C is for counselling

The C-word is tricky. To some it’s a lovely biblical word we ought to reclaim. The psalmist says ‘I will praise the Lord, who counsels me’ (Psalm 16:7). Proverbs offer us ‘sayings of counsel and knowledge’ (Proverbs 22.20) and Isaiah tells us of a Messiah who will be called ‘Wonderful Counsellor’ (Isaiah 9:6). Promoting biblical counselling seems to make biblical sense. Others, however, associate “counselling” with professional psychotherapy and think using the term in our churches will only create misunderstanding because people will expect accredited secular counselling that has little to do with Scripture.

The P-word is tricky too! To some ‘Pastoral Care’ signifies a lower level of competence – they use it to distinguish accredited counselling from informal care. Still others link pastoral care with practical care. A church’s pastoral care team helps out when someone is sick by organising hospital visits and the like. It’s all very confusing.

So how do we navigate these differing terms and expectations?

In Bible language, the pastor is the shepherd. We are told that Jesus looked at a crowd with compassion because they were like sheep without a shepherd and responded by teaching them many things (Mark 6:34). To be their shepherd, he taught them. But that’s not all there is to being a biblical shepherd. In Ezekiel God declared that when he came to shepherd his people he would seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.

That’s what pastoral care is: attending to the entire welfare of the entire flock. It’s a big job!

Peter tells us that this is a responsibility Jesus delegated to those who are pastors – entrusting the flock to their care until he, the Chief Shepherd, returns (1 Peter 5:1-4).

But pastors don’t have to do this work alone. God intends these ‘under-shepherds’ to have help. As Paul puts it, He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11).

In other words the role of pastor-teacher is to equip the saints (the believers) in order that they might do ministry. It’s a glorious picture of ‘every-member ministry’ where growth happens as each part does its work (Ephesians 4:16). And a key part of that ministry is offering one another counsel.

Some, are called to be pastor-teachers – elders who preach and lead the flock. In C-word language, we might say they are to give public counsel. But all God’s people do the work of ministry – and a key element of that is speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). In C-word language, they give private counsel – speaking the gospel into all the varied circumstances of life.

Now if you’d rather not use the C-word, that’s fine. Terminology is not the most important thing. But whether you call it conversational ministry, soul care, one-to-one ministry, one-anothering, individual pastoral care or discipleship, let’s understand that it isn’t the exclusive province of experts. Speaking the truth in love is a work of ministry given to all the saints, in every situation. But in allowing ‘problems of living’ to become the exclusive province of professionals, the church has let go of something really important. Pastors limit their help to so called ‘spiritual problems’, leaving ‘psychological troubles’ to someone else. And pastoral care is reduced to something small – cups of tea and comforting words – when it ought to be something big – speaking the truth in love such that the body of Christ becomes mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:13). A task so big it needs all of us involved.

This article was first published in Evangelicals Now.