Characteristics of the Pastor-Counselor

What qualities distinguish the better pastor-counselor?

C. E. WITTSCHIEBE, Professor of Pastoral Care, SDA Theological Seminary

There are certain quali­ties that distinguish the better pastor-counselor. While he will not have all of these characteristics to the point of perfection, he will have all of them in fair degree and most of them in a com­paratively high degree.

It would require a book to handle them adequately, and the wording would vary with the author, but the following is one man's way of describing them. The order in which they appear does not indicate relative importance.


The counselor must ever be aware that wisdom and insight, tact and understand­ing, skill and power, come from the Won­derful Counselor. Never will he allow himself to become the center of the counsel­ing relationship. He will relate himself to the counselee in such a way that the pres. ence of a third Person is always felt. This is not done by words necessarily, or even by prayer alone, but by a constant aware­ness of his high calling as ambassador for God and undershepherd of souls. Humility is the natural consequence of the amaze­ment and holy fear the minister feels when he considers what gifts and responsibilities the Lord has entrusted to earthen vessels. Such a spirit on the part of the counselor is sensed by the person seeking help, and this feeling gives to the pastor's counseling work its unique value and power.


The pastor, in his role as counselor, needs his faith renewed daily. He sees on every side the ruin and damage of sin. He sees the cost of evil mounting with com­pound interest. Cruelty, unfaithfulness, im­purity, deceit, sensuality, hypocrisy, coward­ice, and a host of other evils confront him with sickening frequency. Shame, terror, distress, frustration, anxiety, fear, hopeless­ness—these and other emotions drive the parishioner to him for help. While living in this smog of sin the counselor must be able to breathe the pure air of God. Even though oppressed by the darkness enshroud­ing the people, he must look up and see the light in the face of his Saviour. His ministry is based on the unshakable con­viction that God will soon make all things right and that His purposes will work out. This is strengthened by the evidences in his church of the heart-changing grace of God, which calls men from a life of sin and guides their feet in the path of sancti­fication.


The pastor-counselor needs to be patient. This means more than not losing his temper. He must be willing to wait for the grace of God to move on hearts. Sometimes results will not be seen for weeks or months. In some cases years may pass be­fore lasting improvement is seen. Healing and maturing take time, and these forces are involved, to some degree, in all prob­lem-situations brought to the counselor's attention. The resource of patience will be heavily drawn on in dealing with teen­agers, with alcoholics, with married parish­ioners whose troubled history goes back for years, with individuals whose emotional health is poor, with persons deviating from the normal sex pattern, with the over­dependent, and with members who are either mentally ill or chronically on the verge of such a condition.

In this connection, the counselor must keep in mind that wholly satisfying solu­tions frequently are not possible for problems of any degree of seriousness. Oc­casionally we see a situation that seems to clear up completely. The Lord in His kind­ness doubtless permits these to occur to maintain our faith and strengthen our hope. Many times, however, the insights gained in the counseling process operate rather to ameliorate the lot of the counselee or to support him in his relation to a set of circumstances that cannot be changed. After all, it is usually other persons who cause the hurts that bring the counselee to his pastor, and these persons must be lived with. The total environment, too, cannot easily be changed, and acceptance of that fact is often the first step in the direction of finding a way through the problem.

Kindness and Love

The pastor is engaged in a ministry of love and kindness. This is particularly true in his counseling relationships. Here real kindness is the basic element. It is not found in the professional smile, the too-cordial handshake, the ingratiating voice. True kindness comes from the depths of the heart. It springs out of the kind of love that God has for sinful men, and makes it possible to love even those who are not likable. Preaching about love is easy; demonstrating this quality in the one-soul interview is the test of the sincerity of the sermon. Kindness and love cause the pastor-counselor to understand how weak people are, how heavy their burdens, how faltering their steps. More than most, he recognizes the tremendous conditioning power of environment and training—the operation of the great law of cause and effect in the realm of character and the spirit. Persons appear not only as they are, but as God meant them to be. The pastor never forgets that his Lord pays the highest price for human scrap, and makes of it something rare and precious.


The counselor must be a man of sensi­tivity and perception. He needs a sort of built-in spiritual "radar" to sense the moods and feelings of others and to relate him­self accordingly. The man who comes to his study may present what appears to be only a trifling problem. But he is anxious, nervous, unsure of how far he can safely go with the pastor. To try the pastor out he will begin with something relatively minor. The perceptive counselor will sense the underlying tension and the presence of a deeper trouble, and will allow the counselee to come to it at his own rate of speed and in his own way. The words spoken, of course, tell a great deal; so do the silences. Too much speech also is significant. Mean­while the body is communicating messages that convey a lot of meaning—the clench­ing and unclenching hand, the tightly twisted handkerchief, the perspiration, the position in the chair, the motion of the feet, the breathing, the color of the skin, the quality of the voice, and similar indi­cations. Sometimes the body itself conveys a message differing from the spoken one. A man may talk of trust, while he demon­strates suspicion; he may praise, while his body talks of anger and resentment; he may speak as though intending to be frank and open, while his body indicates con­cealment. To put it another way, his actions may speak so loudly that the minister is unable to hear what he says. The percep­tive counselor, in short, remembers that it is the whole man who communicates, and keeps himself attuned to receive messages of every kind.


Empathy is one of the most important of all qualifications. It means the ability to project by imagination one's own conscious­ness into that of the counselee. Where sympathy, which has been extolled so often, means suffering "with," empathy describes the process of suffering "in." The counselor, then, looks at the problem as though it were his own. He sees as the other sees, feels as he feels. He walks in the other's mocca­sins, and sits where he sits. When a girl is describing the fear and shame she suffers because of a moral lapse, he communicates to her that he is feeling in the situation with her. This he is able to do with the boy who for years has been piling up re­sentment against a too-authoritarian father, with the middle-aged matron whose life seems to be losing its meaning, and with the old man oppressed by loneliness and a sense of uselessness. Applying the words of Paul in an accommodated sense, he can be all things to all men. This power is his because he is, by nature, a brother to all sinners, because he has studied the work­ings of the human heart, and because the Holy Spirit sensitizes him to all pain and need.


While the counselor can, empathetically, place himself into the feelings of the counselee and feel the problem as he feels it, he must at the same time be able to detach himself from emotional involve­ment. Perhaps this can best be stated by saying that he should maintain an objec­tive attitude. If he lets himself be drawn into the same condition of feeling as the counselee, he will be unable to give the help needed. A doctor, while treating a patient, may sense keenly the latter's pain and distress. He cannot, however, allow this awareness to stop the treatment or to weaken it. While he understandingly may enter into the treatment and operation as though it were his own, he must often cause pain for the patient's ultimate good. The pastor, who treats the mind and heart, has to be at one and the same time a warm and tender human being, a minister of the love and grace of God, and a professional man with clinical detachment and objec­tivity.


The pastor-counselor must cultivate the quality of being noncensorious. The in­dividual in trouble does not come to him to have judgment pronounced or censure expressed. The person in distress is often keenly aware that he has failed or that he has come short or that he has done wrong. Often the sense of guilt is the most painful element in the problem. The pastor will remember that even God Himself "sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved."

The pastor's office will make it necessary for him to call sin by its right name. In his own soul he must grow to hate sin and all its works. But at the same time he is to convey to the sinner that he loves him, that the mercy of God is extended to him, and that forgiveness is instantly available. While the pastor must at times cry aloud and spare not, in the counseling relationship he will more often need to speak comfort­ably and to take care not to put out the smoking flax. Underlying all his dealings with his people will be the awareness that his commission makes it necessary for him to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.


Proof against shock is another qualifica­tion of the successful counselor. In his capacity as an undershepherd he will hear "heartbreaking recitals of wrong, of degradation, of despair and misery." Before him will be spread out, in all its ugly and distressing detail, the sickening conse­quences of departure from the path that God has chosen for the individual. Yet the counselee must not feel that the minister is too holy to deal with sin. He should not think of the pastor as a man whose sacred office sets him apart from hearing stories of sin and evil. Chaplains in the armed services have told of church members coming to them for help instead of going to the pastors of their own churches. The chaplain could listen without being shocked, they said, but the pastor would have been too deeply agitated by the story they had to tell.


That the pastor keeps all counseling matters confidential should hardly need to be mentioned. One of the things that has given the Roman Catholic confessional its strength, even though it lacks divine authority, is the fact that the priest holds inviolate everything that the confessor tells him in the act of confession. Lawyers have a similar code of ethics in dealing with clients. Journalists deal with news sources on a confidential basis. The Protestant minister must never violate the trust of a counselee. Failure to maintain this high standard has caused some pastors to be cut off from the major problems of their people. Their parishioners take their stories else­where—to lawyers, to social workers, to doc­tors, and to other ministers.

It is proper, but only if absolutely neces­sary, to get permission from the counselee for the use of any of the information. Oc­casionally one will ask whether the story may be shared with the counselor's wife (for the counselee's good). The counselee does not automatically grant this permis­sion by the mere act of coming for counsel. And he has the right to decline such a suggestion, however well meant it may be. Paradoxically, the minister who shows him­self over the years to be trustworthy and tactful will often be allowed to handle confidential material in any way he sees fit. The very fact that he is scrupulous enough to inquire about the feelings of the counselee in such a matter makes it evident that he takes his unwritten code of ethics very seriously and, therefore, can be de­pended on to use discretion, caution, and good taste in dealing with information gained from the interviews.

(Concluded next month)

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C. E. WITTSCHIEBE, Professor of Pastoral Care, SDA Theological Seminary

July 1956

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