January 5, 2017

The Pastor and Counseling: When to refer

by Jesse Johnson

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The Pastor and Counseling, by Jeremy Pierre (Dean of Students at Southern Seminary) and Deepak Reju (Counseling Pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church), is an excellent little book written for pastors who find themselves with a desire to counsel, but don’t quite know where to begin. It serves as a how-to manual, walking pastors through the biblical mandate for counseling as well as the practical process for creating a culture of counseling in the church. It covers everything from how to start a counseling session through the last meeting.

In terms of biblical counseling, this is not a particularly deep book. It doesn’t have a developed argument against psychology in counseling—although they do say that one of a pastor’s primary roles is to “depsychologize” people’s understanding of their problems. Pierre and Reju don’t give a verse-by-verse description of the content of your counseling session. This is not a “what verses help people with anger?” kind of book.  

Instead, Pierre and Reju write for the pastor who knows what he wants to say, but is possibly struggling with how to say it. The Pastor and Counseling reads as if the target audience is the pastor who checks his email Monday morning and hears from a couple who is thinking about divorce, a man struggling with immorality, and woman struggling with depression. You want to help those people—you are a pastor after all!—but you just practically don’t know where to start.

This book, which is one of the newest installments from the 9 Marks partnership with Crossway, takes pastors through the practical steps setting up the first appointment, adjusting expectations, guiding the conversation, and knowing how/when to end a session. But Pierre and Reju are most helpful when they encourage pastors to challenge the assumptions in our culture about psychology. Under the heading of “Depsychologize,” they write:

Sometimes people have so embraced the culture’s norms that a large part of your pastoral work is to dissuade them of priorities and values that simply are not biblical. Many of these folks will be self-professed Christians, yet view life largely from a framework of worldly standards. This can be quite explicit, such as overidentifying with psychological labels like various bipolar, depressive, or trauma-related disorders, or implicit, like when they speak in the language of pop psychology…For your people’s sake, don’t accept their starting points or conclusions. Help them to consider other frames, other angles, other lighting that better draw attention to the redemptive hope in the picture (79, 82).

Like every 9 Marks book, The Pastor and Counseling stresses the importance of membership in a local church. Only when membership is practiced can true discipleship take place, and (more to the point) can true congregational care be seen. For example, in a chapter titled “Never Laboring Alone,” they write about the importance of counseling in the context of a church with membership and church discipline.

In fact, it is because they stress the priority of the local church so thoroughly that they are able to write with conviction on the counseling pastor’s dilemma: referring out. When should a pastor tell someone in their congregation with a spiritual problem that they would be better served by seeing a professional counselor outside of the church? Pierre and Reju offer four indicators of when a pastor should refer:

  1. Your congregation is unhealthy, the pastor is maxed out, and there are no other godly leaders willing to lend a hand with discipleship.
  2. You are spinning your wheels, and have tried to help the person for months without any perceived effect.
  3. There is a need for medical help. Obviously people should always get medical advice from a doctor, but sometimes people’s physiology is deeply disturbed in a way that can only be explained by a medical issue.
  4. You have to disclose information to protect people from abuse or deadly harm, such as a person who is threatening suicide, or confessing to abuse (119).

Pierre and Reju certainly mean to imply that absent one of these four indicators, churches should not pass off the soul care of their members to outside discipleship. In fact, one of the purposes of their book is “to convince you that the threshold of what you can handle is higher than you might realize” while recognizing that some problems are so complex that they may need someone with greater skill (91). But they remind us that “the goal is not to pass people off; its to get them the help they need” (92).

With this book, Pierre and Reju do just that. They help pastors give their people the help that they need.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Sounds like a great work! Thanks for sharing this Jesse! Just added to my list 😉

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  • Jason

    “other angels, other lighting” did they mistype or did you?

    • The answer to that question is always going to be me :). I”ll go fix that now.

  • And I’m Cute, Too

    This can be quite explicit, such as overidentifying with psychological labels like various bipolar, depressive, or trauma-related disorders…

    I’m sorry, but what does this mean? Are Pierre and Reju claiming that depression, bipolar disorder and PTSD don’t exist? Or are they saying that pastors and “biblical counsellors” shouldn’t be using such terms to diagnose congregants?

    If the latter, then I agree — no one without a license to practice psychology should be making any such diagnosis. It’s unethical and illegal. I fear that it’s the former, however. I’ve heard far too many stories of professional Christians thinking that they can tell an entire branch of medicine that they’re wrong about everything, simply by virtue of having read the Bible.

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