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The Pastor and Counseling: An interview with Jeremy Pierre

I would venture to guess that most men do not go into pastoral ministry with the enthusiastic expectation of patiently struggling with people’s sin. We prefer to be generals mounted on steeds directing the forward march of God’ Word, rather than grunts struggling in the fog of people’s circumstances and sins. But as we’ve learned all too well in the fight against ISIS, all the generalship and strategy in the world is no replacement for the moral courage and spiritual resourcefulness to hold the front lines against the world, the flesh, and the devil. To help ministers (and gifted laymen, for that matter) develop that moral courage and resourcefulness, Jeremy Pierre has co-authored a book with Deepak Reju entitled The Pastor and Counseling: The Basics of Shepherding Members in Need. This is an incredibly practical and on-the-ground manual for ministers frightened and fumbling with the necessary call to pastoral counseling. Dr. Pierre introduces us to this call with this Credo interview.

What should be a pastor’s proper perspective on the place of counseling in his ministry?

We have to be case-specific when answering this question, since every pastor is called to a particular role in a particular church. If, for instance, he is over discipleship and family ministries, then counseling will probably be a larger portion of his role. If, on the other hand, he is called to be the preaching or lead pastor, counseling will be less a part of his role. Our point in this book, though, is that every pastor should be in some way walking with his people in the troubles of their lives. Counseling is just a good tool to help them do this well.

Every pastor should be willing to counsel, which means being willing to create some space to do it and to be better equipped to do it. How much time and resources are set aside is dependent on his particular role.

 Could you summarize what you envision as the three goals a pastor should bring into any counseling situation?

A pastor first addresses the presenting problem. If someone comes in because they’re depressed, a pastor shouldn’t jump to theological topics he’s more comfortable with. He needs to be willing to listen and explore the particulars of what a person is experiencing. This is why we have good questions outlined in the book.

The second task of the pastor is to show how the gospel is relevant to a person’s problem. They are looking to you as the pastor to help them see their lives through a biblical lens. They know generally that God cares about the way they think, what they want in life, and the choices they make throughout their day. But, they often have trouble with the specifics. They often don’t know what faith looks like in the context of their particular troubles. The pastor is simply helping them see what trusting Christ looks like in response to the problems they face.

The third task is to help them grow in Christlikeness. In other words, how is the person in responding in ways that hinder the health of his soul?  If we understand that being like Christ is the optimal state for the soul, then we see that his gospel is the only means of getting there, and that our efforts are necessary to cooperate with the gospels work in our lives. So, a pastor strategizes with a person about changes that need to be made first in his relationship with God, and as an outflow of that his relationship with everything else.

 Any ideas on when a counseling concern should be a church discipline concern? What sins can we forbear and which must we excise?

This is a very good question, and it takes a lot of sensitivity to answer. We should understand church discipline not just as the final stages of excommunication, but as a means by which we proactively care for and monitor our own lives and the lives of fellow members. So in pastoral care and counseling, it should be made clear to folks coming in for help that this counseling is part of a larger effort to care for a person’s soul in the context of a local church. So, whether you included in your consent form or verbally make it clear at the beginning of counseling, a person should be aware that counseling is a tool in the broader toolbox of church membership, and thus has implications for church discipline.

In terms of the final stages of church discipline, it’s really only practiced when there is clear and ongoing sin that a person is refusing to repent of. It must be substantiated by the evidence of others, and is used only after other forms of care have been exhausted.

Normally, the central criteria is not necessarily the gravity of the sin, but the presence or absence of repentance for that sin. So, a person could commit adultery and not be disciplined, while another person could be using pornography and be excommunicated—that is, if the adulterer is repentant and the pornographer is not. Even with second Corinthians 7 to guide us, genuine repentance is difficult to distinguish at times. But the greatest gauge is a pattern of seeking righteousness or of continuing to seek the sin. This is why discipline usually occurs after a period of time that allows for these patterns to be observed.

 How important is the practice of “listening” for pastoral counsel? How do you recommend a pastor hone and practice this skill?

Listening is one of the most vital skills of counseling, because we often give answers without understanding. He who gives an answer before he hears, that is his folly and shame, according to Proverbs 18:13. Unfortunately, pastors can be guilty of this in the worst way, because we are the Bible answer men. We tend to put things in the categories of our own thinking and experience, and this does not serve our people well.

Honing skill takes time, but here’s your guiding question: Are you able to understand and think from the categories of someone else’s perspective? A good way to hone this skill is to be a good listener in personal relationships, specifically with your spouse and children. If your wife thinks of you as a crummy listener, you probably won’t be much good in a counseling room. Also, reading literature about other eras or from other cultures often alerts us to worldviews and value systems that are very different than our own. It makes us sensitive to the fact that people see the world differently, and part of loving them well is understanding their particular read on the world.

 What do you mean by listening for folk’s “heart responses”?

Heart responses are simply the things we think about, the objects we want, and the choices we make. We have a deeply held beliefs that may or may not be accurate, we really want things that may or may not be God’s will for us, we are constantly making choices that show what we are pursuing in life. That’s the way the heart works. And the heart is constantly responding to the circumstances of life, other people, even ourselves these ways. Most importantly, they’re responding to God actively and constantly, whether they know it or not.

 When do you know the “problem” has been satisfactorily dealt with and requires no further intervention or counseling sessions? How many times should a pastor meet with someone before calling it quits?

This is a really good question, and requires a very detailed answer. We try to lay this out in our book so that a pastor has some guidance on when counseling has run its course. Generally speaking, there are positive and negative reasons for counseling to come to a close. Positively, a pastor may have the sense that a person may not have the problems solved, but they have the tools they need to respond well to them. In other words, they understand the gospel’s relevance and have demonstrated patterns of moving in the direction of God. Negatively, sometimes counseling just isn’t working. And the person maybe help better by someone else. But the encouraging thing even in the negative situation is that God may have used the pastor to plant seeds, or water seeds already planted, even if he was not the one to see the harvest come. There’s great encouragement in that.

 In the context of when seeking outside help is warranted, you state: “referral is not a handing off, but a problem-specific supplement to the biblical view of life you are responsible to instill.” Could you further elaborate on this statement?

What we mean by that statement is simply that you remain a person’s shepherd even if they end up seeing a specialist for unique problem. Your people always need help seeing life from an accurate biblical standpoint, and they need your help all the more went talking about the tender issues of who they are and why they experience what they experience.

So, for instance, a church member who’s a solider coming back from war may go through a significantly dark period of reacclimation—nightmares, flashbacks, unprovoked anger. They may benefit from talking to someone experienced with counseling PTSD. Specifically, they can benefit by that person alerting them to some of the common experiences of others who’ve gone through similar situations. This will alert them to potential warning signs they otherwise wouldn’t be aware to watch out for. It may else help them come up with some behavior-level coping strategies.

But only someone with a thoroughly biblical understanding of the nature of fear and death as the effects of the Fall, the current state of a world groaning for renewal, and the promises of eternal safety found only in the gospel can ultimately help this struggling person’s soul. What this church member needs is more than coping strategies. He needs help finding his Creator and Redeemer in this darkness. This is why a pastor is so important for the process of healing. The pastor is not satisfied with reacclimating a man into society as a mostly-functional citizen. A pastor wants a disciple of Jesus Christ clinging by faith to him, and showing the strength that comes only from a personal, ongoing relationship with the living God.

 What’s your advice to pastor’s gripped by the fear of failure when called into pastoral counseling?

My best advice is this: you’re going to fail. And your failure will not destroy anyone IF you clothe yourself with humility—that is, the willingness both to listen before speaking and to see your mistakes along the way. I frequently say to people, “I am not God and do not know everything about your life, but as I listen to your story, I think you may be missing something very important about whatever (about yourself, or about this particular relationship, or about God, for instance). Let me show you what God says about that in Scripture.”

The other thing I need to say is that God gives grace for every task he calls us to. If we are prayerful, if we are humble, if we are Word-saturated, these are indicators that God’s help is already with us and will be with us through the process. So I guess what I’m saying is, your confidence is not in yourself, but in God, who has given us his word to accurately understand the complexities of our lives.

Jeremy Pierre (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as chair of the department of biblical counseling and biblical spirituality as well the dean of students at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a pastor at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

Matthew Claridge is an editor for Credo Magazine and is Senior Pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist Church in Grangeville, ID. He has earned degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Cassandra and has four children: Alec, Nora, Grace, and Julie.

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