“I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house” (Acts 20:20).
Many pastors are reluctant to counsel. Some fear that individual counseling will interfere with the primacy of their calling to preach the Word. They may have been told that faithful public proclamation of God’s Word should eliminate almost all need for private counseling. In addition, many pastors do not feel well equipped to counsel. They feel competent to preach, but not competent to counsel.
David Powlison writes, “Among those who take scripture seriously, ecclesiastical habits focus almost exclusively on the pastor as public proclaimer, team leader and administrator. Skill in the cure of individual souls is optional and sometimes is even discouraged as a waste of time.”[i] Thus, many pastors feel secure inside their office with their books, and in the pulpit with their sermon manuscript, but feel unprepared to get involved in complicated (and unscripted) situations involving depression, abuse, adultery, self-injury, etc. Some pastors are not even aware of the extent of the messy struggles their people are experiencing. And some avoid counseling because individual soul care can be frustrating and discouraging.
While the public ministry of the Word is primary (2 Timothy 4:1), the duty of pastors (shepherds) to care for God’s flock puts individual—“from house to house”—ministry at the heart of their calling. In addition to the public feeding of the flock, pastors should be concerned about the care of individual sheep (Luke 15:4). All pastors will give account to God for how they cared for the sheep entrusted to them (Hebrews 13:17). Faithful shepherds will be rewarded (1Peter 5:4), but lazy faithless shepherds will be judged (Ezekiel 34:1-10).
The public ministry of the Word (preaching) and the private ministry of the Word (counseling), rather than being in competition actually enhance one another.
- Good preaching can eliminate some of the need for counseling. Biblical exposition, which addresses the ordinary issues God’s people face, may equip them to solve their own problems and help each other. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, “True preaching does deal with personal problems, so much that true preaching saves a great deal of time for the pastor. I am speaking out of forty years of experience…The preaching of the gospel from the pulpit, applied by the Holy Spirit to the individuals who are listening has been the means of dealing with personal problems of which I as the preacher knew nothing until people came to me at the end of the service.”[ii]
- Good preaching can awaken sheep to their need for counseling. Faithful practical exposition raises issues which drive the sheep to their shepherds for individual counseling. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, “I have often found that the preaching of the gospel brings people to talk to the preacher and gives him opportunity of dealing with their particular condition.”[iii] You may take the opportunity to offer individual help to members who are struggling with problems which come up in your text. For example, when I was preaching from Jonah 4 where the prophet expresses a desire to die, I said, “There may be someone here today who feels like Jonah did. You are discouraged and hopeless and feel like you want to die. It may even be that you have seriously considered suicide and thought about how you might do it. We want you to know that we care about you and that if you are feeling this way we want to meet with you so that we can listen in a non-judgmental way and point you to the hope God offers you. Please talk to me after the service or feel free to email or call me at any time.” In a larger church one could have trained counselors (men and women) available after the service to pray with you and to offer biblical encouragement.
- Faithful preaching makes you a better counselor. There is no better preparation for the personal ministry of the Word than the work done in preparation for the public ministry of the Word. When training biblical counselors, one of my favorite expressions is, “How thick is your Bible?” – meaning, how much of the Bible are you able to access and expound in an unscripted counseling situation? Teaching and preaching through books of the Bible equips you to find and faithfully explain relevant passages of Scripture in counseling situations. Jay Adams writes, “One reason why counselors who do not preach fail to become as biblical as they might is that they are not required to do exegesis on a regular basis. That means they can limp along…with whatever biblical knowledge they have or may glean from weekly church attendance. Time that a pastor would devote to the biblical exegesis counselors often spend studying counseling literature and for lack of biblical understanding adopt into their practices ideas that conflict with God’s truth…Most counselors need the enforced discipline of having to prepare sermons every week to keep them studying the Bible regularly in an intensive way. The counselor who preaches every week will grow as a counselor. He will gain new biblical insights from his weekly study that he will incorporate into counseling and he will develop the assurance and sure-footedness that is necessary to counsel with biblical authority.”[iv]
- Faithfulness in counseling ministry improves your preaching. Many pastors who spend almost all of their working hours in their studies preach bookish sermons, which typically connect better to other pastors and seminarians than to the ordinary believer in the pew. Spending significant time helping real people with real problems helps the preacher to prepare sermons which address the practical needs of the congregation. As Jay Adams writes, “The counseling preacher can work preventatively. What he regularly sees in the study he can warn against in the pulpit…Nothing enables a preacher to ring the bell in a Sunday sermon like knowing that in counseling he has already helped five persons with what he is about to say.[v]” Such practical preaching could make people more inclined to come to the pastor for help. Again Adams writes, “The man who puts his exegesis to work, not just on Sunday in the pulpit, but all week long in the counseling room, ministering the Word to those in trouble will rattle his people’s windows when he preachers. They will say to themselves, “he understands!” and they will come for help. Each activity feeds the other”[vi]
- Faithfulness in counseling makes for better sermon hearers. Over the years I have found that those to whom I have ministered personally in the private ministry of the Word have become the most attentive during the public ministry of the Word. When they know that you love them, that you care about their problems, and that you are able to point them to biblical answers they are eager to hear you preach.
The public ministry of the Word (preaching) and the private ministry of the Word (counseling) are not in competition with each other. Rather, they complement each other. Each is necessary in a healthy church and each is an essential aspect of a pastor’s calling.
[i] Powlison, “The Pastor as Counselor” Journal of Biblical Counseling, volume 26 #1, p. 31.
[ii] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1972), p. 38.
[iii] Ibid, p. 38.
[iv] Adams, Preaching with Purpose. P. 37.
[v] Ibid. p. 38.
[vi] Ibid. p. 38.