Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Pastoral care and counseling

When I began my pastoral ministry I believed that one of my responsibilities was to offer counseling to people.  One of the reasons why I decided to begin attending a Bible school after being at the church for eighteen months was because I felt inadequate in counseling.  I assumed I would learn a lot about counseling people at this Bible school.  I was wrong.  I had one class in pastoral care and none in counseling.  That didn't stop me from trying to provide counseling to people though until one day I made two interesting discoveries.  One, I really wasn't very good at counseling, and, two, as a bivocational pastor I didn't have the time to spend in a long-time counseling relationship.  It was at that point that I decided I needed to refer people to persons who had been specifically trained in counseling and had the experience and resources to offer real value to those who needed it.  I found a Christian counseling service in a nearby community and began to refer persons who came to me for counseling to them.

Having worked with a number of pastors over the years I believe it would benefit most of them if they began to refer persons who come to them for counseling to those who are trained to do it properly.  I've seen too many well-intentioned pastors do more harm than good when they have tried to counsel people without proper training in that area of ministry.  Just because someone is a licensed or ordained minister it does not mean they are prepared to offer counseling to people.  Counseling is a ministry that requires certain skill-sets and knowledge to do it properly.  It sometimes requires numerous sessions to find the root cause of the problem that brought them to seek counseling.  Few pastors, and especially bivocational ones, have the time to invest in that type of commitment.  One of the first things I would recommend a minister do when he or she begins a ministry in a new church is to seek out the Christian counselors in the area and contact them.  Find out a little about their counseling ministry and how their theology impacts that ministry.  When you find one with whom you are comfortable you can ask if it would be OK for you to refer persons to them.

This does not mean that you abandon those who come to you for help.  When I determined that someone needed more help than I could provide I would give them the name and phone number of the counseling center and ask them to contact them to set up an initial appointment.  I asked them to contact me after their first appointment so we could meet again.  What I offered to do was to meet with the individual or couple once a month as long as they were in counseling to walk with them through this experience.  I would provide pastoral care while they received professional counseling.  One interesting thing I discovered was that few of them ever made an appointment with the counselor.  Even though the center I referred them to worked with a sliding pay scale based on their income, if they couldn't get free counseling from the pastor they wouldn't get it.  That told me they really weren't that motivated to resolve their issues in the first place so any time I would have spent with them would probably have been wasted.  People who really want help will seek it out regardless of what they have to do to receive it.

I would encourage the pastors reading this to think back to recent counseling experiences you've had.  Was the time the people spent with you helpful for them to resolve their issues?  How much progress did you make with them, and how did it affect the time you had available for the other areas of ministry responsibility you have?  Were you able to get at the root causes of their issues or did you merely address the surface symptoms?  If you did not address the root causes there is a good chance they will be back.  For many of us, people who need counseling would be better served if we referred them to skilled Christian counselors while we provided pastoral care during this time in their lives.

For more information regarding the ideas in this post and other suggestions on how you can ease the pressures of ministry I encourage you to read my book.

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