EthicsPastors (i.e., those whose primary responsibilities are preaching and teaching for the purpose of evangelizing the lost and equipping church members for ministry) and counselors (i.e., those who primarily meet with individuals or groups for the purpose of overcoming a particular struggle or life transition) often approach their respective ministry ethics quite differently.

These differences account for many of the tensions that have historically existed between pastors and counselors. In this post I will examine one facet that accounts for these differences by examining the leading question and principle that drives the ethical decision making of each. Admittedly, reducing the ethical decision making of either to a single criterion is reductionist, but I do so to illustrate the primary point and trust the reader not to over-extend the point.

I will develop the counselor side of the discussion more since it is less familiar to the average church.

Pastor’s Leading Ethical Question:How could I love people (plural) well without making the gospel known in every way possible? Said differently, how could anything that makes Christ more known be unwise or unethical?

Pastor’s Lead Principle: Make Christ known.

The pastoral ethic might be summarized in the phrase, “Every Christian this side of heaven owes a clear presentation of the gospel to every unbeliever this side of Hell.” The pastor is beholden to and burdened for the entire world.

Decision making is made based upon what advances God’s kingdom. It is expected that everyone make sacrifices for this cause and it is the pastor’s role, as God’s herald, to call people to these sacrifices. This involves…

  • Discipleship of believers… through calls to faith, obedience, and sacrifice.
  • Purity of the church… through church discipline and upholding the moral teaching of Scripture.
  • Evangelism of unbelievers… through calling attention to their lost state as a means of helping see their need for the gospel.

Counselor’s Leading Ethical Question: How do I care well for the person (singular) in front of me and rightly steward the information he/she has entrusted to me?

Counselor’s Lead Principle: Do no harm.

The counselor is beholden to the individual or couple for whom he/she serves in the role of counselor. Using the word “counseling” to describe a relationship entails at least two things: (a) the person seeking counsel is disclosing his/her life story in an artificially accelerated manner, and (b) the person seeking counsel will give additional weight to the guidance of the counselor because of the experience or education or the counselor.

Decision making is made based upon what is in the best interest of the counselee (unless the safety of others is involved). The counselor is cautious to not allow his/her voice to supersede the counselee’s voice in decision making; sustainable change requires the counselee to remain in the lead decision making role, but the roles of counseling can fight against this. Therefore, the counselor is perpetually vigilant for when he/she may have undue influence in the counseling relationship.

This means the Christian counselor comes to points above differently than the teaching/equipping pastor.

  • Discipleship of believers… assessing an individual’s readiness to act on calls to faith, obedience, and sacrifice based upon their current emotional, relational, and spiritual health.

o    There can be tension between a pastor’s broad-based call to “step out in faith and trust God” and a counselor’s assessment of factors in an individual’s life that would make this good step, unwise in the moment (i.e., going on a mission trip in an impoverished area while experiencing PTSD or volunteering in an area of needed ministry when one’s marriage is already strained).

o    Having an individual publicly share their story of significant life change in a public forum before that change has been assimilated because it is edifying for the church body. For this subject I have created a resource to help churches and ministries avoid this frequent dilemma.

  • Purity of the church… helping a counselee navigate the tensions when his/her current moral values or lifestyle may not be in keeping with his/her Christian beliefs without communicating that the counselee must follow God in a way that diminishes the counselee’s voice in the matter.

o    A counselor will be more neutral with a counselee than a pastor is with a parishioner because pastoral relationship is authoritative while a counseling relationship is advisory. Even when the pastor and counselor share the same values, the tone of the interaction will be different. This is based upon at least one key distinction between pastoral and counseling relationships.

      • Note: I believe it is this distinction, which is often misunderstood by both sides, that leads to much of the friction that exists (when it is present) between pastors and counselors.
      • Pastoral relationships exist in covenant community governed by biblical standards and overseen by the elders of the church. Pastors have a delegated authority to which their parishioners have agreed to adhere to in order to remain a member in good standing with that particular church.
      • Counseling is a voluntary relationship that exists for the duration of time for which the counselee deems the benefits of counseling as being greater than the time investment. Counselors have no authority over a counselee and their influence is had purely through the voluntary cooperation of the counselee.

o    A counselor will also be assessing a church’s readiness to handle the subject at hand. Is the counselee’s church prepared to care for someone who experiences unwanted same sex attraction? Would the church prematurely confront an abusive spouse in a way that might endanger the abused counselee who reaches out for help?

  • Evangelism of unbelievers… through helping the counselee see the emptiness of their pursuits (if their struggle is sin-based) or their need for more than temporal comfort (if their struggle is suffering-based) and bringing the counselee to the kind of questions that beg for a gospel answer.

o    An individual in a pastoral role will be more assertive in initiating a gospel question than an individual in a counselor role. The pastor either works from the biblical text (when preaching and teaching) or the biblically desired outcome (when discipling in a more personal context). The time requirements of shepherding an entire church require this. The counselor works from the questions of the counselee and limits his/her counseling caseload in order to ensure this can happen.

o    Personal Note: In a counseling context, even when a gospel conversation seems ripe, I prefer to direct the counselee to a Christian in their sphere of natural relationships for the final stages of placing their faith in Christ. Discipleship happens in relationship. If the formality of my role as counselor does not allow me to fill that role as friend, then this person is better served to share that moment with someone who can be in that relational-discipling role.

Hopefully you can see that the leading ethical questions and principles of the pastor and counselor are good. Both have their place. People need both in their lives; pastoring more frequently than counseling.

There is a tension that exists in this post, which I do not believe can be neatly resolved. Pastors serve as counselors and counselors should live on mission. On the counseling side, good intake forms that provide informed consent about the nature of counseling and how information will be handled can alleviate much of this tension. On the pasturing side, a greater appreciation for the “do no harm” ethic can create a better working relationship with counselors.

Another hope from reading this post is that there can be a better appreciation between pastors and counselors for why they make the decisions and set the limits they do.

  • Counselors will view pastors less as wreckless ideologues who are only concerned with growing the church.
  • Pastors will view Christian counselors less as faithless obstructionists who are unwilling to fully cooperate with the needs of the church.

If this can happen, then both callings benefit.

  • Christian counselors will seek to build more informed consent measures to allow themselves to cooperate with churches and be more overtly Christian in the content of their counseling.
  • Pastors will have a greater appreciation for the responsibilities that come with being entrusted with privileged information and how individual factors may impact the response to calls for faith, obedience, and sacrifice.

If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on the Church and Counseling” post which address other facets of this subject.