What are the limits of pastoral counseling?

I’ve often had the privilege of speaking with groups of pastors, ministry students, or congregational leaders. Thus, after posting to this blog faithfully for over seven years now, I’ve finally decided to add a feature specifically for pastors (and those who love them!). It will be called Pastors’ Corner, and will deal with issues related directly to ministry. These occasional posts will go up on Thursdays. Today’s post will be tagged “PC#1,” and subsequent posts will be numbered “PC#2” and so on; in that way, you can find them by typing the appropriately numbered tag into the search box on the site. All PC posts will also be filed under the category “Pastors’ Corner” and can be found that way as well.

As a minister who teaches seminarians training to be therapists, I was asked recently to speak briefly to the issue of the limits of pastoral counseling. I confess that I don’t care much for the question — at least not when it’s asked that way. I’m not saying, of course, that there are no limits. What I want to challenge is the presumption that our understanding of “counseling” should be defined (albeit implicitly) by the practice of psychotherapy.

The question of limits is similar to what therapists call “scope of practice” issues; in short, therapists should not be doing things for which they have not been adequately trained and supervised. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but it’s not. Licensed therapists must guard against the assumption that they should be able to add this or that therapeutic tool to their repertoire without additional training.

Framed that way, the question about pastoral counseling becomes, “When am I sliding over into territory that only psychotherapists are trained to handle?” Or, in more urgent terms: “How do I know when I’m in over my head?”

There’s no simple answer to that question. But again, I want to challenge the presumption behind it.

Ask yourself honestly: do you (and perhaps others around you) think of pastoral counseling as some version of “Therapy Lite,” with some prayer and maybe a Bible verse or two thrown in for good measure?

I wouldn’t blame you if you did. The history of modern pastoral counseling is littered with the remains of faddish applications of the latest approaches to therapy and self-help.

Don’t get me wrong. I spend a good deal of my professional life applying the insights of psychology to ministry. What I want us to get away from, however, is any perception of pastoral counseling as some pale or insipid version of “real” therapy.

And in order to do that, we first need some vision of what pastoral counseling is or should be, not what it isn’t or shouldn’t be. Specifically, you need to know what your positive vision of pastoral counseling is, and you need to communicate this clearly to the people you counsel.

Here are some general principles to consider:

  • The way you counsel people as a pastor should be an organic expression of your congregation’s shared vision of discipleship, of the vision of Christian living that you are striving toward together. If you don’t know what that is, or if the members of your congregation couldn’t tell you (beyond vague generalities like “We want to be more like Jesus”), then start there.
  • Pastoral counseling then becomes a way of helping people live out that vision concretely in the context of their day-to-day struggles, through more focused and detailed conversations. There is no one “right” way to do this.
  • The role of psychology here is not primarily to define how you should conduct those conversations (i.e., to teach you therapeutic method). Again, that’s not to say you won’t gain some practical insights into what to say to people and how to say it. But the foremost reason for learning some psychology should be to understand what makes people tick, why they do what they do. That understanding will enrich your counseling and help you connect with people’s lived experience in a way that they feel you “get it.”
  • Instead of trying to learn specific counseling methods, focus on two things. Get good at (a) “people skills,” particularly the ability to listen well and deeply, and (b) managing your own emotions, especially in the face of uncertainty and conflict.

More will be said about such points in future posts. But all of this must be integrated into how you educate your congregation regarding a shared vision of the Christian life, and how that vision plays out in the nitty-gritty of daily human interaction between broken believers. Make sure they understand that your role as a pastor who counsels is not to give free Therapy Lite nor to fix their problems. Rather, it’s to help them sort out matters of discipleship when their daily difficulties seem to get in the way of their being able to live out the vision.