Pastor and Christian Leadership Resources

What Pastors Need to Know About Counseling

  • Angie Best-Boss
  • Published Feb 01, 2002
What Pastors Need to Know About Counseling
About half the people who seek professional counseling go to a pastor before they will go anywhere else for assistance. Pastors frequently are sought as counselors because they are known and trusted and can offer a spiritual perceptive for their members' situation.

What pastors need to remember:

  • Listen. Listening closely and carefully to someone's pain is a rare gift that you can offer that person. Listen without interrupting and maintain eye contact. Respond with statements that help the person share: I can't imagine how you felt, or I don't know how I would handle that; or How have you coped so far? All are nonjudgmental statements that encourage the person to continue.

  • Set the stage. Don't have these important conversations in the hallway. A comfortable chair and a box of tissues are necessities.

  • Limit advice. Most of the people who come seeking help already know the answers they seek, they just need the freedom to explore possible solutions and a safe environment in which to find their own way. There will be times when a pastor will need to confront members about their behavior. For example: if the member is having an adulterous relationship, then the pastor can hold up a higher standard and call on the member to uphold it.
    What pastors need to know about counseling
    Adapted from Surviving Your First Year as Pastor: What Seminary Couldn't Teach You (chapter 6) by Angie Best-Boss. Copyright (c) 1999 by Judson Press, Valley Forge, PA 19482, 1-800-458-3766. All rights reserved.

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  • However, just calling a behavior a sin and telling the person to stop is rarely effective. Help him/her try to understand why he/she is engaging in self-destructive behaviors.

  • Remember your role. Above all, you are a spiritual counselor. You bring something to the relationship that many other counselors do not. Your primary responsibility is to help people in their relationships with God. Ask each person about his or her Christian walk and how it affects the current struggle. Pray with those who come in to talk with you.

  • Maintain confidentiality. They need to know that what they tell you will not be shared with anyone else. Confidentiality extends to prohibiting you from telling members of the person's family - as well as your own. Any notes you keep should be stored in a locked file cabinet. Exceptions: if a child is being abused in any way, including physical, sexual, or emotional abuse or neglect, the law requires you to intervene with outside assistance. And if someone is seriously planning to hurt himself or herself - or someone else - you have a legal and moral obligation to intervene.

  • Know your limits. Your seminary training cannot offer the same amount and type of training in mental health counseling that some of your members need.

  • Refer to others. Don't be afraid to refer them to the help they need. Some pastors prefer to refer members to outside services if a problem cannot be solved in three sessions. And you can continue to be their spiritual advisor when they are seeking outside counseling.

  • Know community resources. Most cities have a variety of agencies, hospitals, counseling centers, and chemical dependency programs with a wide range of services offered and prices charged. Compile a list of contacts and, when possible, check them out for yourself.

  • Share information. Keep a well-stocked library of helpful books that you can loan to members on particular topics.

  • Don't jump into crisis intervention. Don't overestimate your ability in such situations. This is no time to be a hero. For example: if in the middle of the night a member calls you to say you need to come over because someone is going to commit suicide, realize that what is needed is a professional who is trained to act in crisis situations. Let the person know you will be there after the police arrive. Hang up, then call the police. Clearly describe the situation, the address, and any other helpful information. Then allow enough time for the police to arrive before you do. Allow the police to take the lead and offer to be of assistance.

Angie Best-Boss is a staff writer for the Madison County Line, a weekly newspaper, and the author of a biography of Elizabeth Gurney Fry. She is senior pastor at Anderson First Friends Meeting in Anderson, Ind.

Originally appeared in Live It on