The Ten Most Challenging Counseling Issues Pastors Face


Among the many responsibilities of pastors is counseling church members. Some pastors spend a lot of time counseling members. Others do limited counseling before referring the member to someone they view to be more qualified.

But all pastors are counselors.

We took the opportunity to ask pastors on social media about the most challenging issues they face when they do counseling. While there were some definite outliers, these ten were among the most frequent responses.

  1. Marital infidelity. Many pastors lamented the horrendous damage done to marriages and families when one or more of the spouses are not faithful.
  2. Divorce. Obviously, the first two are related. A number of pastors said that those who come to them with divorce on their minds usually have their minds made up. Counseling is either a formality or an appeasement toward a favorable divorce settlement.
  3. Sexual and physical abuse. Some pastors said this issue was the fastest-growing topic in counseling. They don’t think sexual and physical abuse is new; more victims are now willing to come forward.
  4. Mental health issues. Depression and anxiety were mentioned frequently, but others were noted such as schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder.
  5. Teen sexual issues. More teens are seeking help with issues of sexual identity, sexual pressure, and sexually transmitted diseases.
  6. Addiction. Though alcoholism is still very much an issue, a number of pastors spoke of other addictions such as heroin and other opioids.
  7. Church conflict. Church fights lead many members to counseling. Lack of church unity has far-reaching consequences.
  8. Loss of a child. This issue is a nightmare for the parents, and often requires long-term counseling. A number of pastors expressed willingness to do this counseling for the longer-term than many of the other issues.
  9. Death of a loved one. This category would include the loss of all other loved ones beyond the death of a child.
  10. Lack of forgiveness; bitterness. I had my expectations of what issues would arise before I put the question before pastors. This one surprised me, though it probably should have been expected. I guess I didn’t expect those who were bitter to seek counseling. Apparently, I was wrong.

There were a few head turners. For example, one man sought counseling because his wife was not happy with his girlfriend moving into the house with them. And he brought both women to the counseling session. This one fits the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category.

Among the lighter ones was the pastor who does counseling with Alabama and Auburn fans who despise each other.

I understand that one.

This list is by no means exhaustive. I received a lot of great input. I would love to hear from you as well.

Posted on August 5, 2019

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • I am a doctoral level counselor who now serves as a pastor. I wrote my dissertation on the role of the parish pastor as mental health provider and I was intrigued by this list because little has changed in the 20 years since I wrote my dissertation and compiled a very similar list. I would love to see more of the information that you obtained in doing this research. I’m working on creating a course in basic pastoral counseling for some local Christian colleges and seminaries and this current information would really be helpful. Thanks for all you do, I’ve loved your books.

  • The best gift you can give to a newly engaged couple-send them to marriage counselling. Some Churches make this mandatory. All of the above mentioned can help to learn what your partner is expecting, your expectations, how to handle important issues, if you are compatible or if the marriage is not ideal.

  • Harold Oseni says on

    this is awesome I am in Africa and most pastors have little or no training in pastoral counseling, it’s a major challenge. what can be done in Africa to get training for our pastors?

  • I didn’t read all the comments so I hope I’m not being redundant. I work with pastors extensively as a psychologist and spiritual director. I don’t believe most pastors are trained to do counseling, but do it by necessity as many of them are in areas where Christian counselors are not available. I try to make myself available not only to counsel members of churches but to consult with pastors over how to deal with some of the issues they have to address. I would recommend pastors find a similar resource even if only via phone or Skype to consult with in regards to some of these issues.
    As to your list, I am surprised pornography wasn’t number one. However, it may be that people who struggle with this don’t feel comfortable talking to their pastor.

  • Marshall Walker says on

    I’m really surprise that financial counseling is not included in here, but it might be wrapped up in the divorce counseling since that is one of the major issues in divorce.

  • Well we are in a new era. I am working right now with my members on how to minister to one of our members that has been caught up in a phone scam. Senior Citizen sincere, but she is blazing a trail of destruction trying to borrow money from members to try and get her money back from these scammers.

    They are into her deep and she thinks she is trying to make things right, but they play on her guilt and are sucking the life out of her.

    Short of taking her phone away how to stop this nonsense?

    It has almost broken her marriage.

    The family has tried to intervene, but she stopped for a little while and then started back up.

    • Stewart,

      Sorry to hear about that difficult situation! I would highly advise you to refer that lady and / or her family members to talk with your local police department about that phone scam. Sometimes people like her will be more receptive to advice in these types of situations when they hear it from a police officer – also, if this lady realizes that law enforcement is giving her the same kind of guidance that you’ve already been trying to give her, it will likely add more credibility to the advice that you are sharing.

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