You’re a Pastor, Not a Therapist
A pastor’s job is not to dismiss personal experience, but rather to help people see it differently—specifically, to see it according to who God is and the chief purpose of his design for human life.
“I don’t do therapy. I just preach the Word. If people listen, they’ll be able to handle their own problems.”
The words were clean and decisive, captivating the handful of pastors who’d asked the conference speaker out for breakfast. Around half-cleared plates and coffee mugs, everyone nodded their heads. I probably did so myself, though I remember feeling conflicted. I was a rookie pastor then and knew my experience was far less than this veteran’s. Yet I couldn’t get around the thought, But people I know at your church are in therapy and you don’t even know it.
The tension I felt was between my belief in the power of the preached Word and my awareness that even people eager to receive the Word still struggle deeply with personal troubles. Years of pastoral ministry since have confirmed this tension. Here’s what I’ve learned: Speaking the timeless Word to timebound individuals requires deep insight into both. To gain insight into Scripture, you have to study hard; to gain insight into individuals, you have to do the same.
A pastor is not a therapist. But that doesn’t mean he opts out of helping folks with their personal troubles. In fact, a pastor is tasked with helping in ways a therapist isn’t. In this article, I’ll explain what I mean by this. A pastor’s job is not to dismiss personal experience, but rather to help people see it differently—specifically, to see it according to who God is and the chief purpose of his design for human life.
People want to understand their own experience
People see therapists to make sense out of their own experience. This is not in itself a problem. The problem is that therapeutic models have largely emerged from a secular culture characterized by a deep valuing of what Carl Truman describes as expressive individualism. Human experience is understood not from the external reference point of sacred order, but rather from the internal reference point of perceived happiness. Generally speaking, therapy is the attempt to help a person live effectively and consistently according to that perception of wholeness. My purpose here is not to argue the benefits and drawbacks of various therapeutic models. I’m merely pointing out what therapy as an enterprise is trying to do.
A pastor is not a therapist. But that does not mean he overlooks personal experience. Rather, it means he helps people see their experience from a much broader perspective—how God designed people to relate to himself and to his sacred ordering of creation. God designed people to love him and others (Matt 22:37-40), and this design purpose is how we understand healthy functioning. It is the great privilege of human experience—a privilege restored to humanity by God himself becoming a man (Heb 2:10-11). The redemptive work of Jesus is the only way to ultimately make sense of human experience. This includes an individual’s personal experience, too.
Pastors address personal experience as neither unimportant nor all-important
Your job as a pastor is neither to overlook the importance of personal experience nor to venerate it as sacred. Pastors can commit both errors.
As in the opening example, I’ve seen pastors dismiss the experiences of their people because those experiences seem odd, unsettling, or “worldly.” Dismissal is almost guaranteed to send your people looking to others who will help them understand themselves. And we rob our people of the explanatory power of the Word for personal experience. The biblical authors themselves don’t ignore individual experience, but address it in light of higher realities. When Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, he did so as if her domestic situation mattered. Peter’s occupation as a fisherman mattered. Timothy’s stomach problems mattered. The false teaching threatening the church in Galatia as opposed to what was threatening the church in Corinth mattered. As a pastor, you should never imply, Your unique experience doesn’t matter. Truth does. Instead, make it clear that Truth helps you understand how your unique experience matters.
I’ve seen pastors commit the other error, too. They get caught up in a person’s experience and feel uneasy offering commentary. They don’t want to seem dismissive, so they unknowingly affirm the person’s bad takes on everything from what it means to be happy to how they see themselves. Pastors can fear being seen as the trite “Bible answers” guy that they neglect their duty to actually speak solid ideas from Scripture, helping a person begin to see their experience in the light of God’s kindness, faithfulness, and redemptive intentions in their unique situation. Pastors should not imply, Your unique experience is all that matters. Truth can wait. They should rather say, Truth helps you experience more fully who God made you to be.
So how do you address human experience well? By setting it in its proper order.
Pastors help their people see themselves in relation to God and to his sacred order
Pastors say to their people, You were made to see yourself as God sees you, not as you prefer to be seen. God’s first conversation with Adam was about Adam’s identity, telling him who he was and what he’d been designed to do (Gen 1:28). Adam needed words from God to make sense of himself. That’s true of all people created in God’s image. They don’t know how they fit into the order of things without God revealing it to them.
That’s why the rest of creation can be described as the sacred order. The holy God designed creation to reflect his holiness. He ordered creation to reflect the truth of his own mind and the beauty of his own character. He then placed individuals within that order. This means truth and beauty are not subjectively determined by individuals. In other words, you don’t understand yourself truly apart from the sacred order in which you were placed.
This is why a pastor always has his Bible open. It’s not to ignore what a person describes of his own experience, but rather to be able to say, Your unique experience matters, and is only rightly understood in light of truths revealed from outside you. Let’s consider a few. And then, he unpacks one or two of the countless themes in Scripture that illuminate different aspects of what a person is going through. None of it is to dismiss personal experience, but to illuminate it.
Pastors accomplish this through both public and personal ministries of the Word
The public and personal ministries of the Word complement one another in this task. Together, they create an alternate social imaginary, an eternal perspective based on what God has revealed in his Word.
Public ministry of the Word, primarily preaching, should address the common experience of the people. Pastors should challenge themselves to consider what their people face in their range of professions, trades, social circles, educational settings, and neighborhoods. Be around your people in many different settings—their workplaces, their homes, their activities. Then, as a pastor studies to achieve insight into the meaning of a text, he will view his people’s collective experience in a new light. This allows him to apply the text for them with greater insight.
Personal ministry of the Word, including mentorship and counseling, should regularly address the personal experiences of individuals. This takes more back-and-forth. It takes listening and knowing an individual and addressing his or her specific experience, not just collective experiences. Not all pastors will be equally gifted for such exploratory conversations, but seeking to gain insight into the personal experiences of your people will give you opportunity to apply Scripture with greater specificity and effectiveness.
Pastor, you’re not a therapist. You hold a longer-term position in the lives of your people. You aren’t just helping them for a short time to accomplish specific personal goals. Rather, you are helping them over a lifetime to understand themselves in light of what God says about them.
Editors’ note: This article originally appeared at 9Marks.
Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 46.