[for context, see the original post Ten Tips for Becoming a Better Pastor]
Tip #5 for becoming a better pastor is to do more pastoral counseling.
Counseling has become a technical term these days. But it needn’t be. I’m talking about what used to be called “pastoral work.” The care and cure of souls. Taking the truth of Scripture and working it down into the fabric of people’s hearts and lives. No matter what the local college professor says, this is still the work of the church. All theories of counseling are really theories of human motivation. The work of counseling is really the work of interpreting – getting to the why behind the what. And pastors still have the two best tools for that work: the Scriptures which are “able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12) and the divine Holy Spirit, God himself, who “searches hearts” (Romans 8:27).
But many pastors never experience the joy of counseling. They refer people to “the professionals.” You can be a pastor these days and spend your whole week “in the office,” which is code for doing meaningless administrative tasks, attending boring meetings, and tweeting about what the pastor down the street blogged.
It used to be that pastors didn’t have offices. They had studies. In these studies, they prayerfully engaged both God’s word and people’s hearts. They also practiced the discipline of visitation, which meant actually going to people’s homes and immersing into the flow of their daily lives. Regarding his own practice of visitation, Richard Baxter famously observed:
Some ignorant persons, who have been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse in half an hour‘s close discourse, than they did from ten years‘ public preaching. I know that preaching the gospel publicly is the most excellent means, because we speak to many at once. But it is usually far more effectual to preach it privately to a particular sinner … Therefore personal catechising and counseling, over and above preaching, is every minister‘s duty.
Doing pastoral counseling improves your preaching by helping you understand the existential “gospel gaps” in the souls of your people. It improves your contextualization as you get to know the kind of people you’re ministering to. It improves your prayer life as you discern practical needs. It improves your love as you discover that surface issues usually reveal deep areas of pain, hurt, and longing. And it deepens the impact of your ministry because people feel loved and cared for as you spend time with them.
To do pastoral counseling well, you have to take the initiative. If you hang out a shingle and say, “I’m open for counseling,” you’ll immediately get all the needy, self-absorbed people who want to use you as their substitute Messiah and Mediator and who can’t afford to pay a professional counselor. Bad idea. Don’t react; be proactive. I’m talking about doing gospel work. Evangelism. Discipleship. What the Porterbrook Network calls “missional visitation.” It’s being a missionary-pastor. One whose goal is not to be a cheap alternative counselor for Christian consumers, but a gospel pacesetter who takes forward the work of the gospel in the lives and hearts of people you’re called to reach.
If you want to be a better pastor, spend less time in the office. Do more pastoral counseling.