Are We Counselors?

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Recently, we had a continuing education event at our church on responding to the economic crisis. As we all know, even though the markets are up, and things seem to be stable, the unemployment rate is still high. While the general population is moving on with their shopping, a huge percentage of our country is still unemployed, trying to get a job in an incredibly tight market. So the needs in our congregations, as well as the level of anxiety and depression, can be quite high.

So we gathered, with two counselors, to find out how to best support people who are suffering during this time–our friends, our loved ones, our members, and often ourselves. One pastor began his question, “When we counsel people who have lost their jobs….”

And the counselor stopped him and said, “You don’t counsel people who have lost their jobs. You are not counselors, you’re not therapists. You can free yourself from that notion.”

It was a relief, in a sense. There are many times when I realize the huge difference between the relationship between a pastor/parishioner and a therapist/patient. When a patient sees a therapist, and then runs into that person in the grocery story, the therapist is not allowed to speak to her patient. The boundaries are set and clear.

When the therapist says something that angers a patient, the patient may discontinue the services, but it probably won’t hurt the therapist too much.

However, when someone comes to see us, we are not in a position to speak truth for an hour and say good-bye. The boundaries are a lot more fluid than that. We always greet them in the grocery store. We are intimately involved with the births, deaths, weddings, and sicknesses in their lives.

I’m not sure that we have the ability to speak the truth in the same way. Although we usually have more trust built in our relationships, we have to live with the consequences in a much more profound way. For instance, most of us have heard of pastors who counseled a spouse to leave a marriage, and then they were forced out of their jobs, or suffered retaliation within the congregation as a result.

All in all, it’s messy. But I don’t know that we can divorce ourselves from the notion altogether.

In Louisiana, pastors did a lot of counseling because it was a rural town, and there were no therapists available. In Rhode Island, pastors did a lot of counseling, because it was a pretty traditional place, and people were often more comfortable talking to their pastor than they were going to a professional counselor. In DC, pastors do a lot of counseling because a visit with me does not show up on medical records or a security clearance.

Also, you don’t have to wait a month to talk to a pastor. We are available when people need us. The person does not need insurance or even money to talk to us at the moment of distress.

In different parts of the country, in the wealthiest areas and the poorest areas, there was usually a reason why people went to their pastor. There are just many times when we are the counselor. And I feel equipped to be—at least—a gateway to more professional care. And I know that I can provide things that many counselors cannot—like prayer and spiritual direction.

So what do you think? Should pastors be counselors? Are we counselors whether we like it or not? Is the relationship too enmeshed to really do any good?

4 replies
  1. says:

    I am often a first stop before taking the leap to see a counselor. I try to align what I do closer to spiritual direction. If you are meeting frequently with me, and God isn’t coming up as a concern for you, I will start encouraging you to see a counselor. I’ll even make the call for you. Also, if they are needing me on a long-term regular basis, I will refer to a counselor, but like the US, getting into a counselor takes a long time.

  2. Katie H
    Katie H says:

    We have something different to offer than counselors. In my congregation many people have spent big bucks on professional therapists (some with great results, some with not so great ones) and at first I wondered what my role was. Increasingly it has come to me – what I have to offer is the good news of Jesus Christ and the promise of the resurrection, not just someday but here and now. That’s a pretty big deal when it comes right down to it. This isn’t to say that everything is going to get better – but that God loves us no matter what, well, it makes surviving times like these a bit more bearable.

  3. Erica
    Erica says:

    I try to think about it this way: my pastoral care training in seminary was just enough for me to know that I am not a therapist, and just enough for me to know when to stop trying to be that for a person. Maybe, as the child of a pastor-dad and therapist mom, I am a bit biased, but I try to err on the side of getting out of a situation where I become a therapist sooner rather than later.

  4. Stacey
    Stacey says:

    I think most of us learn some counseling skills – whether it be in seminary, through reading, or simply by dealing with the variety of life situations that we encounter as pastors – and I feel okay referring to some of what I do as pastoral counseling (although I would not call myself a pastoral counselor). But I put distinct emphasis on the “pastoral” part of that phrase. I might use some therapy-like techniques to help people express themselves and make decisions, but I’m not their therapist. A therapist is paid to concentrate on an individual for a specific amount of time. I listen and offer guidance as part of my broader call to minister to that individual and the wider community of which we are a part. Different deal…thank God.


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