Pastors and Long-term Counseling

Pastors are responsible for shepherding and serving the people in their church. This is our calling, and it includes providing counseling and care for those in need. However, because our time and emotional energy are limited, we must be wise in our stewardship of these resources. It has been my experience that, when faced with people requesting long-term counseling, many pastors succumb either to a feeling of obligation or to a misguided desire to save without first counting the cost. Then they begin to feel overwhelmed.

With that in mind, here are six questions to ask yourself about whether to take on multiple counseling visits with someone over an extended period of time. If the answer to one or more of these indicates an unhealthy situation, you may want to refer the person to a professional provider.

1) Have I been gifted as a long-term counselor, and if so, should this be an aspect of my ministry?

While all pastors give counsel from time to time, not all pastors are counselors. Some, like me, are natural visionaries and teachers. We like to look at the big picture, and we do better in large groups of people. Others are evangelists or missionaries. Not all pastors  are shaped to counsel long-term, and even if we are, there may be reasons why we shouldn’t.

For pastors of large churches, there simply may not be time. If this is the case, then there needs to be a gifted counselor on the pastoral staff, and that counselor should be wise and discerning about the long-term commitments he or she takes on. Small church pastors, however, will likely be asked to take on an occasional long-term commitment, and if a small church pastor is also a gifted counselor, he or she may be tempted to take on every request. But there are other questions to consider first, namely…

2) Is the person seeking my counsel willing to invest time and effort into getting well?

The truth is, some people simply want someone to listen to their problems and trials. They want a pastor or a counselor to talk to when they feel frustrated or depressed, but they really aren’t committed to growth or change. It is often very tempting for people to use pastors this way because the counseling is free.

While it’s true that sometimes being a listening ear is part of a pastor’s job, it is not good stewardship of our time and resources when people begin to use us for regular comfort without committing themselves to growth and change. Before healing people, Jesus was not afraid to ask the question, “Do you really want to get well?” (John 5:6), so we shouldn’t be afraid to ask the same question. As a counseling friend of mine says, “The hard work is the homework.” And if people are not willing to do the hard work to apply the things discussed in our sessions with them, then they will never really grow and change. What’s worse, we may find that they steadily take more and more time and energy that could be better spent elsewhere for the Kingdom.

3) Am I enabling codependent behavior in the other person?

Due to the way we are shaped for ministry work, pastors often like the feeling of being needed, and we want to help people. Unfortunately, the way we handle those desires can enable people to stay in cycles of unhealthy behavior.

When we are accessible 24/7 to people in need, we are often inadvertently encouraging them to become overly dependent on us. When they reach out at all hours for our help, it may stroke our ego and soothe our insecurities, but it’s not healthy for anyone involved. We must be willing to exercise boundaries with the people we are trying to help. Jesus was not afraid to dismiss the crowds or to say “no” to people even though not all the needs were met (Mark 8:6-10). We must also be willing to exercise boundaries with our time, energy, and resources—not only for ourselves but also for the health and maturity of the other person.

4) Is the person seeking my counsel a reservoir or a river?

When many people first come to counseling, they need someone to do a little pouring into them. They are often depressed, anxious, or drained. But there are some people who will suck the life out of you and never give anything back to you or anyone else. Like reservoirs, they constantly collect and receive life-giving water but never release it to others.

Reservoirs are personalities who are demanding and unthankful. They expect others to serve them, but whatever they receive is never enough. They just keep demanding more. As a result, they often never improve (see question 2). Rivers, on the other hand, receive and flow outward. They accept life-giving water and send it on to provide life and nourishment to others.

Before we agree to counsel someone long-term, we need to assess whether or not the person is a giver as well as a taker. Even though givers occasionally need to step back and receive for a time, their generosity of spirit is still evident, and a desire to give back to others is also a good indication that they are more likely to be invested in their own personal growth (see question 2).

As pastors, our greatest amount of time and energy should go to people who understand that God wants to use their pain and problems as a ministry to bless others. When Jesus healed the man from the Gerasenes, He told him to return home and tell others how much God had done for him (Luke 8:38-39). We should not be afraid to expect the same of the people we help.

5) Is this person preventing me from serving others?

Every action has a reaction, and every cause has an effect. When we give time and energy to one person, we do not have that time and energy to offer somewhere else. In Mark 1, the disciples came looking for Jesus, telling Him the people in a previous village wanted Him to return (Mark 1:35-38). But Jesus said it was important to move forward and minister to other villages that had not yet heard the good news. Jesus was a good steward of His time, giving a little to one village then saying “no” to further requests for time in order to be able to spend that time in other villages.

While there is certainly a time for leaving the ninety-nine sheep to go after the one who is lost (Luke 15:4) and while we must always be careful not to devalue individuals, we must also count the cost by asking questions like the ones I’m asking here. We must remember we cannot be all things to all people and sometimes we simply have to say “no” and refer a person to a professional or other resource because we must say “yes” to something else in our ministry.

6) What does my inner circle say about this?

We all need mirrors, especially if we are sensitive people who have a hard time saying “no” to others. The Lord often uses spouses, close friends, and trusted staff members to get our attention. If they begin questioning the amount of time we are spending counseling individuals, perhaps we should listen. And anytime we are trying to discern how best to invest our time, it is wise to seek the counsel of the people closest to us.

While there is no foolproof method or formula for every situation, these questions can help us count the cost of a long-term counseling commitment. We are called to walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16), and the Spirit leads wherever He wills (John 3:8). Sometimes that means He will lead us to walk beside someone for a period of time. We just need to be sure we are doing it in wise obedience to Him, not out of guilt or the unhealthy belief that pastors must give people every kind of help they want.