This era is full of personal struggles. Some of these struggles are not new: anxiety, depression, addiction, shame, and anger. Others are more recent, such as internet addiction and some psychiatric diagnoses. But all of them can be helped by meaningful engagement in a wise and loving local church.
In pastoral ministry, your time loosely clusters around the public ministry (preaching and teaching) and personal ministry (pastoral care and counsel). Between the two, personal ministry is where you spend most of your time. It involves conversations after church, brief words of encouragement during hardships, hospital visits, planned meetings when troubles are stubbornly enduring, and more directed care for those who struggle with what we might call their emotional or mental health. Some of these people suffer from specific psychiatric problems.
When it comes to people who are really suffering, many pastors are tempted to feel overwhelmed and under-qualified. If that’s you, pastor, here five things to remember.
1. Human misery has become more complicated and more frequent.
Compared to our present time, our pre-modern past had more death, less legal protection of life, and endless uncertainties. But there are ways our present era stands out: massive breakdowns of the family unit, isolation, lack of larger purpose, and sexual license. These have intensified the misery that has always intertwined itself with everyday life.
Now factor in the rise of modern psychiatry, which means that medical matters often become part of pastoral care. Together, all this means that more people have more problems that need pastoral care and counsel, and these problems are more complicated.
2. There are good resources to help you.
The church has access to more resources for its pastoral care and counsel than ever before. This is good news for pastors. Now we need to sort through this growing literature and identify what’s most consistent with Scripture and most helpful. We should be looking for material that complements the regular preaching and teaching of the Word.
I’m most familiar with the literature within what has been called biblical counseling. The name can be misleading. We intend it not as a protected trademark but as a simple description or as a body of work to which we all contribute. It describes how we bring the truth of Scripture to the troubles of everyday life, particularly in relationships. In other words, biblical counseling is pastoral care. What’s confusing is that the word counseling suggests a formal, professional hour with an expert. Though biblical counseling can be done in that setting, we think of it in the more democratized sense that we are all called by God to help one another.
3. You already know the most helpful truths.
With all the new therapies and medications, pastors might fear they will mistakenly treat a medical problem as if it were only a spiritual one. But amid all that you don’t know, you do know this: our God is pleased—in Jesus Christ and through our proclamation of his gospel—to renew the entire cosmos (Col. 1:15–23). Nothing reaches deeper into the human condition. This message has been entrusted to ordinary people who wrap it in humility and love.
Here’s another way to look at it: even professional psychological literature observes that people get most of their help from non-professional friends who simply love, listen, and, in Christian relationships, pray for them. This is the recognized gold standard for care, and professionals merely aim to measure up to it.