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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  • I’m amazed with the seven reasons given in this article. I realize not every pastor went to Bible college or seminary and if they didn’t go they certainly need to gain some formal training in counseling, even pastoral counseling. Seminary required two years of pastoral counseling (minimum) for me to graduate from a masters program. Time management is always an issue. As a pastor my congregation follows behind my sermon prep which follows behind my family. Civic or social functions in the community are very low priority. Considering the #metoo movement and gender counseling I have a paperwork that individuals are required to complete and in that paperwork is permission to confidentially video tape counseling sessions. If an opposite gender will not sign the release I will not counsel and refer to another. Know the difference between pastoral counseling and mental health counseling. Pastor’s should not engage in mental health counseling unless trained and licensed to do so. If mental health issues are recognized immediately refer to appropriate professionals. I’m certainly no professional in the area but each and every pastor must consider their ability and responsibility to do pastoral counseling. My two cents for what it’s worth.

  • Janet Windham says on

    Anyone familiar with “Stephen’s Ministry”?

    I am not a pastor, but a lay person and have been a commissioned Stephen’s Minister [SM] for 12 years. The SM program was started by a pastor in Saint Louis, Ken Haughk, who ran out of time to reach 100% of his flock. Through this program, we receive 50 hours of initial training and then 2 hours of continuing education each month. Each church establishes and directs their SMs. Women meet with women and men meet with men. We are trained to know our boundaries and when to call in the pros.

    The training and experience is invaluable as it becomes a part of how we see and approach the ever growing number of the hurting.

    Nothing is going to be perfect, but this ministry is a terrific way to help those in the congregation that need one-on-one Christian centered care to people going through difficult life events.
    Bear one another’s burdens,
    and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ
    (Galatians 6:2, NRSV)

  • I’m a Licensed Counselor in private practice and also a Licensed Minister. I have had several clients come to me with deep concerns over advice given in counseling sessions by ministers. I have also sat in Doctor of Ministry classes in seminary with seasoned ministers who grieved when they recognized the advice they had given through the years might have been less than helpful, especially in regards to women who were in abusive relationships. Over the past 20 years or so, research has revealed a great deal regarding the biological components of addictions and mental illnesses. I think it would be impossible for most busy pastors and ministers to keep up-to-date on current evidence based treatments. There are many relational, cognitive, behavioral, and sometimes pharmaceutical interventions that have proved helpful to individuals with all kinds of mental health needs. I believe in the power of prayer for God to change lives, and I believe in the compassion and concern that a minister can bring. I also firmly believe in the power of professional counseling, especially from a Christian counselor with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. While some days are heavy in the counseling office, I feel extremely blessed to sit with an individual and offer both compassion and professional insight for research-based interventions. God can use all kinds of people, professions, and ministries to help others find hope, healing, and restoration.

    • Great insights. Thank you, Gwenda.

    • Chelsea Vanderford says on

      I work part time in my church as a staff pastor and part time as a mental health counselor in Florida. Seeing first hand how busy my Pastor is, we’ve created a great system with my church. My Pastor meets with individuals for the first time then if they need additional care he refers them over to my private practice. People still get fed by the pastor and feel supported and then get the clinical, evidence-based treatment they need. Other AG churches in my section have started setting up the same system and some churches even sponsor members for so many sessions. It’s awesome to see churches support mental health. This in turn makes healthier churches! I’m Glad you’re providing an avenue for pastors to send members. We’re all parts of the body working toward the same goal!

  • Leonard Carpenter says on

    The article has some valid points. However, as a shepherd of God’s flock, counseling in some sense, comes with the the territory. I am charged with sharing what thus saith the Lord. Now, my personal experience is that counseling is extremely time consuming; and, while I do have this gift, there are others in the Body of Christ who are far more gifted and better trained that I am.

    In light of the previous, I have prayerfully discerned that counseling, more times than not, is better left to “extensively” trained Bible counselors.

  • Like others have said, I’m not trained to do extensive counseling. I’m willing to meet with people once or twice and have, but for any sort of significant psychological issue it’s best for me to refer the person to someone who is better trained. As far as counseling women. I’ve met with women before one on one, but a male pastor just needs to be smart and have some safeguards in place. If a woman is coming to a male pastor’s office make sure that there are other women present in the building. If possible keep the door open, or better yet have a windowed door so it can be closed but still provide a safer environment.

  • Barrett Duke says on

    Thom, Thanks for raising this matter. I pastored a church in the 80’s and 90’s and often counseled people. It was something I wanted to do for them out of my love for them. During those years, I felt all of the reasons that you stated for not wanting to counsel at one time or another, depending on the situation. Here are my additional thoughts. I don’t believe I ever helped anyone who didn’t want to be helped. Those who wanted help, I could usually get to constructive change pretty fast or if their situation was above my level of expertise, I pointed them to someone who could. The others, which was most, were looking for a way to get better results without making any personal changes. I eventually developed a personal policy for my counseling. If I felt I could help a person with their problem, I committed to meet with him/her three times. If I didn’t see a genuine effort to do the things I asked them to do within three weeks, I referred them to a professional Christian counselor nearby that I had vetted. I was very honest with them and told them I didn’t see them making any effort to do what they had agreed to do, so I was sending them to someone they could pay to sit with them and maybe help them finally decide to put in the effort to get the results they said they wanted. Counseling can consume much of a pastor’s time and sap his emotional and spiritual health. In order to do all the things pastors must do in the course of a week, I encourage them to be very selective in who they counsel and for how long and to find a professional Christian counselor to refer people to who is better equipped and has the time to invest long-term in people’s lives. That’s not irresponsible. It’s realistic.

  • Michael Engbers says on

    I’ll meet once or twice with an individual or couple and if they need professional counselling will refer them. The reasons are:

    1) I’ve been trained in some counselling…. but a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous! I’m not a licensed or professional counsellor. I’m there to give spiritual counsel primarily.

    2) It’s a matter of grace. I don’t need to know all the dirty laundry someone has in life. If I can refer them to a counsellor I may know the general issues but not all specifics. Then when I preach, they don’t feel like I’m preaching at them instead they can trust it is the Holy Spirit working in them. This has been so helpful to understand in ministry. There is a grace in preaching where I don’t know everyones issues and can just preach the word without worry they are overly self conscious.

  • I will offer that part of my resistance to becoming an ordained pastor (I spent 15 years in a variety of other ministry settings before heeding the call) was that I didn’t feel God calling me to the “pastoral care/counseling” aspect of ministry – too often I think pastors are expected to wear EVERY hat, but I don’t think we’re wired to do EVERY aspect of ministry well.

    For solo pastors who don’t have the luxury of having a staff member who is gifted for counseling/pastoral care, I think having a list of outside referrals is key to serving the congregation well – and being honest about that is also important. It doesn’t mean my door isn’t open – I’m still quite willing to provide a safe space to listen to those in need, but I simply don’t see it as the reason God wants ME to be a pastor.

  • Ken Jewell says on

    I have been a pastor for 28 years (currently bi-vocational) and I became a professional counselor (LPCC) in western Kentucky in 2016. In my role as a pastor, I find it very difficult to maintain a healthy relationship with most people who share very personal matters with me. As an Licensed Professional Counselor, it is much easier to establish necessary boundaries and avoid the awkwardness of knowing someone’s personal information. Professional counselors are not allowed ethically to have personal or professional relationships with clients outside of their offices. As a pastor, this creates a great dilemma because we work to build these close relationships. If you can find a counselor you can trust, I recommend referring people. To pastors, I also recommend meeting with a counselor to understand how their job works. It is quite different than what we do in pastoral counseling but can be very beneficial.

  • There is a difference in feelings of guilt, question of Divine forgiveness, end-of-life issues, and crisis of faith, for which a pastor should have been trained, and professional counseling, best left to the trained, licensed professionals and physicians.

      • Yes, Mark. As a female member, I find it extremely convenient and appropriate to voice any concerns or questions directly to the pastor through church email, text message, and phone calls. He is very open and responsive to these forms of communication. It saves him time also. My assumption has always been that emails and texts specifically are available to be viewed by his wife. The pastor’s wife, in most cases, is the 2nd person in the church that knows more about the members than anybody else. I do not go to my pastor for more personal issues and certainly not to be counseled in the medical sense. I save those conversations for my Mother! ????
        I do think that a member who has serious issues should be referred out and yes, may need help with therapy expenses.

  • Danny Hedgepeth says on

    Wholeheartedly agree that pastors need to limit their time in personal counseling. Long term needs should be referred to professional, licensed counselors. However, pastors need to be trained in the proper way to “triage” people who come to them with emergency crisis.
    I have a concern that as online education continues to grow in popularity, we will be equipping pastors with weaker interpersonal skills to help people in need. Some theological teachings have so narrowly defined the role of elder that pastoral care is a dirty word. Hope folks who are developing seminary training and. continuing education will give thought to teaching new pastors how to respond properly to crisis needs that arise in the lives of people inside and outside the body of Christ.

  • I am a counselor by training (Master’s level), so I get all the above hesitations. Here a a few quick thoughts I had:

    1. Pastors really are not sufficiently trained in counseling (and the attached pitfalls and liabilities) as a professional counselor.

    2. There is another dimension to this that is not being mentioned: the responsibility of the one being counseled. Counseling is not passive, and one session normally will not “fix” much. Good counseling will include homework for the client that will impact habits and behavior. Even in ‘regular’ counseling, the one being counseled must do the homework or it is a waste of time. I am totally in agreement with the no more than 2-3 sessions then refer approach.

    3. Other options may be better than One-on-One counseling. Group counseling is often better for grief, divorce, situations like that. It may be better for the church to start a support group.

    4. A wise pastor must know when something is a spiritual issue, and when it is a medical issue. If a church member has a psychological issue, then immediately refer to other professionals.