Seven Reasons Why Many Pastors Avoid a Counseling Ministry

October 22, 2018

I recently conducted an unscientific but revealing social media poll. I asked pastors to share with me what aspects of pastoral ministry they enjoyed the most.

Counseling was listed last, at least indicating it was their least favorite aspect of ministry. So, I went back to these pastors and asked a follow-up question. I wanted to know why so many pastors were avoiding counseling ministries today. Their responses were clear and consistent:

  1. Not qualified. In many ways, this response overlaps some of the others. The pastors told us they have not been trained in counseling. They told us they were not equipped to counsel. They told us they felt totally out of their element when they counseled others.
  2. Concerned about liabilities. Many of the respondents were transparent about this concern. Some are not certain what they are required legally to report as a consequence of a counseling session. Others feared lawsuits as a result of counseling. Still others wondered about confidentiality issues and counseling.
  3. Not fruitful. A number of these pastors did not see their counseling sessions as fruitful. They did not know if they were helping, hindering, or hurting. They did not know how to evaluate the effectiveness of their counseling. Some wondered with transparency if they were wasting their time.
  4. Time consuming. Most pastors are overworked. Their workweek can be 60 or 70 hours or longer. They are on call 24/7. When they look for places to find margin, it is not uncommon to see them choose to reduce or eliminate their counseling hours.
  5. Fearful of blame. A noticeable number of pastors told us the most-needy church members are most likely to seek counseling. Those same people are also likely to assign blame to the pastor if the counseling sessions do not meet their expectations.
  6. Availability of referrals. Most churches and church leaders know someone who is a counselor by profession. That man or woman, in their opinions, is much more qualified to counsel others, so the pastors refer their counseling requests to them.
  7. Opposite gender. This problem has become even more exacerbated by the #MeToo movement. Understandably, pastors are becoming more and more hesitant to counsel people of the opposite gender.

The audience of this blog includes a nice mix of pastors, church staff, and church members. I would love to hear your different perspectives on this issue.

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  • It concerns me that so many pastors are willing to offload counseling, which to me is core to the pastoral ministry. While I agree that professional counselors have more training in counseling, we pastors have more training and experience in helping people follow Christ. We understand the renewed mind and we are looking for a transformation energized by the the Spirit of God. For most issues two or three sessions with the power of God can do more than 30 with the wisdom of men. There are resources for the pastor, such as Neil Anderson’s steps to freedom in Christ, that can help. I am sure other pastors can suggest additional resources they use as well.

    • To me counseling is a clinical art. “Training and experience in helping people follow Christ” is actually more akin to Spiritual Direction than counseling. Most pastors are equipped to be a spiritual director, but that too takes a lot of time to do properly, and that skill is largely different than counseling. The problem, having done both personally, is the arts and practices overlap. My spiritual director is a counselor but not in the same way my therapist is. And my therapist isn’t a spiritual director in the way my spiritual director is – but my health gained from my therapist helps my spiritual self.

  • This edition is very helpful to me as I am just finishing my second year of being lead pastor of a church and more and more the people here are turning to me for counseling. The recommendations many of you suggested of staying in the range of 1-3 sessions is a good reminder of what I had learned through seminary (texts, mainly) though all the better to hear it now from seasoned veterans. I find counseling quite fulfilling and my aim is always to listen, then direct the counselee to look toward the movement and call of Christ in his/her life amidst whatever hardship is being faced (arguably a blend of counseling with spiritual direction). That being said, it seems each person has more expectations and one can’t help but refer the individual to a professional “counselor” and do so with the assurance of prayer and pastoral support.

    I think pastoral counseling is an important function of the pastoral office if the pastor has that gifting. I also think seminary (at least mine, anyway) doesn’t offer sufficient training in this area. At some point, I might pursue a masters in this area so as to have more to offer. But again, that wouldn’t prevent the pitfalls of the offering and practice such as lack of proper expectations of the counselee. Very difficult to navigate.

  • I think Dennis’ experience mirrors my own. I have also found myself reluctant to address some issues in sermons if they hit too close to problems that surfaced in a recent counseling session for fear that those I was counseling feel I’m picking on them. I will usually offer to meet with someone once to discuss their issue, but if they are in need of more counseling, I will make a referral.

  • I haven’t met many pastors (esp. senior levels, esp. at larger churches) who would make good counselors. Some would make good coaches. Some are great personal evangelists or disciple makers (which honestly is what I think most pastoral counseling should be limited to). But those (coach, evangelist) are not the same skill set that is required of a good counselor.

    The ideal for larger churches would be to partner with or develop counseling ministries with professional counselors who charge on a sliding scale and are supported by the church so that they can see those who could otherwise not afford counseling. Often, people call the church seeking counseling (esp. marriage counseling) because they can’t afford the cost of professionals and/or they want to get a Christian perspective. And since we are talking ideals, it would be great to have a couple of financial counselors available too!

  • Padre Larry Hurley says on

    If a pastor offers counselling, they had better get extensive liability insurance.

    When starting ministry and experienced pastor cautioned me to keep solid time and place, who and whom records, put a glass door on my office and sit behind a desk to be seen by passersby and have the counsellee sit in ‘we can’t see you’ corner of the office.

    Never got the glass door but kept detailed time and place records.

  • My seminary professor had a policy for counseling in his pastorate:

    “I’ll meet with you three times. If you still need help after that, you need more help than I can give you and I’m happy to make a referral.”

    I thought that was good advice.

    • Yes, it’s not a bad idea to limit the number of meetings. The challenge comes when it becomes obvious the first meeting the situation is beyond the competency of the pastor.

      • My policy for 40 years in ministry as the preaching pastor was to meet, at most, twice, then refer. Proper counseling is very time intensive with prep work and post work taking at least half as long as the counseling itself. I believe the 7 reasons you listed, along with the one about some members departing after feeling uncomfortable about the pastor knowing too many personal and delicate issues are spot on. But, bottom line, this has to do with calling and giftedness. I have friends who are gifted counselors that are trained and much more qualified once discussions move from clear biblical input into emotional and psychological dysfuntion.

      • Good word. Thanks, Phil.

      • I think if it’s clear after one session that the pastor is in over their head, they should with a clear conscience refer. But not simply to throw up their hands and push away, but to listen and explain their reluctance.

        The challenge comes when the person’s behavior may have consequences or a stigma in the society (alcoholism for instance). That brings on a different level of Pastoral Care but may arise out of counseling. That would be one to push to a pro after one session.

    • Excellent,my thought and practice, exactly!

  • All the reasons you cite are valise reasons for me not to do counseling. Additionally, one on one counseling often deals with working with people just wanting to feel better emotionally without changing the behaviors that keep their life in crisis. If the counselee won’t change their belief and behavior, my counseling will do little, if any, good and it drains the church of more effective ministry from its pastor.

  • Dave Mullen says on

    Nearly forty years ago I heard Harold Ockenga say in chapel, “Counseling is a dirtying business. The less you do of it, the better you will be for it. Preach the Word.” His advice has worked for me.

  • After 52 years in the ministry I don’t see ANY reason why any pastor should be involved in on going (more than one time meeting) with any women; period. Yes, women need counseling; but for a preacher to do counseling with women is 1. Dangerous; it can often lead to an emotion (or more) tie that is damaging (it happens a lot), 2. Do we as men actually think we understand women better than another woman would? 3. Any preacher that is concerned about women getting counseling should find 3-5 women in the congregation and have them trained in counseling and let them handle all counseling with other women. There is counselor training all over the place; colleges, online, etc. 4. The preacher can counsel men and equipping them for ministry.
    ONe man’s opinion.

    • I agree, John. Men who counsel women fling wide the door to temptation, theirs or hers. Paul instructed Titus to train women to counsel women. As a female counselor, I counsel women only. There is wisdom in this choice.

  • Isn’t “Pastor” another word for shepherd? If they don’t want to shepherd or guide men and women seeking spiritual help, what in the world are they actually doing and why? If male leaders refuse to help women due to fear, yet they treat female ministry leaders like second-class citizens (eg ETS), it is no wonder women parishioners are leaving in droves.

    • Most pastors gladly talk about spiritual issues with their members. Avoidance typically comes when a pastor does not feel equipped to deal with emotional and mental issues.

      • That’s it, Thom. As a pastor, I’m happy to sit down offer spiritual guidance, prayer, comfort, teaching from God’s word, and even admonition when needed. I differentiate that level of pastoral care from counseling related to emotional and mental issues (although those often have spiritual components). Often, the best care I can give is a referral to a trained counselor and have the church help financially if need be.

      • Good word, Kevin.

      • Very good. In 26 years as a pastor, I have grown into a similar approach. Pastors are usually generalists, not specialists. I let it be known that I will talk with anyone, but I also frequently refer people to Christian counselors. This is due not only to the many reasons mentioned above, but so that I can partner with them in my specialty–their spiritual growth. I stay connected, let them know I am praying for them, and offer biblical advice where needed. I am always their discipler and counselor! And part of shepherding a church member is getting them connected to the right person who can help them– the right specialist– while still serving as their pastor. Also, by the way, for pastors who are not trained counselors to continue when they should not is prideful. We do not fix people, and referring people to Christian counselors helps us avoid that prideful, unhelpful sin.

    • Cosmas Lupai Samuel says on

      Thank you for you compliment am in line with you,here in Africa pastoral trainning colleges give basics on pastoral care and counseling.
      Pastors could use those basics to help their parishioners before he refers to a christian counsellor.
      Me personal use my knowledge from my lecturer about pastoral counseling and helps christians so much.

  • Dennis Young says on

    Unfortunately and routinely church members will depart the church after a period of counseling with the senior pastor or other staff member due to failure to see improvement, or developing awkward attachments or feelings of shame as embarrassing matters are now a matter of record. Pastoral counseling is a stick wicket perhaps best left to the experts able to assist from a Christian faith base.

    • Tommy Artmann says on

      This is true. There are some things a parishioner will share in counseling that upon reflection they do NOT want their pastor to know. Then they distance themselves.
      Everyone needs a pastor, and good pastors are rare. There are many competent Christian counselors—who offer anonymity. It is best to use a counselor. Then, the parisoner can get the counseling help needed and maintain a strong relationship with his/her pastor.

      • Good word, Tommy.

      • WOW! I don’t see that modeled in Scripture anywhere. Sooooo Peter should have gone to a “professional” counselor so he could maintain a strong relationship with Jesus. Romans 15:14…I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. I would respectfully disagree with Tommy and Thom on this one. It’s sad to think that there are churches and pastors who shepherd at this level.

      • Good word, Ben Marshall, and I couldn’t agree more. I think part of the problem is that the pastor separates counseling from discipleship. However, IMO, for the Christian pastor, there should be no differentiation; they are inseparable and part and parcel to our calling as under-shepherds. A good shepherd will disciple and within that discipleship, will counsel with scripture. I’m saddened when pastors leave those God has entrusted to us to the world, or to those that mix the world with the word. Is counseling hard? Absolutely! But we pastors will never improve if we never engage.

      • There weren’t any counselors back then either. We must be careful not to try to fit things where they don’t belong.
        Most parishioners don’t seem to realize how much expectations are already on the Pastor. Pastors, go where God is leading and stop letting everyone expect you to be what you’re not.

      • Sue Geist says on

        I agree. I am a Pastoral Counselor and have been successfully in one church for almost 6 years now. If it’s done in a godly, confidential and loving way, it works.

      • It seems to me that pastors ought not to shy away from counseling the members of the flock. They have the word of God and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. But they cannot do it alone. There isn’t enough time. Pastors should be more earnestly preparing their members for works of ministry, which will include counseling and discipleship. There are many materials useful for teaching practical theology. The IBCD, institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship is one. There are many others. The more each member knows about applying the scriptures to their lives and the lives of others, the less a Pastor will need to counsel. And a Pastor should be a bit cautious about counseling the opposite sex. They should always have a witness, these days perhaps for all counseling sessions regardless of the sex of the counselee.

  • I thought this article was going to be about why pastors avoid counseling ministry for THEMSELVES. That would be a great article also.

    I avoided going to counseling for many years and when I finally sought professional counseling, it changed my life and ministry for ever!

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