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 counseling, methodologies should flow from assessment. Too often, for pastors, assessment actually flows from our preferred methodologies. What do I mean by that?
We can begin unpacking this concept by considering the two predominant methods of pastoral counseling: (a) character formation and (b) narrative reframing. Character formation is instruction or guidance on pursuing holiness and Christlikeness amid life’s hardships. Narrative reframing is coming to understand particular challenges in light of the ultimate hope of the gospel.
These two types of instructional-based counseling methods are what pastors tend to enjoy most and feel most equipped to do. That is wonderful. However, when what the pastor enjoys most about counseling is assumed to be what the church member will benefit from most, that is not wonderful. Actually, it’s bad.
How do we, as pastors, avoid assuming our preference is our church member’s best interest? The answer is assessment. If we skip to instruction without doing assessment, we are not doing good pastoral counseling. You don’t want a car mechanic or plumber who doesn’t do good assessment. Your church members don’t want a pastoral counselor who doesn’t do good assessment.If we skip to instruction without doing assessment, we are not doing good pastoral counseling. Click To Tweet
We will discuss two type of assessments in this lesson: (a) moral assessment, and (b) severity of problem assessment. We want to assess what moral categories best captures our church member’s life struggle and we also want to assess what aspect of their life merits our attention first.
We begin with moral assessment because it is the most natural category for pastors to consider. Pastors want to make sure they are not excusing sin or distracting from needed repentance.
Two dominant categories exist for moral assessment: sin and suffering. Pastors tend to default towards a sin assessment because the implications of the gospel are clearer: Jesus died for our sin, purchased forgiveness from sin, and gave us freedom from the dominion of sin. When sin is the problem, it is clear how Jesus is the answer.
But let’s consider several situations where suffering is in the forefront of someone’s life struggle. The list below moves from scenarios where pastoral counseling for suffering is relatively clear to situations for which it is less clear. The goal is to help you identify instances of suffering you might miss it.
- Grief – We recognize it would be inappropriate to label sadness at a funeral as a lack of faith. We intuitively recognize that suffering, not sin, is at the forefront in this situation; therefore, comfort, not forgiveness, is the most appropriate form of care.
- Illness – We know that the person battling with cancer needs encouragement rather than correction for their discouragement. A Christ-like response to them would be a version of “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Weakness is suffering, not sin.
- Trauma – Things can get less clear here. The distance between traumatic event and emotional manifestation can cause us to lean towards a sin-assessment. Being in an earthquake six months ago can make the unexpected starting of the air conditioning unit a fear-provoking experience. That is not wrong (sin); it is hard (suffering). Instruction on how to offset the impact of suffering is needed.
- Aptitude Challenges – What about a low emotional intelligence husband who is trying to love his wife but his best efforts are subpar? What about the employee who lacks good organizational skills and it getting bad performance reviews? Would we call these things laziness and neglect (sin categories), or would they be more accurately understood through the lens of suffering?
If our only counseling methods are for sin-based struggles, then we would be prone to assess these struggles as idolatry, a lack of faith, resistance to owning one’s sin, or laziness.
Based on these wrong assessments we could give good counsel (meaning, gospel-based) that was a bad fit (meaning, wrong moral category) and the results would be spiritually and emotionally damaging. We would be an inaccurate ambassador of Christ even if we could biblically proof text everything we said.With wrong assessments we could give good counsel (meaning, gospel-based) that was a bad fit (meaning, wrong moral category) and the results would be spiritually and emotionally damaging. Click To Tweet
The reality is that we are all both sinner and sufferer. But this does not mean we are equally sinner and sufferer in every situation. A drunk driver may be drowning their pain from a tough childhood, but in that moment their sin is at the forefront of the care needed. Conversely, an abused child failing in school may be neglecting their schoolwork, but their home environment would merit attention before their study habits.
Pastorally we should help someone sort their moral laundry, so they know what aspects of Christ’s redemptive work to access: forgiveness or comfort.
- What part of your struggle is emerging from unbiblical behaviors, beliefs, or values (sin)?
- What part of your struggle is emerging from hardships outside of your control (suffering)?
That raises another question, “Since both sin and suffering are present in all our lives, how do we know where to start?” This question brings us to the second type of assessment we need to do: a severity of struggle assessment.
Here, we will use a five-level triage progression: (1) safety, (2) addiction, (3) trauma, (4) character, and (5) skill. The big idea is that we should address upper level concerns before lower level concerns. For example, we won’t be effective at character formation (level four) when someone is addicted to a mind or mood altering substance (level two). That is why addiction should be addressed first. Each sample dialogue below models how to redirect a counselee towards a higher level than their presenting problem.
However, it should be noted that in the higher categories denial is likely to be a complicating factor. For example: abusers, addicts, and those who have been traumatized are very prone to deny or minimize the impact of their struggle. A good triage model provides a reason-based system to appeal to in order to help individuals see why would not be effective to just “be nicer” and learn to “do better”.
When the basic requirements of safety are not present, safety takes priority over any other counseling concern. Safety is never an “unfair expectation” from a relationship. This category includes thoughts of suicide, violence, threats of violence, destruction of property, and similar experiences.
Sample Dialogue (suicide): “I hear you talking about how hard it is for you to live realizing how much pain you’ve caused your family. It makes sense why that is overwhelming. But I want to make sure our conversation does not add to your sense that life is not worth living. Can we pause from talking about what has happened with your family to talk about why suicide is not an answer?”
Sample Dialogue (abuse): “I can tell you’re very upset about the ways you believe your wife disrespects you, but in describing that, you’ve mentioned several things that are concerning: striking her when she ‘back-talked,’ not allowing a conversation to end when she asked for a break, and not allowing her to have access to transportation or talking to her parents. These behaviors are abusive and controlling. They raise concerns of safety which supersede potential concerns of disrespect. The way you describe her offensive actions as ‘causing’ (by implication excusing) your actions, indicates that your lack of self-control is a greater concern than the prompts for conflict.”
After safety, the use of mind or mood altering substances is the next level of priority concern. Addictions inhibit any maturation process. The consistency and stability required for lasting change are disrupted by addiction. Addiction here is not limited to substance abuse but could also refer to habituated life practices that lead to destruction (e.g., overspending leading to bankruptcy).
Sample Dialogue: “It is good that you want to learn how to manage conflict with your spouse, but when you’ve described your arguments they are usually in the evening when you’ve been drinking. It seems you ‘have a drink’ more nights than you do not, and this leads to much of the conflict with your spouse. Several times you’ve blamed what you’ve said as being excessive because you ‘had too much to drink.’ It is doubtful that you will practice the self-control necessary to engage conflict well as long as you abuse alcohol in the way you do. For this reason, if you are serious about your desire to manage conflict better, then you will need to address your substance abuse problem.”
Trauma is when past events significantly shape how we respond to present events. When in counseling, you notice the “then and there” creating an inability to respond to the “here and how” on its own terms, then it is likely you are speaking of a traumatic experience that needs to be resolved before the presenting problem can be effectively addressed.
This category could include physical or sexual abuse, significant verbal or emotional abuse, exposure to an act of violence, experience of a natural disaster, or a major unexpected loss.
Sample Dialogue: “I admire your desire to become ‘a more positive person’ and willingness to acknowledge how your pessimism may be impacting the sense of security in your children. But what you’re calling ‘being negative’ or ‘anxiety’ seems to be hypervigilance – a natural response to a trauma, like what happened when you lost everything in the house fire last year. I believe the most effective way to shape your character in the way you desire is to understand the impact of the trauma you and your children went through, so that you do not try to ‘just be stronger’ in a way that makes your normal response to a tragedy seem like a defect in your character.”
Character refers to persistent dispositions that express themselves in a variety of ways across a variety of settings. Skill training alone will not change character. If character concerns exist, then teaching skills without addressing the core values of an individual tends to result in change that only lasts as long as the consequences of misbehaving.
Sample Dialogue: “It takes a great deal of courage to admit you need to become a less controlling person. But the kinds of questions you’re asking center on the ‘rules of relationship” – what you can and cannot expect from others without being considered controlling. If we engage that conversation, I’ll just be helping you become a controlling-person-no-one-is-allowed-to-be-upset-with. It seems to me you are too emotionally dependent on your friends for your sense of security. As long as that is the case, even reasonable expectations will carry too much weight for you and friendship will be strained by your response to the normal short-comings of imperfect people.”
With skill level changes there will usually be a high degree of self-awareness that change is needed in the moment when change is needed. However, confusion or uncertainty prevents an individual from being able to respond in a manner that it is wise and appropriate.
Sample Dialogue: “I can understand why you are upset with yourself for frequently being late and disappointing your friends. It’s good that you’re willing to address this pattern, but I’m not sure it means you’re “chronic liar” (your words). It seems that you’re an extrovert who gets so lost in one moment you lose any sense of what’s next. If this is accurate, then we can begin by learning some scheduling or time management techniques. If this resolves the problem, then this is just a strength-weakness of your personality of which you need to be more aware and manage better.”
To help you begin to think in these categories, reflect on a couple of your more difficult pastoral counseling cases and use the chart below to help you sort through how good assessment could have helped you care for this individual or family better.
[The chart for this exercise can be found on Page 15 of the free PDF handbook.]
Follow Up Resources
- If you want to know more about types of counseling conversations or methods, consider reading “Four Types of Helpful Counseling Conversations.”
- If you want to know more about how the biblical category of idolatry can be shaped by experiences of sin and suffering, consider reading “Idols of Sin vs. Idols of Suffering.”
- If you want to know more about how the gospel speaks differently to the experiences of guilt, shame, and regret, consider reading “The Difference Between Guilt, Shame, and Regret.”
- If you want to know more about how “good counsel” can be both simple enough to follow but complex enough to be hard to give, consider reading “Simple Counsel; Complex Counseling.”