Counseling and Pastoral Heartache

This is a guest post (from crossway.org) by Jeremy Pierre, pastor at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the coauthor (with Deepak Reju) of The Pastor and Counseling: The Basics of Shepherding Members in Need.


Creating Opportunity for Heartache

“Life is hard enough with my own problems. Why am I taking on other people’s?”

I have to admit, this thought passes through my mind more regularly than it ought. It usually finds me at some low point in ministry, then kicks me.

The situations that bruise a pastor most are those that come when you’ve spent countless hours delicately untangling complex issues and setting people on a trajectory of growth, only to have everything collapse in an instant. The people give in or walk away, but not before delivering a parting kick to your shins.

Walking with people in the complications of their lives will increase your heartache. There’s no use pretending otherwise. If you arrange your schedule to take on some counseling, you are creating opportunity for greater heartache. Why bother?

The Evidence of Being an Undershepherd

For pastors, heartache is a sign they’re alive.

Paul identified himself as a faithful minister of the gospel, not merely by defending the purity of his doctrine, but by proclaiming his own experience of heartache for the spiritual good of his people. He defied the Corinthian believers to find a single person whose pain he did not associate with and whose spiritual good he did not care about: “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” (2 Corinthians 11:29, see also 1 Thessalonians 2:8-12). Heartache was evidence that Paul was Christ’s apostle. And it’s evidence that we are Christ’s undershepherds.

So, just to be clear: I’m not saying that counseling increases heartache. Caring for the spiritual good of others does. Counseling is only a tool for caring. It allows a pastor to navigate the dark wilderness of people’s lives, guiding them to greener places.

The pastor knows he could stay comfortably on his own homestead—there’s certainly enough to maintain there. But his burden compels him into the wilderness. And even when straying people are clumsy and slow, when they are stubborn and refuse to follow, when they kick, the pastor still seeks them out with good questions and appropriate words. He is patient when wronged and humble to admit his own shortcomings in the process. All of this is heartache.

And it’s how a pastor knows he’s alive—alive with a life that is not his own. When I experience those rare moments of a heartache that does not flow from self interest but rather genuine concern for others, I know that Jesus is changing me. My heartache in ministry used to be tied almost exclusively to my own sense of performance or personal investment. Now, it’s less so. For a guy like me, that’s quite literally a miracle.

Why do pastors take on other people’s problems?

To honor the One who took a world of trouble that was not rightfully his.


Jeremy Pierre (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as chair of the department of biblical counseling and biblical spirituality as well the dean of students at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a pastor at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the coauthor (with Deepak Reju) of The Pastor and Counseling.

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3 thoughts on “Counseling and Pastoral Heartache

  1. When a pastor takes on the burdens of others through counseling, the heartaches are real (unless he is so “professional” he remains untouched”). As Pierre points out, he does it to honor Christ who took on troubles not his own–ours. Often the pastor-counselor’s involvement goes for naught. But occasionally it’s fruitful. And one changed life transforms that heartache into
    unspeakable joy and makes it worth it all.

  2. I have found in being a “curer of souls” or “seelsorge” that I can either retain the person’s sins/burdens by bearing them upon myself or I can hand them over to Christ. When I hear the confession of others, if I merely 1) listen, 2) give advice on how they might better obey the law or “love better,” 3) encourage them, 4) pray, 5) repeat back what I hear them saying or 6) read scripture to them, I seem to retain their burdens upon myself and they do also. Whereas if I also include giving to them the promises of Jesus Christ, i.e. the absolution, that he has taken their sin (burden) upon himself and taken it to the cross where it has been defeated, then I proclaim in the name of Christ and by his authority, “I forgive your sins,” I do not retain their sins upon myself but they are handed over to Christ. Then we are both set free from it.

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