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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever


re: premarital counseling

Dear Mike,

Thank you for freaking people out with your preaching. It sounds like the Word is having an effect. I've not been in the situation you are in, but I have wondered how so many marriages that lack Christ at the center appear to be so good. I think there are two answers: 1) common grace; 2) they are not as good as they would be were Christ the center.

David Powlison on Rest for the Weary

For those of you who appreciate David Powlison's work, you'll be interested in this short video on Rest for the Weary.  

13 Thoughts on How to Show Compassion and Avoid Pastoral Burnout

Mike, you are right.  Turnabout is fair play.  I’m always asking questions.  It’s about time I give some answers.  So, here’s my best try at answering your questions:

1.       You are not the Lord.  The most dangerous thing about counseling is thinking you can change people, when it is really only the Lord who transforms hearts.   Obviously, you are a means of God’s grace in their life, but you are only a means, not an end.  God can use you even better when you demonstrate wisdom in caring for folks.   
2.       Don’t try to save the world.  Be careful in assuming you can help in every situation.  Your members/attendees will look to you for all types of problems, and they expect really wise answers.   You can’t help everyone all of the time.  If you start with this assumption, you’ll prevent a lot of problems at the outset.
3.        Don’t be scared to see your own sin in the lives of others.  As I hear people struggling in their marriage, I’m often reminded of my own failures.  It helps me to both have sympathy for them and also make changes in my own life.  
4.       Don’t be scared to make a connection with the worst of situations.  I can quickly relate to men who struggle with lust, get angry in parenting, or want to do better in marital conflict.  I don’t as easily connect with the experience of a drug addict or an alcoholic (or bank robber, or murders, or adulterer) because I have not committed the same sins.  Yet, I know something of their experience in seeing similarities in my own life.  I don’t know what it means to be addict to cocaine or vodka, but I know idols in my own life that have turned into addictions.   I struggle with food, success, significance.  My addictions are more sanctified; but just because they are culturally acceptable, they don’t make me any better than the “worst” of sinners.   I can have great compassion for them because I see that their sins and my sins came from similar depraved hearts.  Powlison articulated this point quite well in his interview with Mark.
5.       Don’t be like the Pharisees.  Self-righteousness is always a danger.   You’re a sinner.  Your members are sinners.  We all need help.  Enough said on that one.
6.       Set boundaries.   The demands of your members, people in the community, and staff can easily overtake your schedule.  So set limits.  If you are setting a priority on preaching, you should naturally have time built into your schedule for reading, Scripture study, writing, etc.  As best you can, protect that time.  I have a workday each week where I don’t do any counseling. 
7.       Get accountability.  Talk with others about your counseling load and your most difficult situations.   Make sure there is at least one other elder who is asking you regularly about your counseling, and particularly your most emotionally-draining situations.  This allows you the opportunity to talk through difficult situations and it gives them an opportunity to pray for you. 
8.       Get others involved.  Assume others must help.   One of the first questions I ask is “Who else do you know in our congregation?”  If they don’t know anyone, I ask them to meet up with someone (in addition to myself) and talk about what they are struggling with.  The more they confess and bring things out into the light, the better it is for everyone.  If they don’t know anyone, I make a few phone calls and send out some emails.  My goal is to eventually work my way out of the job, and at that point, they need to have at least a one person in the congregation who know their issues and who are talking with them (or else, they’ll end up back in your office fairly quickly!). 
9.       Set an expectation with the congregation that they are to be counseling each other.   A culture of discipleship and an expectation that members need to care for other members helps a ton.   Too many folks expect that the professionals (counselors, pastors) are the only ones who can help.  But my assumption is that every member can do something to help.  They can’t fix the problem, but they can help.  The pastor should never be the only person to help in a situation.   The more the congregation is trained to give wise counsel to each other, the less often folks will end up in our office.   (I will try to write another post at some point describing some of the things we do to train members to be better counselors.)
10.   Don’t let the tyranny of the urgent rule your schedule.  You will get plenty of crisis calls.  Sometimes it is a “legitimate” crisis (suicide, heart attack); sometimes it is “crisis” in their mind, but not really for anyone else.  Just because they feel it is a crisis doesn’t mean it is as bad as they think.   You can use discernment to know when a bad situation needs to be dealt with immediately and what situations can wait.   
11.   Take a break.  Get your church to give a sabbatical (yearly is ideal).  Take your vacation time.  Every once in a while get away with your wife only and leave the kids with the grandparents.  If the church gives you time off then take it.  You need it more than you realize. 
12.   Listen to your wife.  Your wife will more quickly than most be able to notice if you are getting burned out, doing too much, and need to make adjustments.   Listen to her.  God put her in your life for your own sanctification. 
13.   Remind yourself daily of your need for grace and forgiveness.   In a lot of situations (especially the worst ones), I look at it and think, “apart from the grace of God that would also be me…”  It is a good reminder that I desperately need God’s grace to do any of this.   There are several passages I visit regularly as a reminder of my need for God’s grace and forgiveness (Psalm 51, Matthew 18:21-35, Romans 1-3, Eph 2:1-10). 

Obviously this is not comprehensive, but it is a good start.  Thanks, Mike, for the questions. 

How Do You Deal With All This Suffering?

OK, Dee.  You're always coming up with questions for us to answer.  Turnabout is fair play.  Here's what I want to know:  You spend all day counseling people with problems ranging from mild to horrific.  How do you do it without curling up in the corner and rocking back ad forth in the fetal position?For me, the hardest part of being a pastor is counseling.  Walking through people's hurt, suffering, sin, and pain is exhausting and draining.  How would you recommend that pastors maintain compassion without burning out?Thanks!

Are Your Sheep Angry?

Dear Pastor:  If you are like me, you get to have lots of conversations about sin and suffering.  Just think about your congregation...Some of your sheep are depressed.  Couples struggle with martial conflict.  You are bound to know a few workaholics.  Many men are leading their wife poorly in marriage.  Men struggling with internet pornography; women struggling with eating struggles.  Maybe you've had someone who is suicidal.  And the list goes on and on. 
A common thread that often runs through these sins is anger
The depressed person is angry at God for her sorrow.  The wife is angry at her husband for his neglect.  Woman who is struggling with food is angry with herself for constantly giving in.  The man stuck in internet pornography is mad at himself for always giving in to the sin.  And the list goes on and on.
I don't want to do a long excursis on anger.  Rather, I want to suggest four resources for those struggling with anger or those who are helping someone who is struggling.
#1:  To start, David Powlison's lectures that CCEF's National conference.  
#2:  Robert Jones book Uprooting Anger. 
#3:  Paul Tripp's CDs or DVD set How to be Good and Angry. 
#4:  Steve Estes' talk on anger within church leadership.
Pastor, I hope these suggestions provide a few good biblical resources to help you care for angry sheep. 

Biblical Counseling Training

Someone sent an email to 9 Marks headquarters asking: "My fiance is looking at masters in counseling programs and we are beginning to do research on different ones. Would your ministry (unofficially) recommend some counseling programs that we should check out?" 
I’m not sure what perspective you are coming from in terms of counseling.  There are a wide variety of counseling models in the Evangelical world.  We (at 9 Marks) are very committed to Scripture, so as you might expect, we are very committed to biblical counseling (BC).  If you don’t really care for BC then this post is basically useless.  If you are interested in BC then here are four choices.

1.      CCEF (www.ccef.org) – The Christian counseling and Education Foundation is the place where the modern BC movement began.  Well known names include Ed Welch (author of When People are Big and God is Small) and David Powlison (best known as the editor for the Journal of BC).  

2.     Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (www.sebts.edu) - The Southern Baptist school that has the longest standing and most established BC program.

3.     Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (www.sbts.edu) – The newest BC program among Southern Baptist schools.  Some will recognize the name Stuart Scott, who wrote The Exemplary Husband and taught at Masters Seminary for many years. 

4.     Masters Seminary (www.tms.edu) – John MacArthur is been a strong proponent of BC for many years, and has built a church and seminary that are both very committed to BC. 

The Gospel, Counseling and the Church

Outside of CCEF's national conference, there are very few counseling conferences that are worth attending.  Most are not worth the time, energy, or expense because they don't think carefully about the relationship of the gospel, counseling and the church.  So, I was excited to find out recently about THE GOSPEL: Counseling and the Church, which is being held on Aug 25-26 in Louisville, KY.  If you are anywhere near Louisville, you might consider attending.  Paul Tripp is the keynote speaker, and there are several churches who have counselors committed to a Biblical Counseling model who are doing breakout workshops.
By the way, some of you might be interested in reading David Powlison's article on the nature of criticism (which also responds to critiques of Biblical counseling).  If so, click here.

CCEF -- Is Anger Morally Neutral?

David Powlison thinks through a subject that many misunderstand... here.

Not So Fast, Dee!

You are, by consensus--maybe even unanimous--opinion, the nicest guy we know.  But you can't say, "While I appreciate Dr. Adam’s list, I’d want to nuance a number of his statements" and then just move on like that was some obscure footnote to an archaic Latin manuscript.  We want the goods man!  How would you nuance?  Nuance, baby, nuance!  Enquiring minds want to know.

Thabiti, Here are my additions.....

1.       Don’t counsel people who want absolute confidentiality. 
2.       Don’t counsel without scheduling boundaries.  The needs and burdens of your members can quickly overtake your week.  Be proactive in scheduling time for prayer, study of Scripture, sermon preparation, supervision of staff, and other things before people start calling you and asking for time.
3.       Don’t counsel with humanistic standards.  Keep the gospel as your main focus.
4.       Don’t counsel without knowing your own weaknesses.  
5.       Don’t counsel when you are the only one carrying the counseling burden.   Let others carry the “weight” of the congregation’s burdens with you.   This is a good argument for the plurality of elders, so there are other pastors helping to carry the load.
6.       Don’t counsel everyone.  You are not superman.  You can’t solve everyone’s problems.  You can give comfort and encouragement from Scripture, but sometimes there will be others (in your church) who will have more wisdom about addressing a particular problem.   Be wise: let them know your limitations and encourage them to pursue others who will be wiser.
7.       Don’t counsel if you are prone to self-righteousness.  You will consistently make people who come to you feel like inferior Christians.   Make some progress on fighting the sin of self-righteousness before you counsel.
8.       Don’t counsel if you are struggling with “besetting sins,” like addiction to internet pornography. 
9.       Don’t counsel others as if you have the only “right” answers.   Proverb 11:14: “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.”
10.   Don’t counsel without personal accountability.  As a pastor, make sure there is another pastor/elder holding you accountable for your own spiritual walk.  Make sure your accountability partner is courageous enough to ask ‘intrusive’ questions.

F.Y.I.  While I appreciate Dr. Adam’s list, I’d want to nuance a number of his statements.