Monday, June 18, 2012

Pastors and counseling

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I recently received a call from a student at the university where I received my undergraduate degree.  It's time to hit up alumni for donations, but of course she had to act like she was interested in what I had been doing since graduating before asking for money.  When she found out I was in the ministry she did ask some good questions and seemed quite interested in the answers.  As a psychology major she wanted to know if I did much counseling when I served as a pastor.  My response was that I did when I was younger in the ministry until one day I realized I wasn't a very good counselor.  I believed I better served my congregation and others who came to me for assistance when I made that discovery, and it's a discovery other ministers probably need to make as well.

I had one psychology course in college and a pastoral care course in Bible school.  That's about enough knowledge to become dangerous.  No way does that equip a pastor for a counseling ministry.  Many of the churches I've assisted in finding a new pastor have listed counseling as one of the traits they are looking for in their next pastor until I ask them if they mean they want someone who has a degree in counseling or just someone who will meet with people having problems and try to help them through those difficulties.  They usually want the latter, and that begins my lecture about not confusing that with counseling.

Too many pastors seem to believe their seminary degree equips them to be a counselor.  Even worse are those in the ministry without any formal education who believe their calling to the pastorate includes the ability to counsel others.  Neither of these beliefs are correct.  Pastors would better serve their congregations by recognizing that unless they have specific training in counseling they need to limit their ministry to troubled people to providing pastoral care and referring those people to trained counselors for long-term assistance.

Bivocational ministers especially need to be careful about doing counseling.  Real counseling that changes people's lives often requires far more time than most bivocational ministers can provide.  When one has neither the time nor the training to do quality counseling then referrals are a must. 

When I realized that my counseling skills were very limited I was in the second session with a couple who were having marital difficulties.  I had worked with the same couple several years earlier, and when they came back to me they were still dealing with the same issues I thought were resolved earlier.  At that time I referred them to a Christian counseling service in a nearby community that I knew provided excellent counseling from a Christian perspective.  I offered to meet with them once a month to check on their progress and provide pastoral care, but that meeting would not occur until they had their first session with a counselor at the center.  As their pastor I wanted to remain involved in the healing of their marriage, but I could not lead that process.  They needed someone with the skills, training, and specific experience in that work to lead their healing.

As a pastor it's important for you to identify professional people in your community who can provide the best assistance possible to meet the needs of your congregation.  Certainly, at the top of that list should be some Christian counselors you trust who you can refer people to when the need arises.  That will give the people you serve the best of both worlds.  They can receive pastoral care from you and skilled counseling from persons who have been trained to provide that ministry.

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