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7 Hard-Earned Lessons on Pastoral Counseling

These days I’m doing more pastoral counseling than ever. That’s true even though I officially stepped down and retired from church leadership 24 months ago. The reality? Individuals, couples, families, former friends, small groups, and others will always need pastoral counseling, mentoring, listening, and more.

Over the past 29 years, here’s what I have learned. Some of these lessons are quite counterintuitive, but God seems to bless them year in and year out. More importantly, I learned most of them after wincing at some of the things Jesus Himself says and does in the gospels. Obviously, I didn’t learn all of these lessons in one or two more readings. Not by a long shot!

7 Lessons on Pastoral Counseling

1. My job isn’t to talk. My friend Rev. Rob Toornstra is a brilliant Reformed Church author and pastor. I highly recommend his amazing book on human sexuality, Naked and Unashamed. When I think of Rob, I think of someone filled with grace, humility, Scripture, and God Himself. Yet he wasn’t always this way.

“I was a college freshman—at a Bible college no less—which meant, of course, that I had all the spiritual answers that everyone around me needed. Plus, I was on fire for Jesus—a great combination, right?”

When that backfired big-time, “I learned a lot from that, actually. Mostly about the need to build trust, to listen, to show care, and not simply come to people as a dispenser of spiritual knowledge and information.”

2. My job is to listen to their story. By inviting someone to tell his or her story, we learn more than a set of facts. If we listen carefully, we end up learning how they think, feel, and relate to others.

Even more importantly, a bond is formed when we resist the temptation to talk and instead simply hear that person’s story, no matter how long it is. Yes, it may mean missing our next appointment.

Yet something very deep happens between that person and me once I’ve heard his or her story. I get glimpses of God’s fingerprints all over his or her story.

The crazy thing? Nobody ever asks, “What’s your story?” So, many people are caught off guard and may put up an initial defense. But if you keep smiling, allow for silence, and then ask again, many will begin.

3. My job is to accept their story, as is. Oftentimes, we can be shocked by the intensity of someone’s story, including his or her anger directed at you, others, and possibly even God, the Bible, Jesus Christ, Christianity, and the Church.

Instead of being shocked or offended by such expressions of anger, bitterness, and even hostility, it’s important that we remain unshockable, unoffended, and non-defensive.

That means we don’t say anything. We simply accept that part of their story “as is” with all the emotions and freight it carries. After all, God isn’t surprised or disillusioned with their story. He never had any illusions in the first place. Neither should we.

4. My job is to keep mum and not say a thing. Once someone tells us their story, our first impulse is to ask questions. Our second impulse is to analyze or focus on specific parts of their story.

Our third impulse is to try to “fix” what’s already happened in their life. Our fourth impulse is to tell parts of our own story that correlate with theirs. Our fifth impulse is to tell other people’s stories that correlate with theirs.

At every turn, don’t. Absolutely resist the temptation to say anything. Just listen. Even when they stop talking. Especially when they stop talking.

5. My job is to remain silent minute after minute. After someone tells you his or her story, they often will make the comment that they have never told it to anyone else. Simply nod your head. Don’t say anything. Even if it means waiting a full minute.

Remember: Americans hate silence. If you don’t talk, he or she will resume talking. You want to keep listening for the bottom line about them.

A guy named Leonard poured out his heart to me. I didn’t say a word. I just kept listening intently. When he was done, I kept looking into Leonard’s angry, deeply hurt eyes and didn’t say anything. After a minute, with the deepest sadness he said, “All I needed was hope and mercy.” What a profoundly haunting lament. Yet if I had started talking, I never would have heard what he needed.

And when they tell you, keep nodding but don’t say anything. Again, wait for the second bottom line, this time about you.

After Leonard told me, “All I needed was hope and mercy,” I remained quiet for another minute. I let my eyes do all the talking. His eyes and facial expressions began to soften and change. Only God’s love can do that. Then Leonard told me, “And by listening to my story, you’ve given me both.”

6. I’m not super-answer man. By the time someone is completely done talking, a number of issues are hanging in the air. Leave them there. Don’t engage with any of the issues. Even if one of the issues is close to your heart. Even if you know that you know the answer. After all, who made you Mr. Answer Man or Ms. Answer Woman?

Even if they ask you direct questions, smile and say, “Whatever you do, don’t believe what I have to say.” No one in our culture says that, and the humility of this realization will poise them to trust you.

If they keep asking direct questions, smile again and say, “Who made me Super Answer Person?” Besides, the individual isn’t ready for answers yet.

7. My job isn’t to meet their needs. Whatever we do, let’s not promise to meet the person’s needs. Often, they want to know the answer to their burning question, “Why?” You don’t know. Don’t even try to guess. Speculation will only ruin your credibility.


Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Katarzyna Bialasiewicz 

Initially, My Only Job Is Dividing Fact from Fiction

Pastoral counseling can be a rather subdued conversation. Then again, it can be quite heated!

Sometimes time runs out, but I make sure to say, “You’ve said a lot of things today. Thank you. I don’t agree with everything you’ve said. I just want you to know that.” Then I smile and laugh. “I don’t want you going out of here telling people I agree with everything you said.”

If things aren’t too heated, I go a step further. I give the person an assignment. “I encourage you to go home and ask yourself an important question. The question is this: What I’m thinking—is it true, or is it how I’m feeling?” Without denying feelings—which can rage at times—it’s liberating to differentiate those emotions from the larger facts at hand.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that when someone becomes enraged at me, odds are he or she is only two steps away from becoming a good friend. First, because they’re emotionally engaged in their relationship with me. They’re passionate! Second, because if true Christianity is about anything, it’s about reconciliation. Once a matter is settled, the other person and I are bonded. Sometimes for a while. Sometimes for life.

I had a rather intense conversation with a good friend during a time when our church was going through some particularly rough waters. He was railing against “the elders” this and “the elders” that. I looked at him incredulously.

“John, aren’t you forgetting something?” John profusely denied he was talking about me, so I pushed the point further. “Well, who are you talking about then? Paul G.? Paul S.? Dick? Bob?” No. No. No. And no, again.

“John, I’m confused. At the moment, Paul, Paul, Dick, Bob, and I are the only elders at church. If it’s not any of us you’re upset at, who is it?”

Thunderbolt!

I’ve had variations of this same conversation through the years. It’s amazing to watch the lights go on when someone realizes how he or she feels doesn’t equate reality.

The fact is, we can have internal arguments with projections we’ve created of other persons, which change our perceptions of the real persons and thus complicate our real-life relationships with them.

Unfortunately, since the let-it-all-hang-out 1960s, our culture has made a religion out of equating consciousness of feelings with reality.

Feelings never equate reality. They’re only indicators of how we perceive reality at any given time. Helping others see that has to happen first. Otherwise, they won’t be able to hear the truths we want to tell them.

What Jesus Shows Us in the Word

Jesus shows someone can completely change instantly (Luke 19:9).

Jesus shows someone’s physical and psychological healing can take place instantly for God’s glory, not our own (Luke 13:12-13).

Jesus shows that seeing someone change triumphs over social norms every time (John 3:12).

Jesus shows that seeing someone change sometimes involves changing their name (John 1:42).

Jesus shows that people can change and also go on to do much good (Luke 8:1-3).

Jesus specializes in completely changing sinners (Luke 15:1-2).

Jesus sometimes says next to nothing (Luke 14:4).

Jesus sometimes doesn’t say a word for a minute or two (Matthew 15:23).

Jesus almost always refuses to answer questions (John 8:5-6).

Jesus allows the ridicule and hostility of others (Luke 16:14).

Jesus listens to dirty jokes told by His enemies (Mark 12:18-23) and then...

...Jesus divides fact from fiction, thoroughly embarrassing His enemies (Mark 12:24-27).

Jesus rebukes His disciples in order to help them listen carefully (Luke 24:25-27).

Photo Credit: © iStock/Getty Images Plus/Javier_Art_Photography 


headshot of David Sanford new 2020 David Sanford’s book and Bible projects have been published by Zondervan, Tyndale, Thomas Nelson, Doubleday, Barbour, and Amazon. His newest book is Life Map Devotional for Men published concurrently with his wife Renee’s new book, Life Map Devotional for Women.

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