Editor’s note: A distinction must be made between pastoral counseling and clinical counseling. This article advocates that unless pastors have academic training in clinical counseling, they are to limit their counseling to assisting church members and others in a nonclinical fashion.
One of the underlying themes throughout the biblical narrative, particularly in the Old Testament, consists of the dual role of prophet and priest. In the theocracy of ancient Israel, both prophet and priest had important roles to play in representing the people to their God and, in turn, speaking to the people on behalf of God.
Both of these roles come together in a pastoral counselor. While not necessarily acting in a mediatory way, pastoral counselors find themselves in a unique position where they can act in both priestly and prophetic roles with church members.
The priestly role
Pastoral counselors certainly fulfill a priestly function. After all, a priest’s duties include helping people to make sense of and to find meaning in their lives on both an individual and corporate level. In ancient Israel, they bestowed blessings upon others. This act included even Melchizedek (Gen. 14), who bestowed a blessing upon Abraham. The assumption here is that the lesser is blessed by the greater. As Abraham accedes to Melchizedek, so he infers his subservience to him. In a similar way, the pastoral counselor acts as the professional, the one with the training and knowledge required to assist, to the best of his or her ability, those who seek help.
Clearly, then, pastoral counselors perform a priestly function and this can be performed in any number of ways. Below are three important examples.
Affirmation. Affirmation prevails as a major focus in pastoral counseling since those being counseled often lack self-worth. One way this perceived shortcoming can be addressed is by affirming them. I am always impressed and encouraged when I learn of the resilience of counselees. How they have kept going in the face of overwhelming adversity humbles me. One of the standard questions in solution focused therapy is, “How did you do that?” After an hour of this training, we hope the clients will leave in the knowledge that they themselves have actually done something positive in their lives.
Encouragement. Often it falls to the pastoral counselor to encourage those who see little reason not to give up. We need to assist those who seek our counsel to search for motivation— for reasons to keep going and push ahead. How often do we receive church members and others whose only “encouragement” has come from friends whose attempts at encouragement fall way short? “Stop complaining, and just get on with it.” “Forget them. They’re just not worth it.”
And so it goes. Often such encouragement tends to have the opposite effect. In contrast, the encouragement provided by the pastoral counselor should be of a different kind—the kind that actually does encourage.
Rituals. Rituals offer a tangible way to provide meaning. The life of the Israelite nation contained many rituals, both corporate and individual, by which the Israelites became more cohesive and were strengthened in their worldview.
Pastoral counselors find themselves in a position to encourage rituals among clients. These may be as simple as daily breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, or weekly responsibilities toward themselves or others. One former client was able to ritualize specific social activities with his children and, through this, improved the quality of time with his family.
The prophetic role
Besides these priestly roles, the pastoral counselor also fulfills a prophetic function. Traditionally, this prophetic role was to confront and proclaim. Many people limit the prophetic role to foretelling, that is, predicting the future, which is wrong. A major part of biblical prophecy was forth telling, or in other words, proclaiming (telling forth) the Word of God and/or the messages received from God. “Thus saith the Lord” became a well-known saying of biblical prophets and often comprised the opening words of their pronouncements.
Pastoral counselors do not claim to be foretellers. While at times, a client’s future may seem clear based on a determined course of action, we do not know the future. We can, however, be forth tellers. Though we may do this in any number of ways, I will focus here on two.
Reflection/Reflected Listening. Through reflecting back to a counselee, we not only show them that we have heard them, but we also allow them to hear afresh what they, themselves, are saying. At the same time, we show our clients that we are there for them and that they are, at this very moment, the most important person in the room. Therefore, use parroting and paraphrasing to basically tell them, “You have been heard.”
Confrontation/questioning. Confrontation allows us to say some things to a client that they might not otherwise hear but which, in our opinion, they need to hear. For a biblical model, see Nathan’s encounter with King David, which ended with the confrontational words, “ ‘You are the man!’ ” (2 Sam. 12:7, NIV).
While questioning can be seen as threatening, it may also be our most powerful tool because it allows us to probe, confront, and take the counselees out of their comfort zones. This skill is not limited to pastoral counselors; it can indeed be taught to and practiced by anyone who cares for another.1
Pastoral counselors need to be both prophet and priest. Which is easier? In the Old Testament times, priests were often able to undertake their functions relatively unscathed. Prophets, on the other hand, frequently had it tough. Examples abound when they were forced to confront people with unpopular messages and in unorthodox ways. One needs to consider, for instance, Ezekiel being commanded by God to bake food using human excrement as fuel to punish the Israelites, causing him to reply, “ ‘Not so, Sovereign LORD! I have never defiled myself’ ” (Ezek. 4:14, NIV).
However, nothing seems to come close to the reaction of those who opposed the prophet Jeremiah. They plotted against him, threatened him with death (Jer. 11; 26), burned his written message (chap. 36), imprisoned him (chap. 37), and even threw him into a cistern (chap. 38). Clearly, being a prophet can be risky business.
About 50 years ago, American sociologist Charles Glock conducted a major empirical study of Episcopalians. Glock and his fellow authors sought to account for the variation in the degree in which Episcopalians were involved in their local congregations. Among their findings was that the church did a fine job of comforting people who were feeling deprived. This study concluded that “the church at large serves more of a comforting role to its parishioners than a challenging role.”2 Further, they found that when the church body does challenge individuals, it risks losing members.
While not totally surprising, these findings proved significant and threatening. The church seemed to fulfill its mandate through these two foci: comforting and challenging. In other words, the church’s mission was played out in both priestly and prophetic roles. However, to the surprise and indignation of many denominational leaders, the churches did a much better job of comforting than of challenging.
The challenge for pastoral counselors is comprised of finding, and then keeping, the balance of both comforting and, when need be, challenging those who come to us for assistance.
In short, we need to be faithful priests and prophets.
1. Bill Jackson, “Theory of the Second Question,” Counselling
Australia 7, no. 3 (Spring 2007), www.theaca.net.au/
2. Charles Y. Glock, Benjamin B. Ringer, and Earl R. Babbie, To
Comfort and To Challenge: A Dilemma of the Contemporary
Church (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 110.