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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72 Comments

  • The best council is to share the message of God’s Love. All that Jesus suffered on the cross so that they could be forgiven and receive the righteousness of God for the remission of all their sins and healing results..
    It is the great commision, high calling of God to share the really good news that sets the captives free.!
    It is what they are called to do!
    It is the power of God unto salvation. What better council is there?

  • Iain Ambler says on

    I’d respectfully suggest that counselling is best left away from a Pastor’s direct ministry activities. If they are not qualified that’s a definite “no” to do – but even if they are surely they need to maintain a critical distance. Pastors cannot solve everything for their flock themselves but they can lead them – which often means a referral.
    One distinct advantage to referring is that you then get a second voice for those being counselled. It’s not just the pastor saying x, y or z.
    Ministry is a team effort and the team can be outside the church ministry team!

  • Dr Wayne Rhodes says on

    Dear Dr. Rainer,

    I was a pastor with a heavy counseling load from 1980 to 1991.

    I earned a degree in clinical psychology and two licenses with the State of Texas.
    I was in private clinical practice from 1991 to 1997. I had two long pastorates and retired in 2013.

    My observation is that clergy discount their pastoral-counseling skills. They are in fact far better pastor-counselors than they give themselves credit. Congregational pastors are the Corpsmen in the mental health field. They may not do the surgery that the Regimental and Divisional perform in the field-hospitals, but the Corpsman perform combat first-aide and get the wounded back to the regiment. The Marines call their Corpsman- “Doc’. Most of the counseling that we clergy do deals with life transitions. As we live and pastor, we build our knowledge base. Much of a clergy’s counseling is departing life-knowledge. Clergy can talk the tough issues of death and the resurrection.

    When I went back to the pulpit ministry, I only did 20% of the counseling that I did prior to private practice.

    In private practice, I was stunned at my client’s honesty at the first session. I realized that people have a need to look good to their pastor.

    When you came into my office, we went through the limitations of confidentiality and they signed off on the document. In a pastor’s office, people will come in and slide into counseling. They think that they have total confidentiality.

    I had a client, who was upset at my recommendation. I stood up, gave her back the check and said good-bye. She did not have access to my client list and complain to them about my short-comings. I learned that if I cannot be honest with a client without fear of retribution, I do not need to see you.

    You cannot build a church on a counseling ministry.

    The people that you help the most, often leave the church, because the pastor has too much information.

    I discovered that I was far better pastor, than I was a therapist.

    Wayne Rhodes, M.Div., M.A., Ph.D., LMFT-(TX), LPC-(TX), CM-AAMFT, Member-AAPC

  • Solely for the purpose of context, I preface all of my comments by saying that I am an intentionally unlicensed, full-time Pastor of Counseling. I have made it my business to pursue education in 4 disciplines: exclusively biblical counseling, integrated Christian counseling, and even completely secularized, humanistic systems of counseling (including graduate and currently, post-graduate studies). The 4th is that I’ve recently begun to dabble in neuroscience research to understand the soul/brain relationship better. Relatedly, I’ve had various opportunities within my career to pursue licensure, but have always chosen to remain within the church ministry specifically. All that to say: this dialogue has been a long-matter of thought and prayer for me, and has informed many of my decisions about vocational ministry, professional practice, and the trajectory of my life.

    I think it is important to note that none of the concerns of this article are new. McCann’s “The Churches and Mental Health” hit a number of these same points back in 1962. The conference back some years ago (around 2000) at Wheaton – “Cure for the Soul” and the subsequent book of essay’s, “Care for the Soul” (2001) all addressed this and many related questions. These conversations are good to have. I think the thing that troubles me, and what I want to speak to, is that the needle appears to be somewhat stagnant in terms of action on these concerns.

    Notions of feeling ill-equipped due to lack of education, it not being “fruitful,” it being time-consuming, and issues related to gender are not new. Concerns about liability have been around for generations, and there are organizations that insure churches for this very thing. The availability of referrals is, to a historical degree, a direct result of the church abdicating its role of soul care ,generations ago, and “nature hates a vacuum.”

    My point is: all seven of these of these points, and many others, have been publicly mulled over for 60 years now (if not longer). What needs to happen is a motivation for change. Churches need to be motivated to make counseling / discipleship / soul care a priority. These 3 things are varying degrees of the same entity – progressive sanctification. At the end of the day – this is a Great Commission issue. It’s an ekklesia issue. There are very tangible, very creative, very thorough answers for all of these issues. And consistently referring people out is not the only one.

    As God’s ekklesia – it is our obligation to be able to care for our flock. It is our God-given duty to serve God’s people well. Are there times & places where a Pastor is stretched too thin to counsel, as he is literally doing every other thing in the church? Yes. Are there “exceptions” where a referral is necessary? Of course! But on a more normative basis – a church that does not prioritize counseling does not prioritize discipleship. Counseling *is* discipleship – simply a more strategic and intentional form. And if discipleship-soul care is not occurring in a given church, I would challenge the church on its priorities. Sin effects everything. Even someone diagnosed with a mental disorder is in need of Gospel-centered hope – if not more so than someone with a normative counseling need. Between the various education and certifying agencies (ACBC, IABC, CCEF, RGCC, the BCC, the INS, Stephen’s Ministry, and countless others), there is little to no reason why a church can’t do *something* besides refer. This needs to be a pulpit value. Typically – if the Senior / Lead / Teaching Pastor(s) of a given church prioritizes discipleship of all sizes, the church reflects that value and priority. And leaders rise up from within the church to partner with the pastoral team. The same with any other priority a church should consider as a part of its DNA. Or – they can pursue partnership with a church that is of similar theology, and has greater resources. No matter how one slices it – this comes down to values & priorities.

    I would submit that Pastors, Elders, and churches with these 7 concerns (and others) need to rethink how they approach this subject in the first place. Look at it with fresh eyes. Look for 7 reasons TO counsel, instead of retreating to all the reasons one chooses not to do it. Look for creative ways to overcome hurtles. Don’t use the word “counsel” – call it soul-care or discipleship. Ask questions of the organizations I referenced above. Pray for discipleship-“counseling” to become a greater value. To that end, I would recommend you invest in, and read, this article by David Powlison: https://www.ccef.org/resources/individual_jbc_article/cure-souls-and-modern-psychotherapies-0. It’s not the be all and end all – but it’s a great place to start rethinking this, so that the church can reclaim its position of being a “carer” of the soul, on God’s behalf.

  • I’m very clear as to the scope of my work. This is not psychotherapy. My training is limited to the three classes I have taken, and my degree does not give me this skill set as a specialty. If you would like to talk about the things going on in your life, and have another person help you think about how your faith life intersects with all the important things going on, I’d be glad to sit down with you for three one hour session. If you need more than that, I have a great referral for you.

    And, for some of my people (especially some of the guys) who need a simile, I sometimes say, I’m kind of like a handy-man. I can help you fix some stuff up and I can help teach you a few skills, but if you need major work done, you need someone who is more like a General Contractor.

  • When I was an Executive Pastor, I found counseling to be most effective because I was not the guy they saw behind the pulpit every Sunday morning. I have also found many people seek counseling from someone they will not see at church.

    Many times the people I counsel or have counseled do not attend the church where I am the pastor. The reasons for this are obvious from what I stated above and from the comments included in earlier posts. I have also counseled couples at odd hours (at their request) so they would not be seen by anyone at the church during regular office hours.

    People do need safe counseling where they are assured of confidentiality and it is a pleasure to serve fellow pastors in this way.

  • Just a word of caution. In many of our States the word “Counsel” or “Counselor” can actually be a legally protected word. If a pastor is going to officially offer “counseling” he had best know what regulations his State has in place before using the term.

  • Our church has a counseling ministry but I am beginning question the validity of its need. I do not see any real fruit of healthy church growth coming from it. I also find that many of our members desire an outside resource because they don’t want others knowing they are seeking counseling help. I also find that having strategic partners in the counseling world seems to be a better option.So my question is a little different and would love to see it explored at some point if possible. Here’s my question, “Are churches who have had counseling ministry moving away from it and what are the reasons for doing so?”

  • Your observations are right on the money, Thom. And the thread of responses are excellent. Having served in both pastoral ministry and as president and CEO of a large Christian counseling center (about 350 clients/wk) with specialization in helping ministers, I’d like to add to the conversation some thoughts as well.
    1. It is true that most pastors haven’t the clinical skills of a professional counselor or psychologist. However, the first line of defense will never be the professional counselors – it will always be the church for believers. For good reason: less than half of the professionals embrace Christian faith or ideals, and often counter them. And only a small percentage of psychiatrists do. So, even if they overcome the perceived “stigma” of getting help, they will often turn first to the church and spiritual leaders they trust. Therefore, every pastor, in my view has a degree of obligation “shepherd the flock”, even if it means to make a referral to a tried and trusted professional.
    2. Our ministry prep institutions need to do a far better job of helping pastors prepare for the onslaught of personal needs within their congregation. Having also served as a college president in a post-secondary institution for vocational ministry, I can admit that even our own preparation in that area was weak. Times have changed significantly – we are no longer pastoring the “Little House on the Prairie” church; we’re pastoring “The Simpsons.” Institutions need to catch up to the reality of 21st Century ministry.
    3. The concerns of counseling opposite gender are real. An argument can be made here for more females in ministry, since more than 60% of the counseling requests come from females. However, I urge male pastors to recognize the value of having their wife at their side in counseling female parishioners and/or couples. My wife desired no stage, and was often quiet most of the time during sessions with parishioners (when we were pastoring) – but was invaluable in her wisdom and her presence. I get it – that increases the demand on time and can’t always work. But, if that is not an option, there needs to be women who are capable of pastoral counseling and know when to refer.

    • Today in the cities you aren’t even pastoring “The Simpsons.” That is still a nuclear, albeit slightly dysfunctional, family. Today you have to learn to pastor individuals who may be in relationships that you don’t agree with, whose families are spread out, and whose close friends could be anywhere on the planet. They will expect you to bring your “A game” just like they do every day at work. For females who want to talk to someone, I would strongly suggest you have females (clergy or lay) available because men have no understanding of some of their issues.

  • Usually, I do not respond to anything online. However, I find this article and the comments particularly disheartening. Pastors should be willing and even eager to counsel. Each of these seven reasons has an unbiblical basis. Without going into great detail, I will attempt to provide a Biblical response to these seven reasons. So, here are Seven Biblical Reason Why Pastors Should Have A Counseling Ministry.

    1. GOD’S WORD IS SUFFICIENT – 2 Timothy 3:16–17 (ESV) — 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. Pastor/brothers, you in your own wisdom are not qualified, but God’s word is sufficient. God’s Word has the answers to life’s problems! My brother pastors, you are equipped to counsel because you have God’s Word!

    2. YOU WILL GIVE AN ACCOUNT TO GOD – Hebrews 13:17, tells us that as leaders we are going to give an account to God. More sobering than a potential legal issue is the fact that you as a pastor will give an account to God.

    3. FRUIT REVEALS THE HEART – A pastor should have more concern over heart issues than fruit. The real issue is not the fruit but the root. Address the root of the problem which is the heart. The heart is what yield fruit (Proverbs 4:23). Isn’t this the approach Christ used? In Christ’s sermon on the mount, recorded in Matthew, Jesus addresses the heart of the issue when teaching on lust, adultery, anger, and murder. As a pastor/counselor if all you discuss is the fruit and never getting to the root of the problem, then all you are doing is rearranging fruit.

    4. VIEW COUNSELING AS TIME INVESTING NOT TIME-CONSUMING – Paul writing to the church at Thessalonica recounts his ministry while he was with them. Paul said he labored and toiled night and day. However, never did he shrink away from sharing the Gospel. My brothers, I know it is hard, but it is time invested not time-consuming!

    5. DON’T BE AFRAID TO SET THE EXPECTATION – One way to combat the fear of blame is to set the expectation. The expectation of counseling should point the person to Christ regardless of the situation. Often, people come looking for you to “fix” their problem. You can’t guarantee that their marriage will be fixed, or that they will never struggle with homosexual desires, or that they will never have an emotional upset, but you can show them what Christ has promised. He has promised that their struggles are not uncommon, he has promised to be faithful, he has promised that he will provide a way of escape so that they can bare their trial (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13).

    6. PASTORS ARE SHEPHERDS – Part of shepherding is to guard and care for the flock. Shepherds don’t lead their flocks to wolves and neither should pastors. You might think that I seem harsh, but the reality is that often time this is what a pastor is effectively doing by making referrals. Acts 20 Paul reminds the elders at Ephesus that God has given them care over the flock and instructs them to watch over the flock because there are wolves who seek to devour the flock. Don’t pawn your responsibility off by referring them to others. As already stated in # 2 you will give an account for how you shepherded your flock not the counselor.

    7. ONE BODY – As Galatians 3:28 tells us, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Regardless of gender, we as pastors should not shy away from counseling. It is our job to care for all the body of Christ, not just certain members that fall into specific categories. However, it would be prudent to set standards and guidelines that protect yourself and your counselee. Brothers, I don’t need to tell you that none of us are above falling and that is why we need to be above reproach.

    As I mentioned, I do not usually respond to anything online; however, to read so many responses that to be honest show such an unbiblical mindset towards counseling is heartbreaking. If just one person understands that counseling is something pastors should be eager to engaging in, then I am glad that I took time to respond.

    • Excellent response, Nathan. Thanks for your thoughtfulness here.

    • Thanks, Nathan, for your bold response. I train, equip and certify Biblical Counselors online. Many of them are pastors and ministry leaders who missed that training during their Bible College and/or Seminary years. What you write is exactly in-line with our ministry of equipping pastors.

      In His love and grace,

      Pastor Jeff Christianson, MA
      Dean of Biblical Counseling
      jeffchristianson.org

  • Alex Clayton says on

    Really Appreciate the Article:
    The number one reason that I recommend an outside source from the congregation, is that someday I will have to preach on the subject matter or sin and you will think that I am talking about you.
    Every Pastor should have enough counseling training to know that this person needs professional help.
    I always tell people I will be glad to work alongside your professional counselor with spiritual guidance (because most counselors are taught it is unethical to push spirituality).

  • Victor close says on

    Jesus counciled a few people in His time. He told one man to sell everything he had an to follow Him. Several people were counciled to, “Go and sin no more.” A woman was told to stop stressing about her house and seek the things of God (Martha).
    Most people who seek council either want to be justified in what they doing or are taking counseling in order to make someone else think they are working on their problem. If a Christian is truly submitting their selves to the will of God they have all the council they need. Jesus also counciled us to love the Lord our God with all our heart and our mind and our soul and our strength and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.