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Five Reasons Every Pastor Should Seek Professional Counseling

Reason #2: INTEGRATION: You need to integrate the broken pieces of your identity.

We’re all broken in different ways. Like shattered pieces of glass from a broken mirror, our lives become dis-integrated and fractured. Many of us will choose one big piece, and then perhaps two, three or four smaller pieces, of the shattered mirror to navigate through life, relationships and changing circumstances. We learn to project the piece of our image we want everyone else to see. Counseling will help you, pastor, to get all those pieces put back together and integrated into one whole, healed and complete person. This is vital to pastors who may otherwise live in a state of dis-integration, and then end up living a double life.

It may be helpful for you, pastor, to think of your own inner life as a small congregation. Within your own identity, there is deep love for Jesus, dedication to ministry, commitment to spouse and family, as well as struggles with lust, anger, hurt, pride, immaturity, selfishness and maybe even some weirdness. Sounds like your church, doesn’t it?

A counselor can help you to identify those big pieces of your life—that little congregation living in your head and made up of all the complex aspects of your own identity—and to find out which pieces are dominant, and which are being pushed to the side, kept in a box or brought out only in certain circumstances. A counselor can help a dis-integrated pastor who is in danger of blowing up his life to become whole, integrated and internally connected so that he is one person, no matter where he is or who he is with.

Reason #3: TRAINING: You need to learn how to be a better counselor yourself.

When I first started doing pastoral work (at age 24) I knew exactly diddly-squat about counseling and caring for people. People would come in to my office, share their struggles and issues, and I would sit across from them with my best “pastor face” on while simultaneously feeling totally helpless, inept and unqualified. I often silently wondered to myself, “How can I ever help this person? I have no idea what to say or do!”

When I started seeing a counselor about eight years into my own pastoral ministry, I began to learn from him by watching him counsel me. I learned how to listen by seeing him listen. I learned how to ask questions, give feedback, when to talk and when to be quiet, how to end a counseling session, and how to help someone set goals and track their progress by having someone else do that with me. Getting counseling, as a pastor, will help you learn to counsel others.

I’ll say right here (and develop it more in a future post) that most pastors should not be doing long-term counseling with church members unless (1) you’re trained to do it, (2) you’re good at it and (3) you have time to do it along with all the other things you’re doing. If you can’t check all three of those boxes, you should be referring people who need counseling to people who can actually help them. The sign outside your office door that says “PASTOR” does not mean you know how to counsel all the people in your church, and it doesn’t mean you have to be their personal therapist. Pastor, you should not feel guilty about that at all!

That being said, every pastor will have to spend some amount of time doing some level of counseling. If you go through counseling yourself (not just counselor training—but actual therapy where you are the client), you can learn to become a better counselor yourself.

Reason #4: EMPATHY: You need to empathize with people who come in for counseling.

I know of a pastor who had a major blow-out in life and ministry who was required by the elders of his church to go to counseling. When one of the leaders asked him how it was going, he said something like, “I’m not really into all the navel gazing.” My response to that was, “He just told you what he thinks of every person who comes to him for counseling.”

When I first saw a professional counselor, eight years into my pastoral work, I remember feeling nervous and insecure. At the time, I thought, “Wow, I’ve always been on the other side of this dynamic. It feels strange being the one asking for help.” That gave me empathy for people who have come in to talk to me over the years. I know what they’re feeling when they come in to see me, and that makes me work harder to listen, to empathize, and to do all I can to help them feel loved, safe and cared for.

Pastor, if you go to counseling, you will get to feel what every person who comes to your office feels, and that’s a good thing. It will make you a better shepherd.

Reason #5: CATHARSIS: You need to dump all the stuff you’re carrying in your head and heart.

This morning I heard the story of a pastor who began having panic attacks and ended up having a major emotional melt-down that made him completely incapable of functioning. After a bit of digging, the man helping this pastor discovered that he had been under intense scrutiny and criticism by a few vocal church members. He began feeling defensive all the time, and got to the point where he would shut down emotionally at the slightest hint of criticism. He began taking medication that altered his emotional state, and eventually, he crashed. One thing is certain, that pastor felt alone, isolated, attacked, and ultimately became emotionally paralyzed and paranoid. There was no one for him to talk to. There was no one to help him process the criticism he felt.