Spiritual Director, Counselor, and Pastor: Who Does What?

MaryKate Morse is a Leading Voice at Missio Alliance, Professor of Leadership and Spiritual Formation at George Fox University, and one of the many incredible plenary speakers at our upcoming national gathering, Awakenings: the Life of the Church for the Sake of the World. Longing to learn from diverse voices like hers on difficult topics? Join us in March – register here.

The other day I was talking with a young pastor friend, and he had a question for me. He is a church planter of a growing faith community. He has preached and advised that for a deeper life in community and with Christ, his congregants need to extend their care to counselors[1] and spiritual directors. He even has a yearly lunch to thank outside helping professionals who serve his congregants. Yet, he was discovering that sometimes this lovely relationship is messy. He noted that some counselors and spiritual directors confuse their role in relation to the church and its members. In addition, sometimes the members got confused about which voice should have precedence in their life and faith development. So, he asked me, “What is the role of the spiritual director and the counselor? How do I guide people to choose one? How is my pastor role different from theirs?” We had a great conversation, and here is what I suggested. What's the difference between the role of a pastor, a counselor, and a spiritual director? Read more here from MaryKate Morse. Click To Tweet

What All Three Roles Hold in Common

There are common things that spiritual directors, counselors, and pastors do. They all help people do life well. They are caring when people feel stuck or sad. They all primarily listen without a lot of comment (though pastors might speak more because of their responsibility to disciple). They provide a holding environment so a person can feel safe enough to express his or her true feelings, tell difficult stories, ask disruptive questions, and try to deal with the sufferings and disappointments of life. They are all committed to absolute confidentiality[2]. Also, Christian counselors and spiritual directors, and of course pastors, commit to a disciplined, self-reflective life.

Training in accredited or supervised institutions is the preferred preparation for all three callings. In our country where we have access to so many learning resources, it is the stewardship of our call to do everything we can to prepare, learn, and discipline ourselves whether as pastors, counselors, or spiritual directors. The best helping professionals continue to learn throughout their working lives. In addition, the best helping professionals hold themselves accountable to supervisors, spiritual directors, counselors or elders in order to reflect on their practice and on their own growth and development.

Here are some basic requirements and the subsequent questions to ask[3]:

  • Trained by accredited or supervised institution: Where did you train? Are you licensed (ordained or in process)? Have you received any certifications?
  • Accountable and/or supervised: Are you held accountable or are you supervised for your ministry or practice and for your inner life?
  • Active in one’s field/denomination for ongoing professional development: Are you active in any professional organizations (or religious ones, such as one’s denomination or network groups, such as Missio Alliance)?

Of course, there are geographical areas, economic restraints, and people of color populations which make access to a variety of trained helping professionals difficult. Yet in those places gifted people, who might have little training, are set apart by God to serve and comfort others. However, the above standards keep those of us who have access to resources clinging to the robe of Christ rather than to our own constructed imaginations about our work.

Distinctions Between the Three 

Though counselors, spiritual directors, and pastors hold important characteristics in common, there are some key distinctions. When these distinctions are blurred, problems usually occur.

After 30 years of walking with all types of ministry leaders, my bias is that these three helping professionals should stay in their own lane. When a pastor tries to do long term counseling, he or she has difficulties shepherding the entire flock. Usually problems begin to surface with over-dependence, misdiagnosis, and burnout on the part of the pastor. The same goes if a counselor or spiritual director assumes a posture of expertise in another’s lane. Spiritual directors are not trained to provide counseling and vice versa.

A model for understanding the differences:

The CircleThe Church & Individual Served by the Pastor

Let’s say that the very center of this model represents an individual. The entire circle symbolically represents the church where the individual is an attender. The pastor of the church has a variety of responsibilities in that circle to nourish and guide the entire flock. The pastor does life with his or her members. The relationship is long term, familial, and yet professional. The pastor holds in her or his heart the entire congregation from the least of these to the most privileged. The pastor’s priorities are the spiritual well-being of the members and the church’s wider community engagement. The pastor cares about the individual, and his or her relationship to others and to God.

Pastors must protect and guide their sheep to green pastures. Therefore, when in the field, if a sheep is injured—a death in the family, a cancer diagnosis, a runaway—the pastor is immediately present to comfort and bring spiritual care. A pastor can go into a person’s home or hospital room, where a spiritual director or counselor would rarely go. The provision of pastoral care for occasions of crisis is different from ongoing counseling. The usual rule of thumb for the pastor is “meet 3 times and then refer.” This gives the pastor a chance to understand the member’s need, to provide spiritual comfort, and to pray.

The Horizontal Line—Served by the Counselor

The horizontal line represents the individual’s relationship with others. Along the line is possibly, spouse, intimate friends, family members, work colleagues, neighbors, bosses, etc. When in relationships, individuals bump up against their own identities and challenges with the identities and challenges of others. Individuals begin to know themselves in relationship to others. For example, when a person is in an abusive relationship and seeks the help of a counselor, the person begins a journey of self-discovery and advocacy. If a person has addiction or anger issues or is depressed, his or her family and friends are aware, and the counselor helps to restore emotional health.

The counselor’s task is to help persons uncover their identities, understand their stories, and find wholeness. The counselor meets privately with the individual in a confidential, scheduled time and place. There is a clear objective—mental and emotional health and well-being. The counselor does not receive an invitation to a client’s Thanksgiving dinner, as a pastor might be. Clients pay counselors for each session, while a pastor receives a salary in order to be released to do the work of pastoring. When clients are better, they no longer go regularly to see a counselor. When persons are no longer in mental crisis, they return to full engagement in the life of their churches.

The Vertical LineServed by the Spiritual Director

The vertical line represents an individual’s relationship to God and God’s relationship to the person. It is always a two-way street. The relationship to God is in the context of one’s relationship with others and one’s church. Jesus invites us individually to know him and calls us into community to grow in love. Spiritual directors focus on a person’s relationship with God and the practices that nourish that relationship.

Spiritual directors serve anyone who needs one, and they are very helpful if one feels stuck spiritually. If a prayer life is dull, if a person is discerning a new calling, or if she or he is struggling with experiencing God, a spiritual director is very helpful. Spiritual directors do not replace the need for a pastor and a faith community. Spiritual directors respect the theology and spiritual journey of each person. A director’s responsibility is to companion a directee and to trust the journey the Holy Spirit has the person on.  The spiritual director does not advise on personal relationship matters, or on mental health concerns, or on how churches should be run.

People go to counselors when they are in crisis. They go to spiritual directors when they want to mature in their spiritual life. Counselors are short term. Spiritual directors can companion people for years. Pastors do life with a congregation.

Every person who is in some form of Christian ministry should have a spiritual director and a counselor. We fool ourselves if we believe we can fight Evil and overcome our brokenness on our own within the pressure cooker challenges of ministry. Helping professionals are a gift to those of us in ministry. Every person who is in some form of Christian ministry should have a spiritual director and a counselor. We fool ourselves if we believe we can fight Evil and overcome our brokenness on our own. Click To Tweet

On Finding a Spiritual Director or Counselor

With the growing acceptance of our need for spiritual and mental care, more and more people prepare as spiritual directors and counselors. There are three basic ways to find one.

  1. Ask others: Ask mentors and people you trust for suggestions. Churches also could provide a list of qualified counselors and spiritual directors for their parishioners. The first appointment is always a discernment appointment. The client must feel as if he or she can be completely transparent and be safe. If that does not happen, find another director or counselor.
  2. Search online: Spiritual directors and counselors have professional affiliations that provide information about who is available in your area. Just type in “finding a spiritual director” or “counselor” in your search engine. Pay attention to their credentials.
  3. Check universities and theological schools near you: If there is a university or seminary near you, they usually will have training programs for spiritual directors and counselors. They often keep lists of successful graduates. Many times they have interns who need to practice on persons desiring guidance or mental health care. Usually then for directors there is no cost, and for counselors there is a small sliding scale fee.

All Christ-followers benefit from active participation in a church, the Body of Christ in community. That circle contains both our relational and spiritual lives, and the pastor who leads and guides. And, we are blessed to have professional companions such as spiritual directors and counselors to help us on our journeys. I am proud of my young friend for urging his church members to grow, despite the occasional messiness.

[1] According to mental health professionals, though the terms ‘counseling’ and ‘therapy’ are used interchangeably, psychotherapy focuses on chronic, re-occurring issues and is long term, while psychological counseling is usually short term and focuses on a crisis or particular problem. For this article, I will use the word ‘counselor’ as the generic container for all mental health professionals. [2] Unless the person intends real harm to himself/herself or others or is abusing in any way children or the elderly, confidentiality is protected by law [3] In full disclosure, I am a spiritual director. I regularly see a spiritual director. I have a therapist, who knows me and whom I see when needed. I have a spiritual director supervisor with whom I do a retreat with usually once a year. I have an accountability group called Space4Grace I meet with once a year for a week, and we do group direction together. I am recorded as a Quaker pastor, but I am not pastoring a church at this time. My professional tribes are Lausanne, Missio Alliance and Leighton Ford Ministries Spiritual Mentoring Communities.

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