3 Differences in the Ministries of Pastoral Counselors and Vocational Counselors

June 5, 2012

Andy Farmer

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Andy Farmer

Biblical Counseling in the Local Church--Part 2

BCC Staff Note: You’re reading Part 2 of a multi-part BCC Grace & Truth blog series on Biblical Counseling in the Local Church. Read Part 1. We asked a number of experienced biblical counselors who provide biblical counseling leadership and equipping in local churches to write on “a topic you consider important to local church biblical counseling.” We’re confident that their varied perspectives and topics will add greatly to your insight into biblical counseling in the local church.

Working Together or Suspicion?

One thing I’ve (Andy Farmer) appreciated about the biblical counseling movement as it has developed over the past few years is how local church pastors and vocational counselors are finding common ground. Pastors are becoming more envisioned and skilled in counseling and counselors are becoming more holistically pastoral in their approaches. And both obviously share common conviction that true biblical change is nurtured and walked out in real local church community.

However, there often seems to be an undercurrent of suspicion and even competition between vocational counselors and pastoral counselors that I fear hinders effective soul care in the Christian community. As a pastor embedded in the local church, I confess that when I hear someone say they are meeting with a counselor (even a biblical one!), my heart response can be, “So, you don’t think God’s provision for care in his church is sufficient for YOUR problem? Oh well; good luck out there.”

But the suspicion runs the other way as well. I’ve talked to a number of counselors who just assume that people come to them because they are being failed by their local church. As one counselor said to me, “pastors just farm people out to us to get them fixed and back into service.”

One thing that inhibits a more cooperative engagement between pastoral counselors and vocational counselors is a lack of understanding of how each engages the counseling process from a different perspective. I think we could all benefit from thinking through the differences in pastoral counseling and vocational counseling, and learning how to work with those differences, not against them. The following are a three differences in pastoral and vocation counseling based on my experience, conversations with vocational counselors, and counseling observation classes I’ve taken.

Difference in Role

A vocational counselor’s relationship with a counselee is determined by mutual agreement that is expressed in a context of formal meetings, usually on a fee basis. For the most part the ‘ministry’ of care and counsel occurs within the scheduled meeting times. The initiation of counseling is in some sense voluntary by the counselee based on a specific “presenting problem” that then becomes the focus of the counseling experience. The benefit of this is that focus can be maintained on a specific problem area in a person’s life and progress can be managed along those lines. A downside is that the counselor has very little ability to help a person in the context of their life and relationships.

A pastor’s role in a person’s life is determined by their mutual participation in a local church and is expressed in a shared life of community among God’s people. Usually a relationship exists before counseling ever occurs, and will continue after any counseling goals are accomplished.  The benefit of this is that a fully orbed relationship allows both formal and informal ministry to a person in their life context at point of need, not just in scheduled appointments. A downside can be that people don’t always arrive at pastoral counseling on a “voluntary basis” and this can make common goals for counseling a challenge to establish.

Difference in Preconception

A pastor has access to a significant amount of insight into a person’s life through observation and interaction in the life of the church. Data is more than abundant; the challenge can be approaching a person in counseling without preconceived ideas of what change should look like for them.

A vocational counselor typically depends on developing observations about a person based on what is shared and revealed in counseling sessions and homework. This can leave very important data beyond reach. But a benefit is that the counselor usually brings fewer preconceptions about a person and their problems into play because they simply don’t know enough to develop them.

Difference in Relationship

A person in formal counseling will relate to the counselor on a professional basis and will evaluate the competency of the counselor based on very professionalized personal interactions. A counselee doesn’t really ask about the character of the counselor; as long as the counselor is relatable, skilled, and knowledgeable in the area of their concern.

A person under pastoral care will evaluate the competency of the pastor based not only on personal experience in counseling, but observations of the pastor’s life outside the counseling experience as well. A pastoral counseling relationship can be either positively or negatively affected by situations that have no connection to the specific care a person is receiving in counseling.

Join the Conversation

You may not agree with some of my distinctions. I’d love to hear if you think differently, or if you see others. But  I believe both pastors and vocational counselors need to understand each other’s arenas of impact in order to do the ministry of biblical counseling among God’s people.


8 thoughts on “3 Differences in the Ministries of Pastoral Counselors and Vocational Counselors

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  7. I have a question on the types of data that pastoral counselors find most informative. In my experience, church attendance doesn’t always show the entire story. What other data do you rely on?

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