I joyfully admit that I, as a Pastor, have gone through extended times of personal counseling, and on a couple of occasions, even marriage counseling. The result for me was incredibly positive on just about every level I can think of. I can remember several times, as I would make the one-hour drive from the counselor’s office to my home, thinking to myself… “I wish all my pastor friends could know what a blessing it is to talk to a counselor.” It is a blessing. It’s life changing. It could save your ministry, your marriage, or even your life.
Pastors, this blog post is dedicated to you!
I want to suggest five reasons why every pastor should consider seeking out personal counseling, even if you are not in a crisis right now. If you have your own reasons, or you want to add something to the discussion, please stick around at the end of the post and share your comments. Now…
Reason #1: CONFESSION: You need to confess your sins.
My office is the church’s confessional. It’s true! People come in to see me regularly, and in the process of our discussions, they confess their sins to me. I consider this a sobering and sacred honor. Almost every time, as they begin to share, I can see a mixture of fear and relief. The fear is that they are actually saying, out loud, what God already knows, and they are saying it to another human being (me). It’s scary to tell another person about our personal failures, sins, and struggles.
Over the past nineteen years, I have heard confessions of everything you can imagine, and though it has been difficult, I consider it a great joy to be involved in helping people find a place to confess, to repent, and to find forgiveness.
Where do pastors go to confess their sins? For the most part, they go to God in prayer, and that’s it. And for some, that’s not happening any more because they’ve become too discouraged with their own sense of personal failure, so they have even stopped talking to God about it.
Many pastors feel that they can’t go to their elders or other church leaders because they fear that their honesty about personal struggles could result in them losing their job. They may also feel that they can’t tell their spouse because it could threaten the fabric of their marriage. Sadly, many pastors don’t have close friends either inside or outside of the church to whom they feel they can confess, and with whom they can just be themselves. In short, pastors typically don’t feel that there is anyone to whom they can confess their sins because they fear exposure, job loss, scorn, humiliation, and even the destruction of their reputation, ministry, finances, and family.
Pastors often fear that confessing their sins might mean that they will have to leave the ministry. Let me say here that some pastors should leave the ministry because they are in no condition (because of bondage to sin) to be in pastoral ministry (1 Tim. 3:1-7). But it would be better for them to come to that conclusion through a healthy process of confession and counseling. A counselor can provide a safe place for a pastor to confess his sins, and perhaps even help him think about healthy ways to leave pastoral ministry without the destructive results of a scandal because of moral failure.
Just as a pastor’s office should be a safe place of confession for your congregation, a counselor’s office (especially a professional, licensed, clinical therapist’s office) can be a safe place for a pastor to say the unsayable, speak the unspeakable, and confess the un-confessable. Think of how relieved people in your church feel, pastor, after they come to talk with you. Imagine being able to have that same sense of relief when you talk to someone who can, must, and will protect your confidentiality, and who will give you the safe place you need to confess your sins.
We’re sinners too, pastors. We, like the members of our congregations, need to confess our sins to another person, in sacred confidentiality, and receive prayer so that we can be healed. (James 5:16).
Reason #2: INTEGRATION: You need to integrate the broken pieces of your identity.
We’re all broken in different ways. Like shattered pieces of glass from a broken mirror, our lives become dis-integrated and fractured. Many of us will choose one big piece, and then perhaps two, three, or four smaller pieces of the shattered mirror to navigate through life, relationships, and changing circumstances. We learn to project the piece of our image we want everyone else to see. Counseling will help you, pastor, to get all those pieces put back together and integrated into one whole, healed, and complete person. This is vital to pastors who may otherwise live in a state of dis-integration, and then end up living a double life.
It may be helpful for you, pastor, to think of your own inner life as a small congregation. Within your own identity there is deep love for Jesus, dedication to ministry, commitment to spouse and family, as well as struggles with lust, anger, hurt, pride, immaturity, selfishness, and maybe even some weirdness. Sounds like your church, doesn’t it?
A counselor can help you to identify those big pieces of your life — that little congregation living in your head, and made up of all the complex aspects of your own identity — and to find out which pieces are dominant, and which are being pushed to the side, kept in a box, or brought out only in certain circumstances. A counselor can help a dis-integrated pastor who is in danger of blowing up his life, to become whole, integrated, and internally connected so that he is one person, no matter where he is or who he is with.
Reason #3: TRAINING: You need to learn how to be a better counselor yourself.
When I first started doing pastoral work (at age 24) I knew exactly diddly-squat about counseling and caring for people. People would come in to my office, share their struggles and issues, and I would sit across from them with my best “pastor face” on while simultaneously feeling totally helpless, inept, and unqualified. I often silently wondered to myself, “How can I ever help this person? I have no idea what to say or do!”
When I started seeing a counselor about 8 years into my own pastoral ministry, I began to learn from him by watching him counsel me. I learned how to listen by seeing him listen. I learned how to ask questions, give feedback, when to talk and when to be quiet, how to end a counseling session, and how to help someone set goals and track their progress by having someone else do that with me. Getting counseling, as a pastor, will help you learn to counsel others.
I’ll say right here (and develop it more in a future post) that most pastors should not be doing long-term counseling with church members unless (1) you’re trained to do it, (2) you’re good at it, and (3) you have time to do it along with all the other things you’re doing. If you can’t check all three of those boxes, you should be referring people who need counseling to people who can actually help them. The sign outside your office door that says “PASTOR” does not mean you know how to counsel all the people in your church, and it doesn’t mean you have to be their personal therapist. Pastor, you should not feel guilty about that at all!
That being said, every pastor will have to spend some amount of time doing some level of counseling. If you go through counseling yourself (not just counselor training – but actual therapy where you are the client), you can learn to become a better counselor yourself.
Reason #4: EMPATHY: You need to empathize with people who come in for counseling.
I know of a pastor who had a major blow-out in life and ministry who was required by the elders of his church to go to counseling. When one of the leaders asked him how it was going, he said something like, “I’m not really into all the navel gazing.” My response to that was, “He just told you what he thinks of every person who comes to him for counseling.”
When I first saw a professional counselor, eight years into my pastoral work, I remember feeling nervous and insecure. At the time I thought, “Wow, I’ve always been on the other side of this dynamic. It feels strange being the one asking for help.” That gave me empathy for people who have come in to talk to me over the years. I know what they’re feeling when they come in to see me, and that makes me work harder to listen, to empathize, and to do all I can to help them feel loved, safe, and cared for.
Pastor, if you go to counseling, you will get to feel what every person who comes to your office feels, and that’s a good thing. It will make you a better shepherd.
Reason #5: CATHARSIS: You need to dump all the stuff you’re carrying in your head and heart
This morning I heard the story of a pastor who began having panic attacks, and ended up having a major emotional melt-down that made him completely incapable of functioning. After a bit of digging, the man helping this pastor discovered that he had been under intense scrutiny and criticism by a few vocal church members. He began feeling defensive all the time, and got to the point where he would shut down emotionally at the slightest hint of criticism. He began taking medication that altered his emotional state, and eventually, he crashed. One thing is certain, that pastor felt alone, isolated, attacked, and ultimately became emotionally paralyzed and paranoid. There was no one for him to talk to. There was no one to help him process the criticism he felt.
Over the course of my own nineteen years in pastoral ministry, I have struggled with resentment, defensiveness, anger, disappointment, feelings of failure, insecurity, inadequacy, and loneliness. I have felt many of these things as a direct result of interaction with church members. No one can hold that much negative, toxic, poisonous emotional baggage in their heart without serious consequences. Everyone needs a place to dump. But if a pastor dumps to the wrong people, it will only add to his sense of fear because, again, some people will not allow a pastor to be human. If needs to rant and rave about the guy in the church who won’t get off his back, and he does it with the wrong person, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, things can get worse than they already are. That pastor needs a counselor. He needs someone who will let him vent, who will role-play with him so that he can work out how to talk to his critics, and someone who can help him grow by learning from criticism, conflict, or whatever else he’s dealing with. And if you’re seeing a counselor, you don’t have to risk losing another friend. The counselor is in an entirely different category.
Being in ministry also means that we are with people, helping and supporting them through the worst things they’re experiencing, and it’s simply not natural for one person to be involved in so much pain. Two weeks ago, as my wife and I were taking our evening walk, I began sharing a number of stories of severe crisis that I’ve been involved in over the past 12 years, and after about 15 minutes of recounting story after story, I broke down in tears. Pastor, have you ever really stopped to think about all the pain you’ve walked through with others? Has that pain made you sick, hardened, weak, paranoid, tired, overwhelmed, depressed, cynical, or resentful? If so, you’re a prime candidate for counseling.
Dear pastor-friend, I’m with you. I’ve got nineteen years of stories from the trenches, and you may have more! The bottom line is that pastors are under-served in the area of care and personal healing. Our marriages struggle too. We struggle with finances, parenting, sexuality, personality quirks, and every other kind of human brokenness — just like all the people we’re pastoring. SO – here’s my encouragement. See a counselor. You won’t regret it. It may be one of the best things you will ever do.