People Helping in the Church
PART 1: A Biblical Model for Counseling in the 21st Century
More than ever, the 21st-century pastor must stay anchored in the timeless and changeless truths and principles of God's Word.
Pastoral ministry in the 21st century compels the Assemblies of God pastor to reflect on what is truly important for soul care in the church. Changing family structure, incessant time pressures and a plethora of parishioner problems often leave the pastor feeling overstretched and overextended. More than ever, the 21st-century pastor must stay anchored in the timeless and changeless truths and principles of God's Word. Why? People will continue to look to their pastor as their first source of help instead of the mental health professional.1 As God met our greatest need by becoming incarnate in the world, the Spirit-filled pastor uses the gifts of communication to faithfully serve others and administer God's grace (1 Peter 4:10).
Saving the Lost Healing the Saved
The 21st-century pastor will continue to shepherd the local church in the dual role of introducing people to Jesus as his* primary evangelistic mission (Mark 16:15), and saving the believer's kingdom potential as his primary pastoral mission. Pastoral counseling, then, is the comprehensive study of human behavior pursued under the discipline of Scripture. The pastor/counselor is a specialist in applied sanctification.
Most pastors know they should be involved in counseling, but many lack the how-to's and confidence that comes from acquiring basic counseling skills. The purpose of this series of articles is to provide the pastor with some basic skills regarding his role as counselor. This article addresses the importance of Christian counseling as part of one's ministry followed by an examination of the characteristics and general goals of pastoral counseling. This article also provides a simple counseling structure that can be used at the beginning of the interview process. Future articles will describe how to conduct a brief diagnostic assessment, how to develop treatment goals/plans, and how to avoid the most common counseling traps.
Personal Qualities of the Pastor/Counselor
The pastor needs to reflect on what he brings to any counseling relationship. This involves godly character, significant personal experiences, a theistic worldview, and personal beliefs about how a person changes.
The wise pastor has a basic understanding of the contributions of the behavioral sciences in the areas of learning, memory, and the developmental process. While God reveals himself commonly to all persons through His general revelation, He reveals His Son and His Word through special revelation. If something is discovered to be truth in the natural sciences, it will never conflict with the revealed truth of Scripture. All truth is God's truth.
From Ephesians 4, we discover that the desire to help people arises from a deeply transformed heart energized by the Holy Spirit. The pastor is humble, gentle, patient, tolerant of others, and a peacekeeper. The pastor resolves anger quickly, and is kind, compassionate, and forgiving.
People will continue to look to their pastor as their first source of help instead of the mental health professional.
The pastor/counselor is a servant, a promoter of truth, mature in Christ, and strives to renew his or her mind. He or she is active in the spiritual disciplines,2 is generous to those in need, and seeks to build up others. In short, the pastor/counselor has a well-trained mind and Holy Spirit-governed heart.3
Why People Need Their Pastor as Counselor
The most obvious purpose for Christian counseling is for Christians to realize their divine potential, to develop maturity in the "full stature of Christ." Many believers, however, suffer from wrong images of God, crippling views of themselves, hurtful experiences from their past, and destructive habits. Since the pastor is available and knowledgeable of people (often throughout their entire life span), they tend to choose their pastor as a first source of help when facing life's predictable difficulties.
Structuring the Counseling Relationship
To keep expectations realistic, the pastor needs to share the following at the beginning of the counseling relationship.
During the first session I explain things. To make sure I have communicated clearly, I ask for feedback. This is where the person explains in his or her own words what I have said.
The counseling process consists of three parts: your part, my part, and things we work on together.
- Your part is to be open and honest with me as you discuss your concerns.
- My part is to listen and try to understand what you tell me. Get feedback to ensure that the person understands his or her responsibilities in the counseling relationship.
- The third part of the counseling process is shared responsibility confidentiality, decision-making, and learning.
Confidentiality means that I won't discuss with others the things we talk about here. (Note: Exceptions to this rule include suicide risk, homicide, and child abuse/neglect.)
We will work hard to learn how to make decisions, but the responsibility for making the decision is yours. You will learn a number of things in our counseling sessions that you will be able to use in your life outside of the counseling relationship. (Again, get feedback to ensure that the person understands the shared responsibilities of the counseling relationship.)
The Counseling Process
The pastor/counselor begins the counseling session by communicating an attitude of trust and respect. After explaining the counseling structure, a good way to open the actual counseling is to ask: "What brings you to see me?" or "What would you like to talk about?"
Explore the nature and extent of the concern with leads that begin with who, what, where, when, why, and how.
Goal planning comes next. The pastor/counselor guides the parishioner to develop clear, manageable goals. Train the person in the skills of problem solving and decision making. In later articles in this series, I will describe specific techniques.
At the end of each counseling session, always assign some type of homework. Closing the session in prayer lets the person know that he or she is not alone in his or her efforts. It also gives the pastor an opportunity to summarize key insights gained in the counseling session.
With prayer, practice, persistence, and patience you can be a highly effective people helper in the role of counselor.
*Even though this article refers to the pastor in the male gender, it equally applies to women who minister in this role.
- For a more complete discussion of what the typical Assemblies of God pastor does, see my article, "The Many Roles and Demands of the Assemblies of God Pastor" in Enrichment, 1, no. 2 (Spring 1996): 8893.
- See Richard Foster's, Celebration of Discipline 3rd ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1998), for a more complete discussion of the inward, outward, and corporate disciplines. I also suggest Dallas Willard's book, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).
- See Wayde I. Goodall's chapter, "What Is Biblical Counseling?" in The Pentecostal Pastor: A Mandate for the 21st Century. ed. Thomas E. Trask, Wayde I. Goodall, Zenas J. Bicket. (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1997).