We want everything we do as pastors to result in the spiritual development and personal flourishing of those under our care. This could be taken to mean that everything a pastor does is counseling. But it is helpful and appropriate to distinguish between things like: one another care between members, general pastoral care, formal pastoral counseling, and professional counseling.
In this brief, eight lesson series you will be equipped with the basic categories, processes, and skills of serving as a pastoral counselor. The intent is to equip you to utilize your current level of awareness regarding particular life struggles to your fullest pastoral potential.
In the first lesson, we began to make a distinction between general pastoral care and formal pastoral counseling. You may find it intuitively appropriate to make this distinction, but difficult to articulate the difference. If it is hard for you, as the pastor, then it is likely also difficult for the church member seeking counseling.
As the helper in the relationship, it is a pastor’s responsibility to explain what the difference between:
(a) praying with a church member about grief after a service as compared to
(b) meeting with someone to talk about their experience of depression; or
(a) visiting a church member in the hospital as compared to
(b) meeting with a married couple to talk about conflict resolution.
Helping you have these conversations well is what this lesson is about.
Before we can explain something well, we must understand it clearly. David Benner provides a three-fold distinction between pastoral ministry, pastoral care, and pastoral counseling that can help us begin to develop this clarity (Strategic Pastoral Counseling, pages 14-15).
[See PDF Handbook, page 8, for the image.]
If we wanted to define each aspect of a pastor’s role, we could do so like this:
- Pastoral Ministry is what pastors do for the congregation as a whole or with subgroups of the congregation: preaching (including sermon prep), teaching, leading worship, leading committees or workgroups, leading ministry teams, advising small group leaders, and other equipping tasks.
- Pastoral Care is ministry at the pastor’s initiative with individuals or families: visiting the sick and homebound, reaching out to families during seasons of grief or tragedy, praying for church members, encouraging volunteer leaders, and enacting church discipline.
- Pastoral Counseling is ministry done in response to a member’s request that is focused on giving guidance to a particular need. Based on what we learned in the previous lesson, the accelerated rate of disclosure and imbalance of power (i.e., giving additional weight to our words) means that confidentiality is relevant to these conversations. In ministry contexts, the legal term for confidentiality would more accurately be called pastor-parishioner privilege.
To help you assimilate these concepts, take a moment and place the pastoral activities you’ve done over the last week into the three-column chart below.
The purpose of this lesson is to answer questions like:
- What do I need to say and do in order to begin formal pastoral counseling appropriately?
- What obligations do I have in column-three-ministry that don’t exist in columns one and two?
- How do I protect congregational responsibilities (columns one and two) from being crowded out by the time consuming and narrow focus of column three?
We will address these questions under two headings: (a) expectation management and (b) understanding confidentiality.
There are two qualities of pastoral counseling that can allow it to go on for an indefinite duration of time: it’s free and convenient. The lack of monetary expense, proximity of the church, and flexibility of scheduling remove common inconveniences that limit the duration of professional counseling relationships.
In order to balance the care of an individual (sheep) with the care of the congregation (flock) a pastor (shepherd) will have to clarify the expectations around counseling. The same values that resulted in the creation of deacons in Acts 6 are relevant to expectation management for pastoral counseling. Pastors are finite people; therefore, how they manage their time with respect to their various roles is important.The same values that resulted in the creation of deacons in Acts 6 are relevant to expectation management for pastoral counseling. Click To Tweet
In Lesson One we left off with the level of informed consent that should be provided prior to a first meeting. Here we will pick up with where that conversation should resume in the first formal meeting by looking at five key elements in this conversation.
The first thing that should be communicated is appreciation and affirmation. Asking for help is not easy, but it is good. When people do hard, wise things, a proper pastoral response is to affirm them. If we start with informed consent instead of appreciation, then the interaction feels cold and impersonal.
“Thank you for being willing to meet today. As a pastor, I admire those who are willing to seek godly counsel for their life struggles. I wish more people were willing to take this step…”
The second element in this conversation is to clarify the pastoral counseling role. The word “counseling” can mean many things in our culture. Taking the time to explain the nature of the counsel you offer is an important part of pre-care.
“… As a pastor, I enjoy helping people pursue Christlikeness amid life’s challenges. I want my counsel to help people grow in their faith and deepen their understanding of Scripture. In professional settings, my approach to counseling would be called character formation and narrative reframing. If other forms of guidance are helpful, I am happy to help you find those as we continue to work on deepening your walk with Christ together…”
A third component of this conversation is to acknowledge your capacity and limitations. If you were hosting a birthday party at your house and had 15 cupcakes for 15 guests, saying “just take one” would be a form of hospitality. Similarly, articulating our capacity as pastors is a form of pastoral hospitality.
“… I find that I help people best when I acknowledge my limitation up front; both my training and capacity. My training is to offer the hope of the gospel from the truth of Scripture.
If I am going to be faithful in balancing the care for the congregation as a whole and individual members, my capacity for formal counseling is about six meetings. If your needs extend beyond that, we can discuss how we rally relationships within the church and/or professionals in our community to ensure your care needs are met…”
A fourth topic in this conversation is clarifying confidentiality. When a church member increases the depth of their disclosure to a pastor, who also ministers in their circle of family and friends, understanding the parameters of confidentiality is important. We will discuss three key concepts related to confidentiality before giving a vignette of how to describe this to a church member.
First, Let’s start by differentiating gossip from breaking confidentiality. Gossip is a violation of trust in a peer-based relationship. Breaching confidentiality is a violation of trust in a privileged relationship. Both are sins and relationally offensive, the latter represents a deeper level of betrayal.
Second, what do we mean by “privileged relationship”? A privileged relationship is one where you have access to information beyond what you would have based on friendship alone. For instance, your doctor has privileged information about your health history. Similarly, pastors are often entrusted with a significant amount of information about their member’s personal, spiritual, emotional, and relational history.
Third, pastoral ministry bridges casual and privileged interactions. As pastors, we talk in foyers, small groups, potlucks, and our office. We talk about children, sports, mission trips, sins, and tragedies. We talk in the role of friend, ministry supervisor, accountability partner, and counselor. As the helper in the pastoral counseling relationship it is our responsibility to ensure the individual under our care understands when our role changes and the implications.As the helper in the pastoral counseling relationship it is our responsibility to ensure the individual under our care understands when our role changes and the implications. Click To Tweet
So, the vignette we’ve been creating would continue…
“… When, as your pastor, I also serve as a counselor, the rules of our relationship are different. Most of my pastoral conversations are public; meaning they play by the rules of friendship. Counseling conversations are both private and purposeful. Private, meaning I will not talk with anyone else about these conversations without your permission unless legally required to do so. Purposeful, meaning we are working towards a goal. We’ll talk about your goals in just a moment
But, in light of this conversation, my request is that you help me protect your confidentiality by not raising questions about things we discuss in counseling in the presence of people you do not want to be involved in the counseling process…”
A couple of observations on this part of the informed consent conversation are warranted. If you intend to consult with other pastors or elders about counseling cases, you need to request permission from the counselee at this time. Following the biblical teaching about there being wisdom in multitude of elders does not excuse violating pastor-parishioner privilege.
Also, if church discipline is a possible element of your pastoral care, that would also need to be disclosed and explained. As pastors, we do not have to read counselees their “Miranda Rights.” However, we should honor counselees by ensuring that they understand the implications of their words and actions.
The fifth and final part of this conversation is to transition towards gathering history and identifying goals. After allowing for questions about the previous points, your focus should turn to listening. These first four topics should be able to be covered in 5-7 minutes. The rest of the first meeting should be reserved for listening (Lesson 4) and identifying goals (Lesson 5).
“… I hope this all makes sense. I always want to make sure people understand the implications of meeting with their pastor for counseling. It’s not that I’m special, it’s just that these conversations are unique, and I want to honor them as such. Do you have any question? [pause… listen… clarify]
Great. My main goal today is to hear what is burdening you. So, do you mind sharing with me the main things you would like to work on and the pertinent parts of your story for how we got here?”
We will cover how to listen well and identify goals in future lessons. The main thing for you to know from Lesson One is when a version of this conversation is needed. The main thing for you to know from Lesson Two is what the key elements of this conversation are and how to have discuss them. The more comfortable you are with when and why informed consent is needed, the less awkward you will feel having the conversation. The more comfortable you are, the more comfortable the counselee will be, and the more effective counseling will be.
Follow Up Resources
- If you want to know more about the types of struggles that are discussed in counseling, consider reading “What is Counseling About? Problems in Living, Meaning of Life, or Mental Health?.”
- If you want to know more about the differences in pastoral versus professional counseling, consider reading “Comparing Pastoral Ethics and Counseling Ethics.”