By Phil LeMaster
It’s happened a hundred times, I suppose, in the 35 years of my preaching ministry. A couple calls for an appointment. Could I see them about some problems they are having at home? Of course I say yes, not really eager for another counseling assignment, but knowing it is a part of the territory that comes with the located ministry in our present world.
We set up the appointment and have our first session and, as they start to leave, the husband turns and says, “By the way, how much do you charge for counseling?”
Reflexively I reply, “Nothing at all. There’s no cost to the counseling.” It sounds altruistic and noble, and the truth is, I don’t desire any remuneration for the counseling I do. As I say, I consider it a part of my job.
But in all honesty, I am less than candid when I tell couples there’s no cost to such counseling. As I get a little older and perhaps a little wiser, I realize there can be a terrible price to pay in marital counseling—for the counseling preacher! And sometimes when you start adding up the cost, one begins to wonder if the man who stands behind the pulpit on Sunday should dare sit in the counselor’s chair during the week.
Counting the Costs
What does it cost? Well, obviously, one cost is time. Most couples who come for counseling have problems that demand more than a psychological Band-Aid. The one session of crisis counseling gives way to weeks and often months of hour-long meetings that sometimes terminate with no real solution or progress. Every minister knows the frustration of wasting such time that could have been used for sermon preparation, visitation, and a dozen other important responsibilities.
It can also cost your minister-member relationship if the couple is a part of your congregation. More often than not, I have found when I become a part of the marriage counseling triad, both the church and I lose out. The couple pulls out their dirty laundry for me to sort through with them, and, as a result, often feel embarrassed in my presence afterward. I don’t want this, and I assure them I still want to minister to their family, but I find many of them end up staying home more or going elsewhere to worship.
Sometimes there is even a greater price to pay. Marital counseling can cost the minister his position, his family, and his soul! The story is one that has repeated itself far too often. The compassionate man of God becomes emotionally involved in the wreckage of someone’s broken dreams and finds himself sympathizing with his female counselee. He moves from the counseling chair to the bed of infidelity and starts a downward spiral of sin that can lead to the total loss of his witness and even his eternal soul.
I have wept as I have received report after report of colleagues in ministry who have succumbed to this insidious temptation. And I have been moved to reflect on my own vulnerability. It scares me enough to almost agree with one noted minister in our brotherhood who thinks the counseling chair should be totally abandoned by the preaching minister.
But that is not really an option for most ministers in small to midsized congregations. There are too many of our people whose marriages are floundering and who expect us as men of God to help them survive. How can we do it and come out as survivors ourselves?
Setting Some Limits
Let me offer some suggestions I have gleaned from colleagues and from years of trial and error as a preacher-counselor.
1. Counsel from the pulpit.
I believe the most effective counseling the preaching minister can do is from the pulpit. Hopefully, the spoken word is his forte and on any given Sunday he has the potential of reaching scores of couples who are struggling in their relationships. A series of messages from God’s Word on the family can address the marital relationship and potential problem issues in a timely and nonthreatening fashion.
2. Lower your congregation’s view of your counseling expertise
I don’t know why, but most of our congregants have the mistaken idea that being preachers automatically qualifies us to be expert counselors—especially when family problems are involved. While it is true our knowledge of the Bible and our spiritual relationship with the Lord are helpful in this regard, it is time we realize some good preachers are mediocre or worse when it comes to counseling.
In fact, I am convinced some of the very traits that make a man a good preacher-pastor are also the traits that spell trouble in the counseling room. The minister’s ability to empathize and be affected deeply by others is so important in his daily work, but can be a dangerous liability in marital counseling.
3. Learn the art of referral.
One of the first things a preacher should do when starting a new ministry is to learn what counseling services are available in the community. Most areas, even rural ones, have Christian counseling networks that do a much better job than the located minister can ever do when it comes to marriage counseling.
A wise doctor knows when the person’s health problem is beyond his level of expertise and sends his patient to a specialist who is more skilled in that area. A wise minister does the same.
4. Counsel couples, not individuals.
For many reasons, it is better to counsel both husband and wife together rather than separately. There will be times when this is not possible, but I have found that only by counseling the couple together can you really begin to understand the dynamics of the relationship and get a true picture of the problems in the marriage.
Nine times out of 10 when a couple has marital problems, it is the wife who senses the need to seek counseling first. Sometimes she can persuade her husband to see a counselor or a minister, but often he simply is not interested. Beyond the initial visit of the wife to seek help, I believe the local minister is wise to refuse to do extensive one-to-one counseling under such circumstances. The risks are too great.
5. Be transparent with your spouse.
What do you do when it is absolutely necessary in a crisis situation to counsel alone with a female church member facing marital problems? I do it, but always with one stipulation to the counselee. My wife will know whom I am counseling with, where, when, and basically, why. I realize this may seem to violate the confidentiality of the counseling relationship, but not if stated up front to the counselee.
I offer my wife as a prayer partner for the counselee in such circumstances. Without telling her the details, I can ask her to pray for the couple and know the matter goes no farther.
6. Work on your own marriage.
I strongly believe we preachers would have fewer problems in this area if we would only practice what we preach to other couples about developing strong marriages. We need to take our own advice and work on making our marriages model relationships that will bear up under the stresses of the ministry.
As a preaching minister, I believe it is possible to survive in our often necessary role as marital counselors if we are aware of its costs and are willing to discipline ourselves to these sensible limitations. With wisdom and proper vigilance, we can help save marriages, including our own.
Phil LeMaster is adult minister with the Franklin (Tennessee) Christian Church.