EDITOR’S NOTE: In what follows, Jeremy Pierre, dean of students and associate professor of biblical counseling, discusses his new book, The Pastor and Counseling: The Basics of Shepherding Members in Need, with Towers writer RuthAnne Irvin.
RAI: Why is a book like The Pastor and Counseling needed in churches today? Why is it important?
JP: We wrote this book for pastors who don’t think of themselves as counselors. Even in ministry, we tend to divide tasks. We wanted to make the case that the public ministry of the Word should be accompanied by a personal ministry of the Word. Your average pastor would agree with this, but they lack confidence for what to do and some of the more thorny issues their people deal with.
This book is our attempt to provide pastors with a primer for counseling. We wanted something they could read in an afternoon to get the basics of understanding a person’s experience and saying something biblically helpful to guide them. We think this book is important because even a simple framework goes a long way in boosting a pastor’s confidence for this task.
RAI: In relation to why it is important, why did you write it?
JP: We wrote it because we didn’t see anything out there that was quickly digestible as well as theologically driven. The Westminster bookstore advertised this book by calling it “a pragmatic guide with theological teeth.” I hadn’t thought of that particular phrase, but I think it describes the book well.
We want pastors to shepherd the church of God well. That’s not an easy task, but it’s certainly a worthy one. Part of our burden is that personal ministry requires the suffering of labor. We call it “suffering” not to scare anyone, but to be realistic about the fact that entering into people’s problems with them is not convenient or comfortable, but it is precisely where the glory of Christ shines brightest.
RAI: What makes a church lack theologically sound counseling?
JP: A number of things make the church lack in theologically sound counseling. They may lack counseling because of a basic traditionalism that relies on the pulpit only, and sees any talk about people’s problems as undesirable and unnecessary. But this is not the personal ministry we see modeled by the Apostle Paul as he labored for people. He certainly had a pulpit ministry, but perhaps what took most of his time was personal.
They may lack theology because they assume that human troubles are so complex that professional psychotherapists need to handle contemporary problems. In other words, they don’t have much confidence in theology because their theology is thin. The more we understand who Christ is and the deep ways the Bible describes who we are as people, the more confidence we have that transformation in Christ is a sweeping, life-altering thing, shaping us at the deepest level of our desires, our beliefs, and our loyalties.
RAI: What is the remedy for churches that do not know what to do in counseling?
JP: Read the book. Just kidding.
Training is important for competence in counseling. Church leaders should seek out good programs to understand the task better. But, we have to keep in mind that counseling is not valuable for its own sake. I actually get concerned when a church is too excited about counseling. Counseling should be one tool among many for the personal ministry of the Word. So the most important thing is understanding the process of applying theology to every aspect of life. Church leaders need training to do this. That’s why I teach at a seminary.
RAI: What advice would you give to pastors who want to start a counseling ministry at their church?
JP: Pastors have to start by setting a culture of gospel dependence. What I mean by that is that they should teach and preach as if people are in daily need of the grace of Christ in the specifics of their experience. It’s one thing to need Jesus for salvation one day far from now as I stand before the judgment seat. It’s another thing to need him for that day as well as this day, when I’m so tempted to understand my life from my preferred categories and my preferred values. Pastors should wake their people up to their own potential for blindness, illicit desire, corrupted motivations.
Only in this way will people understand counseling as a ministry of the church that is not sequestered to a certain category of “problem people.” So start by building a culture.
After that, there are many excellent books you can read on building a counseling ministry.
RAI: How can pastors train their sheep to counsel each other?
JP: They’ve got to be trained themselves first. Then they can repeat what is been modeled for them for their particular context and people. The important thing to remember is that not all models work in every situation. So pastors should look for key principles that they then must do the hard work of applying in their context.
RAI: What is something you wish you could tell all counseling majors and future pastors?
JP: If you’re a counseling major, I would tell you to drink deeply in your systematic theology, biblical exegesis, historical theology, and biblical theology classes. Only by believing in the Bible that is alive and majestic will you be able to make that Bible alive and majestic in the lives of others.
If you’re in another major preparing for pastoral ministry, I would tell you to take counseling courses. We’ve had many pastors tell us after being in ministry for a number of years that if they could go back, they would have taken more counseling classes. They did not realize that dealing with people’s troubles would be such a large part of their responsibilities.
We’ve been blessed with an excellent faculty in all these departments, so drink deeply.
RAI: Who has influenced you most in your counseling ministry? What did they teach you that you try to teach your students?
JP: I’ve been influenced by a number of authors, both inside and outside counseling, since I understand counseling as a tool for applying theology to the human experience. So I’ve been influenced by writers who counsel and writers who are thinking carefully about the process of doing theology. Regarding counseling authors, David Powlison is my primary influence. Anything he writes, I read. I have to fight the urge to pre-agree with him about everything (except baptism). He understands the dynamics of human belief and desire, and he also loves the process of theology. He models with excellence how to bridge the two. In terms of theologians, I could mention many. But John Frame is probably most influential, since he understands theology as the application of God’s Word to all areas of human life. Many aspects of his method are helpful for aiding people to process their experience theologically.
RAI: And how do you see counseling integrate with every area of life? What is the best mindset to have a counseling lifestyle?
JP: Counseling is just a formalized tool for Godward conversation between two people. The essence is the Godward conversation. Such conversations should be taking place around the dinner table, on car rides, at baseball games. We should constantly be assessing our world in ways that see God’s activity as the primary thing going on, not our immediate concerns. I don’t like the phrase “counseling lifestyle.” That seems like a pretty sad life. How about “a lifestyle of thinking theologically about all of life.” Far less catchy, but far more accurate.
Excerpts from The Pastor and Counseling
“But the gospel is relevant because it reframes all earthly trouble with an eternal perspective. The Word of God exposes the heart in ways nothing else can, surgically bringing to light what is unhealthy (Heb. 4:12-13) so that what is out of order may be put right (Heb. 12:12-14).”
“If you are building a people committed to one another’s spiritual good, they will be more interested in counseling as a tool that can help toward that end.”
“The central goal of the first meeting is to understand the person and his primary concerns. Getting to know people — how they respond to life, what they most value, how they relate to others, and so on- is what God has called you to do in reflecting his own concern for them.”
“Pastors should think of counseling not primarily as an attempt to fix problems, but as an attempt to reorient worship from created things to the Creator by means of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”