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Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation

For pastors who counsel: Reasons to lack confidence

Author: Date: August 18, 2016

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This is for pastors.

Pastors who counsel—who do face-to-face care of souls—have reason for self-doubt. For example, I recently spoke with a pastor who is exactly the person you would want to speak with if you were stuck, troubled, confused, ashamed or weary. He is warm, humble, and wise. So I was surprised that he seemed unusually tentative about counseling a despondent person from his church. It turns out that he thought there might be a technology or especially powerful therapy of which he was unaware. After all, who was he to guide a congregant through the complexities of mental health when there were experts out there?

“[Psychological] therapies are a clear improvement on the pre-scientific strategies of the older pastors” (Robert Roberts, Psychotherapy and Christian Ministry, 43). Perhaps you haven’t read this book, but you have received the message: though you stand within a tradition of pastoral care that has served God’s people for centuries, there is something new that has rendered that care either narrow or obsolete, and only those with special training can do it. Who are you to offer help for the complexities of the human soul?

“Mental health professionals need to stay within their limits of training and not give religious or theological advice or opinions. Likewise, clergy need to practice within their training and not engage in therapy” (media release for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Christians with Depression, by Michelle Pearce). Pastors, do you know when you are drifting toward therapy? Given this advice, should you play it safe and leave complex matters to the experts?

It is no wonder why seminaries are training preacher-scholars and seminary students aspire to oversee a preaching conglomerate. Apparently, it is safer in the pulpit—away from the details of pastoral care.

When you read or hear confident claims of therapy’s effectiveness, how do you respond? No doubt, your pastoral confidence ebbs. But at least know this: like most claims, these do not rest on the sure foundation of modern empiricism. They are, instead, filled with implicit theology and cultural artifacts. They are not forgone conclusions but occasions for dialogue and clear biblical thought.

Part of that biblical thought includes our need for and dependence on Jesus. Does Jesus speak to the center of humanity—the deepest depths of humanity—or is Jesus only relevant to our spirituality? Does therapy speak to a critical realm of the human soul that the gospel of Jesus does not? Or has therapy missed the essential connection between the complexities of personal and relational problems and the person and work of Christ?

These are important matters. Since they have been with us for fifty years or so, we don’t have to answer these today, but while the dialogue occurs, I hope your confidence will not be shaken.