"I thought you left the ministry!"

This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2008 edition of In Touch magazine. For reprint permission contact David Rose.

by David Bruce Rose

Encounters with people in need led a pastor into new territory – and changed his life in the process

“I thought you left the ministry!”

I don’t remember how many times I heard that from pastors and church leaders as they expressed surprise to see me at a pastor’s retreat or denominational meeting. My reply was always something like, “Not exactly. When you have time, I’ll fill you in.”

It feels a bit awkward to explain that I am still in ministry, in part because it is complex. Currently, I serve as Associate Professor in Marriage and Family Therapy at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. Is preparing counselors, pastors, and theologians to serve the church ministry? I think so, and my church agreed. But let me tell you my story.

Confronted by need
I was ordained as a pastor on December 10, 1979 and was called to serve a small country church in Montana. When I began, I was sure I would never do pastoral counseling. I was just too “insensitive.” Counseling might be good for some people, but it did not make sense to me. In fact, I had failed my first counseling classes in seminary. I intended to preach, teach, visit, and lead my congregation. But God called me to a church in a town where there were no mental health services. With nowhere else to turn, people came to me for help.

“What do I do?” they asked. “Pastor, I hit my wife.” "Pastor, I am afraid that my daughter may be anorexic." “Pastor, my husband said he doesn’t love me.” "Pastor, I caught my son sneaking out the window last night."

People came to me, God’s representative, asking for help, and I had no idea what to do. Of course I prayed with them and we studied scripture together, but it didn’t seem to be enough. I referred those who could afford it to counselors in the nearby city, but many people in our town were poor and could not afford counseling. So I consulted with every counselor I could find. I read books, took seminars, and even received counseling myself in an effort to help.

An amazing thing happened. I found that God used the tools of counseling to allow me to bring the gospel into peoples' lives at deeper levels than I had been able to before. As they learned to be honest with themselves, they learned to be honest with God. As they became more open to others, they became more open to God. And God worked in their hearts.

I remember one man I referred for counseling because he abused his wife. He had received Christ the week before he came to me for help with his marriage and I continued to disciple him as he received counseling. He gave permission for his counselor to consult with me.

Week after week the counselor would call and say, “I can’t understand why he is improving so quickly.” I smiled as I reminded the counselor that the Holy Spirit was working on this man’s heart, making him open to what he learned in counseling.

My preaching changed, too. As people shared their struggles, fears, and grief with me, my sermons became more tender, more compassionate. More and more I preached about God’s love and the hope God provides for change and growth.

I saw people grow in faith. Marriages were healed. Parents and children were reconciled. Oh, not all of the time, but much more frequently than I had dreamed possible. Loving people by listening to them at deep levels was more powerful than I ever expected.

New eyes for familiar territory
After serving in Montana for four years, I was called as associate pastor in a large church in Las Vegas, Nevada. One of my duties in this church was to provide pastoral counseling for members of the church.

I knew I was still poorly equipped for this type of ministry, so with the support of my elders, I began to take one counseling course each semester at the University of Nevada – Los Vegas. To my surprise, the counseling classes were easy! The people and problems that we studied were no longer abstract – they were all realities I saw in my church! I knew what to expect because I had seen it.

As a result, my grades were good. In fact, over the years of my study, each member of the counseling faculty and each pastor on staff in my church came to me and suggested that God might be calling me to get a Ph.D. and teach counseling.

My wife and I took that counsel seriously. For a year, we prayed, talked, and thought about returning to school. Finally, I resigned my position and we moved to Fresno, California to study.

Questioning the call
After graduating from the California School of Professional Psychology in 1991, I served two churches in central California and worked in private practice as a psychologist. In my practice, the focus was helping police officers, doctors, therapists, pastors, and missionaries grow so they could be more effective in their ministry.

This is when the questions began. Had I “left the ministry” to become a psychologist? I didn’t think so. One of the scripture passages I always used to describe ministry was Ephesians 4:11-16. There we find that God gave different people different gifts. Those who were given gifts included “pastors and teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry.” That is what I was doing. I was “speaking the truth in love” to help my clients “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”

Some of my clients did not realize that the love and truth they heard had its roots in Christ. They were too fragile to hear that from me. But as they came to know themselves better, and to grow, it did not surprise me when they told me of growth in their spiritual lives as well.

Many of my clients chose to see me because they knew I was a pastor as well as a counselor. They brought problems that touched their spirit as well as their psyche. When it fit, we would study scripture together, pray, or use other spiritual disciplines to help them grow. One missionary said that his time in counseling was the best discipleship he had ever experienced.

God also continued to call me to grow. About two years ago, God asked me to give away my practice, resign my position in the church and serve full-time at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. My church, family, and friends joined the faculty and board of trustees of the Seminary to confirm that call. So here I am, teaching counselors, pastors, and missionaries in a seminary. Like every ministry God has led me to before, this call includes challenges, growth, and deep joy.

I am honored and grateful to be a part of the community at the Seminary as we “seek to inspire and equip men and women to live as disciples of Jesus Christ, and to serve and lead in the church and in the world.” This is ministry.

David Bruce Rose, Ph.D., is associate professor in marriage and family therapy at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a clinical psychologist in private practice in Fresno. Among the many courses he teaches is Pastoral Care in Crisis and Cross-Cultural Counseling.