Mission Lab 2018

Pastors play critical role as first-responders in counseling members

September 22nd, 2016 / By: Tobin Perry / comments

Pastors play critical role as first-responders in counseling members

JACKSONVILLE For Mike Smith, a pastor’s counseling ministry is like the work of an emergency room doctor. 

“When someone comes to you, usually it’s an emergency,” says Smith, who serves as the president of Jacksonville College in Jacksonville, Texas. “You then can refer them to the specialist. I tell people, ‘I’m here to listen to you. I’m going to pray for you, but it may be that when you share with me I’m going to have to refer you to someone else.’”

Smith’s advice comes as more attention is being placed on the counseling ministry of local church pastors. Several high-profile pastors, whose children committed suicide after struggling with mental illness, have initiated a national conversation on the topic. 

After a 2013 Southern Baptist Convention resolution urging churches to demonstrate compassion for those with mental illness, SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page established a voluntary advisory council on ways to communicate better with Southern Baptists about mental health ministry needs. Page’s daughter, Melissa, ended her life at age 32. For the past two years, Saddleback Church has sponsored a mental health conference for church leaders after the son of its pastor, Rick Warren, committed suicide.

Smith encourages pastors to have basic preparation for counseling needs, such as pre-marital counseling, hospital chaplaincy and basic introductory counseling courses. This preparation will help pastors identify issues and determine if they can handle them or need to refer them to a professional counselor. 

“(Pastors) are wanting to meet the needs of the people and give help,” says Smith, who has served as a local church pastor, a director of missions and on the staff of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. “That’s good and admirable, but they need to understand their limitations. I think sometimes they tend to deal with areas they are not really equipped for.”

Katherine Pang, a licensed psychologist and the director of the graduate counseling program at Criswell College, recommends pastors develop a strong referral list of counselors to whom they can send members. She suggests starting with people they know and entities they respect. She points out that schools like Criswell College can help identify biblical counselors who can help. She also recommends talking to deacons and other leaders in the church to see what experiences they’ve had with counselors in the area. She urges pastors to look at a counselor’s background before referring to them. 

Pang acknowledged that many pastors struggle with referring church members to counselors because they fear counselors might mess up their theology: “There are people who are grounded in the truth of God’s Word, and they are uniquely qualified to bring together both the truth of God’s Word with counseling theory and technique, which are important in helping people move through these issues, to be able to be where God would have them to be.”

Frank Catanzaro, chair of biblical counseling at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, says the most important part of preparing pastors for a counseling ministry is helping them develop strong biblical knowledge. He compared counseling to discipleship, where pastors use Scripture to help people see where they need to make a change in their life.

“I teach my students to listen, primarily, for unbiblical thinking and then to counter it with biblical truth,” Catanzaro says. “Whether you’re actually sick or not, I can’t deal with that because I’m not a medical professional. If you’re not thinking biblically, I can do something about that.”

Another lesson Catanzaro teaches prospective pastors is to not be intimidated by people who come to them with a psychological diagnosis. 

“When someone comes for help who has already received a diagnosis, it is not my job to evaluate the validity of that diagnosis but to listen for unbiblical thinking and counter with biblical truth,” Catanzaro says. “It has been my experience, that when people think biblically, joy replaces brokenness, even in that face of a trial.”