Strategic Pastoral Counseling, 2nd Ed

This is a book I was reluctant to write because I have never been either a pastor or a pastoral counselor. However, I have worked with many clergy from a great variety of denominations and countries over the years, supervising some of them on their counseling and offering consultation to others.  It is from this vantage point that I wrote this book, originally published in 1992 and then revised and greatly expanded in the current edition that was released in 2003.

The response to this little book has been both surprising and deeply gratifying – first, that it sold enough that the publisher wanted a revised edition and second, that it continues to sell about as many copies each year as it did in its first and consequently is still in print.  What I find encouraging about steady sales of a book is that it suggests that it continues to meet a need, that fact being verified by Nigerian, Philippine and Korean editions subsequently being published. I am humbled and deeply thankful that what I hear from many, in a number of countries around the world, is that this model serves them well in the uniqueness of their culture.


Preface to First Edition

With over three hundred different English language books on pastoral care and counseling currently in print, it is quite reasonable to ask why one more is needed. An adequate justification for a new book must be based upon the demonstration of both the importance of the subject matter and the unique contribution that the book will make. Let me briefly state, therefore, why I think this present book is both important and unique.

Since you are reading this preface, you probably need no further convincing about the importance of pastoral counseling. And yet, this is the place to begin. The importance of pastoral care and counseling is grounded in the centrality of the proclamation of the Word of God in Christian ministry. While this fundamental nature of proclamation would probably be readily acknowledged by most clergy, the common understanding of what this means is too narrow. We tend to equate proclamation with preaching, although, more correctly understood, it involves much more than the mere imparting of information and includes a much broader range of activities than preaching. Proclamation involves not only a communication of an event but also an actualization of this event. Proclamation delivers or makes real what it talks about, and it does this in the present moment and experience of the one who receives the proclamation. Properly understood, therefore, proclamation brings individuals into direct, immediate, and personal contact with God’s Word. While this is the essence of all good preaching, it should also be the foundation of a broad range of other pastoral activities.

Understood in this way, pastoral care and counseling are legitimate parts of Christian ministry because they provide a unique opportunity for God’s Word to be spoken to the specific life experiences of the person seeking pastoral help. Pastoral counseling should never be a matter of simply preaching to someone after hearing his or her story. Rather, it involves relating the Word to specific needs and life experiences and embodying it in what could be described as a living relationship of loving service. It is a form of proclamation that often cannot be performed equally well by any other act of ministry, and for this reason it has had a central and important role in the long tradition of Christian soul care.

The importance of pastoral counseling is reinforced by the fact that for most pastors it is not an optional activity but one which the needs and demands of their parishioners regularly necessitate. Research indicates that the average pastor spends between six and eight hours each week in counseling. Very few pastors are able totally to avoid counseling responsibilities, and those that do seem generally to be on the staff of churches where others are providing these services. For the vast majority of pastors, some counseling responsibility is a given that cannot be avoided. The needs of their parishioners demand that they see people in counseling relationships, whether they are adequately prepared to do so or not.

And how well prepared for counseling do most pastors judge themselves to be? In background research for the present volume only 13 percent of the pastors contacted reported that they felt adequately prepared for their counseling responsibilities; 87 percent reported a need for further training in pastoral counseling. Both seminary training and existing books on pastoral counseling leave most pastors unprepared for counseling. This lack of preparation is obviously a major reason so many pastors reported counseling to be frustrating and unfulfilling. They know counseling is an important part of their overall responsibilities and so feel guilty if it is minimized or ignored. But at the same time they also feel inadequate in the face of its demands. Unavoidable, counseling quickly becomes a source of frustration and dissatisfaction.

Our sample of pastors was asked what sort of help they needed to prepare them better for their work in pastoral counseling. Their answer was that if books on pastoral counseling are to be helpful, they must be much more practical than is usually the case. Books on the theology of pastoral care or the theory of pastoral counseling may look good on the shelf but provide little help when a disturbed parishioner enters the office. To be helpful, books must tell pastors specifically what to do with those they face in counseling sessions. General principles are simply not good enough.

Strategic Pastoral Counseling is a model of counseling that has been specifically designed in response to this request for practical help for pastors who counsel. The term strategic emphasizes the fact that the approach is highly focused, the pastor being provided with clear goals and strategies for each of the five recommended sessions. This recommended maximum of five sessions fits both what pastors tell us is the actual length of most of their counseling and what they think is the amount of time they can give to counseling and still meet the other demands of their schedules. The focus of Strategic Pastoral Counseling is the parishioner’s spiritual functioning, and the parishioner’s life and present struggles are the context in which these spiritual matters should be discerned. Strategic Pastoral Counseling is also explicitly Christian, and the use of the unique resources of the Christian life is fully encouraged.

Since as part of their formal training most pastors have limited coursework in pastoral counseling, Strategic Pastoral Counseling does not assume a background in psychology or counseling theory. This book will, therefore, avoid jargon and when technical terms are employed, they will be clearly explained. However, the approach does not fail to recognize that most pastors have some experience in counseling and considerable experience in pastoral care. In fact, general ministry and more specialized pastoral-care experience will be the assumed foundation for what is presented, and Strategic Pastoral Counseling will be positioned as integral to and necessarily consistent with these broader pastoral roles.

Pastoral counseling should be at the very heart of pastoral care and ministry. However, the clinical models of counseling that have often been adopted by pastoral counselors have tended to make counseling into a specialized activity that bears little relationship to other pastoral activities and responsibilities. Strategic Pastoral Counseling seeks to address this problem by presenting an approach to counseling that, while drawing extensively on the general principles and approaches to counseling which have been developed within therapeutic psychology over the past several decades, takes its form and direction from the pastoral role. It is hoped that it will be of value to those pastors who seek to provide counsel that is not simply congruent with their theological commitments and biblical understanding but that is also congruent with their primary role as ministers of the gospel of Christ.

Preface to Second Edition

Thirteen years ago when I offered the first edition of this book I did so with quite modest expectations.  Pastoral counseling was firmly wed to a traditional long term counseling model.  I had long been convinced that pastors could much better fit counseling within the rest of their pastoral ministries by making it brief and focused.  However, most pastors that I encouraged to do so responded in some way intended to make it clear that a psychologist could never be expected to really understand the realities of pastoral life and practice and that  the sort of problems they encountered simply demanded long term counseling.

All that has changed enormously in the past decade.  Numerous models of short term pastoral counseling now exist and the argument has largely been won that short term counseling best fits the mix of responsibilities encountered by pastors who counsel.

Changes in this edition are based on feedback from pastors who have adopted Strategic Pastoral Counseling, many of whom have now utilized it for the past decade.  Nigerian, Philippine and Korean editions have provided helpful response from several cross-cultural applications and the comments of a number of professors in seminaries who have been utilizing the book as a text, as well as from students studying it, have also been invaluable.

Completely rewritten and revised, this second edition includes more case examples, a new Appendix on ethical consideration, and updated suggestions for additional reading.  A new first chapter places pastoral counseling into a much broader context of Christian soul care than was present in the first edition.  This includes a discussion of the relationship between pastoral counseling and spiritual direction. Chapter 2 now includes a more extended case for brief pastoral counseling, including reference to some of the other existing models that are available.  The place of homework and the spiritual focus in Strategic Pastoral Counseling both get more extended treatment in Chapter 3, as does the use of congregational and other spiritual resources. And Chapter 6 presents a new case illustration of single session Strategic Pastoral Counseling.

The primary audience for this edition once again remains pastors who counsel as part of other broader pastoral care responsibilities.  They, along with seminarians who are preparing for such a role and non-clerical counselors who offer their counseling from within the church and as an integral part of its ministry, have sat on the corner of my desk as I have worked on this revision. My secondary audience is the pastoral counselor whose counseling is not part of a parish ministry but may be offered in a hospital, inter-denominational or inter-faith community counseling center or private practice.  Some of what I present may be basic to those within this group who have completed more advanced counseling or clinical pastoral education training.  However, my hope is that it will also serve individuals within this group well by highlighting the spiritual aspects of brief pastoral counseling practice that characterize Strategic Pastoral Counseling.


I highly recommend this volume to all pastors of local churches and all practicing or aspiring Christian counselors.

~ Moses Lee (

Benner provides an excellent model for counseling with just enough counseling content and technique to communicate how it would work. He states that his intent in writing Strategic Pastoral Counseling was to produce a book on counseling that is explicitly Christian, holistic, pastoral, fruitful, disciplined, well-founded, and workable. He achieves those goals in a concise, readable way.

~ William T. Brewer (

Pastors and church leaders involve in counseling ministries will benefit greatly from reading this book.

~ Siang-Yang Tan, Ph.D., Fuller Theological Seminary

Pastors operate within a different paradigm than the private counselor. Benner’s books bridges this gap and offers the pastor a model of counseling that is sensitive to the peculiarities of pastoral ministry.

~ Rod Wilson, Ph.D., Regent College

I highly recommend this book to pastor and mental health professional alike.

~ Everett L. Worthington, Jr. Ph.D., Virginia Commonwealth University