Various issues come up in our lives at different times. Many times we feel adequate to face these issues and can walk through them with confidence that we are doing well enough. But sometimes, an issue resists our own efforts and we find it more than we can handle on our own. Perhaps we talk about such an issue with some friends or family. Sometimes we seek a conversation with a pastor or mentor. Sometimes we seek some kind of a counseling situation to help us through the issue. In larger churches with active Christian education or home groups, there are particular groups or classes that meet with a focus on solving some of these issues. There are, for example, groups on getting your finances under control, raising godly children, praying for marriages, dealing with addictions and so on. The Lord can use a number of different forms to help his disciples deal with their various issues. But if I am asked to help somebody with a particular issue in their life, my favorite form is to meet for about seven weeks discussing various Bible passages relevant to the issue they face. In this way, I create a kind of curriculum for a particular personal issue which guides the pastoral conversations we will have about it. One came up recently that I will use as an example for this developing a curriculum for a pastoral conversation. A young couple has been dating for a number of years. They wonder whether they should remain friends or pursue a course to marriage. They know there is such a thing as premarital counseling. But they are looking for pre-engagement counseling, something that could as easily tell them to not pursue an engagement if it isn’t right for them as to proceed with a greater commitment. Here is how I develop a curriculum for pastoral conversations to help them discover what would be best in their situation.
Some people really only want to meet once. Perhaps they have a focused need for specific counsel. I have a friend like this. He tends to think things through and when he gets to a place where he needs counsel, it tends to be very specific and to be resolved with one pastoral conversation. But I think there is an advantage to taking some time with people during the times in their life when they may be more open to life changes. Many times, the process of resolving a pressing issue is a door to making a number of other positive life changes. A couple struggling with their finances found that their family life was getting more organized as they resolved some of their financial issues. With significant life issues, I like to have seven meetings with a couple, one a week. This gives a season of exposure to seeing what the Bible teaches and some feedback and encouragement on trying various ways of applying these truths in their lives. Habits begun in the early weeks of our meeting together seem to have a good chance to really take root. Also, some of the rebalancing of other areas of their lives can be discussed as they happen. Even when our life is out of balance in one way, an intervention may help restore a balance, but it tends also to throw other things out of balance. It is helpful to walk with a person as they make changes that may have unexpected repercussions. We tend to find that learning one truth opens the door to learn other needed truths. But there is a diminishing result from meeting longer. So it is also important to have an ending date in view. Our time together is limited and important. We cannot get to every truth that might be useful. There is a purpose and a priority for each precious time we meet. This awareness helps me in preparing for our meetings, praying and thinking through what will be of greatest value to the person in their life.
Prior to meeting with this couple, I have sketched out four to ten biblical principles that may relate to their issues. The couple has shared their basic concern when we first agreed to meet. I know enough to have something relevant for the first meeting but I am not sure what will be important for future meetings. The list of potential topics comes from my own Bible studies over the years or some topical studies that are found in specific relevant books, such as the Thompson Chain Reference Bible or books on the topic the people are struggling with, which I will read in preparation when I have less experience on that particular life issue. In this case, I can adapt one of the passages I use in premarital counseling from Genesis 2 which looks at the archetypal way God brought Eve to Adam. The meeting will have a time for prayer and then some questions to spark their sharing specific elements of their situation and context. And while I will be prepared to lead a discussion on Genesis 2, I will also be ready to go in a different direction if this part of the conversation indicates a different direction. The scripture discussion is to highlight various life principles that either will give light to their specific circumstances or to some aspects of following Jesus that will help them come to a new insight with some specific steps in their daily lives that will lead them to a course they believe the Lord would desire for them. It is not my role to play the Lord or the Holy Spirit in their life. As true believers, they know the Lord and need to learn to hear his voice and follow him. I therefore present God’s word in a way that they can engage it and hear it in the context of their life situation. As I say, there are times that I have a developed Bible study ready. And other times I may simply read relevant Bible verses and ask them what they see in the verses and how these things might apply to their situation. Sometimes people need teaching, sometimes they need the opportunity for discovery. The meeting ends with a recap of what they have heard and understood. This reinforces what they have heard and the specific step they believe the Lord has for them this week. At this point I am able to prioritize which of the potential studies is most relevant for our next meeting. I then can ask them to read it together in preparation.
I have done one other thing that I believe may help this couple more than some of the content oriented sharing. I have asked the couple to join my family for dinner. Sometimes we see ourselves more clearly in contrast with others. They have a family and marriage issue. Joining our family for dinner puts our family and marriage before them to consider and react to. It also greatly extends our contact as we fellowship together before our conversations. Professional counselors rightfully like to have distance from the people they counsel. We are shepherds who share our lives and encourage people to do what is right and best. In this way, I don’t counsel, I am not going to dig deep into their inner psyche; I am going to have a conversation as one disciple to another to encourage them in seeking the Master and what he wants for them. I cannot use this resource of time with my family for every pastoral conversation I need to have. But when it is fitting, it tends to be good for my family as it is for the couple I meet with.
The first three meetings will focus on their specific issue by studying relevant Bible passages. The last four will explore Christian life principles that will help walk out new directions. I have found it very important to have a basic set of life tools that we need when we seek to go forward in specific steps of obedience. For example, some people need to know how to face repeated failure and to keep on getting up, confessing and going forward to try again until they attain a victory in their situation. Others need some sense of their own life calling and how to take specific steps today that will further them to what they believe God has called them to. Others need help establishing a living and effective devotional life in prayer and scripture, perhaps using journalling that will help them as they continue to face their own life issues. These practical and applied life-tools of discipleship tend to be what makes the difference between good counsel temporarily helping and an interaction with their issues that move forward to spiritual maturity and a resolution of their own issues. I have, for example, a Bible study series on the Dynamic Christian Life. We might do a few of these studies together tying the lessons to the insights and life changes the couple has identified. I am not sure yet what may be best for the couple I have mentioned. There are some relationship principles from Proverbs that may help them get to a place where they will have confidence to either pursue marriage or recognize that they just have a good friendship. I have to leave this open until it becomes more obvious after the third meeting.
When the Lord brings me somebody with a particular life issue they want to meet with about, I see it as an opportunity to develop a personal curriculum for their spiritual growth which will give Biblical insight to their issues and support for lasting life change. The curriculum doesn’t have to be fully formed from the beginning, but various courses are able to be laid out. And in the form of pastoral conversations and Bible discussions we are able to identify together practical steps to having a life that is more pleasing to the Lord.