Dirty Harry on Pastoral Counseling

I doubt that Lt. Harry Callahan had even an ounce of pastoral gifting. But if he did I’m sure his philosophy of counseling would have been, “Kill’em all and let God decide.”  Normally I would not turn to someone known as Dirty Harry for advice on pastoral counseling but I have to admit that one of the best things I’ve ever learned about counseling I learned from this character played by the legendary Clint Eastwood. One line…one simple line: “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” Thank you Dirty Harry.

If you’re like most pastors you know that pastoral counseling can take up a lot of your time. Most would agree that this is part of your job. But the next time you’re ready to recommend Cloud and Townsend’s book Boundaries…make sure you’re comfortable with some boundaries of your own. After all, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

  • Be willing to admit if a person’s problem is out of your league. Yeah, I know you’ve got the Bible and you know how to pray for deliverance and all that, but some things are just best left to the professional Christian counselor. You can come up with your own list of situations you’ll pass off, but have your list and be willing to refer.
  • Don’t be too quick to agree to meet with a person long term. If the person’s problem is such that they need long term counseling…they probably need a professional.
  • Agree to meet with the person one time in order to adequately understand what it is they are dealing with and to be able to diagnose the best way to address it. Sometimes people think they need pastoral counseling when they need professional Christian counseling and vice-versa. Often times a person might think they need to meet with you for the next seven months when one or two sessions could be enough. I never agree to anything with the person who approaches me for counseling beyond the first meeting.
  • If your pastoral plate is already full, say so. I know we never want to turn someone away but there can be times when we say, “Right now I just don’t have the time to do counseling.” If you find yourself in such a time try to have ready a list of referrals (lay or professional) that you could give the person so that they can get help if they really want to pursue counseling beyond you.

Some ministers love counseling and some don’t. Some are good at it, some poor at it, and many somewhere in-between. Counseling comes with the job but sometimes it’s best to pass…or pass off. Don’t feel bad to refer someone to a professional. Don’t be afraid to admit that it’s out of your league. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you simply don’t have the time to meet with the person long term. And don’t forget the words of our good friend Dirty Harry: “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

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