorts Timothy to immerse himself in revealed truth, in a life of faith, in active love, in the work of ministry, in serving Jesus Christ. He is to exercise, devote, practice, persist. He is to watch closely over himself and what he teaches. Why does Paul so carefully drive this home? The reason is astonishing: “By so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (4:16). Come again? You will save yourself and your hearers? It’s so. Who is sufficient for such things? God alone saves from death, from sin, from tears, from weakness, from ourselves. Christ alone saves by grace, mercy, and patience at immediate personal cost (1 Tim. 1:14–16). The Spirit alone cures the soul of suicidal selfishness, making a person and a people alive to faith and love. Yet this great and good Physician willingly uses Timothy, a mere pastor, as a physician’s assistant in the curing process. He also uses you.
- For discussion of how much time a pastor should give to counseling and the sorts of people to whom he should give himself, see “Pastoral Counseling,” in David Powlison, Speaking Truth in Love (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2005), 127–32
This article is adapted from The Pastor as Counselor: The Call for Soul Care by David Powlison.
We come to Jesus as people in need, and we continue in Jesus as people in need.
We need to rely on the gospel like this throughout our lives. Remember, Christ is both the means and the goal of counseling.
Be aware that you're always preaching to yourself some kind of gospel.
The call to counsel can be a bit intimidating. But having wise conversations with God’s people is something he intends for us to do.