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.
More from Thom

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • Pat Polis says on

    As a Pastor for 28 years, I never “counseled” but offered pastoral care with the understanding that I would help where I could but also offered referral services, which I continually updated.

  • Pepper Helms says on

    I’ve lost a child, my mom, and then my husband. It was my church family who carried me through these losses, not my pastor.s, although I’m very grateful for things they did & for leading the funeral services. This is too much for pastors alone to bear!
    On a much lighter note, I’m 50 years old now, and would very much like to get remarried. However, since my late husband played football at Auburn and I am an AU alum myself, an Alabama fan is absolutely out of the question! Being married is hard enough without that cross to bear. ?

    • The Lord can do great and might things. I lost my wife 14 years ago. He led me to an incredible woman who happens to be an Auburn fan…and yes, I’m an Alabama fan! Go figure! I think God has an incredible sense of humor, especially durng the week of the Iron Bowl.

    • Pepper, don’t put it past God! I lost my wife 14 years ago. In 2007 He led me to an incredible woman who happened to be an Auburn fan…and, yes, I’m an Alabama fan. Go figure!!

      He has got to have a sense of humor, especially during the week of the Iron Bowl!

      Roll Tide!

    • WAR EAGLE from a fellow grad and fan! I understand the “house divided” issue as well.

      I also agree pastors already bear tremendous burdens and cannot handle everything alone.

  • Roy Wahlgren says on

    As a pastor with an older congregation, the issues surrounding alzheimer’s and dementia and the things I face the most. How do you encourage family members that are dealing with this with a parent or a spouse?

  • Joseph Powell says on

    My experience has been that there is nearly always a money factor involved.

  • I am glad to hear this, truly. Thank you for the response. I have seen the damage done by those who do not, because they believe as pastors they have the authority to address any issue.

  • At Coventry House SOM we offer to counsel ministers as a love gift to people in any type of ministry. Through our Barnabas Initiative, we have dealt with the issues in this post plus a whole lot more.

  • I think the question of what type of counseling pastors actually qualified for needs to be asked? Unless they have gotten additional, lengthy training on some of the above issues (mental health, abuse, etc…), their input on such topics/situations should be limited at best.

    • Please see my response to Angela.

    • My hubby/pastor was a cop, an MP, and prison officer and a security officer in his prepastor life. We had a paranoid schizophrenic, fetal alchol damaged Adult in our congregation prone to violence. For 16 years. There were times he had to use his bulky weight to get between this guy and the careflight personell caring for his mother who had a stroke at the end of a service. He wanted to cause harm to them such that they called the sheriff. So he was one step away from getting tazed. My husband, bumping bellies with this crazy actually managed to prevent violence. This was not the only time. He had weird unreasoable beliefs about me and used code words to describe me which we didn’t know for years. I was the ” goats in the church”. But also , for 6 months at least he got a secret message from “God” on a trail where homeless scrawled messages to each other in chalk, that if thy hand offend thee, cut it off. For no the he would show up with bruised and beaten hand And my husband would have to tell him time and again that’s not what it meant. We were always waiting for the news that he had cut off his hand. He direction after alone in his trailer without his mom( she had died from the stroke) but no one admitted if he cut off that hand. But he had been in that trailer for two weeks. But the fact is this man was hostile toward everybody, especially doctors. There was no way he would put himself under anyone’s care. And even that bad I guess no one can have an adult committed anymore. He even went to jail for domestic violence on his mother but took the bus down and bailed him out and somehow the court never made him accountable. So what are you supposed to do with these kinds of people? All we can do is pray.

  • Respectfully, pastors should not be addressing many of these issues. They are beyond their scope of training. And many pastors have had no training at all. Counseling education is very strict and highly ethical because of its complexity. Pastors need to refer out more often than they do. Pastors may counsel, but I disagree that all pastors are counselors.

    • Almost all of the pastors refer after an initial meeting, particularly after they learn the nature of the problem.

      • I am glad to hear this, truly. Thank you for the response. I have seen the damage done by those who do not, because they believe as pastors they have the authority to address any issue.

    • I disagree with your comments.

      Issues such as death, church conflict, and marriage are precisely what pastors have been trained for; these are theologically based issues. The pastor’s training is tailored to deal with these in relation to those whom the Lord has placed in his care. As the article stated, these are members in their churches seeking his help; the natural assumption would then be that God is already at work within those individuals and a pastor is better able to work in conjunction with the Lord for their benefit.

      If a pastor perceives himself to be in a situation over his head, a member wanting to commit violence to themselves or others, then definitely he should seek outside assistance.

      But the attitude that pastors are not relevant in regards to counseling their church members that instead they should from the start just refer out to the so-called experts because their “education is very strict and highly ethical because of its complexity,” I reject outright.

      Perhaps the problems lies not with whom is doing the counseling, but rather the premise on what type of counseling is done and on what it is based upon.

      For a better picture of effective pastoral counseling, I recommend reading Charles Allen Kollar’s book, Solution-Focused Pastoral Counseling.

  • For our context, the mental health and addictions challenges often go together. Some people find quicker relief for the symptoms of their mental illness with drugs, even though the drug use worsens their mental health. It is a vicious cycle that is hard to break.



    • William Alan Secrest says on

      Why? Pastors always have multiple roles with their people. Are you even a minister?

    • No need to yell. If a pastor can pastor their parishioners by 1) listening to their concerns/issues, 2) affirm their place in the parish, and 3) refer to an appropriate counselor they will be better served. If the pastor does not listen to the need they cannot offer an appropriate referral.

    • That sounds bizarre to me. I see counselling as part of my discipleship ministry as a pastor, as well as a ministry of care to the flock. eg. A lady from our church came to ask advice on how to respond to her adult son who has atheistic-type beliefs. The idea that I should not have talked to her would be odd.

  • Damonn White says on

    This is a beautiful article to remind all clergy that we are serving people that have real needs.

    Also, my granddaughter transitioned two weeks ago and I have been serving / ministering my immediate family as well as be support to the other family. I am empty spiritually and mentally.

    We are in need of family counseling but can not afford it.

    • james kerr says on

      Mr. White,

      I’m sorry to hear of this. If you are part of a denomination, I’d reach out and let someone know to see if they have resources available. Secondly, I would look up Biblical Counselors in your area. I think you’d be surprised with their willingness to help. Please know I’ve prayed for you and your family.

  • I have been trying to pastor for half a century. All the “10” counseling challenges listed certainly have their merit to be on the list. The most challenging, however, I face are more spiritual in nature. It has always been a trying situation for me to counsel a young child who is at or near an accountable age for her/his sin. I try to make sure the kid knows and realizes he is a sinner. Next, I attempt to confirm he realizes Jesus loved him so much that He died on the cross for his sin and arose from the dead three days later. If the child is affirmative to these conditions, I then try to lead them in a repentant prayer asking for forgiveness and the gift of eternal life while their heart is young and tender. To be sure the young person fully understands the concept may be the greatest challenge I have faced in the ministry.

1 2