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.
Do you remember the too long ending of The Lords of Rings series? It seems to take Frodo and Sam forever to return home to the Shire. One of the things that Tolkein was conveying in his extended conclusion was that the conquering of a problem is not the same thing as settling into a new normal. Even when things are “better” they do not return to being “the same.” The journey changes things.The conquering of a problem is not the same thing as settling into a new normal. Even when things are “better” they do not return to being “the same.” The journey changes things. Click To Tweet
The same is true for pastoral counseling. The journey of pastoral counseling changes your relationship with a church member, even when counseling is helpful. In professional counseling, accomplishing objectives means the end of the counseling relationship. But in pastoral counseling, you face the process of becoming “just a pastor” to this person again.
With that in mind, we are going to talk about three things that need to happen in a concluding session. The culmination of formal counseling is the resuming of an old-now-different pastoral relationship.
- Review the progress made and key contributing factors
- Identify key choices to maintain progress
- Discuss the transition to being “just a pastor” again
Looking Back: Review Progress
Socrates is famous for having said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The parallel statement, “Unreviewed counseling is not worth doing,” is only a slight hyperbole. Life is busy. It would easy to just move on to the next thing, but much would be lost if we did.
If we don’t take time to reflect and evaluate, we are likely to drift back towards what prompted the need for counseling. As many a pastor and counselor have said, “People don’t drift in a good direction.” Continued growth requires intentionality.
As you review progress, here are some questions to help guide this part of the conversation.
- What were the primary life challenges that prompted counseling?
- What were key choices that that made the biggest positive impact?
- What did you learn about yourself, God, and the gospel during counseling?
- What beliefs or values did you need to change to experience the desired growth?
- How would you articulate the key truths that made the biggest impact?
- Who did you invite into your life in a more meaningful way during counseling?
- What are the remaining goals you want to work on within your peer group?
- What choices are most important to maintain the change you’ve experienced? (transition)
Looking Ahead: Identify Key Choices
The last question of the looking back process is the first question of the looking ahead process. The doctrine of progressive sanctification means that we never “arrive” as people. There are always new areas to grow and see our character refined. Each new season of life also presents new growth opportunities.
There are two ways to think about the looking ahead question. First, you can identify the most important elements from counseling that need to be maintained. What do we want to retain from counseling? Second, you can do a general sustainability assessment of life. What will need to be different after counseling?
These two questions force us to grapple with a counter-intuitive reality. Not everything that is necessary to promote change is sustainable after the season of change concludes. Some things that are good during counseling are unsustainable post-counseling.
For instance, residential rehab may be an important step to recover from alcohol abuse, but someone cannot live in rehab. Similarly, there are sacrifices someone makes to get out of severe debt that would be over-restrictive once the financial crisis is averted. Some choices are good “for a season,” others are perpetually wise. As we conclude counseling, it is good to help someone discern the difference.
This is true for the person in counseling and for you as the pastoral counselor. The time and frequency of meeting that you’ve devoted during counseling was sustainable for a season but is not something you could continue and fulfill your responsibilities to the congregation as whole. That is why we will talk about becoming “just a pastor” again in just a moment.
As you assess how to maintain change, here are some questions to help guide this part of the conversation.
- What one thing will be most important to do or keep an eye on to maintain the progress you’ve made?
- Regarding that one thing, who do you need to tell in order to have support and accountability?
- What would be the early indicators that this one thing was beginning to slip?
- In addition to assessments related to counseling goals, this is also a time to review key practices to maintain a sustainable life.
- Spiritual Disciplines: What spiritual discipline is the best indicator of your spiritual health?
- Values and Worship: What priority or value is the best early indicator that your priorities are beginning to drift from what is God-honoring and sustainable?
- Physical Health: What matters of diet, sleep, and exercise are most important for you to steward your body’s influence over your soul and emotions?
- Time and Financial Balance: What is the best indicator that you are beginning to cut into your time or financial margin in a way that is unwise?
- Relational Health: Who are the people that need to know the answers to these questions, when are you regularly engaged with them, and how are you caring for them as they care for you?
Discuss Being “Just a Pastor” Again
Now we get to the portion of the conversation that, if we’re not careful, feels like a ministerial break up talk. This is also the part of pastoral counseling that if it’s not done overloads the pastor’s schedule, if it’s done poorly is spiritually harmful to the counselee, but if it’s done well prevents God’s design for the one another ministry of the church from being replaced by the individual care of the paid pastoral staff.
For this component of pastoral counseling to be done well, it has to have been foreshadowed. That is why we’ve been alluding to step periodically. The counselee needs to understand that pastoral counseling is a short-term, intensive component of general pastoral care and the ministry of the church-at-large.
With that said, let’s consider a sample monologue of what this component of pastoral counseling might sound like and reflect on the key components of this interaction.
“As we’ve been looking back and looking ahead, you’ve probably gotten the sense that we are culminating formal counseling. From our first meeting, we have talked about pastoral counseling being a short-term component of ongoing pastoral care; that I would always be your pastor but that I wouldn’t perpetually be your counselor.
We’re now at the point where I become ‘just your pastor’ again. That doesn’t mean you only hear from me on Sunday morning during the sermon. It means that our conversations are at a common social setting level (e.g., talking before or after church events, praying together after services, or conversation after a Bible study) or written correspondence (e.g., encouragement and guidance that can be effectively provided through email).
I want you to know that I will not bring up elements from our counseling conversations in a public setting. But you are welcome to initiate updates to me when you are comfortable with the setting. When I ask, “How are you doing?” always feel free to share as much or as little as you feel comfortable. [Based on the counseling need, indicate to the person a general frequency with which you anticipate following up with a phone call or home visit about how they are doing.]
If you feel like you still need more guidance, I would be happy to talk about how one of the ministries of our church or a counselor in our community can continue the work we’ve been doing together. I would want you to update me on how these forms of care are going so I could pray for and encourage you in your continued growth.
This is also why we’ve spent time talking today about who from our church you would want to engage with for one another care. We want to make sure we, as a church, are caring well for all our members and that requires all our members to be involved in giving-and-receiving care.”
Name and Acknowledge the Transition: There is no “slick” way to avoid naming the transition. If you have done a good job of setting expectations, this conversation should not be a surprise. The more comfortable you are in initiating and articulating this part of the conversation, the less awkward it will be. You want to be compassionate without being apologetic in this discussion.
Define General Pastoral Care: It is important to articulate the nature of the transition. Pastoral counseling is private and exclusive. Pastoral care is done within the context of community. For example, you would not do pastoral counseling in a church lobby, but you would do pastoral care in that setting. Another example, you would not stop praying for someone because another person walked by, but you would pause a counseling discussion if someone were able to overhear the conversation.
This conversation is not a transition from pastoral availability to non-availability. It is a transition from exclusive pastoral availability for scheduled periods of time (i.e., a weekly hour-long appointment in a private office) to availability in the regular discipleship rhythms of church life.
By way of pronoun, you are asking for a transition from “my” pastor to “our” pastor in how the counselee thinks of you. The pronoun “my” communicates “private and exclusive.” The pronoun “our” reveals a sense that your pastoral duties are towards an entire group of people.
In this conversation, you want to emphasize the number of ways that you are still available to them. You are moving from a private relationship of guidance to one of social support as others take on the primary role of counselor (if needed).
Offer Connection with Other Care and Counseling Options: You are not saying that their struggle has resolved. Many life struggles will persist beyond six to eight meetings. Your limitations are not their time clock to achieve their goals. After your time with them as counselor, you should be able to make wise recommendations for good-fit ongoing care resources.
Whenever possible, you want to recommend options available within your church. But there will be times when their need is outside what your church can do well. As pastors and churches, we need to have the humility to acknowledge what we can/can’t do well and the integrity to make sure that the helping resources we recommend are a good fit for an individual’s current struggle.
You want to be supportive as someone engages these resources. This support is part of pastoral care that transcends the before and after of pastoral counseling. You want to find times and ways to get updates on how they are doing and how you can pray for them.
Emphasize the Role of One Another Care: This is another way to return pastoral counseling to the axiom, “It takes a church to raise a Christian.” The Ephesians 4:12 model for ministry leaders is that pastors “equip the saints for the work of ministry.” Concluding formal pastoral counseling is one way of acknowledging that pastors cannot and should not do all the ministry of the church.
We cannot privatize the work of discipleship to the professional clergy. Instead the vocational pastor’s job is to mobilize and equip the congregation to care for another.
Conclusion: With this conversation about the conclusion of formal counseling, you should pastor this individual in the same way that cultivated the trust which prompted them to deem you safe and caring enough to confide their struggle. Returning to normalcy helps alleviates the stigma of counseling that comes from the fear, “If I share my struggle, people will treat me differently.” Being the kind of pastor that led people to seek counseling from you is being a good pastor after counseling.Being the kind of pastor that led people to seek counseling from you is being a good pastor after counseling. Click To Tweet
Follow Up Resources
- If you want to learn more about the concluding conversation of counseling, consider reading “9 Questions to Help You Steward All of Your Life for God’s Glory.”
- If you want to learn more about how to facilitate more intentional one another ministry through small groups, consider reading “Using Prayer Request Times to Cultivate Ministry.”