The word counseling is common in ministerial service. There is hardly a week that goes by that I don’t hear or use the term. I’m concerned, however, that we’ve used the word so much that we’ve often taken the professionalism of the work out of it. Counselors, like pastors, are a unique vocation. Most pastors aren’t counselors. Most counselors aren’t pastors.
I understand many of our church attendees—and even people from the community—come to us requesting counseling, but I believe it is our job to help them understand the difference in a pastor and a counselor.
Here are four words of advice I’d share with every pastor:
1. Don’t call what you do counseling.
Unless you’re academically qualified and prepared to do it in a professional setting, don’t label it as counseling. I have a degree, and I still tell people I am happy to talk and pray with them about their situation, but this is not professional counseling. Offering that kind of ministry takes months or years for every individual and is a very specialized care. I may have advice on their physical health too, but I’m not their medical doctor. Not only are there liability issues at stake, there is the effectiveness and practicality of counseling to consider. I simply can’t commit the time and skills most people need when they are seeking true counseling. If counseling is valued in a church—as I think it should be—regardless of the size of the church there will be more caseload than any pastor could handle and do it well.
2. Have a referral base.
Before you’re asked or it’s needed, know where you’d send people. One of the first things I did when I arrived at the church where I now pastor was to get a list of qualified, experienced, and, most importantly, Biblical counselors. I try to have some men and women on my list and some who are especially good with children. I hear people say they live in a small town and don’t have access, but if they are close enough to another city, I remind them that getting the help they need is worth the distance investment. They wouldn’t think as long about traveling to find a cancer specialist. Counseling is a serious, even life-dependent need. My referral list almost always has counselors on it who are in other communities.
3. Understand the basics of counseling.
Even though I recommend not attempting professional counseling, I think all pastors should understand some basic skills of counseling. You could audit a counseling course at a college, even if it’s done online. There are certain techniques that help a counselor uncover the roots of a person’s issues and steer them towards the understanding that they need additional help. The fact is you will talk to lots of people in crisis. As a pastor, we help people discover the truths of God’s Word and how to apply it to their life. Counseling skills help us do this better. Many people we talk to won’t need professional counseling. They just need a sounding board or an outside perspective. That may only take a meeting or two at most. It will also help you in emergency situations, which is often how the need for counseling is discovered. Finally, it will shape your preaching. You’ll find yourself speaking to real people’s needs and offering helpful Biblical guidance on how to deal with real life issues.
4. Know when counseling is going to be needed most.
There are certain times where I see the need for counseling rise in the church. Monday mornings, for example, are often the day I refer people to counseling the most. After a weekend or holiday, when families are usually more together, problems are more easily discovered. Holidays are always a more difficult time in people’s lives when they are hurting. If you’re doing a series on grief, as another example, expect there will be deeper issues uncovered and get some counselors lined up in advance. Whenever I preach on marriage, I alert the counselors on my referral list in case they are needed. I’ve even asked counselors to be in our services. I’ve found them very receptive to this request.
Counseling and pastoring are two different professions in my opinion. There’s possibly another post needed on counselors not being pastors. We may do some of the things counselors do, but we should be careful not to confuse our roles with the professionals. Let’s keep our professions unique.