Holy conversations

August 1st, 2014

As a second-career pastor (now retired) who served several churches in my short (fifteen-year) career, I feel that I helped many people get back on track and guided them to solutions through scripture, but I realized in many cases that I was not adequately trained to put them on the road to healing. We can only go so far, and then we need to help them to obtain professional help. Bill Siebert, retired pastor, The United Methodist Church

I feel equipped to provide counseling services to anyone, especially the congregations I serve. However, there are some standards that I uphold: (1) only short-term assistance; (2) never counsel anyone male or female alone, and always have a support person available on the premises; (3) do not commit to any long-term situation; and (4) be aware and use community professional resources to help your congregation. Elbrist Mason, pastor of St. Paul UMC in Meridian, MS

To me, pastoral counseling is being the best listener that you can possibly be. I have done a great deal of pastoral counseling in my forty-two years of ministry, and the most successful sessions have been when I listened the most intently. By being a good listener, most people that I have dealt with have worked out their own solutions to their problems and have confirmed the same. James Corbitt, retired pastor, West Ohio Annual Conference

At dinner with friends, a conversation arose about faith. These friends are not overtly religious, yet in the midst of some very challenging and painful life situations, a question had arisen about the source of peace and happiness. In effect, they asked for pastoral care that was not churchy but authentic. Children of God don’t always make it easier for me by showing up on Sunday mornings or self-identifying as part of the flock, yet they have spiritual lives, spiritual needs, and questions. Remember the words of 1 Peter 3:15. Patricia Farris, senior minister at First UMC in Santa Monica, CA

My constant advice: Assess and refer. Get to know the best professional counselors available in your area and direct your beloved parishioners to the one best suited for their needs. Very few clergy have the education or the license to practice therapy. We are not counselors but can be partners in care by offering spiritual support while our dear ones are working with trained professional counselors. Carol Pazdersky, associate pastor of Bel Air UMC in Bel Air, MD

When I went into ministry several years ago, I was surprised that a few women were coming to me, either because their daughters were going through a divorce or they were thinking of leaving their husbands. In the case of mothers, they didn't know what to do or say. In the case of wives, they were uncertain they could make it on their own.
Because I had been through a divorce years ago, and most were aware of it, I could provide both a listening ear and some reassurance. We prayed together, laughed together, wept together. In these encounters I also received newfound compassion for my mother. I had no idea how much my divorce must have impacted her. I also was able to share a bit of my story—my testimony, if you will—of how God had become my husband and provider as I sought to raise my two sons after their father left. Kim Benson, pastor of Pleasant Grove UMC and Buurtib UMC in Reno County, KS

I see pastoral counseling as crisis intervention. I'll meet with a person for no more than three sessions then refer to a licensed mental health professional if the issue is an ongoing one. If I am not comfortable meeting alone with a person for any reason, I'll ask someone else on the church staff to sit in on the session. I never close my office door without notifying office staff and sitting within view of the large window in my office door. Jean Schwien, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Salt Lake City, UT

People have emotional, relational, and spiritual needs, among other struggles. After seminary, I returned to school and got a master’s in clinical counseling with specialized training in grief counseling (people often grieve small losses and don't realize it). This also crystallized my call as a deacon, and I serve in a hospital and in a parish setting as a licensed therapist. Serving people who have addictions, who grieve, who harbor anger, even people who project onto me their desires (one person even stalked me for a year) can be challenging. Holding boundaries, being self-aware, continual self-care, and engaging daily spiritual practices helps to keep my compassion well full. When needed, seeing a therapist myself to help process what I hear and see helps, too! Leo Yates Jr., pastor of Centennial Memorial UMC in Frederick, MD

Do you think most pastors are qualified to do counseling with the members and guests at their churches? It seems to me that the answer to this question lies in the definitions of qualified and counseling. The credentials on my wall indicate that I am a counselor. In fact, I have tried to help people work through issues that seemed to them enormous. However, I take my qualification with a grain of salt. The key to me is knowing when I am getting in over my head—and then readily trying to guide that person to a more professional resource.
Seminary life rarely leads to qualification as a counselor. My observation tells me that very infrequently is a pastor qualified to guide a counselee. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that we clergy very often overestimate our capability in this regard. On the other hand, I see my pastoral role as frequently listening to people working through their problems and giving them support in the process. As a witness to Jesus Christ, my first calling is to be a lover rather than an adviser. David E. Durham, retired elder in the Upper New York Annual Conference

Yes, I provide pastoral counseling in the parish. A focus on pastoral counseling at seminary, a year and a half of CPE, a further year as hospital chaplain, and ongoing annual continuing education keep me current. I strongly recommend more than one quarter of CPE, more than a year of counseling classes, and annual continuing education. Always have one or more persons in the office area for safety. Difficult factors for me to handle with counselees are drug use and multiple instances of abuse. These I refer to other professionals and monitor. In my opinion, pastors should not do counseling over the internet. The counselor can't see the minute changes in facial features and body language, can’t get a sense of the room, and can’t perceive a myriad of other small details only available in person. Not to mention a sense of the Holy Spirit. Don Hegeman, pastor of Wesley UMC in Framingham, MA

There was a young couple, whom I had married two months prior, with two children. They asked for counseling as walk-ins to my office, but I soon discovered that she wanted me to counsel him to do what she wanted, which was unreasonable and not even feasible.
When I didn't fall into her plan, she started screaming at him, became extremely profane, and so on, until all I could do was make them leave the office. The screaming and yelling continued in the parking lot, so I had to go out and get them to settle down and understand that this was not solving anything and was disturbing our preschool, that he needed to go on to work, and that she needed to go home. I prayed for them aloud, and they did relax a little and left.
Not a very successful counseling session. They never came back, and I continue to pray for them. What I learned was: (1) when a couple comes asking to get married because they already have two children, there are going to be problems (there was a reason they hadn't married yet); and (2) one should insist people make appointments for counseling, unless it's a first call emergency (e.g., rape, crime victim, spouse abuse, suicide threat). The appointment gives them time to possibly work it out and gives the pastor time to find out some of what might be going on.
With the emergency counseling, each of these topics is a special category, requiring a professional beyond what most pastors are trained for. A session of listening to determine whether someone needs to be hospitalized, arrested, or made safe would be in order, to be followed up with a professional counselor whom you would recommend on the spot. In fact, even listening to their cry requires some training. I had fifty hours of training before I could even answer the phone at a rape crisis center I helped establish before I went into the ministry. Mary Beth Packard, retired United Methodist elder in the Florida Annual Conference

Prior to going into the ministry, I worked twenty-five years in mental health. Some of the most emotional damage done to people came from pastors. One of the most damaging events came from a pastor whose father had just died who insisted on "counseling" a person whose father had also died. His comments on how the pain only gets worse only served to exacerbate her grief. She would have done much better without his "counseling." Pastors should be aware and admit that in their times of weakness, they may not be the one to provide counseling. John Jordan, North Columbia Charge, Columbia District, South Carolina Conference

Most United Methodist pastors I have spoken with regarding personal counseling issues have been minimally helpful. I come from a background of thirteen years working in the substance abuse field, as well as fifteen years as a UMC local pastor. During my ministry, I took a pastoral care specialist course and became a certified pastoral care specialist until I retired. All of these experiences helped me to better counsel individuals and couples. I believe it would be extremely helpful for pastors to attend counseling classes in order to be able to effectively counsel those who come to them. Prayer is a wonderful way to help others, but prayer in and of itself is only one facet of effective counseling. Jean B. Rencontre, retired United Methodist pastor in the Detroit Annual Conference

Pastors must constantly offer pastoral care and spiritual direction to all the congregants but must never get in the business of trying to offer mental healthcare. It takes some time and discernment to know the difference, but it's vitally important for the sake of the people, the pastor, and the congregation as a whole. I never offer more than three sessions of counseling with anyone for any reason. I constantly refer people to good Christian counselors, and I work hard to nurture relationships and partnerships with mental health professionals. When I find myself in a situation in which I have any sense that I am pushing the boundaries of my role or my abilities, I immediately confer with others I trust—district superintendent, lay leaders, clergy colleagues, church staff. We lose our ability to serve our appropriate role as pastors when we overstep our bounds. Being a pastor means that we will necessarily find ourselves offering grace, counsel, prayer, presence, and wisdom as we encounter the messy places in people's lives, but we must take care that we never try to offer amateur mental healthcare any more than we would serve as amateur physicians. Nathan Attwood, pastor of Millbrook First UMC in Millbrook, AL

I have had good experiences with counseling. Many times it has been a way to minister to folks who are not as involved in church life. I am careful to maintain boundaries, and I have no problem sending folks on to professional counselors/therapists when the situation is beyond my skills. I am fortunate to have a good friend who is a counselor/pastor who has provided insight and is a good person for referral. Lisa Wishon, pastor of Main Street UMC in Reidsville, NC

My willingness to be open to doing pastoral counseling has changed through three decades of pastoral ministry. When I began in ministry, one of my clear passions was being present to those who needed pastoral counseling. I was fortunate to have had teachers who made us clearly aware of the dangers of transference and countertransference in a counseling relationship and so was on guard with respect to those kinds of pitfalls. However, as the issue of sexual misconduct became acute, I began to be wary of entering into counseling relationships, especially with women. In fact, I became so concerned about the potential for misperception and the injurious consequences that can develop as a result, I now routinely make referrals. Duane M. Harris, pastor of Auburn UMC in Auburn, MI

As a multicareer pastor, I have been able to use life experiences as well as continuing education classes in counseling to help people in a wide variety of situations, but here are some helps I have used. Never counsel over the internet. Never counsel after normal church hours unless accompanied by someone else. Always remember that it is God who will heal. So many times, it’s just about listening and pointing to God. And always remind yourself that your training may not prepare you for all circumstances, so have a list of other professional counselors and be ready to refer when appropriate. Even with all this in place, here is a cautionary story.
One afternoon, while counseling a young vet who was later diagnosed with PTSD, I could tell that he had been drinking. So when it came time to close out our session, I asked if I could drive them home. I called my wife and gave her directions to the location I would be going, and we went outside my office to their vehicle. The vet had financial, emotional, relational, and some physical issues and, as I said, had been drinking. As we approached the vehicle, the vet said, “Let me move something out of the seat so you can get in.” They bent over, removed an item, and turned to hand me a loaded pistol. No threats were made to me, but in a flash I thought of all the warning signs I had missed, the missteps I had taken, and the arrogance I had shown. I unloaded the pistol and drove the vet home, where I turned the gun over to their parents. No one was hurt, and eventually much progressed was made with the diagnosis of PTSD and professional counseling with the VA, but what if? Jamie Lea, pastor of First UMC in Mont Belvieu, TX

Here are some suggestions: - Keep the church office door open, hopefully with another person nearby in case of trouble. - A clear window in the study where others can see activities can be a great deterrent. - Avoid making home visits without another person, such as a spouse. - Be careful in nursing homes and hospitals, as people can misunderstand and twist words into painful accusations. - Keep a careful log of activities. - Refer, refer, refer when situations such as child or spouse abuse arise. These carry legal reporting and intervention requirements. - Be real—not pompous because you feel superior! We are only sinners saved by grace. - Above all, when entering a situation, pray for the infilling presence of the Holy Spirit with his gifts of wisdom, discernment, and knowledge. Richard E. Held, retired elder in the Kentucky Annual Conference

I feel the greatest problem faced by pastors regarding counseling is the difficulty of finding appropriate people or agencies for referrals. In rural areas there may be no counselors available, especially psychiatrists or psychologists, but even in urban areas I have seen cutbacks destroy local agencies (sometimes United Methodist) with trained counselors. Boyd Holliday, retired pastor in the Western North Carolina Annual Conference

I have been called upon by people in desperate times to listen and counsel. I walked with them, praying and caring for them, and saw them succeed in getting well emotionally and spiritually. But later, they seemed to turn on me for no apparent reason. I’m in the midst of this right now. A couple of people whom I helped are now angry with me. These people are now actively working to have me appointed elsewhere. I find myself feeling confused, betrayed, and hurt. Pastor’s name and identity withheld by editors

I am now a retired UM pastor. During my active ministry, I did engage in pastoral counseling as a significant part of the service given in pastoral leadership. I found this to be very meaningful for many of those I was called to serve. I had prepared for this aspect of pastoral ministry by taking an additional year of seminary training that focused on psychology, pastoral counseling, and clinical training. I engaged in a good bit of self-study and personal awareness as part of this preparation. I was instructed in what issues could arise and informed about ways to monitor my own needs and responses to those who would come for counseling. I made sure that the local church I was serving was supportive of this use of my time and understood that I would use care and caution in engaging in extended counseling sessions. If the persons were under the care of physicians or psychiatrists or clinical psychologists, I would work to coordinate my counseling with those other professionals with the permission of the counselee. I steadfastly cultivated my own spiritual life and cared for my family and personal needs within a healthy relationship with my wife. I never violated confidences. I did continue to take advantage of training opportunities and did extensive reading that gave further insight into the role that pastoral counseling could play in pastoral care and worked to keep my skills current. I used caution in exposing myself to false accusations of misconduct by doing most of the counseling in my study, which was private but also was in view of a church secretary or associate pastor. It was my privilege to see the healing work of God in the lives of counselees over the several years of my pastoral ministry. It is my opinion that pastoral counseling can and should be a part of pastoral care if the pastor is adequately trained, has good self awareness, and has the support of the local church that the pastor is serving. J. Fay Cleveland, retired pastor in the Upper New York Annual Conference

While in seminary in the early ’80s, I took several courses in pastoral care and counseling and learned a lot. After a little time in the local church, I learned this was not my strong suit. Oh, I could do the right things, but it took a heavy emotional toll on me. In time I learned that my strongest spiritual gift was in preaching and teaching, while my “mercy” gift was… well… quite low. I learned to limit my counseling load by spacing out appointments with adequate recovery time in between, offering only two to three appointments and having a list of good referrals on hand. This has the added benefit that, as the church has grown and my duties have expanded, I do not have the time to do more counseling.
I also keep firmly in mind that I am not a psychologist or psychotherapist but a pastor. While I can offer some limited psychological insights, my first priority and expertise is in offering a biblical and theological perspective. This, too, points toward the need for good referrals when psychological counseling is appropriate.
I never counsel with the office door completely closed but always leave it cracked open a bit. My stated reason (which is, thankfully, true) is otherwise the room gets stuffy. I never counsel with a woman in my office unless my secretary or someone else is in her office (the next room, to which the door is cracked open), and I do not counsel a woman alone in her home. If there is insistence on a pastoral visit in the home, I insist on someone coming with me. This has served me well in my thirty-three years of ministry, as I've never faced an accusation nor even had a question raised. It's all about not allowing even the appearance of possible impropriety. J. David Trawick, pastor of Northwest Hills UMC in San Antonio, TX

I have always seen myself as a “generalist,” and therefore my specialty with regards to counseling is limited. One of the first things I do when I move to a new community is research the counseling ministries available and seek to determine if I'd feel comfortable recommending my family to their services. In some cases across the years, I haven't been able to reach a comfort zone with existing pastoral counseling centers, so I have worked to birth counseling centers with the help of other clergy, laity, and denominational resources. Ultimately, I have found it very important to be aware of my own limitations and to refer people should their counseling needs be greater than what I can provide.
With regards to the integrity of counseling, I have asked on a few occasions for my executive assistant to stay after hours while I visited/counseled a person. On occasion I have asked my wife to be present in an adjacent room when counseling someone. In cases of extremely emotionally charged situations, I have asked a clergy or a respected lay person to be present in the room for the conversation. Having a window in my office door is a personal requirement of mine, and just using plain ole common sense can make a huge difference in keeping all parties protected from destructive accusations. Terry Walton, senior pastor of Gainesville First UMC in Gainesville, GA

A master’s degree in counseling, good pastoral care courses in seminary, and years of personal and professional experiences in healthcare helped to prepare me for pastoral care. In the rural churches that I have served, the majority of my counseling has revolved around grief and loss due to life changes brought on by disability, aging, or the loss of a loved one. Some of challenges I have experienced that seem to be specific to ministry include the expectation that the pastor is always available. Trauma and death are no respecters of holidays, including Christmas or the pastor’s planned time away. I was not prepared for the deep feelings of loss when relationships ended as one moves to another assignment. I would caution new pastors to not consider themselves indispensable and, by so doing, encourage dependency. Remember, you are also human with your own crises and losses, so don’t try to go at it alone. It is not failure to refer persons to professional counselors. Enjoy the awesome responsibility and privilege of shepherding God’s sheep with the power that God provides as you take time to nurture your own personal relationship with God. Marilyn Christmore, pastor of Saffordville UMC in Emporia, KS

Upon becoming a fulltime pastor (I served a part-time student appointment while in divinity school), I soon found that my pastoral care professor was correct. Pastoral counseling could take a lot of time that I as a pastor of a church did not feel that I had. As pastor of a church, I felt my primary responsibility was to the people of the congregation and to being available to them when they needed me, not to mention all the other duties of a local church minister. I did not feel I had the time to devote to long-term, regular appointment counseling. Availability to my congregation just didn't allow it. Therefore I limited my pastoral counseling to those situations I would call giving spiritual advice. The only times I varied from that limitation were in cases of indigence, in which a person in need of counseling just could not afford professional pastoral counseling.
In limiting myself to those situations of giving spiritual advice, I found the one subject I most often dealt with was forgiveness and that the issue of forgiveness often involved family situations. Questions about why forgive and how to forgive often arose.
I remember one occasion in which I was asked, "Brother Gardner, how do you forgive?" That question drove me to the depths of my own beliefs and to soul-searching on my part about how I went about forgiving. The result of my soul-searching was more biblical study and eventually a sermon, which I have preached on more than one occasion, on how we go about forgiving. In the sermon I outline some things I think we have to do in order to forgive.
Therefore I can say that at least one occasion of pastoral counseling made me dig more deeply into what I believe and how I go about practicing what I preach. It encouraged spiritual growth in me. I did think long, hard, and deeply about what forgiving requires of us, and I believe that I became a better minister and pastor for it. James Gardner, retired elder in the Tennessee Annual Conference

We sat across from each other. I had arrived first and had settled into a chair. I was just beginning to settle in physically when the door opened. Our eyes met but quickly were averted. We sat there in the office, intentionally not giving the slightest indication that we could be engaged in conversation. If this had been under different circumstances—at one of the local coffee shops, or of course a district-wide meeting—we would have spoken to each other: “Well, what have you been up to lately?”
Speaking specifically to counseling, what would happen if the above scenario was reframed and the two clergy had entered into dialogue—not invasive, but empowering conversations?
The role of confidentiality involves the disclosure of information between the provider and the recipient of services. It also involves to what degree and to whom do we share personal information. That does not change. Yet, in the mental health arena, everything is typically viewed more as secrecy—from the appointment setting to the visit and beyond. And with secrecy comes its companions, mainly shame and embarrassment. Receiving psychotherapeutic services should not be veiled in secrecy. It should be honored. Elenora Mackey Cushenberry, senior pastor of Philips Memorial UMC and Hartzell UMC in New Orleans, LA

What stresses me out about counseling? The dreaded phrase: “Don’t share this with anyone. It’s a secret.” I don't know how much of a secret or even how detrimental the secret can be, but it is definitely a phrase that makes my hair stand on end. I squeeze in a breath of the phrase: “If you're sharing with me that you have hurt yourself or another, I cannot keep that a secret.”
How do you protect yourself from secondhand trauma?
I try to be aware of emotional changes in the person I'm counseling. In addition, I attempt to connect with fellow clergy when I feel I've had too much of other people's drama, emotion, or simply need a safe release. I am involved in a covenant group with other clergy, and we vow to safely share, uplift, and guide one another as is appropriate.
Do you feel equipped to offer pastoral counseling to people in your congregation? Sometimes, yes. I do feel equipped to offer pastoral counseling, with a limited number of sessions, to people in the congregation in which I serve. Some areas where I'm unfamiliar are marriage, divorce, loss of a child in utero, being tempted with drugs, prostitution, or promiscuity. However, I have learned to listen to others and refer the question back to the person I'm counseling so they can hear themselves come up with the solution.
What words of advice do you have for inexperienced ministers? Connect with "seasoned" ministers. Don't be afraid to engage in the discussions or ask questions. Read books, attend seminars, think outside the box, be willing to fail. Admit your misunderstandings and your mistakes. Seek clarification. Visit other worship services. Get involved in the community.
What resources and training would you recommend? The New Interpreter's Bible One-Volume Commentary, the Archaeological Study Bible, and the Chronological Life Application Study Bible
With the rise of clergy misconduct and accusations of misconduct, how do you protect yourself and others? If I have company over, especially those of the opposite gender, I make sure they leave the home at an appropriate time, so as not to raise concern that anything could be taking place. I try to limit the amount of time I spend with any one person alone.
Should pastors do counseling over the internet? I do limited counseling over the internet. If people ask advice, I give little information; yet, if I warrant that more attention is needed, I will set up a public meeting (either at a restaurant or in the church office). Intent/tone can be misconstrued through simple text or e-mail. So strict counseling over the internet is not the only means of counseling. Chiyona Bourne, associate pastor of Memorial UMC in Terre Haute, IN

First, I open every session with prayer. I think it is important to have prayer with the person, to let them know that God is present with us. God is hearing you and me. Second, I ask a question: Do you want to change, or do you just want to talk about change? It is my feeling no one change unless they want to change. Third, I always need paper and pen to write with them as they talk. This shows I am listening to their needs. Fourth, I always close with prayer. We need to be addicted to prayer with God. Tom C. Murr, UMC pastor in Osceola, IA

About the Author

Circuit Rider

Circuit Rider is a magazine for United Methodist clergy. Issues back to 2008 are available on Ministry Matters. For read more…
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