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.

You can download the free PDF handbook that accompanies these videos. Thank you to Ministry Grid for recording and making these videos available.

When is a pastor a counselor? What emotion-laden conversations count as “counseling” conversations? Is it only the ones that happen in your office by appointment or do the tearful ones between services count too? When am I just a “friend offering advice” and when am I a “pastor offering counsel”?

Before we can know how to do pastoral counseling well, we must know when we’re actually counseling as pastors. This is not as clear as most people think it would be.

Let’s start by considering three questions that help you determine if someone is interacting with you for general pastoral care or is asking for pastoral counseling. If the answer to any of the following questions is “yes,” then two things are true:

  1. You need to have a clarifying conversation; what professional counselors call “informed consent.”
  2. This lesson series is going to equip you for what needs to happen from this point forward.

First, is this person accelerating the rate of their disclosure?

Stated more simply, are they sharing more with you than the depth of your relationship would warrant? Do you know this person well enough that, if you were not their pastor, they would be sharing this information with you?

When the rate of disclosure is faster than the depth of relationship would warrant, then this person is talking to you in your official role as pastor. It doesn’t matter if you are in your pastor’s study, in the foyer of the church, or at a coffee shop.

When the rate of disclosure is faster than the depth of relationship would warrant, then this person is talking to you in your official role as pastor. Click To Tweet

Second, is this person giving artificial weight to your words?

Again, to simply state this question, are they treating you like an expert? Do they have more confidence in what you’re saying than you do?

When someone is giving heightened weight to our words, we have an obligation to either (a) ensure that our words merit this weight, or (b) let them know that their confidence may not be warranted.

As an important side note, we need to realize that our competency as a counselor and the sufficiency of Scripture are not the same thing. Acknowledging our personal limits is no insult to our Bible.

Third, does this person want more than comfort and prayer? Sometimes people share weighty things with their pastor, but simply want prayer and encouragement. We don’t need to overly formalize these interactions or pressure someone to engage in a degree of care greater than they are requesting.

During a lecture series like this we can easily fall into the “to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail” trap. Just because we are talking about formal, pastoral counseling doesn’t mean that formal, pastoral counseling is what every emotion-laden conversation with a church member should become.

As a general rule, the church member should decide if general pastoral care becomes formal pastoral counseling, and, when this decision is made, the pastor should inform that person about the implications.

Notice what I didn’t give you, because I can’t. I didn’t give you a T-chart with life struggles that pastoral counselors should address in one column and life struggles that professional counselors should address in the other.

Subjects for Pastoral Counseling

Subjects for Professional Counseling


That’s what we want. It would make life simpler. So why didn’t I do that? When we think in terms of a T-chart we add to the stigma and isolation commonly associated with counseling. The person experiencing a life struggle that would merit professional counseling still needs Christian friends and a pastor.

We want to be pastors and lead churches that decrease the stigma and isolation associated with counseling. That means we need to think of counseling in terms of “styles of relating” rather than for “a certain class of struggles.” Friendship, pastoral care, and professional counseling are each a style of relating which can be helpful for any life struggle. When done well, these styles of relating complement one another.

So that brings us to the question, “What do we say when an informal conversation begins to move towards formal, pastoral counseling?” Here are a few guiding principles:

  • Let the individual finish describing the situation and framing their request before speaking.
  • Thank them for trusting you as their pastor with this information.
  • Affirm the wisdom and courage this person has shown by reaching out for help.
  • Transition to an informed consent (i.e., expectation management) conversation as an extension of your desire to care for them well.

To put flesh on this outline, imagine a church member comes to you after service and begins to talk about a life struggle. Here is what your response might sound like:

Initially it sounds like listening until the person is (a) satisfied they have described their situation and (b) made a request for how they would like you to help.

If, while listening, this church member just wants you to pray for them, you would pray. If that feels incomplete, ask if they would like to talk further.

“Thank you for being willing to share this with me. Too many people hurt alone and in silence. When they do, it feels like God is distant from their pain. I wish more people invited their church to care for them like you are doing. If it’s okay with you, let’s set a time to meet this week when we can talk more and discern what resources in our church or community might be the best fit to help you.”

The closing sentence in this sample statement sets the expectation that the first meeting will be focused on assessing the situation and identifying best-fit resources to care for them. Additional informed consent can be provided during this first meeting if it is determined that formal, pastoral counseling is a good fit.

This brings us to one final question in this lesson, “How do I know if I’m a good fit for their needs? How do I make a decision about whether my level of competence would allow me to provide quality pastoral counseling?”

We’ll answer this question in two ways. First, I will give you a simple litmus test question that serves as a subjective, intuitive gauge. Second, I will give you a point-based chart to provide a more objective framework for this decision.

Here is a simple question, “Do you know the next question to ask and why you would ask it?” If you feel lost in how to direct the conversation, then your level of competence for their struggle is that of a friend rather than a counselor. That’s still an immensely valuable role.

If you want a more objective gauge, consider the chart from Garrett Higbee’s book Uncommon Community (page 51; modified and adapted):



5 10

Wisdom Issue

Moderate Conflict


Mild Stress

Distressed but Functioning

Stronghold Sin

Everyday Problems More Complex Issues

Significant Suffering






Sees Sin

Blame Shifts


Makes Excuses


Highly Teachable

Moderately Teachable

Denial – Not Teachable





Close to Family

Some Family Support

Estranged from Family

Intimate and Accountable

Few Friends

No Friends

Vulnerable in Small Group Somewhat Open in Small Group

Isolated – Not in Small Group

The three rows in this chart define three areas of assessment: (a) the severity of the life struggle, (b) the level of ownership over key choices, and (c) the degree of social support in the individual’s life.

The three columns provide descriptions that indicate a growing degree of concern: (a) the one point column describes things a mature Christian friend should be able to assist with, (b) the five point column describes things for which it would be preferable to have a pastor come alongside that mature Christian friend, and (c) the ten point column describes situations for which the advisement of an experienced counselor would help the pastor and friend.

Garrett Higbee provides the following scoring system for this chart (page 51; modified and adapted):

  • 3-9 Points: The peer-support care of a good friend or small group should be adequate
  • 10-21 Points: Adding pastoral consultation and counseling is advised
  • 22-30 Points: Adding the perspective of an experienced counselor is recommended

The transition from column one to column two is when one member in your church says to another, hurting member, “I am grateful to get to walk with you through this hardship. I want to make sure we benefit from all our church has to offer. Can we also talk with our pastor about this to get his input?”

The transition from column two to column three is when you, as pastor, would say something like, “I can tell why this has been challenging. It’s not immediately clear to me either how to best respond. I appreciate your trust in talking to me. I think our care for you, as a church, would be enhanced if you spoke with an experienced counselor, so that we are sure we are not missing something as we walk alongside you.”

It is important to remember that making a referral is not a “hand off” but “adding a member to the care team.” You are not outsourcing pastoral care but getting another set of more experienced eyes on the situation. You continue to provide pastoral care, just with greater confidence that important elements in this person’s care is not being overlooked.

Hopefully, knowing when, why, and how to have the conversation covered in this lesson will allow you to engage with the rest of this tutorial on pastoral counseling with greater freedom. When we realized that we don’t have to be good at everything to be a good pastor, it frees us up to fulfill with excellence those that we are equipped to do.

When we realized that we don’t have to be good at everything to be a good pastor, it frees us up to fulfill with excellence those that we are equipped to do. Click To Tweet

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