In pastoral ministry, are preaching and counseling complementary ways of proclaiming Christ? Is one more important than the other? Or is one essential and the other less so? Seminary students and pastors are by no means unanimous in their answers.

Definitions matter, especially here. Preaching, as I am using it, is public ministry—the public proclamation of Jesus—in which the preacher speaks and congregants listen. They also respond, but not in the direct, one-on-one sense. Counseling, as I understand it, is personal ministry—the personal proclamation of Jesus and the implications of his death and resurrection—in which one person speaks and the other person responds, back-and-forth. It can be done formally, by appointment, but more often consists of five-minute interactions after church and in the course of daily life.

Preaching and counseling as complements

In pastoral ministry, the public and personal ministry of the Word are the two prominent ways that the work of Christ is proclaimed. Both are important, though counseling, either formal or informal, takes more time because we talk with people more often than we preach to people.

The Apostle Paul summarized his pastoral ministry this way, “Him [Jesus] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). Paul did this publicly in the synagogues and personally in the course of his daily conversations. The hard distinction between public and personal ministry, with one form having pride of place, is not immediately obvious in either his writings or in Acts.

Preaching and counseling as antagonists

But perhaps you have heard someone talk about the primacy of preaching. In its original form, it seems to have been a reformation response to papal authority and the primacy of the Mass. In its day, it was equivalent to, “Scripture and its proclamation have primacy.” Today, it means that the actual Sunday sermon is the center of church life and pastoral calling. So far, so good—I think. Most evangelicals agree that the preaching of the Word is essential to life in a local church. But when primacy of preaching is mentioned today, it is no longer contrasted with the Catholic Mass. Rather, it is usually contrasted with other regular features of a pastor’s life, such as the individual care of souls, a.k.a. counseling.

Like all theology, our position here has consequences, some intended, some not. When personal care of souls becomes the contrast to, rather than complement of, the public care of souls it relegates it to the theological ghetto. Its absence or lesser position will communicate that congregants need not talk about their weaknesses or struggles. They have no clear biblical authorization to ask for help for their souls or to give help. This is not what any of us intend to communicate to our churches.

I would suggest that Scripture does not make precise distinctions between public preaching and personal pastoral care. Both are the Word proclaimed. One is not lesser. Given this equal weight, the pastor’s goal is to grow in both pastoral care and preaching, and give as much attention to the personal care of souls as is given to the preparation of sermons.