Pastor, You Are a Counselor

Here is an extended, penetrating quote from David Powlison that every pastor should pray, think, and wrestle through carefully.  If you’re not a pastor, then use it as a prayer guide for those that shepherd your church.

During eras when church life has been vibrantly responsive to Scripture, pastors have counseled well and wisely. They have understood that their pastoral calling includes a significant ‘counseling’ component. The faith proclaimed and practiced in congregational life also finds a natural home in conversational life.

Pastor, you are a counselor.

Perhaps you don’t think of yourself that way. (And perhaps your people don’t think of you that way, either.) Perhaps you don’t want to be a counselor. But you are one.

Perhaps preaching, leadership, and administration keep you preoccupied, and you do not do much hands-on pastoral work. It can easily happen. Many pastors don’t make and take time for serious talking with people. In effect, they are counseling people to think that most of us don’t need the give and take of candid, constructive conversation. This absence of engagement, whether intentional or not, communicates that the care and cure of wayward, distractible, battered, immature souls—people like us—can be handled by public ministry and private devotion. The explicit wisdom of both Scripture and church history argues to the contrary.

Perhaps you are a poor counselor. Are you shy, tentative, passive? Are you aggressive, controlling, opinionated? Do you sympathize with strugglers so much that you have trouble shifting the conversation into forward gear? Do people feel you don’t listen well and don’t really care, so they don’t find reasons to trust you? Do you talk too much about yourself—or too little? Are you too folksy, or too clinical?

Unlike Proverbs, do you moralize, unhinging advice from deeper insight and deeper reasons? “Read your Bible… Just get accountable… Have your quiet time… Get involved in a ministry.” But proverbs point to the fruits of grace, not the means of grace. They never moralize. They press us with deep questions about what we most trust or fear. They present the God who actively gives wisdom to those who ask, and who continually intervenes in the consequences of our choices. They attune us to notice what voices persuasively bid to mislead us. Wise, moral behavior is thus located amid the heart’s motivations, the workings of God, and the significant influences around us. The counsel has more ‘texture’ than we might imagine. Life-or-death moral decisions populate the proverbs.

Unlike Psalms, are you pietistic? “Just pray and give it all to Jesus. Pray this warfare prayer and claim back your inheritance from Satan. Learn mindfulness and listen for the voice of God in your inner silence.” But the psalms are neither pietistic, superstitious nor mystical. They teach us to speak a full-orbed honesty—putting our actual afflictions, sins and blessings into words; expressing the unfolding dance of actual experience and emotions; maintaining intent awareness of what God is like and what he says. The qualities of true humanness populate the psalms.

Unlike Jesus, do you speak in theological abstractions and generalities, putting a premium on cognitive ability? “Remember the Sovereignty of God… Rehearse your justification and adoption by grace through faith… Hold in view the synergy between God’s active initiative and man’s active response in the sanctification process…” Shorthand jargon is helpful sometimes, but abstraction holds truths at arm’s length. Ministry talks with people. Jesus talks the way people talk. “Notice how God feeds the crows. The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many. No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Ministry takes truth personally, and makes the implications up close and interpersonal.

Unlike Paul—no two letters and no two sermons ever the same!—do you offer the  predictable boilerplate of a pat answer and pet truth? Are you a Johnny-one-note, reiterating one promise or principle as the panacea for every kind of problem and person? The apostle is nimble, continually adapting what he says to the contingencies and exigencies of each situation.

Unlike the Bible, does your counsel comfortably restate the current assumptions and advice of our surrounding culture? Do you sound like a self-help book, perhaps with a sprinkling of Jesus and God? Do you label people with whatever explanatory labels happen to be this decade’s hot properties? Flannery O’Connor caught how thoughtful Christian faith is always wild and unexpected:

Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.

If everybody’s saying it, then our counsel will take that culturally comfortable muzak and transpose it into a different key, a  different arrangement, a different instrumentation. What secular people see most clearly and care about most deeply is always important—and factoring God into the equation will always turn their familiar world upside down.

There are innumerable ways to run off the rails. But even if your counseling is ineffectual,
off-putting or harmful, you are still a counselor.

If you are a good counselor, then you are learning how to sustain with a word the one who is weary (Isa 50:4). This is wonderful, nothing less than your Redeemer’s skillful love expressed in and through… you. You’ve learned to speak truth in love, conversing in honest, nutritious, constructive, relevant, grace-giving ways (Eph 4:15, 25, 29). You deal gently with the ignorant and wayward because you know you are more like them than different (Heb 5:2–3). You don’t only do whatever comes naturally to you, but have learned the flexibility to be patient with all, to help the weak, to comfort the faint-hearted, to admonish the unruly (1 Thess 5:14). You bring back those who wander (James 5:19–20) just as God brings you back time and again. You are engaged in meeting the most fundamental human need, both giving and receiving encouragement every day (Heb 3:13). In becoming a better counselor, you are growing into the likeness of Jesus Christ.

Pastor, you are a counselor—and much more than a counselor. A pastor also teaches, equips, supervises, and counsels other counselors. You are the counselor-in-chief. Your teaching and example will profoundly shape both the content (‘counsel’) and the practice (‘counseling’) of the conversations taking place all around you in which people try to be helpful to each other. Is your preaching worth the time you put into it? Is it worth the time others spend listening? The proof lies in whether they are growing up into wise mutual counselors. God gives shepherds and teachers for a reason: to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Eph 4:11–12). That leads directly to the call and challenge that Ephesians 4:15–16 and 4:29 make to all God’s children. Hands-on  pastoral counseling never means that you become the only counselor in the body of Christ. You are training Christ’s people how to walk in the image of the Wonderful Counselor. This is a refreshing vision for the care and cure of souls! It is a distinctively Christian vision.

The entire article is available for free and is well worth your time: David Powlison, “The Pastor as Counselor,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 26:1 (2012):23-39.

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