Cautionary Tale: guidelines and boundaries

August 6th, 2014

As a minister working within the context of a local congregation, what guidelines do you use when approached by individuals, couples, or families needing counseling? On a regular basis, I have had the privilege of consulting with clergy and churches as they discern what steps to take to help those struggling with various life issues. Although I do not have all the answers when it comes to helping clergy make wise choices regarding their level of involvement in these situations, I would suggest that establishing personal guidelines will bring role clarity and eliminate role tension. Overfunctioning, as well as underfunctioning, prevents people from getting the help needed in a timely manner.

Here are some points to consider when formulating your personal guidelines.

Presenting Issues and Degrees of Difficulty

Individuals, couples, and families present personal needs with varying degrees of complexity. Issues with a low degree of difficulty often require short-term counseling, where a high degree of difficulty requires long-term counseling to facilitate personal growth and skill development.

The diagram (see attachment) gives examples of some issues that are presented to clergy. Each issue involves various degrees of difficulty and requires different training and skills. Take a moment and identify those with which you have experience. Then, using a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being the lowest level of difficulty), identify the degree of complexity you believe to be involved.

Ministers having little training in counseling tend to be better suited to offer informal counseling/pastoral care (3 sessions or less) in such areas as grief and loss, vocational discernment, and faith struggles.

Personal Training and Skills

I will never forget an experience I had as a newly educated and ordained minister pastoring a small rural church. I discovered that two of our very involved church members had been having an affair for three plus years although both were still married. The topic of marital affairs was certainly not included on the syllabi for my pastoral care, family counseling, or church leadership classes. The CPE residency in a mental hospital didn’t cover it either.

When we think of clergy providing counseling, assessing the training and skills that clergy bring to the setting is important. It is not uncommon for theologically trained clergy to have had a few courses in counseling or a combined degree. Others may not only have a theological degree but may have a master’s degree in social work or counseling or maybe a doctorate in counseling. Accepting what training we have will help us make wise choices and allow us to bring our best gifts to each ministry moment. Developing guidelines for the roles we play is crucial because this will ultimately impact individuals, couples, and families getting help in a timely manner.

The Risk of Dual Relationships

Beyond training and skills assessment, the church setting presents its own unique issues in the form of dual relationships. Dual relationships involve situations where, for example, an aging church member is seeing his minister for counseling but, having no family, also wants the minister to become his power of attorney. Another person in counseling wants to be the minister’s Facebook friend. Or a single mother wants you to see her child but, because she is having a busy day, asks you to take the child to baseball practice. To avoid the blurring of relationships and the damage this creates, some clergy choose to counsel only non-church members to eliminate role tension.

Community Resources

When establishing guidelines for involvement, it is crucial that we do so by integrating community resources into our decisions. What types of faith-based resources are available in your community? Some churches are located in rural areas, which may have minimal resources when it comes to space for a counseling center staffed by a professional counselor. Other congregations have congregational assistance programs allowing for referrals of church members to a designated faith-based counseling service. However, the majority of congregations cannot fund this, nor are there partnership options that create these types of resources for their membership and community. When a community has limited options, ministers may feel more pressure to play a more active role.


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