Pastoral is more than preaching
Different pastors have different tendencies and temptations. Some are tempted to let pressing relationship problems and practical problems prevent them from spending enough time preparing a solid sermon. Other pastors hide in their study and use preaching as an excuse to keep people and their pesky problems at a safe distance.
This article is much more for the latter than the former, and its point is simple: Counseling is more than preaching. This article is also intended for men who want to be pastors, as well as men who are pastors but serve as associate or assistant pastors and may preach less than they would like.
Not only is pastoral more than preaching, but a key element ties preaching to every other important part of the work: applying the Bible to the messy details of people’s hearts, minds, and lives. Counseling is more than preaching, and preaching is more than dropping truth bombs from shock-proof heights. If you want to be a pastor (or you are a pastor but don’t preach as much as you’d like), you can grow as a preacher by consistently practicing this triple B in every other area of your ministry—bring the Bible with bear.
So what else belongs to pastoral work besides preaching?
Pastoral is discipleship
By “disciple” I mean the development of personal relationships in which a primary goal is to help someone else mature in Christ. The way the apostle Paul did this in his evangelistic, apostolic ministry is a constant pattern for pastors today.
Paul so lovingly longed for the Thessalonians to come unto Christ and grow in Christ that, as he reminds them, “we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God, but also ourselves” (1 Thessalonians 2.8). Not only did he preach to them in large groups, but “like a father and his children we exhorted and encouraged and enjoined each one of you to walk in a way worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12). Paul brought the Bible to bear not only in a large gathering, but in countless personal conversations.
Who do you personally admonish and instruct over the course of a regular week? With whom do you share not only the gospel but yourself?
Pastoral care is counseling
Counseling has the same goal as discipleship but focuses on more acute sins, struggles, and suffering. Counseling is like a eddy in the stream of discipleship; We step aside for a time to help someone re-enter the stream better and stronger. And, of course, the difference here is much more of a degree than of kind. Counseling is a key element in how you “shepherd the flock of God” (1 Peter 5:2), a necessary means by which you fulfill Paul’s commission to “respect carefully . . . of the whole flock” (Acts 20:28).
Paul’s command for the whole Thessalonian church is doubly true for pastors: “We beseech you, brethren, admonish the idle, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). The more severe the disease, the more important it is to administer the right medication. And the more hours you spend in the counseling chair, the more experienced you become as a spiritual pharmacologist.
In my early years as a pastor, I learned that aligning a counseling session with Scripture can be surprisingly difficult and delicate. Someone came to you with a big problem. He or she may have a hard time trusting God or caring about what He is saying. She might feel like she’s heard it all before (and she might tell you, too). Perhaps there is so much pent-up pain and frustration pouring out of him that it is difficult to speak up. In such situations, patient listening and apparent compassion are very helpful—but not complete. Your job includes helping this struggling saint see his life as God sees it, which means you must find a light from Scripture that can make it through the crack in the blinds.
I don’t know if I’m an outlier among pastors here, but when I counsel a member who is in acute trouble, it feels like a third of my effort is listening and learning and a third trying to finding the right expression of compassion and encouragement. The last third is taken up by a program running constantly in the back of my mind, silently asking, “What passage or passages of Scripture can offer the most help to this person right now?”
Pastoral is at the forefront of the discipline
If you are a pastor, I need not tell you that difficult cases will come to you – cases that will keep you up at night or out of your mind all day. When a church member’s sin is found to be so serious that the church may need to act to expel him or her, it is natural for a church pastor to take the lead in addressing the erring member, assessing the situation, and recommending how the community should respond.
Taking the lead in discipline can bring headaches and heartache. It can bring insult and slander. It can threaten fatigue and frustration and distraction. But when you leave the ninety-nine to persecute the one (Matthew 18:13-14), when you look others in the eye and confront them with the glaring contradiction between their actions and God’s direction, you know this: you’re in it the center of the bull’s eye of God’s will for your ministry.
God’s love is a holy love, a love that saves from destructive self-deception, and in this moment you are a vessel of God’s love that pursues a soul in desperate need.
Pastoral is observing one’s own life and teaching
Paul commands Timothy: “Observe yourself and the doctrine carefully. Persevere, for by doing so you will save yourself and those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:16). You must don the mask yourself and benefit from its flow of oxygen before you can safely serve others. Pastoral care presents a constant temptation to professionalize your Christianity and therefore outsource your piety. As a pastor you have to study the Bible – for others. You must pray – with others. You need to meditate on spiritual realities – on behalf of others. But do you still study and pray and meditate for your own soul? Failure to do so will put you and your flock in a deeply dangerous position.
“Counseling presents a constant temptation to professionalize your Christianity and therefore outsource your piety.”
Watch yourself closely. Study Scripture not only to encourage and correct others, but to encourage and correct yourself. Regardless of your stated office hours, I encourage you to maintain regular devotional habits outside of these hours, just as you would a teacher or banker. And make sure you continually apply the Bible to your own fears and frustrations, your own frustrated ambitions, and your own disordered desires. “Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him, how I have tested Him over and over!” Prove Jesus in private in a way that none of your people will necessarily see, but will indirectly benefit them if your trust in Him growing daily?
Salon sermon and pulpit sermon
Perhaps you wish you preached more, or you long to preach to more people. If quantity frustrates you, focus on quality. There is usually not much you can do about the former, but you can do a lot about the latter. Focus on the quality of your relationship with Christ, the quality of your efforts as a disciple and counselor, the quality of your caring for members falling into sin. The better you are a Christian, the better you become a pastor.
“The better you are a Christian, the better you become a pastor.”
Not only that, but your investment in all these other non-preaching areas of your ministry will bear fruit in your preaching. As you delve deeper into the depths of individual members’ struggles with sin and suffering, you will learn how to apply Scripture with greater nuance and precision. For this reason, Richard Baxter called the Pastoral Visitation “Salon Sermon.” If you can delve deep into a person’s struggles in a way that informs your application without revealing their situation, chances are a dozen people listening will say to themselves, “How did he know it was that.” what am I going to do? through? Who read him my thoughts of the last week?”
Paul exhorted the Thessalonians as a father exhorts his children: one at a time, to attend to their unique abilities and struggles and situations (1 Thessalonians 2:11-12). The more you do this outside of the pulpit, the more effective you will be in the pulpit. The more diligently you pastor people during the week, the more effectively you will pastor them in the pulpit.