Photo by dm74
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?