Review of The Pastor as Counselor

In this posthumously published monograph, David Powlison makes a short but loaded argument for the necessary connection between the role of pastor and counsellor and the unique shape that counselling takes within pastoral ministry. I am thankful for the copy I received of The Pastor as Counselor through the Crossway Blog Review Program.

Powlison’s claim is simple: whether you acknowledge it or not, as a pastor, you are a counsellor—perhaps a poor one, but a counsellor nonetheless. The short introduction makes this point clear: the question is not whether you will counsel your flock but whether you will do so thoughtfully or not. The church is, ideally, “a community in which substantial conversations predominate”; the pastor’s calling is a particular role within this broader ministry (16). The Pastor as Counsellor only has two chapters (plus an appendix containing resources for further reading). The first chapter looks at “the word counseling within a pastoral frame of reference,” the second unpacks “a few of the distinctives that make a pastor’s counselling so unique” (16).

To unpack “counselling” in reference to the pastor’s work, Powlison juxtaposes it with the general “psychotherapeutic” view of counselling. He views both works as attempting to address the same task, care of souls facing the troubles of a broken world. However, both take opposing approaches to the task. Because of the long history of Pastoral soul care, Powlison does not argue that Pastoral counsellors do secular counselling work, but that “both ‘psycho-therapy’ and ‘psych-iatyr’ attempt pastoral work,” which Freud acknowledged when he defined therapists as “secular pastoral workers” (19). In the pastoral frame of reference, counselling is redefined: “a pastor needs a very different vision [from psychotherapy] for what counselling is and can be” (21). In sum, “Real ministry engages the same personal and interpersonal problems that the psychotherapies address—but more deeply” (24). In chapter 2, Powlison then seeks to put some skin on his vision for counselling as pastoral work, looking at the unique “responsibility, opportunity, method, message, and context” of the Pastoral counsellor (27). This chapter is, again, loaded with tightly packed insight.

Powlison says much in 60 pages; it is worth reading and re-reading. I think Powlison is correct in identifying this key aspect of pastoral ministry and outlining its contours. I would want to add that as appropriated within a broader Christian understanding of the human condition, some elements of secular psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behaviour therapy, neuropsychology, and psychiatric medicine, can be helpful, but Powlison is absolutely right to recognize that they are pale imitations of Pastoral counselling and fail when they try to replace it.

This review is part of the Teleioteti Training Initiative, read more here.

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