Sunday, July 1, 2012

Brethren, We Are Not Counselors

Ministerial Myths II: The Minister as Counselor

Bob Newhart

In 1970 Jay Adams’ Competent to Counsel was published and made a marked impact on the campus of Reformed Theological Seminary.  It was refreshingly different from other pastoral counseling books. Competent to Counsel along with such books as Christian Living in the Home and The Christian Counselor’s Manual exercised a formative influence on the pastoral ministries of many, especially Reformed ministers who wanted to bring the Biblical revelation, not secular psychology, to bear upon their care of souls.

Here was a way forward. No longer would one try to blend psychology and Christian truth or to baptize secular therapy with a few Bible verses taken out of context. There would be little if any need to “refer” Christian people to psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists. Ministers were competent to care for their troubled people. The Scriptures were sufficient to address the needs of God’s people who were struggling with temptations and trials. 

Stop It!
The problem beneath most “presenting” problems (not related to brain disease or injury) was sin.  Admonishing (noutheo) was the key to helping people. Admonishing meant identifying the sin, confronting it, showing how to repent of it, and guiding and supporting change. Simplified it is the approach Bob Newhart practiced: “Stop it!” ( More technically, it is a Christian version of the cognitive-behavioral approach, helping people overcome destructive thinking and doing.

Nouthetic counseling appealed for a number of reasons. It did not require ministers to turn their people over to outside counselors who would fill their minds with a lot of hooey. It did not consign Christians to therapy that might go on for years and do little good if not outright harm. It simplified human problems that were viewed as extremely complex and complicated. It offered hope to the pastor about a way to help his people and to his people who wrestled with sin and its consequences. Get the thinking and behavior to line up with God’s truth and will, and the problems will begin to resolve.  Significant improvement could occur even in the short term.

Adams’ work had and continues to have a great impact. The Christian Education and Counseling Foundation, more intentionally and consistently than others, has built upon the foundation of Adams’ approach. Nouthetic counseling has come to see human problems and suffering are more complicated and less tractable than Adams seemed to say. There is an appreciation of the role medical treatment may have. However, Adams is the fount of the work.

Adams never routed other approaches. Other “Christian” approaches continue to compete. Many churches have counseling centers, professionally trained therapists (some ordained ministers), and support groups using 12 Step and other “group help” programs. Ministers still refer, especially if they do not have the time or inclination to “do counseling” or feel they are getting in over their heads.

Not even Adams fully removed the therapeutic model from counseling. Ministers or non-ordained but equipped believers are Christian counselors who see counselees, whether in church building space or a free standing clinic. The relationship is structured. Appointments are scheduled (in more than the sense of “I am free at 3” this afternoon”) Counselees are given assignments to work on. The dynamics of the relationship are more like that of doctor and patient than pastor and member of the flock.

My contention is that ministers are not therapists. Nor are they counselors except as those who as shepherds who come along side (parakaleo) those under their care. They are pastors. They are Ministers of the Word and sacraments. There are limitations to the minister’s calling and abilities.

There are expectations today that every problem can be fixed, both in the secular society and in the church. Ministers get caught up in the role of “fixer.”  We expect somebody – doctors, ministers, politicians, teachers, lawyers, therapists, judges - to prevent or cure every problem. When something goes wrong or is not fixed to our liking somebody must be to blame. Very possibly somebody must pay. It’s just not “right” or not “fair” that we have problems and suffer.

There is a Christian version of this “fix it” mentality. We think that the sufficiency of the Scriptures, union with Christ (understood in terms of his death and resurrection not positionally but dynamically), and the indwelling of the Spirit mean that Christians should be able get past patterns of sin, marital and family difficulties, depression, OCD, and everything else that Christ died and rose to conquer.

It seems to me that we are, perhaps without being aware, trying to bring more of the future back into this present age than we have reason to expect. We think that people can be a lot more fixed short of the coming of Christ than they are, whether because they are not connected to the resources (unbelievers) or not sufficiently using them (believers). We want to do more try to mitigate and manage problems. We want to conquer them, if not banish them. I think our expectations should be more modest. Creation and Christians have a lot of groaning to do in this present age.

Here is what I think ministers are called to do and can do:

(1)   We can be available to people. Beyond the Word and sacraments, nothing should have a greater claim on us than caring for God’s people who are struggling with sin, guilt, defeat, fear, isolation, sickness, pain, failure, discouragement, and all the afflictions of this world. People should know they can come to us and that we will go to them. You can call your pastor when you need him. Your pastor can seek you out when he thinks you need him. Not so with the “Christian therapist” or “counseling minister” because this is not the way the professional relates to clients.

(2)   We can allow people to be open and vulnerable. A great number of Christians are not honest with their pastors, and a great number of pastors are not honest with other pastors. There is a great tendency among evangelical Christians to say the right thing rather than the true thing. Evangelicals have images to keep up. Moreover, in some cases evangelicals have reason to fear the consequences of honesty. Who will be told about you? What will be done to you? One reason ministers lose people to therapists is that the therapist is paid to listen and can offer a safe setting in which to say what you’ve really done, what you’re really feeling, and where you really are.

(3)   We can offer sympathy and empathy. We offer sympathy when we see a person hurting, can understand that their situation is painful, and care. We offer empathy when we have been in the same or very similar place, experienced their hurt, and know what kind of help is needed. The minimum people should be able to expect of pastors is genuine, sacrificial caring. Another reason people pay for therapy is because, whether it is real or not, many therapists seem to care.

(4)   We can minister God’s Word to people, reading it and, when appropriate, showing its meaning and relevance to their situation. (Often the relevance is not “giving direction” from the Scriptures but giving a voice to the troubled soul from Scripture.)  Here, the way we view people and preach to them will have an impact on how we minister the Word. I and many of my contemporaries were influenced in our preaching by Al Martin and in our counseling by Jay Adams, not understanding there was conflict between the two approaches to ministering the Word to God’s people. How we view our people when we preach to them will form how we view them when we minister to them in private. The more I came to see professing Christians as Christians, many of whom are struggling in the Christian life, the more I tried to offer encouragement from the pulpit and in the study, home, or hospital.

(5)   We can pray with God’s people. If Jesus is a sympathetic High Priest, who is touched with the feeling of our infirmities, we can be sympathetic pray-ers. That does not mean trivialized prayer (“Jesus we just know that you really care about us”). We can pray to a great God (“Eternal and Almighty God, Father in heaven, God of all comfort and Father of mercies’), but express to God the realities of frail human experience, knowing Jesus groaned and cried out to the Father and so may we.

(6)   We can celebrate the sacraments. We have so low a view of the sacraments that it hardly occurs to us to see them as part of our pastoral care. They are in fact means of grace attached to the Word.  We can go to the hospital and baptize the baby not expected to live or the adult convert passing through the valley of the shadow of death. We can invite to the Table the sin weary, guilt laden, under condemnation soul that extends a trembling hand to and has a weak grip upon Jesus. We can call the fearful, discouraged, despairing believer to the Table to feed upon Christ’s body and drink his blood for spiritual nourishment.

(7)   We can give advice based on observation and experience. Ministers should gain a little insight and wisdom by living as believers in this world. Some of this will be from seeing patterns of human behavior, from trial and error in our own and others living, and from gaining some perspective on life. Such will fall better into the category or “common grace” than “special grace.” Some of our advice will be based what we have learned from others and life about the Christian life and its living. We will give our advice of both kinds “for what it’s worth” which is never of the worth of Word, prayer, and sacraments.

We are not counselors. We are ministers. Sometimes less is more.

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