9 things I’ve learned about God, life, and myself from pastoral counseling

This is part of a series on various aspects of pastoral ministry and what I’ve learned along the way. See the full series at Pastor: The first 20 years.

When I first started in ministry, I was quick to say that I was interested in preaching, teaching, studying Scripture, leading teams, and maybe even doing the administrative work. I was not all that interested in pastoral counseling, weddings, funerals, and the like.

I had a number of reasons.

Some had to do with my perceptions about what was and wasn’t my “gifting.” I’m much more scientist than artist, much more thinker than feeler (solid ENTJ/INTJ).

Some had to do with my preferences. Up close work with people seemed much messier than the preaching/teaching/leading work. It put me in less control. And it frankly just didn’t seem as exciting.

Some had to do with my ideals. I aspired to be like other pastors I watched from a distance. It wasn’t their pastoral care that made an impression on me––not something that usually makes an impression at a distance. It was their bold leadership and challenging preaching.

That was the model.

But now, a couple of decades in, pastoral counseling, weddings, and funerals have become my most cherished parts of ministry. Of all that I get to do, these moments are the greatest honor. It’s humbling and a privilege when people are willing to let you in during their moments of deepest struggle or greatest celebration, during life and faith crises, and during some of their most crucial moments of decision-making.

When lockdowns hit last spring, leading teams and preaching continued, albeit in different forms. The administrative aspects certainly continued. It was the time spent with people across a living room or coffee table that stopped. And I realized then that without those components, I lose a lot of my energy for ministry. Announcing the gospel for people publicly just wasn’t the same without the opportunity to sit across from them and talk about God’s work in their particular lives.

All of this constitutes the first thing I’ve learned from pastoral counseling: These moments are a privilege, a joy, and an honor.

I lead with this for two reasons:

1 – A lot of people who set a time to meet with me begin with apologies. “I know you’re really busy. I hate to take up your time.” Some are reluctant to even ask. When I first meet with people new to the church, I try to tell them that these meetings are a blessing, not a burden. I don’t want people to hesitate to ask. If you have a need, let me encourage you not to hesitate to ask your pastor about getting together.

(I should add, on the other side of this, that I do also limit the number of times I meet with someone. More on that below.)

2 – I’ve met several other aspiring pastors who have the same mentality I had. They’re excited to study, teach, and preach. Or they’re excited to lead their churches to new “church growth” heights. They’re not too interested in the pastoral care pieces. I write this to encourage them to expand their vision of pastoral ministry––and to see how good this part can be.

Some other things I’ve learned along the way …

(2) God answers prayers. I’m aware that I get to hear many more testimonies about God’s work in people’s lives than most people do. That includes regular talk about the ways that God has answered prayer. Sometimes this comes as a surprising new opportunity or development, right as someone was praying for it. Sometimes it’s clarity and confirmation about a major life decision. Sometimes it’s miraculous healing. Most people I talk to can name a time in their lives when they saw God answer a prayer. Many of the people I talk to through a particular situation will come, at some point in the process, and share about a clear answer to their prayers.

I acknowledge that sometimes “answers to prayer” can seem like, well … ordinary occurrences or not-wildly-unlikely coincidences. That is to say, if you’re skeptical about “answered prayers,” I am sometimes, too. I’m not sure everything we call an answer to prayer was an obvious divine intervention. But I’ve also heard enough of these stories that go far beyond ordinary occurrence and into wildly-unlikely.

When people are diligent in prayer, remarkable things frequently follow. Not every time. Not always quickly or in the ways that people would expect. But they happen. And often enough that I get to celebrate these with people regularly. As I get to listen to these accounts and watch some extraordinary things God is doing in people’s lives, I’m regularly reminded of the incredible power of prayer. I’m convinced that if I would pray more––more consistently, more fervently, more honestly––I would see God’s action more.

(3) I can honor and cherish people or I can try to fix them. Doing both at once doesn’t work well.

Above, I mentioned some pastors I aspired to be like early on. Eugene Peterson wasn’t on that list then, but he may be #1 now. In his memoir, he writes about a time early in ministry when he was learning clinical counseling techniques and using them on his congregation. But then he recognized that he was identifying and defining people according to their problems. He writes:

Congregation is a company of people who are defined by their creation in the image of God, living souls, whether they know it or not. They are not problems to be fixed, but mysteries to be honored and revered. Who else in the community other than the pastor has the assigned task of greeting men and women and welcoming them into a congregation in which they are known not by what is wrong with them, but by who they are, just as they are?

Eugene Peterson, The Pastor: A Memoir

I’m grateful that our society has people whose specific work and training involves identifying our problems and helping us fix, overcome, or cope with them. People in these roles usually have a code of ethics that limit or prohibit “dual relationships.” That is, your therapist shouldn’t also be a close friend, etc. When the lines start to blur from patient-client into something else, it can become quite confusing.

Pastoral counseling has helped me recognize more clearly that I am not a clinical counselor. I have a dual relationship with most of my people. They are not patients. They’re friends. (Some pastors will object to this. They’ll say we need to maintain a professional distance. I disagree with them. I think they’re modeling pastoral ministry more according to clinical counseling than according to the biblical and historical role of a pastor. What “professional distance” did Jesus maintain from his disciples?)

I’m also not a life coach, a legal advisor, or any of the many other roles that we sometimes try to take upon ourselves. When I talk with people, I get to do it as someone whose first interest is to see them as people created in the image of God––mysteries to be honored and revered. That involves a lot of curiosity about who they are and how they’re experiencing life. It involves noticing their uniquenesses, celebrating the good things happening in their lives, and grieving with them when they’ve been afflicted by tragedy or injustice or sin or unfortunate circumstances. It involves noticing ways that God seems to be at work in their lives, sometimes beyond even what they can see for themselves in the moment.

This extends beyond the formal pastoral counseling setting. I think it applies to all of life. At my best, this is the way I get to see people.

Peterson’s quote above suggests that only the pastor gets to have this role. But I wonder if God’s primary task for most of us––any of us who aren’t licensed counselors or life coaches or legal advisors, etc.––is simply to receive people as they are, created in the image of God, to be honored and revered and celebrated. I wonder if too much energy spent trying to fix and coach and counsel keeps us from being able to receive people in this way. This doesn’t preclude offering any sort of guidance to people we love. You’ll see that below. But it begins by listening, observing, wondering what God might be doing in someone’s life, not by rushing in to fix them and their problems.

(4) Be quick to seek help from a clinical counselor. Most of us are far too slow to seek that help. You’ve probably heard this by now, but I’ll reinforce it: There is no shame in seeking counseling.

One of the most frequent things I tell people goes like this: “What you are going through [or just went through] is a serious trauma. It is really hard to see and think clearly when you’re going through this kind of thing. And you’re going to spend some time recovering from it. This is new for you, but it’s the kind of thing a licensed counselor sees a lot of people through, and they’re trained in how to do it. I would urge you to set an appointment with someone. And soon. I think you’ll come out of this much healthier if you have someone like that guiding you through.”

Soon can make a big difference, too. Don’t wait until marital counseling is a final “Hail Mary” attempt to save the marriage. Don’t wait until the depression or anxiety is so crippling that you can’t function.

I’ve also learned that a person’s or couple’s relationship with a counselor needs to be a good fit. If you go to a counselor and it doesn’t seem to be working, don’t be shy about trying someone else.

I limit my pastoral counseling meetings with people to five, and usually less than that. I know that many issues can’t be resolved in a mere five meetings. But I also know that my role isn’t to identify and fix people’s problems. So I’ll encourage them to establish ongoing relationships with clinical counselors for those kinds of needs.

(5) You are almost surely not unusual. People are consistently shocked when I tell them a lot of people struggle with the same issue they’re struggling with. So often, they assume they’re one of the only ones––that most other people have their acts together while they don’t, that something is uniquely wrong with them.

So many of us deal with issues of self-worth. People viewed as high performers still agonize about whether they’re accomplishing enough. People viewed as having it all together still agonize over basic questions of survival.

Just knowing that other people struggle with the same things can bring a lot of relief and encouragement.

(6) We need a God who doesn’t sound like us. So often, we create God in our own image. We construct a mental image of God that sounds a lot like us. God loves the things we love and hates the things we hate. We’ll say things like, “I’m sure God is okay with that,” about things we’re okay with and, “I’m sure God wouldn’t be okay with that,” about things we’re not okay with.

If you have a low self-concept, the last thing you need is a God who sounds like you. If you believe you’re worthless and carry around a lot of shame, you’re likely to think that God sees you the same way. What you need is a God who tells you that you’re wrong––that you are of immeasurable worth, that you are loved and valued just as you are.

If you have an extremely high self-concept, the last thing you need is a God who sounds like you. If you believe you already have everything figured out, that you can do no wrong, you’re all too likely to think that God sees you the same way. What you need is a God who tells you that you’re wrong––that you do not have it all together, that you have plenty left to learn and grow.

For me, a lot of pastoral counseling is telling people that their practical theology is wrong. This sounds mean. I don’t do it in a mean way. (I hope.) They usually already know it. That is, they could get the answers right on an exam. They’re just not living it. So I find myself often saying, “You don’t actually believe that.” It comes after someone tells me they don’t believe God could really love them. Or they’ll say, “I believe God loves everyone … but me.” (If you’ve ever felt that way, you’re not unusual. This is a common thing. And it’s okay that you feel that way.)

And here’s the thing––those people would never actually answer that on a true/false test. But they’re living as if it’s true. They feel like it’s true. And a lot of pastoral counseling is telling them that it’s a lie and getting to remind them of the much better truth about who God is and who they are.

(7) Sometimes we’re really seeking validation, not advice. When people are in a crisis or making a big decision, I’ve learned to encourage them to limit the number of people they’re talking to for advice. This is because sometimes when we seek advice, we already know the kind of advice we hope to hear. And we keep asking different people until we hear what we want. I don’t think we usually do this consciously. But a lot of us do it. When someone tells us what we want to hear, we’re quick to accept it. When they tell us something different, we’re more likely to counter-argue.

If you know what you want to hear, one of your best strategies is to ask a lot of people. Surely someone will give you what you want. Then you can do what you want, confident that you’re following someone’s wise advice.

So I often tell people to pick the very small handful of people whom they most trust––people who are wise and discerning and will tell them the truth, even if it’s not what they want to hear. Then talk to those people, listen to them, and heed their advice. I believe that God uses other people to speak his truth to us. Part of the historical Christian practice of discernment involves hearing and heeding the counsel of wise Christians. (That was a lot of what I wrote about in my post on calling.) That’s different from asking until someone gives you the answer you want.

(8) Related: When it comes to big life decisions, do talk to someone. There are times that we’re tempted to make major life decisions without telling anyone in advance. This is usually if we feel like those decisions will be met with disapproval or disappointment, or if we expect people will at least want to try for a different resolution. This seems to especially happen with divorces. A lot of divorces are announced to family and friends who never saw it coming. Those people then want to fight for the marriage, but the couple assures them it’s too late; it’s already over.

Whether it’s related to marriage or something else, we have less tunnel-vision and better support when we involve a few trusted others before the decision is already made.

(9) For many of us in crisis, one of the best things we can do is schedule times with people that don’t involve talking about it. Sometimes I ask someone going through a crisis when the last time was they talked with someone and didn’t talk about it. And sometimes it’s hard for them to even think back to the last time that happened. It’s hard to imagine talking about anything else. And so I urge them to do something other than just keep talking about it. Tell a friend you’d like to go out, have an ice cream, and not talk about it. Just take some time to delight in something good, to laugh, to enjoy conversation about something, anything else.

Even in times of great distress, God has given us something to delight in. That doesn’t remove the reasons for our distress or grief. But it does allow us space to stop and recognize that God continues to give good gifts.

(Bonus) Romantic interests skew our decision-making. One final, quick note: When the motivation to make a certain decision, or the urgency associated with it, just don’t seem to add up, I’ve learned to find some way to ask about potential romantic interests. We would like to convince ourselves that we’re making good, reasonable decisions that aren’t being influenced by these. But a romantic interest––especially one that’s somewhat concealed––tends to have much more influence than we’d like to admit. If a decision would have any connection to a romantic interest, it’s best for us to be honest with ourselves (and probably with others) and acknowledge that this is probably a factor.

Keeping pastoral confidences in my talks with others is important to me. None of the above is about a particular conversation. Each reference above could be to any number of a dozen conversations. So if it sounds like I’m writing about you, I probably am. But only because you’re not unusual. There are a lot of others who have gone through similar. And in many of the cases above, I’m one of those others.

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See the rest of the series at Pastor: The First 20 Years

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