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A pastor or Christian counselor? Both.

This past September, Dr. Richard “Rick” Marrs, associate professor of Practical Theology at Concordia Seminary, published the book Making Christian Counseling More Christ Centered. Publishing a book is, for any writer, the culmination of a long, often tedious, process. But for Marrs, it was the culmination of a question that has nagged his life, work and ministry for decades. It was the answer to a question he had been asking since college, when he first started considering God’s calling for his life’s work.

Mentored by Professor John Saleska at the old St. John’s College in Winfield, Kan., and then a psychology major at Concordia College, River Forest (now Concordia University Chicago, River Forest, Ill.), the 20-year-old Marrs felt himself pulled in what he thought were two very distinct directions: “Do I want to be a pastor or do I want to be a Christian counselor?”

After graduating, he initially deferred answering the question by working as a department manager at a grain elevator for seven months. Then he decided to take a few courses at Concordia Seminary to test the waters. It was during this time that he took a course in pastoral counseling by Professor Martin Haendschke in which they read a book that was popular at the time, Competent to Counsel by Jay E. Adams. As the students struggled to come to terms with what bothered them about the book, Haendschke crystallized their wrestling in a way Marrs would never forget.

“After a long silence,” Marrs recalls, “he looked at us and said, ‘The book doesn’t distinguish Law and Gospel.’ At that moment, the light bulb went off in my head.”

Dr. Richard Marrs. Photo: Jill Gray
But then life took a turn in a different direction. He accepted a position as an admissions counselor at his alma mater, St. John’s College, while also working on a master’s degree in counseling at the University of Kansas. After finishing the degree, he began teaching counseling and psychology at St. John’s. When the college was closed in 1986, Marrs moved to Concordia, River Forest to teach in the psychology department there. While at River Forest, Marrs completed his Ph.D. in counseling psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and became a licensed psychologist in Illinois.

But after a while, Rick and his wife, Laura, along with their young family, didn’t feel quite at home in the Chicago area. That is when the question arose again. After much prayer and soul searching, the Marrs family moved to St. Louis, and Rick enrolled in Concordia Seminary’s Residential Alternate Route Program with a deferred vicarage. After finishing the program, he was called to Immanuel Lutheran Church in Junction City, Kan. During the summers, he returned to campus to complete a Master of Divinity degree. As the congregation grew under his leadership, he planned to stay in parish ministry for a long time.

Then, in 2006, Concordia Seminary came calling. The Seminary needed someone to teach pastoral care and counseling. But they wanted somebody who understood the demands of pastoral ministry as well as Christian counseling. It was then that Marrs saw the question that had nagged him for so long come full circle. It was no longer an either/or. It could be a both/and.

“It was no longer an either/or. It could be a both/and.”
–Dr. Richard Marrs

Returning to Concordia Seminary as a professor also meant renewing his involvement with some of the professional societies with which he had lost touch when he worked in the parish, chief among them the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC). Much had changed in the meantime, but one thing had not. He still noticed that so much of the work Christian counselors were doing was centered in what he, as a Lutheran, recognized as “soft law,” for example, “follow these six steps and you’ll become less anxious.”

Not enough was centered in the Gospel, what God in Christ has already done for the forgiveness of sins and freedom from guilt and shame. Marrs began to lead presentations on how to integrate a Law-Gospel framework into Christian counseling, including presenting a sectional at an AACC meeting that attracted nearly 250 people. He discovered that non-Lutheran counseling professionals were drawn like flies to honey. The idea for the book took root.

At the heart of the book are Martin Luther’s own ideas for the “care of souls.” The book focuses on Lutheran understandings of creatureliness, the theology of the cross, the distinction between Law and Gospel, the two kinds of righteousness and the power of God’s Word in soul-care work. From there, it develops a variety of techniques that both pastors and professional counselors can use, all of which flow from Lutheran theology.

“The book is really about finding the ‘sweet spot’ where Lutheran pastors can recognize and appreciate the theology and implement it in their ministry, and non-Lutheran Christian counselors can learn the theology as part of their ongoing practice,” Marrs says. “Most of Luther’s Small Catechism is in the book without highlighting that it’s the Small Catechism.” Proceeds from the royalties of Making Christian Counseling More Christ Centered are being donated to Ambassadors of Reconciliation and DOXOLOGY, but only if the book is purchased directly from WestBow Press (, the Ambassadors’ website ( or the Concordia Seminary Campus Store. The book also is available on Amazon.

Even as this book is the culmination of decades of Marrs’ life, work and ministry, he hopes it will open the doors to new conversations about what it means to keep the vital work of counseling and soul-care centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for both pastors and Christian counselors alike.

Dr. Travis Scholl is managing editor of Seminary Publications at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.