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Question for pastors and lay ministry leaders: How much of your time as a ministry leader is spent doing counseling? What situations have you been called upon to do counseling for?

Pastors often are asked to do counseling, for a variety of situations, including marital counseling, children with anger or other emotional issues, addictions (alcoholism, drug abuse, pornography etc), depression, parenting and much more. Why do some people choose to go to their pastor or church leader for counseling? Well, reasons for turning to the church for counseling can include:

A. Money- church counseling is often free

B. Comfort level- a person may be anxious about going to a new place and talking to a stranger, so they will seek counseling at a place they already consider “safe.”

C. Stigma- there is unfortunately, still a lingering social stigma in some people’s minds or some cultures, against seeking “professional help.” This stigma seems to say that those who seek professional counseling are weaker, are “severely impaired” or are “in sin” for not trusting God. This erroneous line of thinking seems to stem from the notion that any professional help outside the church is somehow wrong. I sure hope they don’t take this approach to brain surgery.

D. Quick fix- some, not all, of the people who seek church counseling rather than secular help are hoping to have a faster answer to their problems. Therapy sounds like a lot of hard work, and a lot of time. It sounds easier to pray a prayer, read a few Scriptures and have the situation be all better.

E. Loneliness- as humans we are hardwired to interact with others. Some people seek out counseling with their pastor to have that one on one communication and someone to talk to.

For countless years, pastors and church leaders have been doing counseling on various situations. And most pastors are in ministry because of a calling and a deep LOVE for people. So what could possible go wrong? A LOT. Here are a few pitfalls to look out for if you, and/or your team, are routinely doing counseling (non-professionally) at your church:

1. It can become a massive time drain. For years our large staff would do counseling for free for anyone who asked. But over time, the demand for hours made it almost impossible for me or my staff to get our kid’s ministry services planned for. Counseling 7-8 people began to take precedence over ministry services for 600 kids and their families. I got into ministry due to a strong calling to love and reach kids and families- and counseling was definitely a part of that- but I needed balance. I thought I was obligated to counsel anyone who asked, but my bigger obligation was to the ministry I was there to do (our weekend and midweek services). Left to itself, counseling can easily become most if not all of your job rather quickly.

2. Most pastors are NOT trained counselors. As yourself, “What has my training really prepared me for?” My intention here is not to offend. But ministry leaders typically have an education, background and experience in ministry- not mental health or addiction.  I am not trained or equipped to fix your car- I would send you to a mechanic. I also would be the worst possible person in the world to paint your living room. I am also not trained to counsel someone through memories of severe sexual abuse. You are a minister- you really do not have to be EVERYTHING to EVERYONE. We have to admit that we are not trained to handle a lot of counseling situations- suicidal depression, cutting, bulemia, borderline personality disorder etc. I’ll be totally real here- my mandatory pastoral counseling class was only 3 credits, many years ago, and I do not remember a whole lot of it….That is not enough training for me to counsel a lot of conditions.

3. Too many scandals have already made the news of inappropriate relationships between pastors and the ones they were “counseling.” Use a lot of wisdom before you spend a whole lot of time alone with someone who is emotionally raw and vulnerable. In fact, do not ever do counseling truly “alone”. I keep my door open, or include my husband (who DOES have a psychology degree), and/or I meet in a room with a LOT of windows, during the busiest time of the day in the office. If you are not careful, your love for people and compassion, could cause you to compromise yourself and your reputation, leading to horrendous damage to that person, your church and your ministry as a whole.

4. There have been several lawsuits already against pastors for “terrible counseling advice.” For example, if a teenager you are counseling for suicidal depression actually kills herself…will the family be satisfied that you did your best? It is not a good idea to represent yourself as a trained counselor when you are not one. If you set up people’s expectations that you are a trained, licensed therapist when you are not, and then your advice goes wrong- or is simply misinterpreted- you can set yourself and your church up for a lawsuit.

5. You may end up with an open ended “black hole” situation. Any minister who has been doing this awhile knows what I am talking about when I say, “A person who is a black hole of need.” This is a situation where the person/family will never get enough of your attention or time.  They will need more and more of your schedule; and there will be NO natural end of the DRAMA. The connection with you will become inappropriate- breaking into your family and recreational time. This is not about any one situation or problem; this becomes an addiction to YOU, to attention and to drama. And it will never end on its own. And people who have these needs will come out of the woodwork looking for you, as soon as it is well known that you do endless free counseling. They will monopolize your time until your family time, personal life, and all other ministry ventures suffer. As a responsible pastor, you cannot allow that to continue to go on.

So what can we do then? Never do any counseling at all? I do know some churches who have forbidden their ministers to do any counseling at all. If you plan to continue to offer counseling at all (full disclosure, I still do at times), please consider taking the following important precautions:

1. Do not commit to counsel anyone who asks every time. Anyone who is interested in counseling should call and ask for an appointment. Decide ahead of time and put in WRITING what you are prepared to do counseling on and what you are not. For me, I will talk to parents about parenting issues, to children who are grieving (I took special grief counseling training etc), and to children having deep spiritual questions/concerns.  I refer people immediately who are suicidal, being abused, or may be in danger.

2. We follow a rule of three. Most of the time, we only meet with someone a maximum of 3 times before we refer them to a professional counselor. Three sessions only keeps the situation from being open ended and going on forever, monopolizing your time. If they need more than 3 sessions, it MAY be outside of your scope of expertise anyway.

3. Do not meet completely alone. Do not meet in complete secrecy. DO include your spouse or another staff person if necessary. Do NOT meet in their home. Do NOT meet in your home. Meet during office hours, NOT after dark. Do NOT go off alone with this person anywhere, ever.

4. Remember that being compassionate does not mean saying yes to everything. You are still in control. You can say NO to endless sessions, or to a poor time/place choice. At times it is the MOST compassionate answer to refer someone to a better place for help and support. If your gut is saying something wrong, trust it and refer that person on.

5. Build a great repoire with the professional counselors in your area. KNOW what is offered in your community, for free or on a sliding scale. KNOW which counselors you trust. If possible, have that relationship with amazing counselors that you can refer parishioners with confidence. Some churches actually have a counselor on staff or a counseling center that they are affiliated with. Know all about these options and make referrals.

6. Go get more training. I found free grief counseling training/certifications right in my own city. It was a lifesaver for helping me to help kids and families dealing with loss, divorce and death. Always be educating yourself to increase your ministry effectiveness, but know when to defer.

So what are your thoughts? How have you handled pastoral counseling at your church/in your ministry? What do you think our scope of pastoral counseling should include? Love Trisha

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