The Challenge of Pastoral Counseling and Five Suggestions

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Counseling is one of the things ministers are asked to do that many have inadequate training in. Most degrees in ministry have at best 1-2 classes that are required in the area of counseling. A June 2010 Lifeway survey showed that 24% of senior ministers spend 6 hours or more per week counseling. On the flip side, the same percentage said they spent less than an hour per week in counseling. The study didn’t get into why some spent so few hours in counseling. It may be that some churches have a counselor on staff. Maybe for others it is avoiding counseling due to feeling inadequate. There can be all sorts of reasons but the bottom line is that it is important for ministers to spend time in one-on-one counseling with those who are hurting and needing direction.

Here are five things to consider when it comes to pastoral counseling that I have found helpful.

Continuing education:
Just like with everything else in ministry learning to be a good counselor is a learning and growing process. You don’t take a 3 hour graduate or undergraduate class in psychology and then go in and try to fix everyone’s issues.It is important that you continue to add tools to your toolbox. The good news is that there are so many excellent resources out there that you can learn from the best without having to travel across the country for a workshop. There are excellent materials on everything from pre-marital preparation to addictions to divorce recovery. Take advantage of those. Add tools to your toolbox.

Know when to refer:
You are going to encounter some things that need the help of someone with more wisdom and experience. Refer. Great damage can be done by someone who doesn’t know what they are doing. There are times when the best course of action is to refer them to another person or trained professional or just more experienced who is able to help the person or couple in crisis. When you realize just how much is on the line it shouldn’t be too hard to swallow your pride and refer. It doesn’t mean you are incapable or inferior. Knowing when the proper time to refer is an act of great wisdom, not the confession of your lack of wisdom or understanding. It is easy to get the two mixed up.

Keeping Your Judgments Gentle:
Counseling should be a very humbling experience because we deal with the complexities and difficulties of life. Most things aren’t fixed with easy or quick solutions. There will be times your first instinct or reaction as a pastoral counselor is not even the correct one. It is important that we continue to educate ourselves in this area so that we can effectively and competently deal with people’s issues. It is also important that we are slow to judge. I can’t tell you how many times I have been listening to someone and thinking how strange it all was until I heard their whole story. Then it all made sense. Dr. Gray at Harding School of Theology says, “Let your judgements be gentle.” The more you counsel the more that phrase makes sense.

Being Active, Not Passive:
We can’t hope that the people with serious needs and issues in the congregation will resolve those issues sitting in the auditorium on Sunday.Chances are, there are people in the congregation who are hurting and in need of direction, are we willing to give them the direction, comfort, and help they need? We cannot be passive in this. We also cannot hope that they will find someone else.Resolving conflict and crisis takes action. It takes initiative. It takes listening to what people are saying and asking the right questions. People may be crying out for help all around us but we just aren’t picking up on it.

Make Yourself Available:
God can use us for great good in the lives of the hurting if we make ourselves available. When I say make yourself available I don’t mean just having hours in the week where people can come for counsel. Being available is more than just being present with someone in the same room at the same time. People will sense your availability to help during the other hours. They will sense it on Sunday when they see if you are open to conversation or closed. They will see it in how you respond to the needs and people around you. You might not be the best counselor with all the latest skills but being available, caring, and considerate of others can go a long way.

I will post a followup to this on pre-marital counseling in the next few days.

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