Counselling for Pastors

Tiger Woods hires the best coach in the world, Butch Harmon, to ensure that his swing is working well. Why? Because he wants to be the best golfer that he can be.

The largest companies in Canada hire the best consultants in the country to help them do Strategic Planning and to solve their business problems. As proud as executives can be, they still know that it pays to hire professional help because they want to win at the game of business.

The richest families in Canada hire the best Financial Advisors in the country to help them manage their wealth so that it keeps growing. They know that wealth management is a difficult job, so they rely on the experts.

These people and organizations also pay the highest fees to receive the help they need because they understand the benefits of good help.
What about pastors?

Isn’t it interesting then, that pastors, who I believe have the most difficult and demanding job in the world, seldom turn to others for help. In the Free Methodist denomination, Bishop Keith Elford advises me that there is funding available for professional counselling, but it is one of the most underutilized programs in the area of pastoral benefits.

Is a pastor’s job tough?
It sure is. Show me an occupation that has the range of responsibilities and demands that are regularly experienced by a pastor. Pastors not only spend copious hours researching and preparing excellent sermons for preaching on Sunday mornings, but they also lead their staff as head of the team. They are expected to shepherd their congregants, responding on short notice to handle emotional crises, including funerals. They get involved in the preparation and marrying of church members, and they need to encourage in the touchy area of financial giving so that the bills can be paid. They need to be visionaries, understanding the trends in society to ensure that the church remains relevant. They need to plan events, provide good administration of church affairs, be accountable for everything that happens at the church, while smoothly working with difficult people, handling criticism and inspiring those around them.

In addition to all the time consuming work, the pastor has the task of dealing with unrealistic expectations. In business there is a rule that you learn and I learned it the hard way. Never work for two bosses. Experience shows that each boss will expect you to give 100% and as a result neither boss will be happy. Well pastors are in the impossible situation of having more than two bosses. They have expectations coming from the Board, the key families in the congregation, the denomination hierarchy, the public in the community around them, the elderly, the youth, the singles, the staff and this does not even take into account the important expectations of family, including spouse and children. If a pastor has never learned the skill of managing boundaries, then the job can be overwhelming.

Given the reality of a pastor’s life, it is truly remarkable that more pastors are not burning out. Maybe the truth is that more pastors burn out than churches realize and maybe more pastors are burned out and they don’t realize it themselves.

Life at the top
When I worked in the business world (28 years), I noticed an interesting phenomenon. An organization would figure out that their people were in need of learning certain skills or new ways of doing business. Management would then mandate a training program to help their staff to become competent in this new skill or ability. A consultant would be hired to teach and train the group. The staff would go away to a resort or hotel to learn the latest about customer service, teamwork, quality control or whatever the felt need was at the time. Invariably the staff would dutifully attend and there would be good things to learn. The interesting observation is that the person who seldom attended these seminars or training sessions was the boss. It seemed like the boss knew what was good for others, but somehow did not need the training for him/herself. I always wondered what the logic was behind the absence of the senior person. Is the President too busy for this training? Is the executive already knowledgeable in this area and does not need to waste time with such basic material? Would the boss’s attendance signal a deficiency that would somehow diminish the image of the executive? Is the word boss or superior indicative of a “pride” that inhibits the participation of the person in the activity? In other words, are they above it? Or is it the job of the person at the top to tell others what to do and therefore they are excluded because they are the ones giving the orders? I do not know which is the right explanations. Maybe it varied in each situation. But I do know that the people at the top did not attend the training sessions.

The Pastor’s Life At The Top
I am wondering if there is a variation of this syndrome in churches where the pastor is expected to be at the top of the chain of helping others and therefore is above needing help him/herself. In fact, in a church, the culture may have an even stronger influence than in business. If the pastor preaches all the wise words on Sunday, he or she must know all about humility, love, gentleness, kindness, serving and joy. As the spiritual leaders, pastors must be the most saved, transformed, whole, pure and holy of the flock. In most churches, the congregation wants this to be true. Also, it is easy for the pastor to buy into the belief that he/she must provide the example of being a new creation who is experiencing the joy of God’s salvation by smiling and happily helping. Either way, the pressure is there for the pastor to be perfect. While grace can be a wonderful thing, often pastors do not receive grace when they make mistakes. The expectations on a pastor are so high that a pastor may just find it easier to hide personal imperfections instead of dealing with them. What happens if members of the congregation find out that their pastor is not the epitome of love? Will they give less financially? Will they volunteer less? Will running the church be more difficult if people find out that the pastor is not perfect? What church wants a grouchy pastor? Aren’t pastors supposed to lead their flock to the promised land of freedom and ecstatic joy?

This problem doesn’t just exist for pastors. One of the challenges of the church is authenticity. How is it that people at church dress well, smile nicely, greet each other with enthusiasm week after week and tell each other that everything is going well, and yet, behind the scenes there are all kinds of problems. There is a tension between God being the solution, bringing joy and happiness, and the problems of daily life. If church is just a twelve step program where everybody is hanging out all their dirty laundry, where would the attraction be to draw new members? So the question is “How is one to be authentic and honest and still demonstrate the full life that Jesus wants us to experience?”

The Pastor’s Dilemma
If the pastor has a personal problem and the focus of the church shifts to dealing with the pastor’s problem, then everything is turned upside down. The church is then taking care of the pastor instead of the pastor taking care of the church. When a pastor shares personally from his/her life experience, it is therefore more beneficial to provide an example where God has helped the pastor overcome an issue in the past and now life is full and abundant as God has promised. Sharing in this way provides an opportunity to be both authentic and to also prove the benefits of Jesus’ amazing love. The pastor can share that there was a problem in the past, and now the problem is gone so the congregation does not need to concern itself with the pastor being broken. Sharing past issues can be great opportunities for demonstrating God’s love. Sharing current problems can become problematic.

The Confidentiality of Counselling
Guess what? Pastors are human beings just like everybody else. Pastors experience grief when there is a loss, pain when there is a hurt, resentment and anger when they are frustrated and spurned, anxiety when overwhelmed and worry when things are not going well. Pastors are not perfect people. They are people. And like any other person they need help from time to time. The key to pastor help is confidentiality. It is not helpful for the congregation to be regularly focusing on helping the pastor. The congregation really does need the pastor to be the positive, enthusiastic, happy, spiritual leader who demonstrates the benefits of Jesus transforming love. So, pastors need a safe, confidential place to go and deal with their very real human issues. That is one of the benefits of professional counselling. It is totally confidential. Any issue can be discussed and it will not get back to the congregation. Is this being authentic? Maybe not, but it is realistic.

One of the problems that pastors experience is dealing with issues on their own. Pastors learn to be strong. They learn to cope and continue to fight the good fight. The truth is that when a person keeps a problem to his/herself, the problem only gets worse. If a person keeps a secret, Jesus is not invited into that room in the mind and then Satan is able to bring more darkness and help make the problem worse. An example is pornography. Some denominations have research showing that 35% of the pastors are addicted to pornography. My theory is that pastors are under a lot of stress. They are trying to carry a big load on their shoulders. When the problems become too much, one solution is to find a little pleasure or reward to take away some of the pain of life. Pornography is one way of escaping into what is initially believed to be pleasure. Of course, any Christian who looks at pornography is committing the sins of adultery and lustful thinking. Along with pornography comes guilt because the viewing is always done in private and in secrecy. Ted Haggart is an example of how keeping a secret can feed the addiction. Since pastors are supposed to be holy, once pornography has been viewed, Satan helps lure the individual into the guilty pleasure again and again until eventually it is a big hidden secret.

The Benefit of Counselling
One of the main ways of dealing with sin is confession. A Christian counsellor is an ideal person to use as your confession partner because of the confidentiality of the relationship. Once confession has occurred, it is no longer a secret. Confession brings the sin out into the light where Jesus can help. Secrecy and confidentiality are different. Secrecy means that nobody knows. One of my clients held on to a secret for 25 years and when he shared it with me the relief of getting it out was real. A load was lifted. We then went to the Lord in prayer and found out that the words in his head had been a lie and he had been living with the consequences of that lie for 25 years. In trying to deal with the issue in the privacy of his own mind, the man was blinded to truth. He could not think clearly and the actions that flowed from the thinking negatively affected his life and his marriage.

Other Ways of Using A Counsellor
Christian counsellors can fulfill many functions. One way I work with pastors is as a spiritual director. One pastor comes for a regular spiritual checkup. We are able to pray together. Did you know that psychologists are not allowed to pray with their clients? An associate of mine gave up her PHD in psychology, went back to seminary and became a spiritual director. Spiritual directors help their clients to read and meditate on scripture. They encourage the person to listen to the still small voice of God and they pray together. The emphasis is on allowing the Holy Spirit to be involved in the process.

Another way of working with a Christian counsellor is to use the counsellor as a mentor. It is an opportunity for the pastor to ask questions and hear another opinion about issues. In the past, the image of visiting a therapist was a negative thing. A person who needed to see a therapist was seen as “sick” and it was a terribly serious thing to be “sick”. Today seeing a counsellor is a normal thing to do. I have one business man who uses me as his Board of Directors. He regularly bounces ideas off me and I mentor him based on my experience.

Another way of using a Christian counsellor is as a coach. A coach is different from a mentor in that a coach is an accountability partner. The coach will help you set goals and then hold you to them. The coach will help you plan, manage your time effectively, help you evaluate the results and then encourage you to reorganize to do it better the next time. A coach never goes on the playing field. The pastor is the one who is in the field and from time to time needs to leave the game and talk with someone who is objectively viewing from the sidelines. One of the dilemmas of being alone in your head is that you can lose objectivity. It can be very helpful to just talk with another person who is not inside your head. The old expressions that more heads are better than one is true. Your coach is there on your side to help you win. His sole function is to help you be better and to help you see options and alternatives that you might never have considered.

As a Certified Marriage and Family Therapist, one of my roles is to help advise about marriages and relationships. Many people come to talk to a counsellor because it is beneficial to work through issues related to the marriage relationship. Did you know that you go through at least six different marriages with your same spouse over a lifetime? Each stage requires change, learning and growth. How you cope with each stage will affect the marriage relationship

Stages of Marriage
1) marriage as a free young couple unencumbered with children
2) marriage coping with no sleep and bringing up young children
3) marriage dealing with teenagers
4) marriage of the empty nest as the children leave
5) marriage when retirement occurs
6) marriage when one partner is ill

If you are stuck at any of these stages, it would be helpful for you to talk to a trained marriage counsellor.

Yet another role that a Christian counsellor can play is that of assisting in what I call Inner Freedom. Whenever a person experiences emotional pain of any sort, it is possible to go back to memories that are the root of the feeling and Jesus can transform the memory. When Jesus brings his truth, whether past memories or current thinking, his truth will set you free. I do a lot of this type of one-on-one work. Pastors need to do this work too, just like everybody else.
Whenever you are frustrated, hurting, overwhelmed, grieving, or just in need of talking to a safe caring friend, think about calling a professional Christian counsellor. They are there waiting to help you and you have every right in the world to receive that help.

There is no obligation for you to be alone in dealing with your life issues. Other people turn to the best professional help and it is OK. We have come a long way from the days when seeing a therapist meant that you were “sick”. Today, receiving professional help is not only normal, but wise. Turn to those safe, confidential support people around you to help you be the best you can be as you do your work in the Kingdom for God.

Alfred C.W. Davis (MBA, M.Div) has a Christian counselling practice based in Oakville, Ontario [Agape Healing International Inc.] and is the author of two books Free to Be Me and The Training Manual for Christian Counseling and Christ-Centred Transformation and Inner Healing. He holds a Master of Divinity degree majoring in Counselling [Tyndale Seminary