David Powlison’s essay “The Pastor as Counselor” (available free online) is far and away the best thing I have ever read on the role of pastor-elders in counseling God’s people. It was originally published in For the Fame of God’s Name and is reprinted in CCEF’s The Journal of Biblical Counseling. At our church we have read through it together as an elder council, and I’d encourage other churches to do the same. I also wish every seminarian could read through this at least once.

Here is one section directed to pastors on their unique role in counseling:

The uniqueness of your message is easy to see. But you already know this. I won’t rehearse the unsearchable riches of Christ, or the 10,000 pertinent implications.

But I do want to note the uniqueness of your message by contrast. Every counselor brings a “message”: an interpretation of problems, a theory that weighs causalities and context, a proposal for cure, a goal that defines thriving humanness. How does your message compare with their messages? Simply consider what our culture’s other counselors do not say.

  • They never mention the God who has a name: YHWH, Father, Jesus, Spirit, Almighty, Savior, Comforter.
  • They never mention that God searches every heart, that every human being will bow to give final account for each thought, word, deed, choice, emotion, belief, and attitude.
  • They never mention sinfulness and sin, that humankind obsessively and compulsively transgress against God.
  • They never mention that suffering is meaningful within God’s purposes of mercy and judgment.
  • They never mention Jesus Christ. He is a standing insult to self-esteem and self-confidence, to self-reliance, to self-salvation schemes, to self-righteousness, to believing in myself.
  • They never mention that God really does forgive sins.
  • They never mention that the Lord is our refuge, that it is possible to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil.
  • They never mention that biological factors and personal history experiences exist within the providence and purposes of the living God, that nature and nurture locate moral responsibility but do not trump responsible intentionality.
  • They never mention our propensity to return evil for evil, how hardships tempt us to grumbling, anxiety, despair, bitterness, inferiority, and escapism.
  • They never mention our propensity to return evil for good, how felicities tempt us to self-trust, ingratitude, self-confidence, entitlement, presumption, superiority, and greed.
  • They never mention that human beings are meant to become conscious worshipers, bowing down in deep sense of personal need, lifting up hands to receive the gifts of the body and blood of Christ, lifting voices in heartfelt song.
  • They never mention that human beings are meant to live missionally, using God-given gifts to further God’s kingdom and glory.
  • They never mention that the power to change does not lie within us.

In other words, they always counsel true to their core convictions.

As a pastor, you mention all these things, or you are no pastor. Even more, you are never content merely to mention or list such realities, as if a troubled person simply needed the bare bones of didactic instruction. Like a skilled musician, you develop a trained ear. In every detail of every person’s story, you learn to hear the music of these unmentioned realities. You help others hear what is actually playing. A relevant, honest pastoral conversation teaches another person how to listen, and then how to join the song. Need I say more? No one else is listening to what you hear. No one else is saying what you have to say. No one else is singing what you believe. No one else is giving to others what you have been given that you might freely give. Every person who “needs counseling” actually needs your unique message.