I fear that much, if not most, counseling in churches hurts people more than it helps them. Why would I say that? I say it because pastors want to be liked and perceived as caring shepherds. Often, that fact overrules the need to push back against what the person perceives to be their problem in order to challenge what needs to be changed in their thinking and actions. There are often long-standing underlying patterns of non-biblical responses to people and circumstances that must be exposed.
People rarely rightly identify their problem. What people perceive to be their problem is often not their actual problem. It usually takes time, effort, and intrusive questions to get at the real problem. In other words, effective discipleship counseling almost invariably involves pushing back at what the person thinks their problem is. Even when this is done with gentleness and respect, it is often met with a sense of offense and outrage.
Herein lies the problem. People come to be counseled assuming that you will accept their self-definition of their problem. If you do so, you will invariably give them advice that does not help them. Often, such advice will make their problems worse rather than better, but they will leave thinking of you as kind, caring, and compassionate. If you push to get at their real problems you'll often be labeled unkind, harsh, and an uncompassionate shepherd. In fact, some people will get mad, leave the church, and find a church down the road where a staff person will be glad to superficially console them.
Every church has to decide whether or not they are really trying to help and disciple people or are they simply a public relations firm, maintaining the brand and image at all costs. Sadly, it is often the superficial pastors and staff, consumed with image and perception, who are often outwardly applauded as being kind and caring shepherds. This applause comes even though they are neglecting the real problems of the sheep and doing them real harm.
Some time ago, I met with my staff to tell them we are going to be loving truth-tellers in counseling because we are called to be disciple-makers, not self-promoters. I made it clear that we often have to risk making people mad in order to really help them and if they made someone mad by loving them enough to tell them the truth I would stand behind them. Not long after this meeting, a young adult came for counseling with one of our pastors. She explained the people who were, in her mind, the problem (the issues were normal disagreements and mildly unkind comments) and asked for help in dealing with these people.
After attempting to get to the heart of the matter, the pastor told the young adult that he didn't think these other people were her primary problem. He explained that most people go through the kinds of conflict they were describing in relating to other people. He suggested to the one being counseled that she should consider she might be the problem because she had been responding to almost every situation in a highly self-referential way. The pastor suggested they should develop a plan to cultivate humility and an others-centered focus.
His redirection of the problem was not well received. The young adult got angry and suggested that the pastor was insensitive and victim-blaming, stormed out, knocking a few things off the desk on the way out. The pastor came to me and recounted what happened and said, even though what he said was true, he felt terrible about how the session ended. I asked him if he said what he said gently and out of love, he assured me he did. I told him the only way the young adult could be helped was by the truth and we committed to pray for the person. A few weeks, later the young adult showed up again at the pastor's office. This time to apologize and to say he was right and now wanted to be discipled regarding these issues. He connected her with a disciple partner and I am pleased to report a very positive life transformation in that individual's life.
I mention that situation to ask what would have happened if the pastor had just accepted the young adults self-definition of the problem out of self-protecting image managing? The person's life would have been made worse, and the needed humility would have been neglected rather than cultivated. As long as the counselee kept the problem defined as external, she could avoid the needed personal growth. I fear that too many pastors and staff are willing to leave people in their sinful attitudes because they love temporary peace and personal reputation more than they love the one being counseled. And more importantly, more than they love Christ who gave them the authority to counsel in His name.
Jesus is Lord of all, including discipleship counseling in His churches. The rich, young, ruler asked Jesus, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Mark 10:17). If Jesus had simply given him something simple to do, he would have gladly done it and would have been full of joy and great thoughts about Jesus. The problem is that it would have been empty joy because he would have been deceived with false assurance about eternal life. Mark tells us, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him" (Mark 10:21). He loved him enough to confront his real problem, a lack of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior. The text tells us "he went away sorrowful," but that was what love demanded. It was the only way the rich, young, ruler could be confronted to repent and believe so that he could know real joy and assurance of eternal life.
Our churches are to be outposts of the kingdom of Christ, engaging in spiritual war, discipling in the name of King Jesus, for His glory and the advance of His kingdom. They do not exist to create and protect the brand and image of pastors and staff. Every time we in the church tickle itching ears, not just in the pulpit (2 Tim 4:3), but also in the counseling room, we add to the darkness as those who are "swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power (2 Tim 3:4-5). Paul's admonition is to "Avoid such people" (2 Tim 3:5), even when their office door says pastor or church staff.
David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky and assistant professor of Christian preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of In the Arena and Church: The Promise of Sports for Christian Discipleship and Church with Jesus as the Hero. He blogs at Prince on Preaching and frequently writes for The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, For the Church, and Preaching Today.