There are very few pastors who are trained to be counselors (and I don’t count the “biblical counseling” classes you took at seminary). I can tell you from my own experience, counseling is tricky business and, as much as possible, should be entrusted with people who have been trained to do it.
Here are a five reasons I think it behooves pastors to more quickly refer people under their spiritual care to actual counselors:
1. Counseling can be a huge ego stroke for a pastor
As often as we’ll tell you how difficult it is to be at everyone’s beck and call all the time, it can be incredibly flattering to feel needed. In a job that often feels so inexplicably tied to making mind-numbing and super-nonspiritual decisions, it’s nice to feel like your insight and input is important.
This is what you got into ministry for, right? To be intimately involved in the lives of the people in your care? To give them the benefit of your spiritual understanding and wisdom? These questions might sound facetious and sarcastic, but I assure you they’re not.
For a pastor, sometimes that one-on-one time with an individual can make you feel valued, important, and validated.
The problem is that these feelings can often mask the fact that we’re getting nowhere, and we end up on a treadmill that’s just as unhealthy for us as it is for the people we’re “helping.”
When you consider the fact that this counseling relationship is often meeting a felt need in the other individual to have someone listen to and take them seriously, you can see that you have the perfect recipe for a long, fruitless relationship—or worse.
These drawn-out unhealthy “counseling” relationships, because they’re meeting both parties emotional needs, can often spiral into spiritual abuse, emotional or physical affairs, messiah complexes, eventual blow ups, or more.
2. Pastors aren’t often prepared to diagnose legitimate mental health issues
Ask your average pastor what their rubric is for referring a congregate to an actual counselor, and most will stammer out a made-up response. Because most of us, if we’re honest, haven’t defined the actual point that it’s best to get someone together with a real-live therapist.
Because of this, the unhealthy relationship drags on and on.
Church staff need to have an accepted pastoral formula for dealing with counseling. Maybe a pastor meets with someone a couple times just to hear them out, pray with them, and give them spiritual direction—but after that, they’re referred to a professional.
You might feel like you’ll know how to spot issues that need professional intervention, but I assure you, a large majority of pastors are not equipped to see the larger iceberg under the surface of whatever issues are being discussed. And they’re not equipped to ask the right kinds of questions to draw it out.
It’s not a failure on your part to refer to a professional—in fact, it might be the most compassionate thing you can do.
Please note, it’s very important for churches have a way to help people get the help they need in a way that isn’t going to break their bank. I think it would be compassionate if churches passed on some of the lifestyle purchases we’re known for and put money away to help people afford the professional help they might not be able to get on their own.
3. In-house counseling can be incredibly draining
One thing psychologists, psychiatrists, and counselors can do that pastors aren’t equip to is set firm boundaries. A lot of pastors (especially those in smaller churches), are run ragged by the needs of just a couple of individuals.
They’re the “nuzzle the shepherd” pastors whose time is poured out on the sheep that keep butting at them for attention. We’ll complain about the 3 a.m. phone calls at the same time we congratulate ourselves for being so important—and available.
Most counselors don’t have this problem. They are trained to set boundaries and know that the health of those in their care is often tied to the setting of those boundaries. Your constant availability is hurting you and the person you think you’re helping—not to mention the damage you’re doing to the important but less “urgent” areas that aren’t getting your attention.
Whenever I watch the classic Bill Murray/Richard Dreyfus movie What About Bob, I see a situation I have lived in countless different ways as a pastor—most of them ending just as disastrously.
4. Biblical counseling can do more damage than good
Not only are pastors ill prepared to diagnose mental health issues, the “training” they have received has often come from the Christian version of pop-psychology, self-help books.
I remember going to a pastor for marital counseling and most of the insight came from various Dobson and Rainey marriage resources. I mean, they came directly from those books. From the pastors mouth I heard direct, unattributed quotes from these resources.
The issues here isn’t that those resources aren’t bad, per se, it’s that they were applied to my marriage like band aids. The difference between being trained in counseling and reading books about counseling is that the counselor incarnates the training he/she receives while the reader of counseling books learns aphorisms and theories—which may, or may not, be tried and true.
In the 90s, you couldn’t get away from Neil Anderson books like Victory Over the Darkness and The Bondage Breaker. These books caused so much damage as pastors began applying their principles to people under their care for any and every malady. It didn’t matter what the problem was, it could be fixed by discovering who you are in Christ and standing against the demonization you were clearly experiencing.
Don’t get me wrong, there can be a lot of good done by applying spiritual truths to issues like anxiety and depression, but they often need to be a supplement to other mental health care. Scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), but it’s not a salve for people who are bipolar or suffer from depression, pedophilia, dissociative disorders, etc.
If you’ve spent any time in pastoral care, you’re familiar with books that give you Scriptures to read to people based on the issues they’re having. This is an extremely unhealthy, fast-food approach to pastoral care that leads me to my next point:
5. People need spiritual direction
One thing that would help with this issue that evangelical clergy could do so much better is to major in spiritual direction. What people are needing is not so much biblical verses applied to current events, ways to expand their territory à la Jabez, or as a roadmap to discover their best life now; they need to learn and recognize the voice and presence of Christ in their lives.
Too often we see the job of clergy to be that of the Holy Spirit: fixing, convicting, challenging, pushing, and prodding. Seldom are we equipping to people to read Scripture and see their own lives through the lens of “where is Jesus here?”
To help people focus on discerning the individualistic movement of God in their lives and develop a path to spiritual formation, gives them tools that won’t run contrary to getting mentally healthy in other ways.
We need to be careful not to see pastoral care as a one-size-fits-all care that makes the abundant life look the same for everyone. The law may be easy to apply to everyone, but it leads to death. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to have a very specific, and creatively dynamic relationship with each individual under our care. They benefit so much more from having us come along side to help them recognize the Spirit’s voice than to apply Scripture in haphazard and pre-prescribed ways.
If we’re serious about the soul care of the people in our churches, we will be quicker to help them find the help they need and not be afraid to recommend them to get that help. It’s not a sign of our failure to be helpful, it’s proof that we’re serious about the mental, physical, and spiritual health of the people Jesus loves.