Gravitating Toward What We Like Best as Pastors

I am planing to audit a class in January with Alfred Poirier and in preparation have been rereading his book, The Peacemaking Pastor: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Church Conflict. I wanted to share a couple quotes that I thought were very insightful:

The Bible is all about conflict and Christ the great Peacemaker. Yet I would be less than honest to say I “delight” in peacemaking. I have no difficulty ascending the pulpit week after week and preaching Christ and him crucified. I have great joy in teaching classes on “Seeing Christ through the Old Testament.” When pastoring in those venues, I am at my peak.

However, something changes within me when I step down from the clear heights of the pulpit and into the fog and confusion of my people whose lives are at war. I know I am called to be a peacemaking pastor, but I must confess that I hate conflicts. Even hearing about another one makes me cringe. I either go on the attack or take off running. The one thing I do not do naturally is move to make peace.

The Peacemaking Pastor, pg. 18

The distinction between the “clear heights of the pulpit” and the “fog” of what lies below was especially interesting.  I find that it is harder to “preach” (think house-to-house, Acts 20:20) at the counseling table where there are questions, follow up comments, angry outbursts, hurt responses, and a script that is harder to stick to.

Poirier continues:

Think about how often we as church leaders dread committee work. The nitty-gritty need to plan, weigh competing interests, to look out for the needs of others, to plot a course of action while trying to anticipate the unexpected. And we have to do all this with other human beings who, like us, are hard to listen, quick to speak, narrow-minded, and rash and who “just don’t get it.” Yes, committee work is arduous and grueling, demanding of body and soul.

Consequently, many of us take flight. We grumble and complain. We look for a way out. No wonder the hard-charging, single-minded, pastor-as-pope model of ministry is preferred. But you need not be such a pastor to qualify as a [peacemaking] Docetist at heart. Some of us take flight by hiding behind our “primary pastoral duties.” Maybe for you it is preaching and teaching, management, or missions. Whatever the duty, we gravitate to what we like best, what is easiest for us. And there’s the rub. Conflict never is easy. It never clocks in at 9:00 a.m. and leaves at 5:00 p.m. or knocks on the door of our study to ask if this is an appropriate time to talk. And conflict never comes with a fixed agenda.

So we hide. Instead of facing the grimy residue of painful conflict in the eyes of our congregants, we leave it to others. Rather than coming alongside them and bearing their burdens, rather than holding out salvation by repentance and forgiveness in Christ, rather than being Christ to them, we offer our people knowledge through our preaching and efficiency through our management. And we think that is enough. As such, we become mere pulpiteers rather than pastors, managers rather than ministers, clerks rather than clerics.

The Peacemaking Pastor, pgs. 20-21.

While some people down play the importance and centrality of the word as it is preached in corporate worship (favoring instead small groups, private devotions, or counseling settings as the best way to reach people with the word), this is not what Poirier is doing here.  Rather, he notes the vital importance of both sides of the preaching-as-means-of-grace coin: public (corporate) and private (individual).

I pray that God will continue to work more love in my own heart for shepherding his flock; for bringing the gospel preached on Sunday morning to bear upon their marriages, parenting, grieving, disappointment and the rest of the things that make up the “fog and confusion of people whose lives are at war.”  It seems that such private ministry is designed to strengthen public ministry, and that God’s intent is to strengthen the faith of his dear ones through both.

Would that God might keep all of us from trying to “hide” from peacemaking by neglecting conflict resolution for other aspects of ministry that we enjoy more!

Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church
Anaheim, CA

6 Replies to “Gravitating Toward What We Like Best as Pastors”

  1. Hi Andrew,
    Go figure… I just received this book as a graduation present from my grandparents who attend Poirier’s church. I met him several years ago when he came and preached at the little PCA church plant I attended in Sheridan, WY. He and his wife were warm, generous souls. I hope the class is profitable for you.

    Out of curiosity: do you get the sense that Poirier’s book has a “nouthetic” lean to it? The reason I ask is that from looking/skimming through some of the other Peacemaking literature, I get that vibe.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Nevada. I’ve also picked up a few other peacemaker books … Hoping that they are indeed beneficial and that the class is the same!

    Re: the nouthetic feel – I think you’re right, although I’ve noticed an old- school nouthetic approach that is a bit proof-texty and legalistic, and a newer nouthetic approach (eg, most of the materials coming out of ccef) which works more with biblical-theological themes and more of a gospel focus. I tend to be on board with the ccef way of doing things, so books like the peacemaker and such have resonated pretty well with me and I’ve found them helpful in my own ministerial work.

    Are you graduated from your phd program? What are you up to now? And also, Happy New Year to you and your family!


  3. Hi Andrew,
    Yes, the phd is finally finished. It was a relief to have the diploma in my hand in December. Graduate school (as you know) is a grind at a number of levels, and I am thankful to be done. Currently, I’m volunteer teaching Classical Greek at a classical school and looking for a teaching job. The problem, of course, is that college and seminary positions are few and far between. With the current economy, less professors are retiring, and even when they do schools often choose to eliminate the position. Added to that is the difficulty of finding a position in religion/theology, which always comes (explicitly or implicitly) with confessional obligations (i.e., it is not even worth my time to apply at, for example, a Wesleyan Seminary if it requires signing on to Methodist confessional statements). I suppose it is what it is… You don’t happen to know of any Reformed Schools looking for Theology/OT profs do you? ;-)

    Re: nouthetic — I’m generally not a fan of it. Though to be fair I haven’t read enough to distinguish between different kinds. My neo-Calvinist side makes me leery of trying to “use” the Bible as a counseling guide book. I’m also a bit skeptical of overly “cognitive” approaches to counseling. (i.e,. my “telling” you what to do will affect your actions). Human beings can be extremely complicated, riddled with strange desires, phobias, and experiences that often require years of therapy to overcome. Frankly, I don’t think most ministers have the expertise to deal with these issues. As one of my pastoral mentors used to tell me: “There are three words you need to know in regards to counseling: referral, referral, referral.” I wonder sometimes if the nouthetic approach can give ministers a false sense of competency in an area in which they have no real training. This, of course, does not mean that I’m against all pastoral counseling. Quite the opposite. However, I do think a minister works more as a sort of triage person who can do short term counseling but is best served referring parishioners beyond three sessions.

    Having said all of that, I’m not in any way impugning Poirier’s work. From what I can tell, he is a balanced, judicious individual.


  4. Congrats on the degree! As for jobs – I only know what you do, namely that they’re uber scarce! I struggled with all those same things when I was in my degree program too (schools with doctrinal positions different than my own, etc.). Doing some adjuncting might be a good way to get your name out there a bit and also to do some cv building.

    My comment got pretty (read: too) long, but I thought you raised some interesting points. I think I might have gotten a bit to free-range, but counseling is a real passion of mine … bear with me, brother!

    As for the nouthetic stuff. Perhaps the word “nouthetic” is sort of the scare term. I think it has perhaps been taken to mean a sort of simplistic “just stop sinning” or “just stop being afraid” kind of approach. And yet even Jay Adams is more nuanced than that. For example, he wrote a book several years after Competant to Counsel, I believe it was called something like “Helping people change” and it addressed many of the complaints lodged against the approach.

    But more on point, there are somethings you say that I agree with, and others I don’t. Of course, a blog thread is hardly the place to mount a full defense of biblical counseling done in pastoral settings, but I wanted to respond with thoughts to a few things you said.

    I’m not sure if it is neo-Calvinism that should make you leery of biblical counseling, only because biblical counseling is more about reforming counseling according to the word of God. It isn’t making the Bible a counseling textbook, but it is recognizing that the worldview contained therein is the basis for writing a counseling textbook. Certainly common grace is operative here, but so is the antithesis. Numerous counseling approaches hold as central tenants which are completely opposed to God’s word and just because some Christians have batized those tenants doesn’t mean they’re helping people as they most need it.

    And so, for example, with therapy. Certainly people are complex. Some therapy methods are useful common grace enterprises because they aren’t based on getting people to focus on themselves or give full vent to their anger or emotions. But other methods actually keep people trapped in human-centered thinking patterns and keep them from finding the true hope and freedom Christ is offering them. I know someone well who has been in therapy for years and all it was doing was landing them in the hospital for nervous breakdowns. But just getting together to pray the Psalms, to encourage them from Scripture, to remind them that God hasn’t abandoned them and that Romans 8 is true – nothing can separate them from God’s love – has helped them to progress in mind boggling ways. And while anxiety and fear is still a temptation, they have a new perspective on their anxiety and refuse to worship it anymore. They know that they may face these fears for the rest of their lives, but they also know that God will never leave or forsake them, and that one day they will open their eyes in glory without any more fear.

    Anyway, not to be too anecdotal, but what seems to be so beneficial for people is to *not* let them remain the center of their own attention. It’s not a simplistic sort of thing either, but it is a rich, gospel saturated approach to God-centered thinking which is wonderfully freeing.

    As for referral, yes, this can be helpful, but often times there is no one to refer conregants to who aren’t going to cause them more heartbreak and grief. But even if there is a good Christian counselor who has adequate biblical and theological training, I would suggest that pastors see that kind of help as supplemental to the nurture and discipleship uniquely provided by God’s word. I’ve met far too many psychologized Christians whose lives are miserable because their pastors didn’t take the time to minister to them regularly in an individual setting. They are confused because what God’s word says often contradicts the suggestions of their (sometimes) Christian counselors, and are overwhelmed with a helplessness brought about by being told that therapy will last for years and years and cost them lots and lots. They see God’s word as commending itself for their deepest needs, but feel that they can’t really trust that commendation because they “know” they need their therapist.

    I would actually suggest a reverse description of how you’ve noted it. Instead of the minister as the triage person, I like to think of the therapist as the temporary work. Sometimes they can give people a little boost that gives them a bit more clarity so that God’s promises register with they comfort they are itended to bring. At that point, they are able to sit under private preaching and teaching and derive comfort in powerful ways. But I’m wary of any therapist who takes on a patient without an end date in sight for 2 or 3 months down the road. I haven’t had too much experience in the ministry, but in these past 5 years, I’ve seen that well studied and committed pastors can minister to people in crisis in ways that makes non-believers jealous.

    Now of course there are pastors who have not read enough. They haven’t studied counseling issues, they haven’t sought to reform counseling according to scripture and sure, they’re pretty horrible at counseling. They do more harm than good. But the answer then is for pastors to step up – to view this as part of their ministry. This is sort of back on point with the blog post above – too many pastors hide behind things they prefer to do. Sheesh – I’d much rather teach classes on the prophets or on hermenutics or the Psalms. But I know my people need me to study God’s word as it relates to their lives and their pain and their wounds. I haven’t arrived, but I’m trying hard and I’m finding that my people are grateful beyond belief.

    Anyway, I know this got pretty long winded, but I’m very passionate about the power of the gospel to help people in the realities of life and scripture’s sufficiency in that regard. I’m not anti-psychology, I’m just against non-Biblical psychology. If more psychologists had theological training, everyone would be better for it. Likewise, if more uninformed pastors would get informed about counseling issues, more people would be blessed by their ability to minister to them.

    David Powlison and the others at CCEF have been very influential to me over the past 10 years or so and I thank them for drawing attention to many pitfalls that poor-pastoral counseling can face, while also empowering pastors to serve people by providing pastors with training and resources that help them to be better counselors.


  5. Hi Andrew,
    Insightful comments. We may have to agree to disagree on this one, but my sense is that we may actually agree more than we disagree.

    First, a definition: I define counseling as the formal therapeutic activity used to deal with a wide variety of problems but especially problems related to brain chemistry, physical or emotional trauma, and family systems. So, for example, when I refer to ministers not having proper training, I am talking about their lack of professional competency in dealing therapeutically with issues like bi-polar disorder, anxiety attacks, physical and sexual abuse, etc. I am not talking about their duty to mediate church conflict, encourage despondent parishioners, pray with the dying, point the conscience-stricken to Jesus, etc. I would define all of these activities as proper “pastoral care” but not “counseling” in the strict sense.

    Now does this mean that a pastor cannot exercise pastoral care to individuals suffering with bi-polar disorder or the memories of abuse? Absolutely not! Pastors are duty-bound to care for all their flock. However, their care will be different from that of a trained counselor/psychologist/psychiatrist. They will offer a listening ear and empathy while dealing with the theological dimensions of the problem. In many ways, they will be offering Christ to their hurting parishioner through their presence with the parishioner in his or her suffering. But again, this activity is different from that of the counselor who has the training to ferret out what might be causing the panic attacks, etc.

    I suppose much of my suspicion of “nouthetic” praxis comes from my own (admittedly limited) training. Most of my seminary training in pastoral care included a healthy dose of family systems theory. After observing how many problems within a family or relationship have actually very little to do with the showing “symptom,” I am very skeptical about my own ability to move beyond the symptom to the root cause. I simply do not have the training to go beyond fairly simple “problems.” This doesn’t mean, of course, that I will leave a parishioner to suffer of their own, but it does mean that I will refer them to someone I trust who can competently help them work through the issue. Meanwhile I will continue to meet with them to pray with them and offer them a listening ear.

    Now, before going any further, it should be said that I too have problems with certain strands of therapy that enable individuals to live in a cycle of selfishness and narcissism. There are plenty of people who use therapy as an excuse to wallow in a mud hole of ego-driven self pity. There is also the reality that like every other profession counseling is filled with a wide of variety of practitioners who vary as to their practical and spiritual competency. So yes, there are plenty of counselors who abuse their position and insure for themselves a steady source of income.

    Moving in a different direction, I have to admit that I get nervous when I hear you say, “I’m very passionate about the power of the gospel to help people in the realities of life and scripture’s sufficiency in that regard.” (As a side note: Please hear me well on this. I am not attacking you or your ministry in any way. I am simply expressing an honest fear.) At one level, I am perfectly fine with that comment, but at another level to me it has a reductionistic ring to it. When I mentioned neo-Calvinism in a previous comment, this is what I was getting at. Sometimes I wonder if the “gospel” can become a convenient way for the ministerial vocation to begin to encroach upon other legitimate vocations in a manner analogous to the “sphere” of the church encroaching upon that of, for example, the school or government. (Again, honestly, I am not accusing you of doing that. It’s simply a “slippery-slope” worry of mine.) Suddenly, the minister has to do everything, including therapy.

    Part of my worry here stems from the language you couched the sentence in. You mention “scripture’s sufficiency in that regard.” Yet I have to ask: is Holy Scripture really “sufficient” in that sense and in that context? When I read Belgic, Art. 7 (“We believe that this Holy Scripture contains the will of God completely and that everything one must believe to be saved is sufficiently taught in it…”), my understanding is that the sufficiency of scripture is limited to its own particular telos: salvation. Granted, the anticipation of that “not yet” salvation is already communicated to us in the “now,” which includes aspects of our lives that might need therapy. But I still can’t shake the sense that talking about the Bible in this way confuses categories and inches one away from saying that scripture is sufficient in matters of salvation to saying that scripture is sufficient in all matters.

    Does this make sense? Do you hear what I’m saying?

    Again, please take this as honest dialogue and not some sort of veiled attack. In some ways, I think we may simply be talking past each other. (My sense is that we are defining our terms differently and may be merely playing word games.) Yet I think the points are worth bringing up.


  6. thanks for the comments, Nevada. I think you’re right – there is some disagreement, but I think the bigger thing is that we’ve got different things in mind we’re trying to safeguard. Also – before I start – I appreciate your sensitivity, but want you to know that I don’t feel attacked in the least. I always appreciate your comments and do take them to heart. You’re comments are always taken as friendly and brotherly.

    Some thoughts …

    I think I did leave language of “gospel” and “sufficiency” too unguarded which gave the impression of simplicity. Certainly the bible is quite insufficient in a number of matters. (Car repair, how to best rehearse an ensemble, what dosage of medicine to perscribe to a patient, etc.)
    I also see too the importance of spheres not intruding upon the realm of other spheres. The main thing I’m trying to safeguard, however, is that scripture is what provides the main worldview categories that inform how each sphere should function. Certainly general revelation informs various vocational matters, but as people suppress the truth of general revelation in unrighteousness, an appeal to general revelation does’t seem sufficient to construct a full-orbed theology of a given vocation.

    This seems especially obvious when it comes to matters of mental health. For one, there is much disagreement about where these mental matters are lodged. The Body? The Soul? A third part of “spirit” to be distinguished from the body or soul? I am a dichotomist, and believe that scripture is sufficient to speak to matters of the soul. Since much mental illness involves matters of brain (body), I am very pro-doctor and pro-medicine when it comes to psyhiatric care. I feel medicine can only treat symptoms in things like depression, but I’ve found that unless those symptoms are treated, most people are just not able to think clearly enough for the help that the gospel provides.

    When it comes to the telos of scripture – I think you make some good points. I’d agree with your assessment, but I’d like to have a more robust inclusion of sanctification in this telos. As counseling (pastoral or clinical) should be tying into matters of sanctification as well, this is why I can see sufficiency as extending into this realm as well. Granted bipolar disorder, sexual abuse, manic depression, etc. are complex matters. But all forms of suffering play a redemptive role in the Christian life, and all counselors should focus on how we as Christians grow in maturity by responding biblically to suffering. Sexual abuse is esecially close to home for me as we had a former sex offender worshipping with us for a while. In my study of that issue, I was floored at how many victims are never given any constructive help about how to move on. Good therapy – Biblically informed therapy – will give victims of sexual assault true hope and true confidence that even this horrendous sin committed against them will ultimately be turned to their good.

    On an additional neo-Calvinist note, the most recent issue of the Journal of Biblical Counseling features an article by David Powlison entitled “Redeeming Psychology” or something like that. I appreciate where he is going with that and would echo is conclusion; that psychology is better when it is influenced by biblical categories, not worse. Treatments are improved. People receive better care. And so I can definitely see an important role for psychologists who practice a truly biblical psychology, one that is thoroughly reformed according to scripture.

    Anyway, I think we do have a lot in common here and are, like you say, getting tied up in some word games. I think something that we might truly disagree with each other about, however, is the role of the pastor in this counseling process. I would say pastors should play a greater role in care, indeed therapy, for congregants. Because of that, Pastors should be trained even more in these matters. They should be students of conseling issues and mental health. I’m not convinced that one requires a secular degree in psychology to do that, but I do think that our seminaries offer too little in that regard. What is more, too few ministers take advantage of the many resources that are out there which will assist them in becoming better equipped in these areas. We spend lots of time reading about imputation and eschatology – as we should – but not nearly as much time reading about anger and depression and abuse.

    Perhaps something that motivates this is my dissatisfaction with many therapy methods I’ve read about and seen the results of. Something that also motivates me is how rewarding I’ve seen pastoral care to be for people. Perhaps I overstated the triage stuff for effect, but I’ve seen people whose improvement only started when they started receiving pastoral care. When we sat and talked about what scripture says about abuse and grief and sin and redemption and fear and anxiety, people began to experience comfort in tangible ways. If they weren’t medicated, they wouldn’t have been able to focus on those wonderful promises in scripture. But if I had let them go to the experts after a few sessions with me, they wouldn’t have received the care they needed.

    Anyway, I know this is complex as there are many strands coming together in these sorts of issues – physical, spiritual, etc. I also know that I’ve got my own set of professional experiences weighing heavily upon me and affecting how I talk about this stuff. I also know that I’m being a bit scattered here too! Hopefully we’re seeing our areas of agreement getting larger though, and our areas of disagreement becoming better understood, even in the midst of my not-so-well orgainzed comments!


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