“Pastor, I need counseling …”

I admit in my early years of ministry nothing ruined a good day of doing the Lord’s work faster than hearing those four dreaded words. My attitude was the culprit. What do you mean you need counseling? Didn’t you just hear the forty-five-minute sermon on how to rise above your problems? Not to mention the fact I spent or the ten minutes praying for you at the end of the service while everyone else just stood and waited. What else do you need? Yeah, that was me back then. I am not proud of it. My heart was in the right place, but my perspective was way off.

Being a Pastor in Today’s Modern Society Is No Easy Task

Our schedules are packed with meetings, civic duties, sermon prep, managing our churches, answering email, and the list goes on. We also have our families as a top priority and perhaps the occasional game of golf. No need to feel guilty about the golf. After all, the Lord did say to spend some time in green pastures and my ball has no trouble finding still waters!

Sometimes I feel like I spin plates for a living—maybe you can relate. My family and I saw a plate-spinning performance while we were on vacation last summer. The performer began by spinning one plate on a single rod. At first, it looked easy enough. Then, he added more plates until there were about ten spinning in front of him. Frantically, he ran back and forth from plate to plate, trying to keep them from crashing to the ground and breaking. Pastors are expert plate spinners. We move from one thing to the next hoping to keep all our plates going at the same time.

With that in mind, I pose this question: Does God have permission to interrupt your schedule? Before you answer, think about your approach to counseling. As I mentioned previously, there was a time in my pastoral ministry when I felt as though I had more important tasks to accomplish than spending one-on-one time with people who needed my help. In my mind there were always bigger fish to fry than those whose problems seemed guppy sized.

It took me ten years to realize this was not how Jesus approached life and ministry. God had permission to interrupt Jesus’s schedule, but He didn’t have permission to interrupt mine. I learned the hard way that ministry isn’t just working for the church but is engaging in the lives of those who cross my path.

Spiritual Activity Is Not a Substitute for Shepherding

Jesus was most effective when He allowed His ministry schedule to be interrupted by those who needed a personal touch. When His day planner went out the window, supernatural miracles happened in the lives of ordinary people. We clearly see this in His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well: Jesus left a thriving ministry in Judea (John 4:1–3) to have a one-on-one conversation with someone who needed His advice on marriage and morality. There are many other examples in Scripture, from Zacchaeus to Thomas. Jesus was accessible. He truly was a “Wonderful Counselor” (Isa. 9:6 NIV) to the people in His world. Are you?

Never be afraid of divine interruptions when it comes to sharing words of life with those who are struggling. Jesus never was. As pastors, what we do in the pulpit usually gets the most press, but what we do in the counseling office often produces the most results.

Let me clarify. I am in no way saying that counseling is more important than the other daily duties of a pastor, but I want to remind you of the benefits.

While counseling others, I have found that the Holy Spirit often gives me a word of advice or spiritual application for that person, and because. Because people basically struggle with the same issues, I am now better equipped in pulpit ministry. Counseling doesn’t just benefit the specific person I’m counseling; it also benefits me.

There are three passages of Scripture that radically altered my perspective on pastoral counseling. Perhaps they will speak to your heart as well.

1. “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety” (Prov. 11:14 ESV).

Sadly, I have heard pastors say, “Ministry would be fun, if it weren’t for people and their problems.” We sometimes fail to realize that pastors would not be necessary if people’s lives were problem free. Those engrossed in struggles are ultimately looking for safety. In most cases they aren’t trying to make our lives more complicated, they simply want honest answers and solutions that work. A good counselor can guide someone into the harbor of better decisions, stability, and biblical truth.

As a pastor, you are a safety net to those in your care. When they fall off the cliff of despair, your theology degree won’t catch them, but you can.

2. Ezekiel 34:2–4 (NIV) “Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost” (Ezek. 34:2–4 NIV).

When I read those verses for the first time, I felt convicted. In my opinion, this passage perfectly describes the role of the pastor as both shepherd and counselor. In counseling, we help the weak find strength, heal the emotionally sick, and bind injured hearts with words of encouragement. Besides searching for the lost and bringing back the strays, counseling is my greatest responsibility as a pastor. This duty supersedes my obligation to organize a men’s pancake breakfast, speak to a popular civic group, or attend the game in which a deacon’s child is the starting quarterback. Counseling is my highest calling.

It’s common for any pastor to feel overwhelmed and underqualified. Keep in mind the same God who called you will also equip you. While an education in the field of counseling would be a great asset, all you really need is a shepherd’s heart. I am guessing if you took the time to read this, you already have that.

3. Matthew 11:28-30 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30).

People didn’t flock to Jesus because He had the biggest congregation. He wasn’t known for traveling with the best praise and worship band. His preaching style wasn’t cutting edge or even accepted by the people of His day. People came to Him for rest. God has also called you to be a place of rest—a haven for the weary and an ear for the burdened. A thriving church starts by you making yourself available—like Jesus—to the hurt, burdened, and broken.

Seven years ago I launched Real Life Counseling Center, the only free professional counseling ministry in the state of Missouri. We are the hands, feet, and ears of Jesus. I have seen firsthand how lives can be changed when  pastors become shepherds and counselors. Now when someone says, “Pastor, I need counseling,” I welcome the opportunity as a divine interruption.

Whether your church has an official counseling ministry or not, I encourage you to begin looking for your divine interruptions. Consider your approach to counseling. What aspects might you need to change? How can you follow Jesus’s example and reach your full potential?