My wife, Irene, is a couples and sex therapist. Her practice is full. There is no shortage of people who seek her out in order to get some direction or help for their relationship.
One thing that constantly amazes me about my wife’s work is just how difficult it is. I can see the difficulty from several perspectives. For starters, in order to earn her professional qualifications, Irene had to get a Master’s degree in social work. Supervisors—master therapists—monitored her progress, and even now continue to work with her through difficult cases, give her tips on the procedures she uses in different counseling situations, and suggest areas for further education and study.
But formal education and supervision are only the beginning. Irene has worked hard to earn specialized certification in two specialized areas, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing for trauma victims, and Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples. Both certifications involved more supervision, study, and conferences. And, I can’t help but notice that Irene uses a lot of her leisure time poring over training videos, reading books and articles, and taking courses. In the meantime, Irene has herself become a supervisor for other couples therapists.
All this, and sometimes, at dinner, Irene will look me in the eye and still say something like, “couples counseling is so hard!”
I think of my wife a lot when I hear pastors talk about their counseling load. I think of her because I know that these pastors, unlike my wife, have had barely any professional training. I wonder what in the world they are doing when they say they’re counseling. These pastors may have empathy, they may have emotional intelligence, and they may have taken one or two courses in pastoral counseling at seminary—but when it comes to counseling, they are actually total amateurs.
Counseling is a skilled vocation for which it takes years of focused training and supervision to become adept. Ninety-five percent of pastors don’t have that training. So while pastors might be wise friends who can steer a congregant in the right direction on a whole host of matters, if such steering takes more than one or two visits, the pastor should be referring that congregant on to a professional counselor.
I can think of several reasons why pastors might want to, or be pressured to, counsel, in spite of their own misgivings. A professional couples counselor can be very expensive. Pastors—whether they’re trained for it or not—tend to cost a lot less. So people start with pastors. There is also a sort of prestige that goes with saying you’re a counselor that just doesn’t go with being a pastor. Consciously or not, pastors might gravitate to that prestige.
So what to do? I have three thoughts. First, pastors should never shut their doors on people who call and say, “I need help.” Invite those people to come on over, and listen to their stories. Just make sure that you, as a pastor, understand your limits. In this sort of situation you are a referral source. Help your parishioners find the counseling they need.
Second, remember that there is one kind of counsel that pastors must always be willing to give—spiritual counsel. That is, many people who need professional counseling also need to hear that in spite of their struggles—be it with anger or depression or anxiety—God still loves them, unconditionally. People need a place where they can confess their need and hear good news. In some traditions, this is called "cure of souls."
Finally, pastors shouldn’t neglect pastoral visitation—especially to play at counseling. To use a somewhat hackneyed Biblical image, the pastor is a shepherd, and shepherds know their sheep. Otherwise, how would the pastor ever be able to speak to what is living in the hearts and minds of the people who worship? Without regular pastoral visitation, how will the pastor know who to pray for, or how to lead, or who needs encouragement to see a counselor? Regular, disciplined pastoral visitation is what pastors do. Pastoral visitation is the pastor’s vocation. Counseling is someone else’s.