Mar 262014 15 Responses

Never Call a Pastor for Premarital Counseling

It happened three times last week. A couple called, the date is quickly approaching, and they wanted to know if I could do premarital counseling.

There has been a clear shift over the last decade where more and more couples expect to do premarital counseling. It is a wonderful transition. I prefer pre-engagement counseling to premarital counseling, but the latter is far better than nothing.

As a pastor, I’m thrilled couples are asking for help before they discover the difficulties of marriage. Any form of counseling before and during marriage can have positive impacts on a relationship. (See: You Aren’t the Perfect Couple)

Yet I told every couple last week what I tell every couple who calls for counseling, “No.”

I do not do premarital counseling. I don’t do it because I’m not a counselor.

I’m a pastor. As a pastor, I have some training in counseling, but not enough to be a licensed professional. While I can listen, offer pastoral advice, and often help people in a variety of situations, I cannot offer a level of service which I believe is most beneficial to couples considering marriage.

Why call a pastor for premarital counseling when you can call a professional? While I might be better than nothing, I’m not as good as you need. (See: Love Your Friends, Don’t Listen to Them)

It hasn’t always been this way. When I first graduated seminary, I did what I was told to do—I offered premarital counseling to couples. But over my first few years of ministry, I realized how out of place I was. While I had a good marriage, a broad overview of Biblical teaching, and a general knowledge of what makes most marriages work, I did not have a key skill which is necessary for effective counseling.

My relationship with marriage is much like my relationship with golf.

I don’t give golf lessons. While my handicap puts me in the top percent of golfers and while I can see what is wrong with the swing of many golfers, I’m not the person someone should turn to when trying to improve their game. I can give advice, but nearly all advice is based on what I think makes my game work. Why would someone call me when they can call a pro?

A golf professional has the ability to take a person’s personal swing and make it better. They can take who you are and make it better. I only have the ability to compare your swing with mine and tell you how they are different.

The same is true with marriage. A pastor has an ability to give advice, to give Biblical direction, and to point out obvious problems. But a professional counselor has the training and education to delve into deeper issues. While a pastor sees symptoms, a professional counselor can often unearth causes.

As a pastor, I see myself like a triage nurse. I’m often the first call couples make when trouble occurs. My job is to evaluate them and get them with the right specialist to solve their problem. When it comes to counseling before marriage, couples do not need a pastor. They need a licensed marriage therapist. (See: The Number One Cause of Divorce)

It’s good to talk with a pastor in addition to marital counseling. We can help formulate a Biblical foundation for the relationship and can encourage important steps to a healthy spiritual life. But meeting with a pastor should never replace true counseling.

Most pastors are great. They are knowledgeable and passionate about relationships. They can give good advice, put on wonderful conferences, and write good books. We provide a great service to couples in order to get them the help that the need. However, we are rarely the help they need.

If you don’t want me to perform your surgery or be your advocate in a court of law, why would you want me to do your premarital counseling? You don’t. I’ll talk to you, pray with you, perform the wedding, and write about ideas which can help your marriage. I don’t have the training or education to be your counselor.

For more, see:

What to do if Your Spouse Refuses Counseling

13 Questions to Gauge if You Need Counseling

15 Responses to Never Call a Pastor for Premarital Counseling
  1. Brian Ramirez Reply

    Pastor Kevin,
    I have to humbly disagree with you on this. And perhaps this is because we may define what a ‘counselor’ is (especially in your role as a pastor). Another caveat to the context of this is that the couple(s) who came to you for premarital counseling may not have been members of your fellowship/congregation (or flock). So I’m going to take this at face value given the information that I have.
    I also will submit that there are different thoughts or ideas on what counseling looks like in the context of the local church. Some take the more secular approach that, ‘if I don’t have a degree, training, a certification, etc. in this field of study then I have not business walking down this path’ (especially with a couple’s trust with their future marriage). On the other end of the spectrum perhaps, some believe that everything needed for counsel can be found in the Bible (e.g. Jay Adams and some Neuthetic counselors). While I believe there is a sincere concern from both of these camps, like many other things, there is usually a balance or middle-ground between these two areas.
    I noticed the word ‘Never’ was used in the title of your blog. This was very convicting to my heart because of your position and God-given privelage that you are in by the grace of God. Yes, you are a Pastor. Yes, you are one who ‘must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, resptectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarlesome, etc… (1 Timothy 3:1-4). But the synonmus term for Pastor (or Elder) is also overseer. The image given numerous times in the Bible is the overseer acting much like a Shepherd (Acts 20:28; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 5:2; Psalm 23). God has called specific men, for a specific purpose, with specific abilities (gifts), to serve in this specific role as a Pastor/Elder and/or Overseer (Shepherd).
    And my defense for which I stand on is the Word of God that we have been given, which reveals God’s perfect will and purpose in life. While it certainly does not describe every single detail of our life, I believe it (as I’ve heard it described) provide tracks, much like a train track on which provides our course through life. If a train (our lives) didn’t have a track from which to move upon, the train would simply spin its wheels digging itself into the dirt or mud, sinking deeper and deeper into the marr of disparity. But God is not a god who leaves his people like that. God is the Holy God who has revealed himself and his purpose (including what marriage should look like) in his Holy, and Inspired Word.
    Pastor, I believe I can understand to a degree where you are coming from in your blog. No, you may not have received formal training to be a counselor (by this world’s standards), but you have been given authority as a Shepherd, to guide your flock. My heart is sincere when I write this because it really bothers me that churches are full sheep that need men of God such as yourself to guide them. Churches need both love and discipline at different times. Churches need counselors who will shepherd them by the wisdom given by the LORD. Thank you for taking the time to read my reply. Please reconsider your position on counseling.

    James 1:5 – ‘If anyone lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives it generously to all withouth finding fault, and it will be given to you’

    In His Firm Grip,

    Brian Ramirez

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Brian, I don’t think we are far off. I clearly believe in the role of a pastor and believe we can provide a valuable service to those who are considering marriage. My fear is that when people call me and no one else for marriage counseling. I can give Biblical direction which is very helpful, but I also believe every couple should sit down with a professional marriage counselor for at least 3 sessions. Maybe my article sounded too much either/or when I meant it to be both/and.

  2. Brian Ramirez Reply

    I truly appreciate your response and clarification. I think it was the word ‘never’ in the title that caught me off guard. Hope all is well back in Arkansas. Take care.

  3. pk Reply

    Pastor Kevin,
    I highly recommend you read the book “Competent to Counsel,” by Jay Adams. Licensed therapists/counselors generally don’t rely on God’s Word as the basis for the counsel they give. I would argue that not only can you counsel, you should! Rom. 15:14 “Now I myself am confident concerning you, my brethren, that you also are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge, able also to admonish one another.” (NKJV).

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      PK, thanks for reading and for the response. I fully believe a pastor should give pastoral direction and Biblical advice. My thought is that this should be done in addition to premarital counseling. I’ll take a look at the book. Thanks.

  4. […] Yet I don’t encourage premarital counseling. I don’t believe counseling is best suited b...
  5. […] 5. You trust that your spouse has your best interest at heart and you feel free to reveal anything t...
  6. […] but instead, believe in pre-engagement counseling. (See: Do This Before You Put a Ring on It and Ne...
  7. Rachel Austin Reply

    I stumbled upon this older article via one of your others. I gave an audible “Yessssss!” and fist-pumped the air as I read your recognization of the value of a professional, licensed therapist for counseling and utilizing pastoral advice as a beneficial supplement!

    On the same note, while my church pastoral staff was wonderful at providing prayer, encouragement, and support after my son’s suicide – my grief counselor, who specialized in traumatic bereavement and PTSD, was the most beneficial in helping me move forward in my grief and overcoming the mental images that I had endured from a clinical perspective.

    Interestingly, the majority of fellow bereaved parents I meet that appear to be “stuck” in their grief and consumed with bitterness and anger are often the ones that didn’t pursue grief counseling or went to counseling from their church a few times “because it was free”. (In fact, I felt so strongly about wanting to help them and the value of professionals, that I created a non-profit in my son’s honor to ensure that our community to have free grief sessions from licensed therapists that specialize in grief and trauma. Several church pastors have thanked me for now having a referral to give and the weight off their shoulders as they too realize that’s not what their expertise is in!)

    Blessings to you and yours and your ministry all around – you’re always a delight in my inbox and your perspective and insight is always appreciated!

  8. Paul Starks Reply

    I completely 100% disagree. A pastor is just as competent or more competent than ANY professional “licensed counselor” A pastor is not a professional therapist ( and that’s a discussion for another day) but a pastor with the power of God’s word and the direction of the Holy Spirit is just as competent as ANY and I mean ANY licensed so called therapist. I know this first hand. I am a pastor and I am married to a Licensed MFT. God has designed human beings and He knows how they work and function His operational manual is scripture not academia. Never fear speaking the truth of scripture to couples needing counsel. God never needs affirmation to give advise, wisdom and truth to couples needing guidance to enter the covenant of marriage. God invented marriage not UCLA- this is His domain and the textbook is the Bible.

  9. courtellis Reply

    I understand that is an older article and unless the couple is seeking some other form of matrimonial service, then don’t you think telling a Christian not to seek the advice of their pastor sends the wrong message? Here I am in 2180 reading this article and more people would be yesss take God out of the equation yes indeed, and then it hits me, you seems as though you are attempting to please the masses. I am a secular counselor and no we shouldn’t be talking to people about that which is ordained by the Lord. Come on Kevin think it through that is where the enemy wants you, and this without scripture you should know better than anyone else!!

    One person even said: I stumbled upon this older article via one of your others. I gave an audible “Yessssss!” and fist-pumped the air as I read your recognization of the value of a professional, licensed therapist for counseling and utilizing pastoral advice as a beneficial supplement!

    On the same note, while my church pastoral staff was wonderful at providing prayer, encouragement, and support after my son’s suicide – my grief counselor, who specialized in traumatic bereavement and PTSD, was the most beneficial in helping me move forward in my grief and overcoming the mental images that I had endured from a clinical perspective. Kevin I can say this that as a former soldier/Marine Combat veteran I would rather turn to God on all matters pertaining to me and after they come back from war so do a lot of men and women, that’s something they never taught us in school. Going back to the marriage counseling though, when a pastor is asked to intervene, it puts a different perspective on things, and even though I have much respect for a lot of the MTFs out in the world, there are those who still don’t understand or even respect the sanctity of marriage. So careful pastor with strange ravings and such.

    • Kevin A. Thompson Reply

      Notice what the article says, it’s good to talk to a pastor in addition to pre-marital counseling. I’m not telling a couple to ignore God. I’m simply asking them to understand God uses different people through different roles.

  10. Jon Page Reply

    At times a pastor is sufficient as a counselor but just because you CAN do something it does not mean that you are the best person for the job. The church is made of many parts. We run into problems when an “arm” tries to be a “leg.” A Christian Licensed Professional Therapist/Counselor will (most of the time) be able to help you more than the average pastor. It is their calling. I speak as someone who has been a children’s ministry director as well as a Licensed Therapist. A counselor/therapist can stand in front of a congregation and give a sermon but that does not mean that they are called to lead a church in that role full-time. The whole “the Bible is enough” philosophy comes from the right premise (that the Word of God is sufficient). However, the application of it varies in context. You can take that further and say “I don’t need a medical doctor. The Bible is enough.” Or, “I don’t need a financial advisor. The Bible is enough.”

  11. Jeff Reply

    I don’t think I could disagree more with this article. If you don’t feel comfortable doing marriage counseling, that is one thing. The issue at hand is how your article tells me you view marriage. It’s very difficult to not conclude that you don’t see marriage as first of theological concern as a Biblical design of God for man and woman by reading this article alone. I’m choosing to believe that is not a claim you would make of yourself but still you dismiss the responsibility of marriage work to licensed counselors when the reality is there is often a need for a mixture of both. However, you don’t need to be a licensed mental health counselor to develop rapport with a couple and help identify root causes, limiting beliefs and sources for the behaviors they bring into a marriage. Start with their families of origin. The job is to test the behaviors, as well as the couples’ expectations, vision, views on communication, conflict, stewardship, shared roles, parenting and so on with Scripture. When there is trauma identified you bring in someone professionally trained to deal with trauma. You do the same with personality disorders, abuse, narcissistic behavior and so on. However, these licensed experts are not the experts in the core design of marriage. That is a discipleship matter. I submit to you the reason that divorce rates in the church are no better than outside and the reason marriage rates are on the decline (the bigger issue of the two) is because of attitudes found in articles like these. This is concerning. As a seminary trained ordained pastor who has seen about 500 couples this year alone for pastoral marriage counseling, I would indict these attitudes but also the seminaries that aren’t doing much to emphasize this work with pastors or train them in where to start. Unfortunately the average seminary grad wants a YouTube teaching ministry and a teaching pastor role, not to do the in the trenches work that doesn’t gain you followers on a blog. We can do better than writing obligatory books, articles and sermons on marriage. There needs to be many of us who are in the trenches doing that work and working tirelessly to do it better. If you knew the amount of couples I get who come straight from licensed marriage and family therapists who spent about 45 minutes with them before conceding divorce is their best option, you would start to understanding why this article isn’t helping the cause. Ask me sometime how many of those couples I get actually end up divorced. I’ll just say for most of them it’s a small trajectory change that turns them around and gives them hope to believe they can build something beautiful, together, again. I shudder to think how many more never seek that second opinion.

    That is NOT to dismiss the world of licensed mental health therapists. To respond to Rachel above, premarital counseling and grief counseling, especially when there’s PTSD involved, are worlds apart. I’m not sure she could have set up a more apples to oranges comparison. Funny thing is, most licensed counselors themselves are a disaster when it comes to PTSD because they are using highly inferior treatments for trauma, such as prolonged exposure. Go study the latest treatments, such as ART, RTM, TF-NLP etc. The vast majority of licensed therapists are NOT trained in these evidence based therapies and consequently, they are re-traumatizing their clients most often, in order to “de-sensitize” them, an end goal they would call success. BUT, there are some AMAZING licensed mental health therapists who truly desire to perfect their craft by the day. They have discovered and in many cases paid significant amounts of their own personal funds to go get trained in these protocols in order to bring relief to their clients. Unfortunately, the pastoral world isn’t helping either because they’re often dismissive of these treatments and regard spiritual help as the only situation to these problems. PTSD isn’t often prayed away folks.

    Which brings us full circle…both worlds need each other. Still, Kevin: don’t relinquish the responsibility of a church pastor to do marriage work. We need a few less full time teaching pastors and a few more pastors who are so engaged shepherding their people and are lifelong learners that they have developed the rapport and acumen to properly teach couples the healthy blueprints of marriage, God’s institution.

    PS: Jon Page (comment above): it seems you also are relegating the role of a pastor to sermonizing. I would encourage all of you to go and read “The Counsel of Heaven on Earth” by Ian Jones. You have the job of reconciliation first, not sermonizing. And if you want to be humbled: go survey your people and ask them to tell you one significant thing they remember from your sermon last Sunday. That will make you rethink that which you should truly be pouring your time out into these folks.

  12. Ashley Roberson Reply

    Pastor Ken,
    As a marriage and family therapist currently enrolled in a doctor of ministry program, I respect and agree with your position. My goal in life is to work closely with pastors like yourself to provide premarital/marital counseling and ensure the couple is fully educated on what the bible says about marriage but also informed on personal trauma/issues that they may have brought to the relationship from their families of origin.

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