How To Have A Powerful Pastoral Conversation

6 Steps Of A Powerful Pastoral Conversation.

By Phil Wilson

Church Planters need to be developing a full range of skills- in evangelism, in leadership, in teaching, and yes, in pastoral conversations. Below we include one of our lectures from a recent course on a six step process to follow in pursuing good pastoral conversations with people we are engaging with. This material is drawn mainly from the work of Gary Collins in his book “How To Be A People Helper” (1995) and Larry Crabb’s “Encouragement” (1990) and “Effective Biblical Counselling” (1985). We hope you may find it helpful for your everyday conversations to help other people as you seek to lead them to Christ as the true solution to all of life’s problems.

Pastoral Counselling or Conversations?

We are calling this topic “Pastoral Conversations” rather than “Pastoral Counselling”, because counselling is a very challenging task, and it is not wise for people to claim to have expertise in if they have not done extended specialized training in the field. Pastors are often confronted with situations where people come to them for advice, and it is tempting to claim the title of a counsellor, but the reality is that most pastors are not sufficiently trained for formal counselling. Sometimes people have very real problems who need to see a professional counsellor, and they can be impacted negatively by an untrained but well meaning advisor who claims to be a counsellor. However, what we will try to do here is to provide some suggestions which may help anyone improve in their skills in having conversations which help friends in their troubles in life. We may not all be counsellors or psychologists, but friends have a vital and powerful role nevertheless in providing help to one another.

Some people fear getting involved with others experiencing trouble and always urge discussion with a professional psychologist. However, Gary Collins writes
“the overwhelming weight of evidence supports the conclusion that lay counsellors frequently are as effective as professionals. Except for a very small percentage of cases, like those involving people who are seriously disturbed by a severe life crisis, most peer counsellors are effective. What the majority of professional counsellors accomplish in psychotherapy cannot be distinguished from what is accomplished between very good friends over coffee every morning in neighbourhoods and in countless work settings anywhere.”  (Collins, 77).

  • Discuss: What advantages do peer counsellors have that professionals don’t? When should professional help be sought?

In this session, we will move through Gary Collins’ 6 part model for how we can all learn to help hurting people.

1. Listening.

Helping people starts with listening to them well. It does not start with quickly jumping into giving them advice to solve their problems. When we are seeking to listen to people, we can try to be intentional with our body language to encourage them as they share with us. This means we will squarely face the other person, we will lean forward as they talk, make good eye contact with them, and relax and be comfortable. We need to check our listening attitude. Listening to people is an intensive activity we need to really focus on, not just passively sit back and hope that it is happening!

Of course, we can focus on what they are saying. But we can also be keen observers of their body language and watch out for evidence of emotion. We are not just analysing the words they are saying, we are observing their whole person, and watching out for an unspoken message which they are conveying. We can be observant of repeated themes which they come back to, giving evidence of something lying underneath the surface which they wish to share with someone. We can be listening for hidden messages by key phrases, such as when people say they are “not too bad”, or that things are good “all things considering”.

Activity: * Role play a conversation where poor listening skills are in evidence.

2) Leading.

Here we may have observed that our friend has something in their life which we could seek to discuss and help them in discussion together. Now we encourage the person to open up more and share more deeply about what is going on in their life. We are seeking to lead them to share more with us of what their thoughts and feelings are. Just doing this is a vital part of helping people, and often is enough to help people see their own solution. An important key here is to ask them open ended questions. That is, questions that cannot be answered with a single word. This could sound something like: “How do you think about …”, or “ What are your feelings when?…”. Or we could summarise the situation they have initially shared, and ask if our understanding is correct.

A very useful technique of leading is to “reflect” their feelings. We make an observation of what it sounds to us like they are feeling, and suggest this to them. For example, you might say: “It sounds like you feel a bit guilty about..”, or, “That must have made you feel good”, or, “You’re smiling, but I get the feeling your pretty hurt inside.” This is often helpful because it shows your care for them and interest in them, it shows you value their statements by checking your understanding, it gives them security to reveal more by showing that you accept them, and it helps the person look honestly at their behaviour and get a clear perspective.

Activity: Imagine someone says to you: “This isn’t one of my better days, but I’ll be fine, how are you?”.  What would some good ways of responding be?

Larry Crabb  (1985, 162) suggests the following five common answers are often unhelpful.

a) “Well, we all have days like that”

b) “Isn’t it great to know that all things work together for good?”

c) “Hope things get better. I’m sure they will.”

d) “What’s wrong?”

e) “Business not going too well?”

Activity: Discuss why these responses may be unhelpful to lead the conversation on to encouragement.

Here are some suggested answers:

  1. “Well, we all have days like that”. This response effectively ends the conversation by not taking person seriously enough to avoid meaningless cliches.
  2. Isn’t it great to know that all things work together for good?” -Spiritual truths offered glibly as an instant solution have the effect of driving painful feelings underground where they remain unresolved and frequently produce pyschological problems. They might think, “If all things work together for good then I should not be upset; I’ll pretend I’m not”.
  3. Hope things get better. I’m sure they will.” No interest in the person is communicated. Christian hope is presented as empty well-wishing utterly devoid of foundational content.
  4. What’s wrong?” If you know the person well, this may be a good response, but even then it probably is too direct. Most people are not ready to reveal significant conflicts quickly. A direct question like this may frighten the person into retreating with a superficial answer like, “Oh nothing really, at least nothing that a good dinner won’t cure.”
  5. “Business not going too well?” Before you know where the problem lies, introducing a specific possible area of conflict is no more than guesswork and tends to make you appear insensitive. Even if you had reason to believe the concern involved his business, it is better to give him an opportunity to specify the exact conflict.

What is Crabb’s recommended answer ? His suggestions for a response are something broadly like: “Sounds like you are a little down”, “Not feeling as good as you’d like, huh?”, or “You feel a little weighted down today?”. These types of responses are more likely to lead to further sharing.

We must remember here also that encouragement is not a technique, or a set of phrases to learn but an attitude of care and love we operate from. Larry Crabb says: “We do not learn to encourage by memorizing a set of phrases. There is no such list, at least, none worth memorizing. Encouragement is not a technique based on selecting certain words; it is an attitude, a view of others as valuable with a commitment to treat them accordingly.” (1990, 104).

3) Supporting.
Here we seek to support them now that they have taken a risk to open up and go deeper in their sharing with you. We can assure them that it is okay to talk openly about their situation, we can thank them for being strong enough to share with you, or we could compliment them on being willing to open up.

Discuss: why do you think this step is important?


4) Influencing.
Here we seek to guide the person to a change in behaviour, thoughts or actions. Be careful of being too judgemental- you’re a sinner too! Nb Gal 6:1. Be careful of being too definitive about what advice you give them. You could have misread the situation, so often you may just give gentle advice and suggestions. Beware of giving advice too quickly. Sometimes we haven’t listened enough, and we can put them down by giving them simplistic solutions.

Note that a change in behaviour must arise from a change in thinking, based on the truths of God’s word. Beware of just trying to change their external behaviours. A critical approach in our influencing should be that we are seeking to challenge the false “religion” of their heart which they are falling into, ie their deeply held unbiblical assumptions in the mind , rather than just changing outward behaviours. Our advice may well result in practical suggestions for them to follow, but we should also seek to help them understand the unbelief of their heart and put their trust in Christ instead. For example, if someone was struggling with not spending enough time with their family, consider the question why it is that this is the case. A false “religion” for them could be their belief that they needed to be a financial success in order to be significant in life. Of course, we can remind them that in Christ they have all the significance they could possibly desire. Then we can help them with some practical suggestions about how to spend less time at work and more with family.

So, what conversational skills may help with this? Often it may be more effective whenever possible to help them state false belief they have been led astray by, and what they need to do, rather than us just tell them. So sometimes this can be achieved merely by restating or paraphrasing their problem. This helps them see the problem in a new light, and their solution becomes clearer. Or, perhaps we could give our feedback or feelings we have about the problem after hearing about it.  We could say- “Thanks for sharing. After listening to you, this is what it sounds to me like your situation is.” We can offer our suggestions, and then give them a chance to agree or disagree with you. We could state some logical consequences. For example, “ As I’m sure you realise, if this workaholic lifestyle persists, you could be successful in your career but lose your family”. Finally, we could lay out the different options that the person has in responding to the problem. We could say, “This is how I see it. You have three different options. Firstly, you could continue as you are…., Secondly, … etc”.

5) Confronting.
Sometimes it will be necessary to confront or give directives. This will be best done in a non-judgemental and gentle fashion. For example, “Susan, I really value your our friendship, but because of that, I really think I need to share something difficult with you”. Give them some kind of warning and reassurance that your love for them as a friend does not change, before you give them the hard word you need to give them.

6) Teaching.
Finally, of course, we may need to offer them direct instruction and advice. It is of course important to note that we have placed this one last because it is so important to make sure you have listened to them properly before you seek to give them instruction. You may teach them by inviting them to observe how you deal with a problem, by doing a role-play with them, draw some diagrams of discipleship tools, or lay out and write down some strategies for dealing with personal feelings they have or difficult relationships with other people.


* Imagine a friend of yours, Susan, gives you the impression her relationship with husband Terry isn’t doing too well. After a little more sharing the truth comes out that she is bitterly resentful of the time he spends at work and how little time he spends with the family. It is revealed that she is seriously thinking of walking out on him to be with another man who shows her much more personal interest.  Go through steps 1-6 and come up with snatches of imaginary conversations with Susan that model each step.