Pastoral ministry is more than preaching sermons. There are other responsibilities that demand your attention. One of them is shepherding your people through personal crises. You must learn to navigate the complex world of human brokenness.
At times you must wear the hat of a counselor. The demands of this responsibility can overwhelm you if you’re not careful. How much counseling you do and when you do it is an important consideration.
I learned this lesson the hard way. Some people in your church would talk to you about their problems every day of the week if you’d let them. There is more emotional suffering in your church than you personally have time to address.
I recommend you consider the following:
Be willing to meet with anyone at least once.
A willingness to meet shows your people you care about them and that you’re not just preaching to them. I would discourage you from becoming the kind of pastor who is too busy to meet with people about their problems. Think of it as an extension of your pulpit ministry.
Limit your pastoral counseling to one day a week.
Counseling is emotionally regardless of the form it takes. When you walk with someone through their darkness, their emotional wounds will impact you at on emotional level.
I limit my counseling to one afternoon a week—typically Sunday afternoons. (I’m already drained from the morning services, so I figure I might as well block it all together.) Sundays might not work for you, but find a day that does work and schedule it all together.
Limit the number of meetings early on in the process.
For the vast majority of pastoral counseling, the first session provides enough clarity for what needs to happen next. At that session or shortly thereafter, I will create a plan that schedules up to four or five other sessions to address their needs (key words being “up to”). Most of the problems you’ll encounter can be addressed in one to three sessions.
If you don’t set limits, you’ll find that people are happy to meet every week for as long as you’ll let them. Avoid that trap by creating a well-defined counseling plan that has a start date, an end date, and concrete goals. Be wary of committing to anything indefinite when it comes to pastoral counseling (although there are exceptions to every rule).
Know when to refer someone out for long-term or professional counseling.
If their needs are greater than what five to six sessions can handle, I refer them out to a professional who can commit to their needs long term. Usually, those professionals will serve them better anyway, given the complexities of their situation. It’s important you learn who the great counselors are in your area. Only refer your people out to counselors you trust. There’s a lot of junk out there that’ll do more harm than good.
Usually, I’ll know after two to three sessions whether something long term is going to be required. Most people are understanding and grateful for the investment of time you give them. At the end of the day, it’s about what’s best for them, not what makes you feel most important.
In my many years of pastoral ministry, I’ve broken each of these four rules. That’s why I commend them to you without hesitation. Every time I’ve violated these rules, I’ve paid the price and done a disservice to the people I’ve been called to pastor.
Think of it as a tension to hold, not a problem to solve. You must be there for your congregation. They need more than preacher. They need a counselor.
However, in your desire to care well for your people, make sure you also take care of yourself. Find a balance. Have a plan. Enforce it with grace. You’ll be glad you did!