Sometimes people call our office and want to “talk to a pastor,” and other times they call wanting “counseling.” However, people often don’t realize there is a difference or are not used to attending a church where a formal counseling ministry is an option.
The result is that some people request “counseling” and feel awkward when they’re given intake forms to fill out in order to make an appointment. Others start a conversation with a pastor wanting a more extended, in-depth helping relationship than that individual pastor has the capacity (by training or schedule) to offer.
So, what is counseling? Counseling exists on a spectrum.
- On one end of the spectrum, counseling is “every helpful conversation.” Any time we hear someone’s struggle, express compassion, offer perspective, and make suggestions, we are “counseling.”
- On the other end of the spectrum, counseling is an “artificially paired helping relationship based upon experience or expertise.” In this scenario, one person—the helpee—identifies a need in their life and seeks out someone else—the helper—because they believe the helper is uniquely qualified to help them.
That defines counseling but begs a second question: What does a pastor do? A pastor definitely offers “every helpful conversation” counseling. A pastor may be an excellent fit for problem-focused, expertise-based counseling.
And now a third question: How do I know if I want my pastor to be my formal counselor? For that we will look at six contrasts between the broad role of a pastor and the narrow role of a counselor. As you read these, you can ask yourself, “Do I want a pastor to be my formal counselor? How would that impact my week-in-week-out relationship with the church? Am I OK if my pastor indicates that he does not believe he is the best fit to serve me in the area I’m seeking guidance?”
- Pastoral interactions are not exclusively problem-focused. Counseling interactions are problem-focused. You talk to your pastor about more than your struggles. A pastor is part of the community you “do life with.” Formal counseling is an intentional relationship predicated upon overcoming a challenge or navigating a life transition.
- Pastors offer ongoing relationships. Counselors offer short-term relationship. A pastor doesn’t cease being your pastor when a particular goal is met. However, a counselor does cease being your counselor when your counseling objectives are met.
- Pastoral relationships are mutually beneficial relationships. Counseling relationships are singularly beneficial relationships. A pastor is a member of the church who benefits from the body life of the church as much as any other member. It is as much the responsibility of church members to encourage and support their pastors as it is for their pastors to encourage and support them. A counselor does not ask for support from the counselee. The relationship exists to benefit the counselee.
- Pastors speak out of personal experience and biblical principles. Counselors speak out of biblical principles and advanced training. Pastors are not expected to know the “best practices” for various life struggles. Their criteria for ministry qualification is based upon character and doctrine more than counseling competence (1 Timothy 3:1-7). Members of our counseling team hold at least a master’s degree in counseling and receive supervision to ensure a quality of care while they serve you.
- Pastors adhere to informal relational protocols. Counselors adhere to formal relational protocols. Conversations with a pastor may be had on the sidewalk at church, over the phone, or in a small group setting. The constraints of conversation are guided by basic moral principles—avoiding gossip, being edifying, situational appropriateness, etc. By contrast, conversations with a member of our counseling team are by appointment, adhere to confidentiality principles as defined by the informed consent on our intake forms, do not occur in casual social settings, etc.
- Pastors shepherd an entire congregation as a team of elders. Counselors offer private ministry and have a limited caseload while receiving supervision. Your pastoral care may be handled by multiple pastors at your campus. You don’t have “one pastor” who is in charge of all your pastoral care needs. By contrast, a member of our counseling team sees particular individuals/families and has a limited case capacity based on the times they are available for appointments. Members of our counseling team receive supervision, but you would not receive counsel from a “team of counselors.”
Hopefully, it is clear that the content (biblical substance) of the interaction with a member of our pastoral team and a member of our counseling team should be very similar. In this sense both forms of care are “ministry”; they are Bible-based forms of care intended to help navigate the challenges of life with the hope of the gospel in order to experience the full life God intended.
However, the nature of the relationship (duration, focus, formality, etc.) is different between our campus-based pastoral team and counseling ministry. One is informal; the other is formal. One is based upon life experience; the other is based on having particular training. One is an open-ended relationship; the other is a short-term, goal-focused relationship.
As you seek to identify who is the best person for you to reach out to at this season of life—a pastor at your campus or a member of our counseling team—we hope these distinctions help you identify what type of care is the best fit for your current need.