The term pastoral counseling means different things to different people.  While some think of it as a purely humanistic psychological exercise, others seem to think of it as a method to beat believers with a big Bible.  Pastoral counseling is neither a necessary evil to be unwillingly tolerated nor a demonic presence to be cast out of the church.  Pastoral counseling, to me, is extended altar ministry.

            The average church-goer who attends all the services hears his pastor speak to him for no more than an hour and a half weekly.  If he skips at least one evening service per week, his input from the pastor is even less.  Now consider the fact that the average American watches television nearly 50 hours a week.  Even a person who watches no televised programs other than the national news hears the newscaster speak to him for two and a half hours weekly.  Consider also the fact that a lot of the recent church growth is accomplished at the expense of pastoral care—that is, pastors have less and less time to visit, pray, and engage in closer spiritual encounters with their people.  These facts point out the need to have an increasing number of one-to-one meetings between the pastors and, at least, the neediest of their congregations.  Pastoral counseling offers this opportunity. 

            People who see no difference between secular psychological counseling and pastoral counseling often raise questions about the validity of the latter in the local church.  If secular humanistic counseling is only whitewashed as pastoral counseling, their questions would be valid.  Their argument that the old-fashioned “praying through” is a much better approach would be acceptable.  However, how many altar services in contemporary America last for hours?  How many churches schedule such altar ministry?  How many people will make room in their schedules for such regular events?  The alternative is to schedule altar services for individuals to meet their scheduling and privacy needs.  The result will be pastoral counseling sessions.

            At one time I pastored a fast-growing church in Connecticut.  In my pastorate, I considered my study as sacred a ground as the sanctuary itself.   I wanted to see God move in my office as He did at the altar. 

            I see the need today for more pastors to consider their study rooms or offices as sacred as their pulpits or altars.  To me, what I did in the study was only an extension of what I did at the altar.  At the altar, I was in the business of healing, guiding, reconciling, and sustaining.  I continued this ministry in the study too.  God, who graciously moved at the altar, moved also in the study.

            My model for pastor counseling is Jesus.  His dialogue with the Samaritan women at the well in John’s gospel is my model of a counseling session.  A dialogue about H20 turned in to a life-changing, city-changing experience.  Pastoral counseling can be evangelistic!  Interestingly, this encounter did not take place at the temple.  Pastoral counseling can take place at the altar, in the study, or even in someone’s living room.

            True pastoral counseling involves insights, inspiration, and discernment.  This is a skill-requiring ministry.  The disciples of Jesus were trained in it for at least three and a half years.  Unskilled altar ministry can cause harm.  So can unskilled pastoral counseling.  I have seen results of both.  But that is no reason to discredit either altar ministry or pastoral counseling.

            Pastoral counseling is Spirit-led, creative dialogue that leads to prayer.  True pastoral counseling leads both the pastor and his counselee to their knees.  The Spirit of the living God that moves at the altar to bring healing and wholeness to individuals moves also upon those who will kneel with their pastor in his study.


[From the book What Will Your Tombstone Say?]

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