When I read some books on counseling, I’m left thinking that the authors have an extremely narrow and shallow view of their work. They often fail to get much beyond sin: finding it, confronting it, convicting of it, and forsaking it.
However a full-orbed theology of pastoral counseling goes much wider and deeper than that. I can think of at least 12 different kinds of counseling situations I’ve been involved in, and each of them requires significantly different pastoral skills.
Have a look through the following list and ask yourself if you have the pastoral resources to counsel people in each of these varied situations. How would you prepare for such situations? What would you be listening for? What questions can you anticipate being asked? What questions would you ask? What verses/truths/stories might be applicable? What biblical principles would you communicate and how? Who else might you involve? How would you pray? What books or sermons would you recommend?
1. Sinning: Margaret has fallen into sin and a family member asks you to speak to them. (I start with sin because everybody else does! But let’s not stop there).
2. Seeking: Frank is attending church for the first time and although he has many questions, he seems to be earnestly seeking the Lord. How would you help him find what/who he is seeking?
3. Sickness: 35-year-old William, a father of three, has been diagnosed with cancer and is facing surgery and chemo-therapy with no guarantees of success.
4. Sorrowing: Joe and Amy have just been bereaved of their unconverted son in an auto accident.
5. Sadness: Janet, a Christian mother of four young children, has emailed to say that she thinks she is suffering with depression.
6. Social: One of your elders has phoned to let you know that following months of bad-tempered arguing, his unmarried teenage daughter has announced she is pregnant, has left the home, and has started living with her boyfriend.
7. Suffering: A number of the previous situations involve suffering, but I’m using this category specifically for the pain of persecution for Christ’s sake.
8. Strengthening: Although counseling is usually associated with problems, why not also consider how you will counsel people in your congregation to grow and mature in spiritual gifts and graces, and in conformity to and communion with Christ. This is more about spiritual formation than problem-solving.
9. Steering: What principles of guidance will you provide to Paul about choosing a calling, and Sally about beginning a relationship.
10. Significance: Alice contacts you to say that her teenage son is really struggling with the meaning of life. He feels empty and hopeless and wonders what is the point of living.
11. Settling: Karen asks you to act as a peacemaker and help settle a series of disputes and arguments between her and her husband.
12. Satan: Mike phones you in deep distress because he fears falling into sin in the face of sustained and ferocious Satanic temptations.
I’m sure there are other categories as well (raising disabled children, unemployment, and loneliness spring to mind), but I hope that this sampling will encourage you to develop a much wider repertoire of pastoral skills and abilities. In fact, here’s a challenge: why not pick one category a month over the next year and really build up your knowledge and skills in each of these demanding situations.
And this challenge need not be restricted to pastors. All Christians are called upon to help people in these circumstances from time to time. Why don’t you also focus on each of these areas, maybe one a month, and listen to one sermon or read one book on each subject over the coming year.
And while we’re at it, if anyone can recommend resources for us in each of these areas, please leave your suggestions in the comments, or email/Facebook/Twitter me, and if there are sufficient responses, I’ll collate them, organize them, and post them.