You have a very challenging job. You must develop skills in administration, preaching, teaching, evangelism, leading worship, and discipling people through trials in their lives (pastoral counseling). This last responsibility might be the most challenging of these responsibilities for a variety of reasons. Here are some ways to improve your role as a counselor:
Mistake #1: Not listening well
Imagine a conversation like this:
Steve [rushing into the pastor’s office] Pastor, I’m so, so sorry I’m late for our meeting. I got held up in traffic on Main Street, and I had to leave later than I expected because my wife needed my help with …
Pastor James Oh yeah. I learned years ago that Main is never good to take this time of the day. I’m surprised you didn’t know that. How long have you lived here? Oh well, you’ll get the hang of the traffic patterns around here.
Steve [silent, a little discouraged]
Can you sense why Steve is now a little discouraged, even before his meeting with Pastor James has even begun? Notice what Pastor James does in his response to Steve that has contributed to Steve’s discouragement. His response has a logical relationship to Steve’s opening remarks—Steve does mention traffic on Main Street—however, Pastor James does not acknowledge that Steve is distressed over being late. Steve rushes into the office and tries to communicate his regret with “I’m so, so sorry.” Pastor James is not upset that Steve is running behind schedule, but neither does he show sensitivity to what Steve is communicating to him. Pastor James has not demonstrated a crucial element in communication: attentive listening, listening that latches on to the real concerns of those who are speaking.
How skilled are you at attentive listening?
As you think about your typical conversations with people, are you quick to offer words of advice or consolation before you really have understood the significance or intention behind what they are sharing with you? Speaking too quickly increases the likelihood of saying something that is inappropriate or unhelpful.
Proverbs 18 ESV reminds us why attentive listening is so important in our relationships with others.
2 A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion.
13 If one gives an answer before he hears,
it is his folly and shame.
15 An intelligent heart acquires knowledge,
and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.
As a pastor, you are trained to speak, especially in sermons. This, of course, is important. However, each week you undoubtedly spend more time talking to people one-on-one or in small groups. Therefore, developing attentive listening skills is crucial. Otherwise, you run the risk of violating these principles mentioned in Proverbs 18.
The most important element in attentive listening
You’ve probably been exposed to suggestions for listening attentively: maintain eye contact, remove distractions when someone comes to talk to you, ask clarifying questions for more details, don’t rehearse your responses while the other person is still speaking, periodically summarize in your own words what the other person has said. All of these suggestions are helpful, and you should try hard to use them. But the most significant factor in being an attentive listener has to do with your attitude toward the person with whom you are speaking. How important to you is this person’s welfare? How much do you care about this person’s struggles? How well do you enter into this person’s report of good news? In other words, do you follow Paul’s instruction in Romans 12:10, 15 ESV?
“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. … Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
Mistake #2: Not focusing on the heart
Traditionally, in discussions of what the Bible teaches about human beings, you expect to hear about the origin of humanity, the historicity of Adam, the meaning of “image of God,” the nature of sin, etc. While all of these are significant topics, understanding people and their problems also requires understanding what the Bible says about the “heart”—a concept mentioned over eight hundred times in the Bible. To get a general idea of what the “heart” refers to, take a few minutes to read Proverbs 4:23, Ezekiel 36:25–26, Luke 6:45, and Matthew 6:19–21.
What is the heart?
In these passages, the “heart” being referred to is not the physical organ that pumps blood through your arteries and veins. “Heart” refers to the moral and motivational control center of a person. According to the passages you have read, it is either the contents of the heart (Luke 6:45; Matt. 6:19–21) or the condition of the heart (Ezek. 36:25–26) that dictates what you see in a person’s lifestyle—the behavior, speech, emotional reactions, attitudes, reasoning, etc. Therefore, the father in Proverbs 4 urges his son to “above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Counseling, biblically speaking, plunges you into the “deep waters” of the heart (Prov. 20:5).
To say that the heart is the motivational control center of a person means that the heart represents the person’s values, standards, loyalties, and ultimate commitments. That is why Jesus could affirm that one’s “treasures” reflect his or her heart.
To say that the heart is the moral control center of the person means that the heart is never neutral with respect to God. We are made in God’s image; we are made to imitate our Creator. If the heavens declare the glory of God, and if the earth is full of His glory, then we humans can never escape the implications of being made by God, to be like God, and for God’s purposes (Gen. 1:26–27; Rom. 1:21; 2:14–15; Eph. 4:22–24).
Taking the mystery out of understanding people
The key to understanding people, then, is not genetics, the brain, parents, peers, or culture. Of course, all of these factors significantly influence who we are and how we live our lives. But, from the standpoint of the Bible, all these factors are filtered through the desires, commitments, and loyalties of the heart. Pastors are in a prime position to help people make lifestyle changes that honor God because of their familiarity with the Bible, which is “sharper than any double-edged sword; it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
Counseling questions that reveal the motivations of the heart
In general terms, when you think about trying to access what is going on in the heart of your counselee, you are essentially asking “why” questions, but it is important to understand some guidelines about how to do this productively. If you ask the bare question, “Why did you do that?” early in counseling, your counselee might be put off by the question. It can sound like you are interrogating a suspect. Instead, early in counseling with someone, concentrate on the “hard data” about your counselee’s situation; for example, “What did you do? What did you say? Who was with you?” As you get this type of data, occasionally you might ask, “When you did that, what did you hope would happen?” Or, “When you said that, were you expecting a certain kind of response?” Such questions dig a little deeper and help to expose the “thoughts and attitudes” of the heart (Heb. 4:12).
Mistake #3: Lack of structure for your counseling sessions
To be productive, counseling sessions need to have structure. This is so important because when people seek counseling they are usually emotionally distraught, unclear about what’s going on, and disoriented by their trials. They are often at “wit’s end.” They can be confused or angry or worried or conflicted—all of which can cloud their judgment. Therefore, you should structure counseling conversations as a way of bringing stability and offering direction to your counselees.
The value of an agenda
One structuring element is creating an agenda for each session. An agenda contains your initial thoughts about how a session might be conducted. It includes clarifying questions to ask, goals to pursue, Scripture passages to use, and principles to share. A session’s agenda usually begins to form in the previous session’s conversation. Because it is rare that one conversation will address all the issues in a person’s life, future agenda items are either tagged or jotted down in the margins of your notes.
Agendas are important for using your time efficiently and effectively. Sessions will usually begin with discussing the counselee’s homework that had been assigned the previous week. Then you can tell the counselee what you have on your agenda for the current session and ask if there are any suggested changes to your agenda. One obvious change in the agenda would occur if your counselee arrives for a session and announces some personal tragedy has occurred. If so, that needs to be the focus of the session, and the current agenda can be revised as needed for the subsequent sessions.
The value of homework
As just mentioned, another structuring element is homework. Homework, generally speaking, will help your counselee either (1) understand biblical teaching better or (2) turn biblical principles into lifestyle practices. I find that pastors are more prone to suggest reading or Bible studies than they are to create assignments that help counselees figure out how their daily lifestyle should be changed by following biblical principles. Knowing how to study the Bible is a critical skill for believers to develop, but usually people need counseling because they are not able to see how biblical ideas or principles can be implemented in their lives. Thus, it is as important to offer counselees action-oriented assignments as it is to offer reading- and study-oriented assignments.
Although counseling is challenging, it is also a thrilling opportunity to watch God use His Word in the lives of His people. Their growth in God’s grace becomes a reason for your celebration of His grace.