RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN COUNSELORS AND CHURCHES
These days, churches are (wisely, in my view) appointing counselors to their
staff, or setting up adjunct counseling centres, or referring parishioners
to outside Christian and other counselors.
As director of an independent Christian counseling service to which pastors
regularly refer people (including themselves!) I keep the following
constantly in mind:
1. Ethical Protocols:
* Referring pastors and others should not have access to confidential
matters raised in counseling sessions, without the permission of the
counselee. Occasionally such may be sought, for example, if the client's
suitability for a staffing position in the church is dependent upon such
matters (and then I only give a general recommendation, without disclosing
any details. Such screening should normally be done by an 'outside' body).
* Integrity: as a counselor I should regularly debrief with a supervisor -
at least once a month for an hour. This is becoming a legal requirement in
some Western countries. Peer consultancy and support and professional
courses help to 'hone' therapeutic, diagnostic, communication,
record-keeping and referral skills. I should also see a spiritual director
at least monthly. The role of 'touch' is touchy (!) if you are a church
member and also a counselor to fellow-parishioners. The wisest counsel is
'don't' (unless in situations like holding someone's hand for prayer in a
hospital-visit). It is also important that counselors know the boundaries of
their competency, and have good referral networks.
* Never counsel anyone in a context of absolute privacy - particularly
members of the opposite sex.
2. Practical Considerations:
* If a church employs professional staff it is crucial they 'mesh' with the
ethos and philosophy of the church.
* If formally associated with a church or counseling service, agree on a
written Job/Ministry Description. This will contain mutual expectations
relating to legal considerations, ethics (e.g. code of ethics,
confidentiality and professional boundaries: note that some clergy will feel
threatened by a perceived loss of authority or access to parishioners'
'secrets'), and financial considerations (e.g. salary,
donation-for-services philosophy, degree to which the counseling center will
be subsidized, professional indemnity insurance, etc.).
* The first counseling session should make clear certain 'covenantal'
expectations - like the time for each session (I usually limit them to the
customary 50-minute hour), financial considerations, a brief philosophy of
counseling (e.g. I'm regularly telling Pentecostals/Charismatics that most
healing miracles take time!) etc.
3. An idea or five:
* Essentially, I believe a Christian philosophy of counseling should be
eclectic (you would guess that from the accompanying article). Mine is a mix
of solution-focussed (flavoured by Glasser's 'reality therapy'), Rogerian,
and cognitive therapies, spiced with insights from the Christian men's and
women's movements. Theologically: counseling is 'Christian friendship' - an
experience of grace!
* Teaching courses on counseling to parishioners ('How to Help Your Friend',
'Listening Skills' etc.) is consistent with a commitment to empowering
fellow-Christians for their ministry! Remember the Carkhuff/Berenson/Truax
findings on the healing outcomes from empathetic friendships? You will also
recommend good Christian 'self-help' books for the church bookstall/library.
* I offer a two-day retreat to pastors and/or their spouses: six hours of
intensive 'life-overview' (see
http://www.pastornet.net.au/jmm/ajmm/ajmm0010.htm). A lot of good work gets
done in a short time!
* These days, I believe, with our pervasive distrust of authority-figures,
and the increasing breakdown of Western family and community-life, a lot of
anger is being 'transferred' to pastors and priests. We'll watch for that as
we counsel parishioners!
* Arrange for the church to pray regularly for its counselors - in a
dedicated 'Upper Room', in worship services, pew sheets and church
bulletins, email or telephone prayer-chains for emergencies, etc.
Rowland Croucher, April 2002