By Ramon Presson
The late humorist Lewis Grizzard wrote, “I think being a pastor would be easy. After all, you only have to work one day a week. And all you have to do then is give a speech. Plus, they give you a big ole book for all your material.”
Oh, if only pastoring were that easy.
No one has to tell a pastor how working in ministry can be both satisfying and stressful—meaningful and maddening. It brings the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, often in the same day.
The pastoral storms of feeling overwhelmed and defeated were raging long before COVID-19 hit us and changed everything suddenly and dramatically.
Pastors are concerned about their anxious flocks—the health scares, job insecurity, and financial instability among their congregations.
At the same time, pastors are scrambling to figure out how to deliver sermons, continue ministries, create a sense of community, and mitigate financial shortfalls.
Those sudden and drastic pivots, the feelings of loss, and the feeling of helplessness to stop the losses can combine to drain the morale of a pastor and staff.
And if you consider our politically divisive and socially volatile landscape, I can’t think of a period during my lifetime when it’s been more difficult to be a Christian leader—particularly a pastor—than right now.
And none of this even includes any unrelated personal, marital, or family issues pastors might be dealing with.
The Resistance to Getting Help
The need has likely never been greater for pastors to have a trusted counselor; and yet so many pastors will resist getting that help.
I’ve worn the hat as both the pastor and the professional counselor. I’ve served as an assistant pastor in several churches. I’ve also been a professional marriage and family therapist for three decades.
Here are eight obstacles to pastors seeking and getting needed support and guidance from professional counselors.
1. They’re uncomfortable with the role reversal.
Pastors are accustomed to being the counselor, not the one being counseled.
I’ll let almost anyone borrow my car, but I don’t relax in the passenger seat of my car when anyone is driving it.
Perhaps I’m feeling a loss of control. I honestly don’t feel the need to control other people, but I feel a strong need to be in control of what happens to me.
For some pastors, being in the passenger’s seat in a counseling office is not only unfamiliar but uncomfortable because it means giving up some measure of control and being vulnerable.
2. They’re supposed to be the experts.
Pastors are accustomed to giving answers, not asking for them. You’d think a professional counselor would readily recognize the need for his own therapy and promptly schedule an appointment.
Many years ago, I delayed getting help for a growing depression because I said to myself, “Well, I already know what the counselor is going to say and tell me to do. I just need to do it.”
My delay was costly. My family suffered as a result when things became so dark I had to be hospitalized along with taking an extended medical leave.
3. They’re concerned about confidentiality.
Many pastors—especially those in smaller towns—worry about confidentiality.
It’s more than a fear the counselor won’t keep the confessed struggles a secret, but the fear of running into a church member or community member in the waiting room, or just be seen going in the front door of a counseling center can be a real concern for pastors.
This fear is connected to pastors’ suspicions that their church expects them to be “super shepherds”—inspiring role models who are a few notches above the average human, not just in talent, but in character, discipline, goodness, and stability.
4. They distrust psychology.
Some pastors and ministry leaders seem to have a suspicion about psychology and view it as a humanistic and secular enemy of biblical truth.
Some even have reservations about Christian counseling.
5. They over-spiritualize mental health.
I’ll never forget sitting in stunned disbelief and then fighting off a rush of anger when I heard a pastor say in a sermon, “People don’t need counseling; they just need discipleship.”
I can only imagine how many people in that large congregation who were previously or presently in therapy felt judged in that moment.
Or consider how many people who currently needed therapy, or who would need it in the future, failed to get help because the message they internalized was, “Counseling is a poor substitute for discipleship, and/or needing counseling is an indication of spiritual weakness.”
6. They can’t identify the right counselor.
In the densely populated community where I live and work there are hundreds of trained counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists.
For people in our area, the challenge isn’t finding any counselor, but finding the right counselor.
7. They have limited accessibility to a trained listener.
For many pastors who live in rural settings, the availability of experienced professional counselors is often limited.
Clergy and non-clergy alike often have an hour’s drive or longer to the nearest therapist who’s qualified to address their specific concerns.
However, as a result of the pandemic, most counselors now offer their services via phone sessions or online video calls. This development greatly expands access to licensed counselors.
While in-person counseling is always preferable to phone or video sessions, teletherapy is an excellent option when health, schedule, childcare, or travel time presents an obstacle for counseling.
8. They have limited budgets.
When it comes to professional counseling, the question of cost always looms.
While counseling is an investment in your mental and/or marital health, affordability is an undeniable factor for most people.
REMOVING THE OBSTACLES TO COUNSELING
Here are some steps to eliminating obstacles (and excuses) for getting the support you need.
Make your counseling affordable.
Check to see if your health insurance policy includes mental health benefits. Some counselors accept insurance; many don’t.
Before making an appointment, make sure the counselor is considered a provider for your insurance company. The counselor will know, and your insurance company will know, so you can ask either one.
Health savings account
Your insurance policy may provide you with a health savings account (HSA) debit card. Most insurance companies will permit you to use it to pay for counseling.
Most counselors accept the HSA card for payment because it works like any other credit card.
Sliding fee scales
Some counselors and counseling groups offer a sliding fee scale based on income or ability to pay.
Identify a counselor who’s a good fit for you.
Before identifying the right counselor, it’s good to clarify whether your primary need is for personal counseling or marriage/family counseling.
Some counselors are more trained and experienced in counseling with individuals, while some received their specialized training in working with couples. Still others focus their work in family therapy and counsel with parents and children.
A glossary of terms
You might find yourself asking what the different letters mean after a counselor’s name. They indicate the level of education and any additional licensure and certifications.
Here’s a glossary of terms. Having this information will help you in narrowing your search for counselors who may be a good fit for your needs.
You can see the profiles of area counselors through listings such as psychologytoday.com/us/therapists which enables you to type in a city or zip code.
I’ll conclude by recommending you read Chris Maxwell’s brief article about his own initial reluctance, eventual acceptance, and lasting gratitude about getting counseling.
If you’re a struggling pastor or ministry leader, please stop trying to tough it out. There’s help available.
RAMON PRESSON, PhD is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice near Nashville, Tennessee. He’s a weekly newspaper columnist and the author of a dozen books, including a trilogy of marriage and family titles co-authored with Dr. Gary Chapman.