I recently conducted a presentation to a group of pastors and church leaders regarding the benefits of church leaders and Christian counselors working together to encourage and support healthier, stronger congregations. While it was a small audience, (both counselors and pastors seems to be very busy folks) the feedback I received was beneficial. This blog article is a summary of the discussions we had. We discussed:
- The disconnect that still exists between church leaders and counseling professionals
- Church leaders’ responsibilities and role as a counselor
- Professional counselors’ responsibilities
- Damage control done by both church leaders and counselors
- Ways in which pastors and counselors can work together to create an atmosphere of ministerial cooperation
While the profession of counseling has grown to include Christian counselors, there is still some skepticism regarding the use of psychology within the Christian church. There are several reputable Christian colleges and universities that offer psychology, human science, behavioral science, and other courses and degree programs. However, the field of human and behavioral science has its beginnings rooted in what many consider “secular or humanistic” science. Therefore, some leaders within the Christian faith are hesitant to refer their congregants to professional counselors- Christian counselors included. In addition, there are professional counselors that feel pastors/church leaders should leave the counseling to them exclusively. In some ways there seems to be both fear and competition preventing the two from working together for the greater good of the church body. While this may seem somewhat pessimistic, I will share with you the pastors and counselors I spoke, within the Fairbanks and North Pole communities, overall seem to be willing to build trust and work together.
Church Leaders’ Responsibilities
I learned a great deal by interviewing church leaders and I think much of it may be surprising to those within the church that don’t see all the work that goes on “behind the scene”. I learned many of the responsibilities of the pastors and church leaders varies based on gifts, experiences, leadership style, and the amount of help they have. Pastors typically do much more than their members are aware of. Pastors are not only responsible for preaching a God inspired message each Sunday but they are often tasked with making sure the business aspects of the church is tended to such as paying the bills and making sure the building maintenance is conducted. In addition, pastors are often contacted by members when there is conflict between other members or within their families. Pastors are called all hours of the day and night and asked to pray for members, visit members in the hospital, jails, and as well as home visits. Pastors are asked to conduct weddings as well as attend church functions in their city. In addition, with the structure of the modern church and a struggling economy, many pastors have to work regular “9-5” jobs in order to provide for their family’s needs and still find time for their congregation. In summary, they are busy folks y'all.
Church Leaders’ Role as a Counselor
The pastors’ main responsibility is caring for the church members by providing spiritual leadership. Pastors provide spiritual counseling to their congregants. The spiritual growth of the church members is absolutely something the pastor should invest in. By providing spiritual counseling, pastors can help individuals find or identify their life purpose, overcome obstacles that are preventing them from growing spiritually, and put pain and grief into perspective. Some pastors offer pre-marital counseling as well. One of the best forms of support they offer to their congregants is one on one prayer and biblical knowledge.
Pastors that focus on spiritual issues tend to have better results with their congregants than those that work outside of their expertise and try to provide therapy to individuals that are experiencing mental/psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, personality disorders, as well as other diagnosable issues.
The approach of treating everything as if it is a spiritual-only matter can backfire. For example, when an untrained pastor decides to “treat” an individual with anxiety by spiritualizing it (telling the individual to have faith and pray about it) that individual can be left feeling as if she is failing in her faith & that God is not hearing her prayers. This can cause more harm and potentially lead her to leave the church or even the faith.
Pastors have an obligation to their congregation to minister and counsel within the boundaries of their expertise. Not only do they risk pushing their congregants away from the church and possibly the faith, but they risk causing even further psychological harm to them. It is not farfetched to suggest pastors be familiar with professional counselors within their congregation or within the community and utilize them as a resource. This will free pastors up to address spiritual issues. With that being said, What church leaders should look for when deciding to counsel or refer:
- Is this a spiritual issue or is this psychological?
- Has a medical or mental health issues been ruled out (depression, anxiety, personality disorder)?
- Is this something you are equipped to address?
- Will counseling this individual strengthen their relationship with God and others?
- If there is any doubt that there may be something other than spiritual going on call a trusted counselor and ask some questions or refer the individual to a trusted counselor. Some within the faith have been conditioned to believe that anything to do with psychology should be looked at with skepticism or distrust. So, reassure them that you have confidence in the counselor’s ability to help them.
Professional Counselors’ Responsibilities
Professional counselors have a responsibility to educate the pastors/church leaders about the type of services they offer. Christian counselors should reach out to local pastors and inform them of their counseling practice and ask for an opportunity to come and speak with the pastor and the church leadership. Building those relationships will be beneficial to the counselor as well as the pastor and their congregations. The counselor may even conduct an informational presentation at the churches to educate the congregation as well. This will provide an opportunity to discuss the mental health and counseling needs of each congregation and the services available to them.
Through interviews and discussions with church leaders and counselors, I learned both feel as if they are often doing “damage control." What I mean by that is, some folks bring their grievances with the church, the pastor, or the leadership to the professional counselors. Those of us that are Christian counselors often find that we are addressing those “church hurts” as a part of the therapeutic process. Likewise, several church leaders claimed that they too address grievances that a congregant may have regarding professional counseling she/he received within the community. So, does the division exist? Yes, and the tragedy occurs when we let our different approaches or perspectives separate us and prevent ministerial cooperation. The issues separating pastors and counselors are practically the same as those dividing all of the theological camps. And yet, Christians with very different opinions on the Holy Spirit, predestination, water baptism, healing, miracles, etc. manage to work together. There is no reason why pastors and counselors cannot do this as well.
Church Leaders and Counselors Working Together
I propose that pastors and counselors work together to build stronger, healthier congregations. The church leaders' and the counselors' may have the two most compatible ministries in the body of Christ! One plants, another waters, but God gives the increase (1 Cor. 3: 5-10). There are several ways pastors and counselors can work together:
- Church leaders present spiritual guidance and information to large groups whereas the counselor can work one on one or in small groups to help address anything that is preventing spiritual growth. Counselors can help individuals overcome barriers to spiritual growth and sometimes that requires more focused attention, time, and privacy than is available during typical church service.
- Church leaders minister to the lost, hurting, and broken by proclaiming the power of God. That sets an atmosphere where healing can begin to take place. The pastor has an opportunity to form the congregation’s attitude and beliefs regarding the broken and hurting. Healing can really take place within a group of loving supportive believers.
- The counselor is able to provide a service to the pastor by lifting a burden off of his/her shoulders. By working together, the church leadership and the counselors can come up with a plan that meets the therapeutic needs of the church.
- The church leadership and the counselor can determine how to best meet the needs of the congregation and develop an agreement regarding services available and fees. Some churches decide to offer vouchers to the congregants with a financial need. This arrangement is agreed upon by both the counselor and the church leadership.
I cannot say enough about how necessary it is for those in leadership to take care of themselves. Especially, those like pastors, whom are doing so much with limited resources. One thing I have learned is pastors and church leaders often neglect their own needs to give, give, give, but if you aren’t taking care of yourself it is easy to get burnt out. Burn out is very real and often burn out leads too ineffective shepherd-ing/leading. If you don’t take care of yourself, you are not in healthy position to take care of anyone else.
In addition, pastors and church leaders need a safe place to be real, a place where they can take off their “pastor mask” and deal with their own issues. I along with other Christian counselors in the community can offer that, your own safe space. Pastors and church leaders give and give and many are in need of counseling services and what better way to speak of the need for mental well-being within your congregation and set a grace based atmosphere for the broken and hurting than from a platform of experience.