By Andy Flowers
Counseling people. No doubt about it. No other aspect of pastoral ministry is as horrifying as counseling.
Preaching is frightening at first, but it’s something that we get comfortable with quickly. We spend the bulk of our week on sermon prep. There are a million great books and conferences about forming and delivering sermons. And we know there’s a new one due every week.
Teaching isn’t that scary. We learn how to understand the Bible and teach it to others all through school. Teaching is a piece of cake.
Administrative duties can be a little bothersome for some pastors, but it isn’t really something we’re scared of. Eventually we get comfortable with the seasons of ministry life.
Leadership isn’t too frightening for us. Searching out God’s vision for your church and then rallying the troops can be fun.
But counseling is terrifying! Admit it. What are we supposed to say to a couple who is sitting in our office on the verge of divorce? How do we comfort a mother who is grieving the death of her young child? What do we say to the dude who is mired in porn and is asking us to help him break free? How can we help minister to a teenager who is cutting herself? These things are heavy and hard.
People are incredibly messy. If counseling doesn’t scare you, then you’re not human. Ministry involves real people who are hurting deeply. It can’t be done from an antiseptic distance. These people will have struggles that require us to get up close and personal.
Most of us are very aware that we are horribly inadequate for the task that God has called us to. So we insulate ourselves. We hide from the ugliness. We refer people to professional counselors. We stay busy so we always have an excuse to avoid difficult situations. We keep telling people, “I am not a counselor!”
But there’s a huge problem with that mentality; it goes against everything we preach on Sunday morning. On Sunday we stand behind our pulpits and proclaim the amazing power of the gospel of Jesus. We preach all about salvation and redemption and rescue. We preach about healing and wholeness. We preach about the power of the Spirit of God. We tell people that their lives can be free from worry and frustration and meaninglessness. We offer people who are weighed down by their old life a promise of new life.
Through our preaching we hold out to people all the blessings and hope that is found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But then when they come to our office, hungry for this new life, desperate for change, wanting transformation, we send them away. I fear that too many pastors affirm the transforming power of the gospel from the pulpit only to deny it in their office.
The thing that makes counseling so scary for pastors is it seems like something that requires a level of training and expertize that we don’t have. Most of us are not trained counselors. We don’t have a clinical degree. We don’t understand all that goes into therapy. We just can’t do it!
But the real power to change lives is found in the gospel. And as a theologically trained biblical scholar armed with the word of God you have everything you need to help people! If you are equipped enough to share the gospel to the whole church on Sunday then you are equipped enough to share it one-on-one. You can do it!
Enter into that role with the same fear and helplessness that you feel as you enter into the pulpit. Approach each counseling session with humility and prayer and a reliance on the Spirit of God. Go in there armed with the very word of God. A closed Bible in a counseling session is just as wrong as a closed Bible in a sermon. Don’t give them your advice, give them gospel truth.
I’m not saying that we should never refer people to someone else. Sometimes we need to encourage people to talk to their medical doctor. Sometimes we will need to get some help from clinical counselors. I am very grateful for those people who have devoted their lives to helping others. Don’t be afraid to use the different resources God has given you.
However, we must not allow our fear of counseling to cause us to brush people off too quickly. Take the time to meet with people who are struggling and show them how encouraging, hopeful, powerful, and transforming the gospel really is! I know it’s scary, but the more we see how God moves in the lives of people, the more confidence we will have in the gospel that we proclaim.
“Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.”
Andy Flowers, a Western Seminary graduate, is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Woodland, California and Adjunct Professor at Western Seminary Sacramento.