by Robert Heiliger, LPCC-S

Most clergy have had experience counseling someone in a crisis. But most do not have the time to provide longer term counseling and, unless properly trained and supervised, most do not have the skills. Here are some suggestions to help the pastor know when it’s time to refer to a person trained and specializing in counseling.

  1. When the pastor does not have the skills to counsel in this particular situation.

Know your time limits and know that there are liability factors when you engage in counseling beyond your level of skill. Even skilled counselors know their limits and use peers and supervisors to help in new or difficult situations.

  1. When the pastor does not have the time to do the counseling properly.

Most pastors can handle emergency or short term counseling, but it is not recommended you do more than 3 one hour sessions alone without getting consultation or supervision.

  1. When the counseling serves the pastor’s needs more than it serves the church member or the person seeking help.

A pastor is in a powerful position when a hurting person shows up. The balance of power is not equal when a hurting person comes for counseling. In a vulnerable position, a hurting person will often follow the pastor’s advice, so it is extremely important that the pastor does not misuse the office of the ministry to meet personal needs.

  1. When the pastoral role is compromised or lost, and the energy shifts from that of pastor doing counseling to a friendship, a romanticized relationship, or an affair.

Hurting people often are confused and may want more from the pastor than counseling. The pastor must make for himself or herself clear boundaries. Though pastors are agents of God’s love, pastors also must be lovingly firm about boundaries.

  1. When extra attention is given by pastor to the hurting person in a way that is increasingly at the expense of the congregation or the pastor’s family.

A pastor usually has some sort of written or verbal agreement with the congregation and the family as to how many hours are available for church and for family matters. When a hurting person’s needs begin to cut into the hours committed to the church or to the family, take a moment to reflect. You can easily get allured into the “Messiah Trap,” a term coined by Carmen Renee Berry. Be a good steward of your time.

  1. When it begins to feel funny or when the boundaries are fuzzy or are being crossed. 

There are spatial boundaries (such as touch or how close people sit) verbal boundaries (such as the appropriateness of words in a social or professional context), and time boundaries (phone calls or appointments at unusual hours) that need to be attended to. Most pastors have good intuitive skills but we all have a blind spot. Seek peer or professional supervision when it feels funny to you.

  1. When the person seeking your help has now begun to transfer unnecessary power, expectations, authority, responsibility or fantasy upon you, the pastor.

It is wonderful to feel valued and appreciated by the one you are helping. But beware! Stay within your own authority and responsibility as a pastor. Encourage the hurting person to trust others and God as a support network is developed.

  1. When the pastor begins to over-identify with the hurting person’s problem.

All people (and all pastors) have a personal history of wounds, and some that woundedness is unfinished business. Show appropriate empathy, keep your issues separate, and remember the acronym “INAM,” “It’s Not About Me!”

  1. When the pastor has difficulty maintaining confidentiality and begins to talk about the hurting person’s situation with other than professional peers, consultants or supervisors.

Some of the stories of hurting persons are powerful and even overwhelming. The 8th Commandment (Do not bear false witness) has a positive injunction, namely that we defend our neighbor’s honor and good name. What is told to you in confidence must be maintained in confidence. Professional counselors absolutely honor this ethical policy, except where there is danger to the client or others. Then the information that there is danger or risk is reported to appropriate authorities.

  1. When the pastor has no back up or support system or supervision to help with troubling situations.

Pastors get sued when they cross boundaries, give inappropriate advice, and try to be “The Lone Ranger.” Use peers, consultants and supervisors to help you stay honest with yourself. Excellent clinical and pastoral supervision is available from Diplomates and Fellows of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. Such supervision can also lead to Member Certified credentialing with AAPC.

  1. When there are serious threats or risks to the health, safety or welfare of the hurting person, others, or yourself.

Examples of such risk include the threat of suicide, homicide, violence or neglect. You no doubt will be called on to help someone in your ministry, perhaps save a life. Just remember to notify the appropriate authorities (emergency, medical, social or psychiatric services.) Domestic violence requires caution and back up.

Hopefully, these guidelines will help you as pastor to know when to refer to a professional counselor. Staff at the Professional Pastoral-Counseling Institute are always willing to help you.

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