Pastor-Teacher or Super-Counselor?

“What’s it like to be a counselor?” The question often comes my way, usually from young men and women interested in counseling ministry. They often ask with a sort of awe, convinced that counseling is the most fulfilling of all vocations, counselors the most fortunate of mortals.

Though counseling has been a central part of my pastoral ministry for seven years now, I never know quite how to answer.

From a distance counseling has a pretty face—it seems mysterious, stimulating, and challenging. Up close you see the pock marks. Because counseling is difficult, draining, and sometimes frustrating, it’s easy to lose the sense of wonder about it.

Pastor Not Psychologist

I’m not a psychologist. I’m a pastor called to minister God’s Word. Nevertheless, for some years now I’ve borne the title of Pastor of Counseling and Family Ministries. I’ve worn two hats, the pastor’s and the counselor’s, which is a real juggling act, and I’ve discovered I’m not always a good juggler.

I had always considered counseling as just one phase of the pastoral ministry. Now I know how easily it can overshadow not only your ministry but your entire life. It’s like the proverbial camel that sticks its nose into the tent and, once allowed that liberty, follows with its shoulders and forelegs, pushing till there’s room for nothing else.

In my case, the counseling mantle fell to me by accident. There were originally two of us on the church staff, and we split the responsibilities down the middle. Counseling was one of mine, and I welcomed it. I always had a sense of satisfaction in helping another human being (and hearing them tell me what a help I’d been).

People’s needs were ever-present, and I seemed reasonably successful in dealing with them. Within a year and a half counseling became my primary, almost exclusive domain. It was another two years before I realized the mistake that was. Along the way, I’ve learned some lessons.

1. Counseling can’t be taught. Professors can teach you about counseling. But they can’t teach you counseling per se. They can’t prepare you for the physical, emotional, and spiritual drain that comes with a counseling ministry. At least, they didn’t prepare me.

Counseling is an art. But it is unlike those physical arts that allow he artist to escape from people to maximize creative potential. Often the counselor performs his art under duress, in the crucible of human pain and conflict. A surgeon of the soul, he cannot dismiss himself from the operating room to read up on the latest surgical technique.

Only in actual practice can the counselor develop the skills and perspectives so essential in addressing the specific needs of human beings. Until then, you can’t appreciate the fact that counseling’s effects, both good and bad, are felt not only in the life of the counselees, but the life of the counselor—you.

2. The better you do the more you get. In the seven years since we started the church, we have grown from forty families to over 1,000 people.

I’m thankful, of course. To a preacher, such growth is gratifying. For the counseling pastor, however, it can be a nightmare. When one person walks in the door, twenty personal needs come along, needs that someone must help meet. There may be others qualified to counsel, but it never seems like enough. The shepherd’s heart of the counselor gets panicky when numerical growth outstrips resources. Soon “Super-counselor” tries to do it all, and that means a lot of unfinished dinners, changed plans, interrupted days off, and exhausting days on.

I started as a pastor of people but soon became a pastor of problems. The more experienced I became at counseling, the more the difficult counseling situations came my way. Initially, counseling successes gave me satisfaction. But my sense of satisfaction in being used of God quickly diminished. Why? Partly because the more your reputation spreads, the more demands are placed upon you—”He helped me. I’m sure he can help you too. Besides, he doesn’t charge $60 an hour.” In my case, the quality of my counseling decreased as its quantity increased. I was doing less and less good for others, and none at all for myself.

3. Counseling can change your personality. As I became more and more involved in counseling, I underwent what one friend described as a personality change. Once outgoing and always available, I found myself holding back, inviting fewer people over, introducing myself less frequently. It was only later I realized what had happened. It was a matter of self-defense—the survival instinct in its rawest form. Many pastors overburdened by counseling know exactly what I mean.

The problem? Each new person I met was a potential counseling appointment. It might be him, or it might be his suicidal cousin, his lesbian sister, or his neighbors involved in a messy divorce. But one way or another his presence meant more responsibility for me-an already overburdened pastor trying to avoid additional responsibilities. My unconscious defense mechanism was to avoid the problems by avoiding the people (though it never seemed to work).

Once my work day was done (pastors will chuckle at the thought), people became intrusions. When the phone rang in the evening at home, my stomach literally ached. (I shared this with another pastor and he was shocked—he thought he was the only one whose phone rang in his stomach.) Like Pavlov’s dog, I was conditioned to associate the ring with a negative experience.

The door bell had a similar effect. Sometimes, when we would have preferred to stay home, we packed up the family and left for the evening, just to ensure we wouldn’t be interrupted. (The fear of interruption is sometimes as bad as the interruptions themselves.)

When I came into the church office I hoped that for once the junk mail outnumbered the pink slips. (These messages from my secretary had the same symbolic effect as phone calls and ringing door bells.)

Church retreats and banquets were really tough. I longed to relax and have informal fellowship. What better place than a social gathering? Invariably, however, the people we sat next to grabbed the opportunity to talk to me about their problems. My wife was left out completely. During one retreat I barely saw her—I was doing marriage counseling the whole weekend. Believe me, I resented it.

Living with the Guilt

You may be thinking, What a terrible attitude for a pastor. I felt that way for a while and suffered from the guilt. Ironically, though people’s problems burdened me and robbed me of strength and sleep, I felt I was becoming callous, insensitive, uncaring. To a counselor, such things are the ultimate shame and cause for alarm—as frightening as a surgeon helplessly watching arthritis creep into his hands.

I felt more than psychological pain, though. I began to experience the physical symptoms of stress. I was always tired. I could honestly not remember the last time I wasn’t tired. And I was constantly fighting colds. Sore throats would often last for months—one year the same cold and sore throat lasted from August to February.

Of course, I didn’t let sickness interfere with my work! When I was so sick that even I could justify staying home, I couldn’t just rest. This was my only chance to get things done around the house, to do some writing, and get caught up on paperwork and phone call. I refused to listen to the message my body was sending me.

Here I was—less than ten years in the ministry, and contemplating whether I had hit mid-life crisis fifteen years early! I began to wonder if the longevity of pastors was comparable to professional football players. If the press had interviewed me, I would have said I was waiting till the end of the season before deciding whether or not to retire. If I made it to thirty-five, they’d be calling me “the old man”—and they’d be right!

The one thing worse than the guilt and fatigue was the price my family was paying. I thought I was a loyal family man. I was even occasionally criticized for leaving meetings at 10 P.M. out of courtesy for my wife. I “put in my time” with the family, as any good family man should, but I gave them second best. By the time my energies were poured out at the office, I often arrived home about 6:30 for a late dinner. Typically, I struggled to stay awake at the dinner table. I would have traded anything for a half hour nap on the recliner. But I knew I should spend time with my girls before they went to bed. So I did. It took every ounce of energy I had to wrestle with them on the living room floor. The delight of reading them “Harry the Dirty Dog” and their favorite Bible stories was gone. Even “One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish” became a chore. I had once been a very good listener (aren’t all counselors?). Now my girls had to repeat themselves and raise their voices to get my attention.

For a period of three years or so, I experienced most of the symptoms described in the books on burnout. I felt lonely, depressed, physically and emotionally exhausted. My morale was low, and I was sensitive to criticism (a disastrous condition in the ministry). I was defensive and resented the fact (or was it only my imagination?) that the ministries of other staff members were often publicly applauded, but mine was not.

A barrier slowly grew between me and the others on the church staff. Though we loved each other and had unusual rapport, our busy schedules hindered communication. It bothered me to emerge between counseling appointments just long enough to overhear important staff discussions I wanted to be in on. I felt increasingly “in the dark.” Of course, the root of the problem was not theirs, but my own overspecialization and consequent lack of availability of time.

Perhaps the best indicator of how deeply I was hurting is the way I reacted when people complimented and encouraged my teaching and preaching. Sometimes, it actually bothered me. Why? Because those things were such a small part of my ministry (maybe 20 percent), and compared to the counseling, it seemed to me, an easy part (“the grass is always greener...”).

Those were dark days: I was prideful on the one hand, yet feeling tremendously inadequate on the other. I had a classic case of job saturation, an inability to leave my work behind me. The problem is common to all the helping professions, especially the ministry, but I didn’t know that—I felt terribly alone. And when I tried to share my dilemma with others, between pain and frustration I never seemed to communicate well. I ended up feeling more alone and misunderstood than ever, and determined not to open up again.

I felt trapped-the victim of circumstances. I tried everything I could think of to resolve my overextension problem. But I just couldn’t say no to people who were hurting. I still cared deeply for them and was often moved to tears at their emotional and spiritual problems. But I didn’t realize how severe my own problems were becoming. The challenge “Physician, heal thyself” was for me “Counselor, counsel thyself.” Finally, I did.

Rediscovering Perspective

For me, the key to physical, emotional, and spiritual healing was getting some extended time off. My church granted me a two-month sabbatical for my six years of service. It was a good investment.

I spent a week alone, meditating and writing. Then I spent nine days at the Oregon coast with my family. It was the time of our lives. We played, bicycled, ate out, picnicked, and ate a lot of ice cream. It was the first time in years when I was not constantly aware of my ministry responsibilities. I ran on the beach, walked out on a 500-foot jetty, and sang to the Lord as I was drenched by the mist of waves beating against the rocks. I had no idea how much I needed those times, both alone and with my family.

After I was away for a few weeks, and knowing I still had plenty of time left, my head began to clear. I was able to see myself and my ministry in perspective, something that had time and time again proven impossible when I was in the thick of things. Often I had identified the problems, but despite my most sincere and diligent efforts, the obstacles to a fulfilling ministry had persisted. At last they seemed to, if not disappear, shrink to a manageable size. I did three further things that began to revitalize my ministry.

1. I recognized I was a sheep first, a shepherd second. My biggest mistake was forgetting that my primary calling is to be a sheep in need of guidance, affection, protection, provision, and peaceful rest in the presence of my Creator. I relearned the lesson through prayer and study.

During the time away I read two helpful books, Tim Hansel’s When I Relax I Feel Guilty, and Don Baker and Emery Nester’s Depression, in which Pastor Baker recounts his personal struggles and trauma in the midst of a highly successful ministry.

I also studied Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42, and mulled over the implications of their different approach to life and ministry. Martha was first a worker, only secondly a worshiper. This is what I had become—a worker, pure and simple.

As a counselor I had learned a forbidden art—how to keep giving out when my reservoir was dry. Like Martha of Bethany, I excelled at doing rather than being, at labor instead of love. I was a servant but not a saint, a do-er not a pray-er, a giver who had forgotten how to receive. And, ironically, since I had stopped receiving, I had little of quality left to give.

2. I attempted to delegate more. You’ve probably wondered why I didn’t delegate to get the job done without killing myself. I did some. In fact, I taught a nine-month counseling course to sixty committed and capable laymen in our church. I delegated many counseling situations to these people, and it was a terrific investment in every way. But there was one problem I hadn’t bargained for. Still seeing myself as Super-counselor, I delegated to laymen those that were less serious and less complex. This reserved for myself, of course, the really hard cases.

The problem was that these really hard cases (extreme depression, deep sexual problems, major marital crises, etc.) were abundant. And many of them just couldn’t afford to see a Christian psychologist. I was really in a mess. I had managed by delegating to avoid all the mild problems, and now I was filing every hour with the severe ones! I had become a specialist. I was a pastor in psychologist’s clothing, who sometimes wasn’t doing a good job as either. Not only that, but I couldn’t find time to follow up on the lay counselors I had sent people to. I seemed further behind than ever.

I began to miss all those “easy” cases—you know, those dear people who really want to grow in Christ and just need some good biblical input, a time of prayer, a practical assignment and an encouraging pat on the back now and then. These are the people who praise you for working wonders in their lives, when all you’ve done is listened and shared a little Scripture! They were the kind of folks who convinced me I was gifted in counseling in the first place. Now I saw them only on Sundays. I was surprised to find how much I missed their spiritual contribution to my life.

Delegation didn’t really pay off until I got hold of my schedule. I had often tried to change my schedule before, but never with lasting success. Perhaps what made the difference this time was my degree of desperation. I forced myself to start saying no not just sometimes, but most of the time. I realized that just because something would be good to do, it doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do. In fact, if I wasn’t careful, I could spend the rest of my life doing good things without ever doing the best.

I no longer felt I was saying no but yes when I delegated counseling to qualified lay people and professional Christian counselors. And as the fog cleared, I realized I had no right to resent people for their “demands” on my time. After all, my schedule was my responsibility, not theirs.

3. I diversified my ministry. I undertook new ministries that brought me closer to thriving, growing people who not only receive from me, but give to me. I counseled less, and by my request the church provided financial aid to those who needed professional help. (Back when I was Super-counselor, I never put funds for this in the counseling budget—after all, wasn’t I paid for this?)

Moving into some other areas of ministry did wonders. My relationship with the other staff members is better than ever. I feel a part of the team once more. And I love to meet new people again. The phone can still be a problem, but I’m getting more calls for spiritual guidance—many are asking advice in working with a friend instead of sending the friend to me. Not every call is a crisis, and that makes the real crises much easier to deal with. For the first time in years, I feel like I’m a pastor first, a counselor second.

Nothing has magically fallen together. I still experience pressure, and occasionally it gets the best of me. Still, the change is significant and noticeable. I am studying and teaching more, and finding time for some of the people with the “little problems.” I’m also learning to approach life less like Martha and more like Mary. My family has seen a tremendous difference; and life at home is more than leftovers. It’s a feast again, and I thank God for it. Now I feel I can look forward to many more rewarding years of ministry.

This article was originally written for Leadership Magazine, Spring 1985.

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries