May Pressure Points with Dr. Bruce Hartung

I have had several inquiries in recent months about pastors and counseling.  The following question is a composite of several of those.
Q: How much counseling should a pastor do, and for how long?  When should he refer?  How does he choose to whom to refer?  What if our pastor gets into doing a lot of counseling, making that a major priority?  What training should he have?
A: There cannot be rigid rules related to the counseling a pastor does.  The extent to which counseling is a significant part of his work (as opposed to the pastoral and spiritual-care conversations that are part of a pastor’s vocation) needs to be determined in the parish community’s overall conversation.
If a pastor does lots of counseling out of personal interest, apart from its connection to the overall work of the parish, seeds of discontent and unnecessary conflict are being sown.  But if considerable counseling is part of the overall mission of the parish, the pastor’s work is congruent and expected.
Referral should be made whenever the issues presented exceed the training of the pastor.  Pastoral care needs always to be maintained, though, even when a referral is made.
Pastors who do longer-term counseling should have training to do so.  This training is, of necessity, hard work and intensive, much more than a workshop or two.  An advanced degree in counseling could be a good marker, but even more so is certification in a professional counseling organization.  I believe the most crucial membership for a pastor is in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (  Membership in a professional organization such as the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy or the American Psychological Association, as well as state certification (if possible), also is desirable.
There are two further questions that are crucial for me: 1) Has the counselor or pastor participated in his own counseling, especially in the kinds of counseling he is doing?  2) Is the counselor or pastor participating in ongoing consultation about, and even supervision of, his work?
The more dangerous counselors are those who are counseling without ongoing consultation and those who have not experienced counseling themselves.  Regardless of credentials, I’d stay away from these folks.  That’s why I ask these questions when I am thinking of using someone for referrals.
Counselors’ continuing reflection on their personal experiences and circumstances is indicated and necessary.  Also, counselors best serve their clients when they are in active consultation about their work.
I’d appreciate hearing the thoughts of readers (including counselors and pastors) about this.
Dr. Bruce M. Hartung is executive director of the Commission on Ministerial Growth and Support and associate professor of practical theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.  He can be reached at

Posted April 30, 2004

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