What Sovereign Grace Ministries Teaches Pastors About The Counseling Process (part 1)

May 11, 2009 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Here is a transcription of the first portion of the full text of a talk given at the 2009 Sovereign Grace Pastors’ Conference.  This particular teaching was limited to an audience of men only.   You can access the handout for this teaching here.  I have numbered the paragraphs to assist us in our discussion.


The Pastor And The Counseling Process

[1] ANNOUNCER’S VOICE:  This message, by Andy Farmer, titled, “The Pastor and the Counseling Process,” is made available to you through Sovereign Grace Ministries.  It was recorded during a men’s seminar during the 2009 pastors conference.  Andy serves as a pastor at Covenant Fellowship Church in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania.

[2] ANDY FARMER SPEAKING:  I wanna, uh, just begin by introducing myself a little bit.  Um, and then – ah – we’ll walk you through where we’re going to go this morning with our time.

[3] I am born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia but have been living in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia area, since 1983.  Uh, I am part of Covenant Fellowship Church, which is, uh, in, ah, just outside – in the suburbs of – uh, of Philadelphia.  Those of you guys who know Dave Harvey, uh, it’s his church, though he recently turned it over to Jared Melinger, who’s now our senior pastor.  Um, I actually got involved in the church when it was first planted in 1985 with a group of people about this size here.  Uh, had a chance to, uh, kinda grow with the church, ah…was a member of the church, served in various capacities.  Then in, uh, 1993 came on staff as a pastor.  Served for a number of years as pastor of single adults, um, currently, my – my, um, responsibilities are…to oversee our pastoral counseling and our small groups, and also to work in the family life, ah, area, where I serve married couples primarily.  Um, and I also run our drama team, which is a “go figure.”  [Farmer laughs heartily.]  Yeah, but, but – uh, enjoy doing that, but it’s like, “Why am I doing that?”  [Crowd chuckles.]  Um.

[4] So – so – that’s who I am, I’ve, uh, been married for coming up on 25 years, I have four kids, one – oldest daughter’s married, uh, second daughter is just finishing up – ah – nursing school, uh, third daughter in, um, finishing up high school, and a son who’s twelve years old.

[5] Um, so – let’s begin, ah, really, where C.J. was last night in one Peter five verse two.  Don’t need to set this up, he did a bea – beautiful job last night.  Peter’s writing, “Shepherd the flock of God…that is…among you.”  Let’s pray.

[6] Father, I thank you for this time that I have with these men who are loving to shepherd the flock of God.  Ah, we do it personally, we do it intensely, we do it, ah, in ways that involve ourselves…and enmesh ourselves in the challenges and problems of…people.  Lord, we come here today, even – I know every single man here today has somebody, ah, on their mind.  Lord, I came in today having received an email, ah, last night, um, um, about a situation I left behind at church that weighs on my soul.  So we all come here today, ah, with the cares of your people on our hearts.  So I pray that today, that we wouldn’t simply deal in theory, that we would be able to talk about how to pastorally care for and counsel your people – ah – in an effective way, that these men would be equipped, uh, not with my – with my thoughts, but with, uh, with things that you might speak to them, and, uh, in the way might care for them in their local contexts.  Spirit of God, be with us, we are dependent upon you.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

[7] Well, let me start by saying this.  Peter’s exhortation to shepherd the flock of God, I think, when we talk about pastoral counseling, you must begin with this.  The shepherding of the people of God always begins with the preaching of God’s Word in the local church.  That nothing we do on an individual basis is more significant than the daily – the – the – weekly receiving of the preached Word of God and the teaching of the elders in the church of God.  We must have that conviction, we must have the conviction that what we do in counseling is supplemental to the counseling of the preached Word of God.  Many of us here may not be doing that preaching.  Many of us here may be – that, that preaching may be being done by other men…in the church.  Ah, so we might see ourselves as divided off into our own realm of, “OK, they’re preaching, and I’m doing this on an individual basis.”  No, we must always look back to our ability to effectively help people comes from the effective preaching of God’s Word, uh, must have that conviction, gentlemen, we must live with that reality, or else what we do will be little more than talk therapy.

[8] And so, ah, so we wanna, we wanna have that conviction.

[9] What I’m gonna do today, is I wanna talk about this issue, though, of how we serve God’s people in counseling, particularly in pastoral counseling.  I’m not using the word “Biblical counseling” ah, intentionally, not because I don’t believe in Biblical counseling, because I do, but I see biblical counseling contrasted with therapeutic counseling, and so we are Biblical counselors, we’re not therapeutic counselors.  We counsel Biblically, but we – I use “pastoral counseling” to contrast formal, professional counseling.  We’re not professional counselors.  We are pastors counseling God’s people.  And so, so when I talk about counseling, I talk about – I presume Biblical, in this context, if I were in another context, I might not, but – I also wanna differentiate what we do pastorally from what people get even in Biblical counseling outside the church.

[10] So – so that’s a very fundamental approach.  What I wanna do today, though, is I wanna offer you a model.  Um…and this is not a model intended to – to – to answer all the questions you could have.  But it wrestles with something I’ve dealt with, which is, how do I pastor people and counsel people over time in my church.  One of the things that Dave has always done with us as – on the pastoral team, because we’re very much committed to church planting and serving other local churches, he doesn’t want anything we do to be something that could not be in some sense replicated in a church plant.  And so, what I – everything we do to think through these things.  How would this work if a guy was the only pastor in the church and he was having to do counseling among all the other things he was doing?  So what I wanna present to you today, though it may look complicated on the surface, I think hopefully at the end you’ll see how it can be very workable whether you are a counseling pastor on a staff or whether you are a – a – one pastor in a church doing all that the ministry requires.  That’s [a] very important goal for my – for me, and that’s why I developed this the way I did.  So this is a diagram, if you look in your notes, you’ll see notes, and then the back of the notes, you’ll see this diagram.  I’m going to be rooting us in this diagram.  The notes really are more supplemental.  The notes are background and detail, um, for how I’m going to cover this particular – ah – picture.  What I wanna do is get you familiar with a picture that you can take home and wrestle with and think through.

[11] Um – so the way we’re gonna do it is I’m gonna walk you in the first part of our time, then I’m gonna take you through a counseling situation I’ve been in where I’ve been applying this picture, and then I wanna interact with you any questions you have or thoughts you have about the picture.  Um.  And really it is not – it is not – uh, and I think you’ll see, it is not, “Here’s how you have to do it.”  It’s just a way over time I’ve been wrestling with this question of – of, how I pastorally counsel people.  Ah, and how can I show that on one single piece of paper.  So that’s really the purpose of it.

[12] Now, the issue we face is, pastoral counseling – and I’m going to the first page of your outline, if you want to turn there just for a moment, just to kind of set the context.  Um.  The issue of pastoral counseling fell – falls to every pastor in some way as an essential part of our care for the flock of God.  It can be a source of great joy for us, or it can be a source of confusion and discouragement.  Cuz, see, pastoral counseling is messy.  We engage people in the messiness of their sanctification, which of course becomes part of the messiness of our sanctification, doesn’t it.  Their troubles become our troubles, their trials become our trials.  Pastoral counselor is typically responsive, that’s one of the distinctive features of pastoral counseling as opposed to formal counseling or professional counseling, which is appointment oriented.  Someone says, “I – I have a need, I’m gonna call a counselor.”  They call and set up an appointment.  The pastor – the – the – the – professional counselor walks into his day thinking, “I’m gonna be doing counseling.”  That’s what he’s there for.  We walk into our day thinking, “I’ve gotta prepare a message, I’ve gotta – I’ve gotta administrate this program, I’ve gotta catch up on this reading, I’ve gotta do this,” and all of a sudden we get a pastoral call.  Boom, now we’re in counseling mode.  We’re – almost all of our counseling is responsive counseling.  If it’s not responsive counseling, it looks more like discipleship, doesn’t it.  So – so – the – the practical reality of our counseling is that it’s almost always reactive.  Doesn’t mean that it stays reactive.  Doesn’t mean that it stays reactive, but it begins reactive.

[13] Pastoral counseling is also hard.  There are no typical counseling situations that we can replicate.  This right here we learn from, but it doesn’t necessarily fit this over here.  We can’t say, “This is how I handle marriage conflict.  This is how I handle pornography.  This is how I handle depression.”  Every situation requires us to struggle with what we’ll do.  Pastoral counseling doesn’t easing – easily systematize.  Um, I had a chance to talk to Corby and Joe here a good bit, we talk about counseling stuff, uh, on a pretty regular basis, and one of the things we’re always wrestling with is how do you systematize this?  We’ll come up with systems and we’ll say, “You guys still doing that?”  “No, that didn’t work.”  OK.  [Laughs.]  So we’re always wrestling with how do you systematize counseling?  It doesn’t do that easily.  Even the most experienced pastor spends a great deal of time in counseling wondering what he should do and say next.

[14] Uh, Charles Bridges in his book The Christian Ministry, the last section of the book is devoted to pastoral counseling, and he – he relates about Henry Martin, who was, uh, an extraordinarily effective evangelist in India, pastor in India, in the seventeen, eighteen hundreds.  Henry Martin just talked about – he – he had this wonderful gift of, of preaching and proclaiming the Gospel and evangelizing, but when it came to caring for souls, he said he often felt like it was just talking as a stone to stones.  “I’m dead and you’re dead and I can’t communicate with you.”  And so that’s our experience.  We don’t know what to say, we don’t know what to do.  Oftentimes we sit and hear a story unfold, and we don’t know where to go next.  And so that’s a common experience, and – and – and though we might over time develop – we usually develop a great resume of things not to do.  [Crowd laughs.]  You know – “Won’t do that again!”  That’s basically my experience in counseling – what I won’t do again.  Um.  And so – so it’s hard to find what you will do.

[15] And then pastoral counseling is confusing.  How a pastor does counseling is not easily quantified.  We – we are not engaged in counseling cases.  When you read literature in counseling, it’s almost always referencing counseling cases.  We never encounter counseling cases.  We’re engaged with folks in a full life way.  They’re our friends and our fellow servants.  We’re building our lives together.  See, that’s a huge distinction between what’s going on in the professional counseling environment and in our environment.  We’re building our lives with the people we’re counseling.  Not uncommon for me to sit down and talk with a couple about a very extensive and – and – and troubling marriage problem, knowing that they’re gonna drop their kids off at my house later on that day to play with my kids.  And we deal with people over time.  We don’t think in terms of twelve sessions over twelve weeks, we think of – we think of decades.  We think of life together lived out.  We can’t think of people in terms of isolated problems cuz when we start talking about this, next thing you know this factors in, and this relationship, and we are embedded in relationships in the church and we suddenly find ourselves dealing with relational conflict and relational challenges and a person’s sense of vision, and it’s very difficult to stay on one issue, isn’t it.

[16] And so pastoral counseling is confusing.  The world of counseling literature by and large doesn’t address the pastor and his people.  If you read pastoral literature, it’s almost always going to be about the preaching or the leading.  It’s very rarely going to be about the care.  There are some resources out there, um, but what you find is – is resources written for pastors are primarily in those categories.  Resources written for counseling don’t really articulate well in the pastoral ministry, or have – you have to constantly try to figure out, I’ve been uh – I’m – I’m finishing up my masters program at Westminster, and CCS has got wonderful material, but I’m constantly, constantly having to say, “What would that mean in MY world?”  Um.  And they just doesn’t – a lot of it needs to be totally re…thought to make sense of the world I’m in.

[17] So – so with that in mind, I – I created a map, and I – I’m calling it a – a – a – pastoral counseling map, um, with a series of markers, markers, six markers, and the mental image I want you to have is, is not so much of a flat paper map, that we’re here and we’ve gotta get to here, but more of a GPS approach.  You know, a GPS thing, you plot in – you know where you are and where you eventually wanna get to, and it’ll tell you a great course to go.  But if you take a wrong turn, the GPS, one of the things it does is it recalibrate, recalculate, “OK, you screwed up, you’re over here, now here’s how you get back to your destination.  And so what this is is not, “Here are the steps to take to counsel.”  This is more, “Here are markers that – that should always be on that map in some way, so that no matter how far off you go, the counseling experience takes you, there is always a way back, there’s always a recalibration to get you back focused.”  So many – a part of this is – again, my failures.  So many counseling situations that I started out here and I thought this was what we were talking about, and now we’re way over here, and I don’t know how to get back over there, and I don’t know how we got there, or who got us there.  And so you feel like, “OK, now” – and there’s a certain sense of dynamic with it, and that’s what counseling is, it’s dy – dynamic.  But – there’s also a sense that we feel a responsibility from God to shepherd His flock.  We aren’t led by the sheep.  The agenda of the sheep doesn’t drive the shepherd.  It’s the agenda of the shepherd – undershepherd – that ultimately leads the flock.  We care for the flock.  We – we – we lead them, so we have a responsibility in pastoral counseling to lead a process along a direction.  What you’re not gonna hear from me is, “This is how it has to go.”  I’m simply presenting you markers in what I think is a logical flow of relating in counseling that will keep you moving forward in an effective way.

[18] Can be very helpful for you pastorally, I – I’ve used this in a form, and I’ll tell you about that later on, in – in sitting down with people and talking with them about where we wanna go with this, and getting them to buy into a map.  I use it to, uh – we use it as a pastoral team to evaluate how we’re handling things.  And, “Is this one going in the right direction?  Where is this?  Are we missing something?”  This map helps us to do that.  And I use it to think about resources.  What – where are we deficient in being able to provide resources?  You know, we don’t have – if somebody’s in a situation, I have nothing I can offer them.  Let me focus on making sure I have something to offer them there.

[19] So, it can serve those three ways.  Can help you think through individual cases, even, even give people a map, they can see where they’re going, OK, encourage – you – them – help a team think through the counseling process and where we might be strong or weak, and also help develop resources.

[20] So, with that in mind, let’s jump in, um, and look at Marker #1.  Marker #1 – ‘K, you – so you should be now back on your in your, uh – on your – uh, this diagram.  You can flip back and forth wherever you want to with the notes, but I’m only gonna be highlighting things from the notes.  Um.  And so, just to kind of let you know.  And so…

[21] Marker 1, Having A Common Purpose.  When we’re engaged in – in pastoral counseling, we need to know that the people we’re meeting with have the same purpose we have in mind.  Now, in a professional environment, that’s never understood.  And a great deal of the time, in the professional environment, professional counseling environment, a formal – I’ll use “formal,” probably a better a term than “professional” – but a formal counseling environment is to establish relationship, establish connection, why are we here.  And so – so – counselors spend a – a – good bit of that, uh – Welch’s “Counseling Through Counseling Observation” class, where you actually watch him counseling in various contexts, he spends a great deal of time just getting to know people.  Not simply to know their story, but to know their sense of why they’re there.  As pastors we sort of think we can jump through that.  “Oh, I know why you’re – I’m a pastor, you’re coming to me, and we know each other, and we’ve been in – you’ve been in the church for seven or eight years, you know my role, those kind of things, let’s jump right in.”  I would say it’s very very – you gotta be very careful in making that assumption.  Even the people we know come into our counseling office, our pastor’s office with all different kinds of agendas.  And we need to do the work of not only understanding how – why they’re coming in, but making sure we’re on the same page.

[22] Cuz if we don’t, we’re gonna wind up speaking either over people, or past people.  Or they’re going to be withdrawing from us, because they don’t find us very helpful for where they think they’re at.  And so some of this stuff is gonna be – I – I guess this would be one that may have some self-explanatory things.  Um.  What is the existing pastoral relationship?  How do they relate to you as a pastor?  How do they relate to pastors in general?  Um.  Never assume you know that.  Sometimes if you’ve known somebody very well, they may come in thinking, relating to you based on their – their – INFORMAL experience with you in relationship and friendship, and you throw in that pastoral hat too quickly, you’re gonna totally disorient them.  Um.  Or, you may come in thinking, “Oh, we know each other very well,” but they’re gonna come in and talk to you about something they’ve never talked to anyone about before and you gotta be very careful not to wade in on the basis of familiarity.

[23] So when you establish that relationship, what is the – the existing pastoral relationship is a question we wrestle with.  Another is what is their understanding in a more broad way of pastoral care?  What if someone comes in to you and says, “I want your help,” and then somewhere in the course of conversation they’re saying, “Well, I’m actually meeting with a counselor here.”  How you gonna respond to that?  Do your eyes bug out?  What do you do with that?  How do you handle that question?  How you understand that question when one of your parishioners is going to see a counselor.  And people are.  They won’t be telling you about it, typically.  Because in our church, certainly in Sovereign Grace, we don’t tend to want to send folks out to counselors, so when they go, they don’t go – they don’t come and say, “Guess what I’m gonna do, I’m gonna go out” – they’re gonna go and have that conv – so you’re gonna find yourself, um, in many situations where over time it’s gonna come out that they’re talking to somebody else who’s, um – um – um – professional counselor, formal counselor.  Maybe not a Christian.  And so as pastors, we have to be very very – we have to be prepared to know how to deal with that question so we don’t alienate that relationship by our response.  We have to know how to absorb that kind of question.  We can talk about that if you want to, I’m not gonna go into it in detail, but how we relate to that question is go – is gonna determine a lot about the nature of the way we relate in pastoral care.

[24] Another question is, what is their understanding?  Do I need to be able to articulate my understanding of pastoral care in a succinct clear way?  So, one of the things I try to do is with people that, you know, at some point in time, even somebody I’ve known very well, so – is just say, “Well, here’s – here’s my understanding of the relationship and how this works,” in a clear, simple, concise way, so they understand why I’m there.  So we never assume that people know what they’re there for.  Or of what our role is.  We want to be able to articulate that in a – in a winsome, helpful, ah, clear way.  So, establish your relationship.  Understanding the nature of that relationship.

[25] Other things – again, this is very understandable counseling.  We want to understand them in their circumstances.  What does it – what’s going on outside of the presenting problem?  Those kind of questions, or emotions – how they’re relating to something.  Somebody might be going through devastating things and not show a lot of emotional interaction.  Somebody may be having tremendous emotional responses to things that we consider to be fairly insignificant.  What is going on there emotionally?  Ah.  What are their habits and strategies?  Again, seeing another counselor.

[26] We go back to the issue of – of, uh, of relationship – what is their functional psychology?  They may have a – they may be – they have a great…[huge pause] doctrine in a theoretical way, but their functional psychology may be riddled with therapeutic.  Oprah, Dr. Phil approach to life.  Maybe very self-help oriented.  They may have never made those – those doctrinal connections to real life.  And so just because they can SAY the right things doesn’t necessarily mean, when it comes to their own soul, they really know how to apply what they’ve been taught to their real lives.  We never assume that.  We have to – we have to get some sense of what is their functional psychology, how do they understand themselves in time of heat.

[27] Um.  Other things, physical issues.  Health issues, just things you need to know.  Medications.  Again, another one of those things, the way we respond to medications…can – can either usher us in to a wonderful opportunity, or shut counseling down.  So, [unintelligible] for us to have a – to have a – “Well, here’s how I approach that question,” what do WE think about medication?  What do WE think about other counselors?  How do WE relate to that?  Does it provoke fear in us when someone says they’re on medication?  Do we have a black and white understanding of that?  Have we done enough work to understand why people take medication?  What it’s for, what it does, what it doesn’t do.  Are we familiar with medication?  So we at least know how to handle it in a way that doesn’t inhibit our ability to care for folks.

[more to follow…]

© 2009 – 2012, Kris. All rights reserved.