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Expecting a pastor to be a biblical counselor at the level that I’m addressing in this episode is not reasonable. If pressed too much, the expectation could be uncharitable. I have heard a few Christians, usually hurting ones, use words like clueless, oblivious, and no understanding as they place these unfair and unrealistic descriptors over pastors. Oftentimes, they make sweeping characterizations that blanket every pastor.
Are there some clueless and oblivious pastors? Of course, there are. Those folks exist in every profession, so my remarks here are not broad or general in the other way, expecting every pastor to be awesome. There are a minority of pastors who aren’t good at what they do, but that problem is not the point in this episode.
The key idea in this podcast is when you blend two highly-skilled professions into one, you’re making a mistake, which may lead to uncharitable judgments and even anger if you’re hurting and not receiving the help you need. There is a role that pastors play in the lives of their congregants, but it’s not an omnicompetent one.
There are two general categories of people with problems. There is that massive group of what I will call the “run-of-the-mill” issues. All of them can fit into one big bucket that is not as intense, time-consuming, or complicated. Then you have folks with acute, longstanding, and deep-seated issues that require a trained professional. I’m using the word professional to imply a person who is competent at counseling with God’s Word, not a secular therapist who does not hold to the sufficiency of the Scriptures worldview.
When a person’s problems hit a specific level of intensity and complicatedness, it’s unreasonable to expect a pastor to know how to navigate through those waters. What happens too often is when hurting and frustrated believers criticize their pastors, they do so by comparing them to a secular psychologist who is a trained therapist or seasoned author. It’s apples to oranges.
They are comparing their pastor to a person who has spent years, if not decades, studying the topic in which they are proficient. These hurting folks map the “proficient person” over their pastor, and even demand that he have the same skill level. I dare say that ninety-eight percent of the pastors in the world would not have that skill level, nor should they.
Being a pastor and being a highly trained and gifted biblical counselor are two different things. Those two professional positions are two professions that require different personality types, gift-mixes, and years dedicated to training in their unique disciplines. No pastor, who receives theological undergrad or post-grad work gets the necessary training to be a biblical counselor at a high level.
He receives training to be a pastor, not someone who can counsel all-comers. Typically, these “pastors-in-training” will receive a pastoral counseling class, which in many cases, is an integrated mix of theories that you hope they won’t remember. A semester of counseling, even a good one, is a far cry from spending four years in an under-grad counseling program or two years in a master’s level discipline.
A cultural analogy is a CEO, the individual with the training to run the entire operation. Nobody expects him to have the ability to know all there is to know about each area of the organization. The CEO hires a CFO and COO, who have spent years learning their specific disciplines.
It’s the pastors who try to wear all the hats that don’t do well. (Some of them have no choice because of finances or the size of the church.) It would be like expecting me to be an expert in every aspect of our ministry. You’re talking about administration, fundraising, marketing, tax law, finances, business management, web development, marketing, podcast or video production, and so much more.
Pastors have a similar tension and responsibility. They are supposed to have the gifting for teaching God’s Word, which is the one thing in Paul’s description to Timothy that makes him different from everyone else in the building (1 Timothy 3:1-7). The other qualities are character-related, which every Christian should exhibit.
Every pastor should be like every Christian, in that they can do basic discipleship. Indeed, pastors should be able to do it better than the average believer because of all their training in the Bible. But when you take the intensity up to high-end, formalized counseling, you’re expecting too much. You’re asking him to be the CEO and CFO, all wrapped into one.
When it comes to more challenging counseling cases, he has two options. He can raise-up someone from within or find someone from the outside. My church hired me part-time in 1997 to learn how to do counseling. They paid for my MABC. The pastors had enough sense and maturity to know they could not dedicate the necessary time to learn another profession. This church was approximately 750 people, which afforded them the latitude to hire a leader. I was their candidate.
Most churches do not have that kind of individual to promote. Smaller church pastors pray they can find a “biblical person” in the community who has the skillset to help them counsel their folks with complicated issues. Even if they had a qualified church member, they would not have the funds to pay him to quit his regular job and dedicate themselves to the way that a counseling role demands.
This church counseling problem brings me back to why it’s not useful or charitable to say that pastors should be able to counsel intense counseling situations. There are only a few of my students who can counsel at the required level that some counseling situations require. And I don’t place that burden on any of them to perform at that level. It’s a rare gift to be able to work at that degree of difficulty.
But it’s because of this need in the church that we do what we do. We could, theoretically, train a thousand students and only find two to five who have the skillset to counsel at the level I’m addressing here. This reality is why the idea of a “certified biblical counselor” connotes the wrong thing. There is only a minority of “certified counselors” who have the ability to counsel these more complicated cases.
We have had pastors in our Mastermind Program, and we currently have one. I have never thought of him as being clueless, lack of understanding, or oblivious. This student is an associate pastor who has spent years learning how to study and teach the Bible, plus the other requirements for operating a local church.
And now he’s putting himself through more training to learn biblical counseling. Amazing grace! Plus, he has a demanding family, with children with physical disabilities. His schedule is brutal, the demands of the church never cease, and some of his children will always need his care. He and his wife will never be an empty-nester. Is he clueless? Does he lack understanding? Am I reasonable to label him as such?
I take my hat off to him that he’s adding learning how to do biblical counseling to his life. But would I expect him to do high-level counseling for his local church? It would depend on two things: (1) If he has that type of gifting, which is yet to be determined and (2) if his church moved him over from being an associate pastor to exclusively working as the counseling and training pastor.
The person who does counseling for the acute, intense situations has spent years learning how to do it. They also have the time to invest in what it takes to care for souls at that level. This type of job is not part-time. It would be appropriate to think of this person as a professional. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the “10,000-hour rule,” which is the amount of time he says it takes to become proficient at a craft. Though the timeframe is arbitrary, his perspective is not.
You could flip this around by saying that if you expected the biblical counselor at the local church to perform the other roles of a pastor, it would be unreasonable. If he’s going to care for and equip souls well, you must leave him alone. Let him bury himself in his craft, and don’t saddle him with all the other roles of a pastor. It’s the pastor who has to be “all the professionals” who labor under a severe burden. The pastor who longs for that person to come alongside him needs our prayers, not our critiques.
I do understand the tension that church members have when their problems rise to the level of the acute, and they can’t find the help they need. But shackling a pastor with the responsibility of being the expert, and then complaining when you realize he’s not the right solution is not the right response. You will not receive the help you need, and you’ll shoot yourself in the foot by alienating yourself from pastoral care.
That type of attitude toward any pastor (or church) is a “complicating problem.” You have an intense personal or relational issue, and then you sinfully react because your church does not come through for you. The truth is that there are no easy answers, but you can’t demand or manipulate one out of thin air just because you’re hurting.
Once you step across the aisle and see the issue from the pastor’s perspective, you realize that you don’t have all the answers, and your heart begins to grow in humility and gratitude as you labor under the burden, together.
But you still have a problem, and your church may not have a skilled position player or someone in the community to help you. Your first call to action is to pray for him. Then consider pulling alongside him? What if you became part of the solution? You can do this in several ways.
Some folks equate “understanding with qualification.” They fall into the “they don’t understand me” trap. You’ll hear them say, “They have not walked in my shoes, so they can’t understand.” Having an understanding of a specific misery and being able to walk you through it are not necessarily the same things.
Don’t think your experience makes you a qualified person to help others. Many folks come to us because they have gone through something difficult. Few of them have the gifting to be formalized biblical counselors. Don’t promote yourself to an authority position based on your difficult experience.
One of the allurements of secular counseling is they can describe a problem. The hurting fall for this, only to realize months or years later they are no better. If you want someone to understand you, find that friend. If you want someone to help you change, you may need to find someone else.
Rick Thomas leads a training network for Christians to assist them in becoming more effective soul care providers. RickThomas.Net reaches people around the world through consulting, training, podcasting, writing, counseling, and speaking.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology, and in 1991 he received a BS in Education. In 1993 he was ordained into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University in Santa Clarita, CA. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).