Friday, October 26, 2007

More Than Preaching: A Vision for Shepherding People

I trace my serious interest in counseling issues to the one required course in pastoral counseling I took for my Master of Divinity degree. I distinctly remember one class session in which the professor, a professional counselor, advised us that when we moved to a new congregation as pastors, we should try to make acquaintance with two professionals in the area to whom we could refer people - a Christian physician and a Christian psychologist. The physician I understood. However, I found the assumption that as pastors we would be capable of helping people with minor squabbles but in need of referring those with serious problems to psychological experts puzzling, to say the least. Here I was at a theological institution committed to equipping its students with the necessary skills for understanding and applying the Word of God so as to address people about the most important issue in their lives, their standing with respect to God. Yet, at least in this class, the impression was being given (unintentionally, I'm sure) that that same Word was largely irrelevant to significantly helping people resolve the lesser problems of life. Unfortunately, I have spoken with students who were majoring in counseling at evangelical seminaries who have expressed disappointment that they were not taught how to make substantive use of the Scriptures in the course of counseling.

My reminiscing was stirred two days ago while reading an article from a past issue of the Journal of Biblical Counseling. It's an interview with John Street conducted by David Powlison called "Exegete the Bible; Exegete the Person" (Volume 16, Number 2, Winter 1998). At the time of the interview Dr. Street was Senior Pastor of Clear Creek Chapel in Springboro, Ohio. He's now a member of the faculty at the Master's College.

Recalling the deficiency of his own seminary training Street says:

I was trained through seminary to be a pulpit-oriented pastor. By that I mean my primary role would be that of preaching. Occasionally I would make home and hospital visits and do evangelism, but I had very little to do with individual people and their problems. What problems I did handle as a pastor were minor disagreements or marriage struggles. Basically I was taught that a pastor was not capable of handling anything else.

After I completed seminary I took biblical counseling training, which was required of me as an associate pastor. The Lord humbled me and began to place within me a real burden for not just preaching but for shepherding people. My early biblical counseling training gave me a vision for shepherding people that I had not had. In one sense I had it, but it was very impersonal and from the pulpit, ministering the Word of God to a large crowd. A colleague and I joke about this now. He says, "As I look at it, it's easy to preach. You're not going to have somebody object to what you say. But when you get into a counseling situation where you're sitting across the table from somebody and trying to minister the Word of God, and the ugliness of their sinful nature raises its head and they argue and object and make excuses and blame-shift and run away from the problem, now you're in a struggle." Preaching is not the struggle. I think it's easy compared to working through problems with people.
When asked to select one passage that anchors the way he thought about counseling in the context of Christian life and pastoral ministry, Street cited Paul's farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:

In that scene he is passing the baton to the leadership of the church, a non-apostolic generation like us. When he addresses them, he's addressing me. He's saying, "Here's what I want you to do in terms of ministry." He sets his own life up as an example. In Acts 20:20 he says, "I preached publicly and then went from house to house." He talked about the fact that for three years "I went to each of you, day and night with tears." I did not have that perspective at all coming out of seminary. My view of the ministry primarily was forty hours a week in the study, some occasional administration, making some evening calls on people, hospital visits, and preaching and teaching on Sunday. That was it. The rest of the time was preparation and isolation and reading all my books. Oh, my, ministry seemed so easy from that perspective! Who wouldn't want that?

I think a lot of guys escaped to that because they were scared to deal with counseling problems. I was.
I wonder how many seminary-trained pastors could share Dr. Street's testimony. Are our seminaries equipping men to be powerful preachers but impotent physicians of the soul?


Jeff Burton said...

The assumption that pastors have to have a rolodex full of professional mental health contacts is sad. To make it a little bit worse, it is absolutely inconceivable under this rubric that laypeople would be equipped in any way to handle these problems.

KP said...

Right, Jeff. This paradigm undermines pastors' responsibility to equip the saints for significant ministry to one another.

Thanks for stopping by. BTW, I miss your blog!

Educator-To-Be said...

This is a very interesting issue you have raised. I, of course, have no answers and no informed opinion.

However, as a future teacher, I am grateful that school districts have personnel specifically hired and trained to deal with such matters, meaning that teachers are not required to be psychologists, too.


R said...

I was so excited when I got my journal and I am doubly blessed by reading this on your blog, KP. I have had the good fortune of being Dr. Street's pupil and thus, have received great benefit from his shepherding. I just have to express how fun it is for me to read this since you and Dr. Street were both used by God to shape me into a truly biblical counselor.