Rev. Cammenga is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.
Has the emphasis on pastoral counseling gone too far? Has the emphasis on pastoral counseling gone too far in our churches and among our ministers? My answer to that question is that I firmly believe that it has. I firmly believe that we have been so influenced by the “counseling revolution” that pastoral counseling has lost its proper but limited place in the work of many of our ministers. I am personally convinced that, for many of us, the work of pastoral counseling has begun to take up space and time far out of proportion to that which is proper.
Lest I be misunderstood, I do not deny that personal counseling belongs to the calling and work of every pastor. I am firmly convinced that this is so.
The Scriptures require this of the pastor. The pastor is a shepherd. A shepherd is one who provides full and complete care for his sheep, so that under the care of the shepherd, the sheep do not lack (Ps. 23:1). This will certainly require that the shepherd attend to the personal needs of the sheep. It will not be sufficient that he care for the flock as a whole, but disregard individual needs. In his care for the flock collectively, he must pay attention to the sheep individually. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Great and Good Shepherd, sets the example. Of Him the prophet says in Isaiah 40:11, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.” Speaking of Himself in the Parable of the Lost Sheep, Jesus asks the rhetorical question, “What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?”
In His own earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus ministered to the personal needs of Gods people. He met with Nicodemus at night. He ate in the home of Zaccheus. He healed the impotent man at the Pool of Bethesda and later searched him out in the temple and said to him, “Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee” (John 5:14).
The apostle Paul, summarizing his ministry in Ephesus, declares, “I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have showed you, and have taught you publicly, and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). The Apostle’s work in Ephesus was not confined to his public ministry. But it belonged to his work in Ephesus that he labored “from house to house.” In other words, he did not only preach, but he engaged in pastoral counseling.
Any minister who neglects this important aspect of the ministry is unfaithful to his calling. Any minister who, because the work of pastoral counseling is personally distasteful, draws back from doing it, sins against Christ who calls him to minister to the one sheep that is in need. Any minister who remains aloof and detached from the members of the congregation, harms his own ministry. Any minister who is not accessible to the members of his congregation is responsible for the damage that his inaccessibility causes.
Commenting on Acts 20:20, Calvin writes:
This is the second point, that he taught, not only all in the assembly, but individuals in their homes, as each man’s need demanded. For Christ did not ordain pastors on the principle that they only teach the Church in a general way on the public platform, but that they also care for the individual sheep, bring back the wandering and scattered to the fold, bind up those broken and crippled, heal the sick, support the frail and weak (
); for general teaching will often have a cold reception, unless it is helped by advice given in private.
J.J. VanOosterzee warns, “Even the most excellent Homilete runs the risk of making but a fleeting impression by his word, if he stands in no pastoral relation whatever to his hearers” (Practical Theology, p. 511). That is a warning every minister does well to take to heart. To be an effective preacher, a minister must be a caring pastor. He must labor with the depressed, those struggling with marital problems, those wrestling with doubts concerning the assurance of salvation. He must seek the wandering, counsel the wayward teenager, work with that member fighting against the sin of drunkenness, or immorality, or worldliness. He must visit the aged, the shut-ins, the widows and widowers in their loneliness.
But granted that pastoral counseling is a necessary aspect of the gospel ministry, is it possible that it begins to assume too large a place in one’s ministry? Can too much emphasis be placed upon pastoral counseling? Can too much time, time that ought to be spent on other things, be taken up in pastoral counseling? The answer to these questions is, “Yes.”
The following remarks by Jay Adams, himself in the forefront of the counseling revolution, ought to be taken to heart by every pastor:
It is plain that house calling either can become a blessing or a burden to the pastor. Unless he learns to say “no” to the incessant thoughtless requests of some members to make unnecessary house calls, and unless he develops the biblical view of visitation that puts house calling in its proper but limited place, the pastor will, like many before him, carry about the unnecessary and crushing load of the guilt of the unmade call (Shepherding God’s Flock, p. 90).
There is evidence that the emphasis on pastoral counseling has gone too far among our ministers. Permit me to submit that evidence.
First, there is the inordinate amount of time spent each week by some ministers in pastoral counseling. There are ministers who spend hours every week in calling on members or counseling them in the study. For some, more than one appointment a night, besides morning or afternoon sessions where this is possible, are necessary. More time is spent on personal counseling than on any other single aspect of the ministry. Many other things have to be let go because of the demands of counseling. Pastors, do you find yourself in this situation?
A second indication that the emphasis on pastoral counseling has gone too far is that ministers begin to suffer from “burnout.” They are simply run ragged, driven by the demands of the work to sheer exhaustion. Largely this is due to the demands of pastoral counseling. All the time spent, all the meetings to keep, all the problems of those whom he is counseling churning in his own soul, drive the minister to the edge. Pastors, does this describe you?
Yet another indication that the emphasis on pastoral counseling has gone too far is that the minister’s own home life begins to suffer. Because he is deeply involved in pastoral counseling he simply does not have sufficient time to spend with his wife and children. I have heard the complaints of ministers’ wives, the complaint that they feel like widows. This is a serious matter. This threatens one of the most important callings of the minister, namely, that he be an example in his marriage and home life to the rest of the congregation. A minister who allows himself to become so deeply involved in counseling that he neglects his family, in the end does more harm than good in the congregation. Pastors, are your pastoral labors having an adverse effect on your family life?
Worst of all, the indication that the emphasis on pastoral counseling has gone too far is that ministers are lacking sufficient time to prepare their sermons. I am not referring to exceptional weeks, when several serious situations arise that require the pastor’s immediate attention. I am referring to a prevailing situation, that week after week the minister must make last-minute and hurried preparation of his sermons because so much of his time has been consumed in pastoral counseling. Pastors, in all honesty, are the demands of your pastoral labors consistently taking away from time for sermon preparation?
I believe it is at this point that the devil gains the upper hand in our ministry. If he is able to inundate us with counseling situations, and we are able to excuse our lack of sermon preparation by appealing to the need to be involved in counseling, the devil will have taken a significant step towards removing the Word of God from the church. And this, of course, is what he has aimed at all along. But in this case we ministers are his unwitting allies. The irony of it all!
For a minister to become so involved in counseling that he allows his sermon preparation to suffer is self-defeating. He will find, as many a minister has found, that he simply compounds his problems. The less time he spends in sermon preparation, the more need there is for personal counseling. Ministers who allow themselves to be taken away from necessary sermon preparation because of pastoral counseling are only inviting more hours of counseling. We ministers need to realize that good, well-prepared sermons are the spiritual preventative to many personal problems on the part of the members of the congregation. Many problems can be solved from the pulpit before they become so serious that the pastor needs to be involved.
Pastoral counseling must be kept in its proper place. It is primarily the minister’s responsibility to see to it that his counseling does not begin to occupy an inordinate amount of his time. Elders ought to pay attention to this as well. If it becomes plain that the minister is simply overwhelmed with pastoral work, especially if it becomes obvious that time spent in pastoral counseling is taking away from needed time in sermon preparation, the elders must intervene. The elders must intervene for the good of both minister and congregation.
How can we keep pastoral counseling in its proper place? The following are some suggestions.
First, pastoral counseling can only be kept in its proper place if the minister himself is thoroughly persuaded of the preeminent importance of preaching. Every minister must be convinced that this is his main calling – to preach the gospel. His main calling is not pastoral counseling. He may not let pastoral counseling any more than any other legitimate aspect of the ministry, usurp the unique place of preaching (cf. I Cor. 1:17). First and foremost he has been called by Christ to preach the gospel. Let the word of Paul to Timothy, which is the word of Christ to every pastor, make a fresh impression on us: “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; Preach the word!” (II Tim. 4:1, 2).
Convinced of the importance of the preaching in our ministry, let us resolve to take the time to make good sermons. Let us allow nothing to get in the way of time needed in sermon preparation, not even pastoral counseling. Making good sermons requires study: “Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Tim. 2:15). Making good sermons requires prayer: “But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). Prayer and study, these are the things that ought to occupy the vast majority of the minister’s time each week Once again, Jay Adams: “By far the amount of time spent in study, and in particular in the study of the Word, ought to outstrip the time devoted to anything else,” (Shepherding God’s Flock, p. 27). If necessary, the minister ought to draw up a schedule that allocates necessary time for study and stick to the schedule rigidly.
Second, pastoral counseling can be kept in its proper place if the minister does what he can to discourage unnecessary calls. The minister must make very clear to God’s people that he is there to help them with their serious problems. No question about it. But he must also make clear to them that he is not there for unnecessary calls, for lighthearted chitchat, for friendly conversation whenever a member is in the mood for dropping in unexpectedly for a visit. Adams has this to say: “When he knows how his time is allotted, the pastor will become invulnerable to inconsiderate and unthinking members of his congregation who otherwise will waste hours of time for him innumerous ways” (Shepherding God’s Flock, p.47). J. J. VanOosterzee writes: “Certainly there is, even towards this Church, a servilism which renders the minister, without character of his own, the obedient servant of one or another tone-giver among believers; shame upon every shepherd who lowers himself to be the follower of this or that bell-wether of the flock” (Practical Theology, p. 511).
The pastor will also be aided in keeping his pastoral counseling in its proper place by being careful with respect to the purpose of his counseling. Much counseling, as it seems to me, suffers on this score. The purpose of our counseling must not be to get God’s people through the present crisis, then to deal with the whole situation all over again down the road a bit when once more matters are of crisis proportions. Rather, in our counseling of God’s people, we must aim to equip them to deal with their problems in the future. That has to be our focus. That means, first, that we do not continue to counsel them indefinitely, so that they become dependent on us, in need of their counseling session to make it through the week But so soon as we can, we cut them loose, by the power of God’s grace and the direction of His Word to live the Christian life to which they are called. And second, before cutting them loose, we work at it so that they are able themselves to deal with the same sorts of problems in the future, making it unnecessary for them to seek the help of the pastor.
Take for example the counseling of those with marital problems. The pastor must make husband and wife work through their problems together. He must not allow them to “dump” their problems on him for a quick and easy solution. The pastor must get the couple to see clearly the cause of their problems and teach them to work together to resolve their problems. He must teach them that, in the future, they must learn to work through their difficulties before they reach a crisis situation.
The same is true of the minister’s work with those who are depressed. He must work with individuals to get them to see the causes of their depression, the contributing factors, and the solutions to their depressed state of mind. The pastor’s goal must be to equip the individual to handle future bouts with depression on his own.
Finally, the minister must learn to rely more upon other officebearers, his fellow elders especially, for help in pastoral counseling. The thinking has gained too much acceptance in our own churches that the minister is alone qualified to deal with pastoral situations; he is the “trained professional.” This is far from the truth. The elders ought to assist the minister in counseling, thus relieving him for necessary time in sermon preparation. Not only is this their calling (James 5:14 ff.), but God Himself qualifies the elders for this task.
In the Old Testament, when the work of leading God’s people became too great a burden, God ordained the seventy elders to assist Moses (Num. 11). In the New Testament, when the care of God’s people became too much for the apostles, God instituted the office of deacon (Acts 6). Adams comments on the Acts 6 passage as follows:
When the apostles recognized that other matters crowding in had begun to hamper them so that they did not have the time to pray as well as to engage in other essential aspects of the work to which God had called them, they took the matter into hand and made time for prayer. They assigned unessential matters to another group (deacons), whose office was created for this very purpose. They declared: “We will devote ourselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer” (
). The point of this passage is twofold: 1) Other matters must never be allowed to supersede the essentials. 2) To find time for the essentials, unessential aspects of the work must be delegated to others. Apart from a strict adherence to these two vital principles, every minister soon will discover that not only his prayer life, but also his ministry as a whole will begin to slide downhill (Shepherding God’s Flock, p. 25).
In fact, Adams goes so far as to enjoin ministers to enlist the aid not just of officebearers, but other qualified members of the congregation to assist him in pastoral work.
Yet many aspects of calling visitation as they are now carried on by pastors could be conducted by elders, deacons, and others within the congregation – to the great benefit of all involved. It is just simply a fact that if the pastor does not mobilize the entire congregation for the work that all can (and ought to) do, it will not be done, what is done will be partial and spotty, and the pastor soon will find himself carrying about the load of guilt of the unmade call…. To meet specialized problems, such as severe illnesses and those occasioned by sin in which experience and ability for counseling are needed, the eldership in general and the pastor in particular must be available and willing to make every house or hospital call required by the situation. But if the pastor wastes his time doing what other members of the congregation could do as readily or even better than he, he robs everyone of blessing (Shepherding God’s Flock, p. 112).
Finally, the minister will guard against a one-sided emphasis on counseling in his ministry if he follows the general rule of going on a call only when he is requested. Calvin, when ministering in Geneva, insisted upon this principle, in accordance with the instruction of James 5:14, “Is any sick among you? Let him call for the elders of the church.” Adams remarks:
There are some good reasons for adopting a stricter adherence to this principle than has been characteristic of the pastor in recent times. First, the principle is biblical. However, while the pastor is required to go only if requested to do so, the biblical principle does not forbid his paying calls upon sick members when his presence is not requested. In going only upon request, Calvin possibly went too far. Especially would this sort of rigidity be erroneous now. For in these days when Christians are so poorly instructed, the pastor must at times go even when not asked. Yet (and this is crucial), he should teach, through preaching, bulletin announcements, etc., that it is as much the duty of every sick member (or his family) to call for a pastoral visit as it is to request the services of the physician. People do not expect the physician to take the initiative; why should they expect the pastor? (Shepherding God’s Flock, p. 114).
Pastoral counseling has a legitimate and necessary place in the calling of every minister of the gospel. But its place must be rightly understood by minister and church members alike. There must not be an overemphasis on pastoral counseling, to the detriment of both minister and congregation.