Single Pastors, Biblical Counseling, and the Local Church
Recently, a young, single man who was beginning his first pastoral position contacted me. He wanted to know my thoughts on how an unmarried pastor could build a constructive counseling ministry in the context of a local church.
I don’t consider myself to be an expert on this topic, but by God’s grace I have learned a few things on the subject from experience. For the past 15 years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as the pastor of one church. I’m now married, but I spent my first three years as a single pastor.
As the Apostle Paul taught and modeled, singleness can offer certain advantages to Christian ministry (1 Cor. 7:32–35). As a young, single pastor, it didn’t matter how much time I spent on Saturdays working on my sermon for Sunday, or how many pastoral visits I made in the evenings, or if I invited a friend over to crash on the couch for a night—or ten nights! Marriage and family simply doesn’t allow for such flexibility. It’s an exchange I chose to make and would happily make again, but nonetheless Paul acknowledges that the freedom and flexibility singleness affords can be leveraged as an advantage for gospel ministry.
At the same time, singleness presents certain challenges in life and ministry. Implicit in the question posed by the young, single pastor was the recognition that counseling as a single pastor offers its own unique challenges.
So, how can a single pastor build a constructive counseling ministry in the context of the local church? He can do so by giving attention to two things: plurality and accountability.
Many single pastors have never experienced marriage and children. This can be a challenge when ministering to a congregation in which marriage and children are the norm.
Let me be clear, this doesn’t mean the single pastor is unqualified to speak into family life. We must remember the bulk of New Testament’s teaching on marriage and family comes to us through two single men: Jesus and Paul. At the same time, none of us are Jesus or Paul, and the Bible teaches us experience is not irrelevant. There’s a reason Paul instructs “older women… to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children” (Titus 2:3–4). Experience matters.
For example, as a married man, I may be called upon to offer care and counsel to a young couple struggling with infertility. By God’s grace, my wife and I have never experienced the pain and sorrow of infertility. This doesn’t mean I’m disqualified to speak into the couple’s life. I trust that by pointing to the Scriptures I can offer hope and encouragement that will be genuinely helpful. At the same, I believe it would be extremely beneficial to connect the grieving couple to a godly family in the church who struggled with infertility for years and has since adopted children and are rejoicing in God’s goodness. Praise God for how the diverse and varied people, gifts, and experiences in the body can be utilized to provide care for a variety of people!
So, if you’re a single pastor and wondering how you can build a constructive counseling ministry to spouses, parents, and children, then I’d like to relieve you of some of the pressure you might be feeling. Single pastors shouldn’t be the singular counselor in a local church. Instead, build a plurality. Purpose to raise up an army of biblical lay counselors, who are diverse in experience and station of life and equipped to care for a wide array of folks.
In order to accomplish this goal, you must teach and model discipleship. Through a discipleship culture, some will demonstrate a particular gifting for personally and skillfully applying God’s Word to people’s lives. Look out for them. Then, invest in them!
Invest in an older, godly couple whose marriage is not perfect but exemplary. Provide them with some excellent resources for premarital counseling; meet with them a few times to discuss the material; and then turn them loose to provide premarital counseling to engaged couples in your church.
Take note of women in your church who love the church and possess a healthy and fruitful ministry among other ladies. Offer to provide them with additional training to equip them to skillfully care for the souls of others. The Christian Counseling Education Foundation (CCEF) offers an excellent online training program for lay leaders. Arrange the church budget so that one, two, or three ladies can be supported to complete the CCEF training.
Whether unmarried or married, pastors should aim to raise up a plurality of men and women in the church who are able to offer biblical and compassionate care for others.
Another challenge for the single pastor is how to protect their purity and reputation before others while meeting with women for the purpose of pastoral care. Of course, this is a concern for married pastors, as well. However, singles should give special attention to this matter given Paul’s teaching that a healthy marriage provides a defense against sexual immorality. Singleness does not afford the same defense (1 Cor. 7:2–5).
A good rule of thumb is that your counseling should be personal and when necessary confidential, but never isolated. Here are some standard guidelines to follow (see Deepak Reju’s article, “Discipling Men vs. Discipling Women” for more suggestions):
- Do not meet privately with another woman for counseling, not for a meal and not in your office. If you do meet for a meal, have someone go along with you.
If you meet in your office, make sure others are in the same general area. Make sure others can see into your office through a window(s). Also consider keeping the office door open.
- Do not offer ongoing counsel through texting, emailing, or private messaging via social media. These forms of communication are quick, flexible, and easy; they can also provide a context for intimate, inappropriate, and isolated interaction. Either restrict yourself from using these forms of communication for the purpose of counseling, or make sure that you always copy others in your exchanges.
- Maintain consistent accountability with other leaders in your church, which includes a discussion of ongoing pastoral counseling cases.
Wise and careful accountability structures can go a long way in protecting both your purity and reputation among others.
The young pastor who contacted me on this topic is not alone. Many single pastors wrestle with the same question. The single pastor can invest in plurality by training members to be skillfully involved in the care of the church. In addition, the single pastor can be serious about accountability by committing to some basic guidelines that will protect him and the church.
Single pastors, you are a gift. Boldly embrace the pastorate the Lord has given you as you faithfully care for his people.