Pastoral Counseling

Four tips to avoid being clueless.

My husband and I were lead pastors for 32 years. We served mostly in small communities where church people were more like family. Being the “parents” of the family meant we frequently got a frantic call at the first sign of trouble. Births, deaths, heart attacks, accidents—pretty much any type of crisis or complication. They depended on our 24/7 availability.  They also held a firm belief that when pastor arrived, everything would be okay. While it’s great to have confidence in your pastor, I’m not quite sure how the notion started that we could fix everything. All I know is I’ve felt the weight of feeling clueless, often asking, “What am I supposed to do to help these people?” No doubt you’ve had the same feeling. After years of pastoring and counseling, I’ve learned a few practical tips that might help lift the load off your shoulders. 

People will tell you their problems.

If you’ve been in ministry one day, you’ve already encountered people problems. You never know when, how, or what may show up unexpectedly. At our first church, a young couple invited us to their home for “dessert.” In the course of the evening, they told us they were having some marriage troubles and didn’t have the money to pay this month’s electric bill. We listened intently and then gave them our best advice: just pray together and plan budget-friendly date nights! We also gave them a check for their bill (a topic for another article on stewardship and boundaries). That ought to do it, right? However, weeks later, we discovered the husband was seriously hooked on porn and alcohol, the wife was emotionally involved with another fellow at work, and they had a Mt. Everest of financial debt as result of their out-of-control spending. Date nights, huh, pastor? We really did want to help, but obviously, we were not equipped to deal with the seriousness of their situation at all. People will tell you their problems. It’s part of being a pastor, but it doesn’t mean you can or should fix it all.

Learn some basic first aid. 

Your ego can really take a hit when you have to admit you can’t handle something. It’s okay. You’re not Jesus. You’re human and it doesn’t reflect poorly on your pastoral-ness. If you plan to continue pastoral ministry, I’d recommend learning some basics about common issues like grief, conflict, trauma, mental illness, and handling crises. Read a book. Take a course. Watch a video. While all these can be helpful, a quick overview doesn’t qualify you to handle the heavy lifting required to deal with deeper psychological issues. I’d also suggest calling the county mental health department for their protocol on emergency services. This information could prove very beneficial when you get a call from a parishioner whose son is experiencing a psychotic break at two a.m. (true story). At least, you’ll have some idea of how to stop the bleeding and who to call for additional help. 

Know your role and stick with it. 

I used to joke I’d do brain surgery if the need arose. Not only is this arrogant, it’s ridiculous. I’m not a trained neurosurgeon. I don’t have the proper education and experience to attempt this dangerous medical procedure. It’s way outside my “scope of competency.” Why is it that pastors feel the pressure to do something they’re not trained to do when someone is in need? You likely have training in Bible, theology, and practical ministry. You can put together a sermon on Saturday night that’ll bring down the house on Sunday morning. You know about discipleship, stewardship, and Paul’s views on relationship. Pastor, you have the awesome privilege of connecting people to God and spiritually directing them through their Christian life! This, however, does not qualify you to deal with serious mental and psychological issues. So, know your role. When faced with a problem outside your level of competence, do what you can and then connect them to a professional you trust. And, please, don’t attempt the brain surgery regardless of how many YouTube videos you’ve watched! You might end up doing more harm than good.

Referral is not failure. 

Don’t feel guilty when you can’t fix the problem. Instead, see yourself as a “link in the chain”—a small piece that connects the person with the professional who can best meet their need. Referrals are often necessary, but what do you know about the clinical providers in your area? There are so many different views and philosophies in counseling. Some are contrary to biblical truth and Christian values. We knew a fellow who was seeing a counselor for depression. She gave him a piece of bear fur to rub all over his chest to call up his inner warrior! This one didn’t make it on our referral list and, no, this activity is definitely not part of the traditional scope of practice for counselors. So, please take the time to build a list of quality Christian providers for referrals. Vet clinicians who share and support your views on faith and spirituality. Have a few marriage counselors, a faith-based clinic or two, and some private practice groups on your list. Then, you can feel confident your people will be getting the help that builds on Godly principles and promotes their Christian walk.