Small church pastors are called upon to fill many shoes.  They are there at weddings, births, and deaths.  They go to the hospital to pray with the sick of the church.  Sometimes they are the only non-family member some shut ins see.  All of this is in addition to the regular duties of teaching, preaching, praying, studying, and witnessing.

  And very often they are called upon to serve as counselor.  From marital problems to sin issues, he is expected to listen to and have answers for a large range of issues faced by his flock.  Most pastors take this in stride--it is a part of who they are and what they do.

  My training in the field is different than many preachers.  I took every counseling course available from my seminary.  However, these courses were taught by a Christian psychiatirst rather than a minister.  My instructor in college had been a preacher, so I had extensive teaching in both ministerial and psychological schools of thought.

    I have had an interesting range as counselor in the churches I have served.  In one church I was never called upon for this need.  In another I sometimes felt like I did more counseling than anything else.  It has always been a blessing but you can't help but feel a great burden as you try to help people through their difficulties.  Large churches sometimes have a trained counselor on staff but most small congregations have only the pastor.  With that in mind I would like to offer some suggestions to other pastors based on my own experience.

  1. Don't be afraid to counsel.  Many preachers shy away from this important ministry.  They are uncomfortable dealing with people on this level.  They are way more at home in the pulpit than behind a desk listening to the dark things in people's lives.  They think they are inadequate.  Well guess what?  You ARE inadequate!  But you are also not qualified to preach.  Who makes you able to do it?  The Holy Spirit, of course.  And the same Spirit can make you able to do a good job as a counselor.

  2. Listen more than you talk.  If you have ever read a book on counseling you already know this.  But you would be surprised how many pastors don't do it.  They will let the person share a little of what's wrong and then jump in and tell them how to fix it.  They have prayer and a hug and the person leaves and they believe they have helped.

  But there is a problem.  I came to learn that people did not usually tell me what was really bothering them right at first.  Instead they would share some smaller issue that was not the main problem.  When I jumped in and told them how to fix it, they left without the real issue ever being touched.

  So shut your mouth and open your ears!  Learn to ask questions instead of giving answers.  We've all seen jokes on tv where someone pours their heart out to someone who never says a word and then looks at them and says "thanks for helping me feel better--you knew just what to say!"  Guess what?  Those jokes are an exageration, but sometimes not by much.  People often have the answers to their own problems, they need you to listen so they can work it out.

  3. Always be honest.  I shouldn't have to say that to pastors.  But sometimes we don't level with people.  You won't help a person if you lie to them about their problems.  Let me use a churchy example.  If an unbeliever came to you and said they were afraid they were going to hell because they had not trusted in Jesus, you would not tell them that they were ok and not to worry about it.  You would help them find their way to the Savior.

  In the same way, you need to be honest with the people you counsel.  If someone is participating in activities that will cause them to lose their marriage, then don't gloss it over.  If an individual is in danger of falling under God's judgement, you need to say so.  If you hold back from telling folks the truth because you want to spare their feelings (or yours) you are failing them as a counselor.  Be honest.

  4. Recognize your limitations.  There are some things too big for you.  Not too big for God, but definately too big for you.  To use a medical analogy, pastors are the general practitioners of the religious world.  Every good family doctor knows when to refer his patients to a specialists.  In fact, they often insist on it.

  You too have limitations.  For example, I once heard a psychologist tell a group of preachers that they should always refer cases of sexual molestation to a trained professional.  He stated that the average pastor did not have the training to deal with the many complex issues of the heart and mind that would come out (and need to come out) in such a situation.  He had a good point.  There will sometimes that a person will have an issue that is over your head.

  I tried to help my people find someone who was qualified when I had to refer.  Familiarize yourself with the counseling options available in your community.  Don't just send them away and hope for the best.  Help them to find the best.

  5. Pray with them.  You are a Christian counselor so act like one.  The advice you give should be biblically based and you should always end a session with prayer.  Even if someone comes to you who is not a part of your church, keep your standards the same.  If you don't, you lose credibility as a minister.  If is important that people know the answers are with God, not man and his learning.

  6. Set a time limit.  If you talk to someone for hours, they will forget much of what was said because you covered too much ground.  It is hard to end a session, especially if it is one of your own members and you are doing it as a part of your pastoral ministry.  But you have to remember that too much territory covered at a time is not beneficial.

  Again, go to the medical world for an illustration.  If a person needs chemotherapy for cancer, they don't give them the entire dose at once.  Instead it is administered over a period of time so that the healing process can go forward.  If the patient was pumped full of chemo all at once it would kill them.  The same thing that should heal would be deadly.

  Even so with counseling.  A person can only process so much material at one time.  You can't go over an hour and get much done and many counselors feel that the time restriction should be even less.  You want to help your people get well as soon as possible, but you won't be doing them any favors by overloading their minds with too much information.

  7. Trust God to heal.  Just as you look to the Lord to touch people's hearts when you preach, believe that He will work as you counsel as well.  You may not be the best counselor in the world, but He can use you.  He can take your mistakes and turn them around in the minds of your counselees.  When you can't get "the light to go on" as you deal with them, He can break through and help them to see the situation as it really is.  You want them to be helped, God wants it even more.  Trust Him to work through you to bring healing to their hearts.

  Counseling may not be the favorite job of many small church pastors.  But it can be one of the most blessed.  In this day and age when so much damage has been done to people's hearts and minds, the pastor needs to stand ready to help his people find God's healing.