Most people find it easier to call a pastor than a professional counselor when they need someone to talk to. But just because pastors are easier to get to doesn’t mean we are all equipped for long-term pastoral counseling.
I know there are a many pastors who are certified pastoral counselors. I am not among them. Years ago I decided to limit my serious counseling to one or two visits, then encourage the counselee to seek professional help.
Most people just need someone to listen to them, and most of my counseling ends naturally after one or two meetings. But for those with persistent problems or serious emotional issues, I steer them to a professional. Here’s why:
- I am not a trained pastoral counselor. I have some training in basic pastoral care, but counseling was not my focus. Serious problems require professional care. I think it is pastoral malpractice to fail to refer someone whose problems are clearly beyond the scope of most pastors.
- I don’t have time. I am the single staff member of a small church in small town with many demands on my time. I try to act more like the triage department of a hospital emergency room — I evaluate and then refer. That way I have time for the next emergency.
- I care enough to refer. I think this is the most important reason I refer people who need extended counseling. I care too much about them to take responsibility for their well-being when I know I am under-qualified.
I don’t just drop a person after I refer them, either. I help them find an affordable counselor, if money is an issue. I inquire occasionally after referral to see how they are doing. I do not ask about the specifics of the counseling sessions, I just express a genuine concern for their well-being. Almost every situation I have handled like this has turned out well.
How we handle counseling can have a wide-ranging impact on others. Rick Warren’s associate, Tom Holladay, has been criticized recently for the counseling advice Saddleback Church gives to abused women and those considering divorce. What we do in this area does matter.
How do you handle counseling requests? If you are a trained counselor, is my approach valid and how could I improve what I do? Have you ever had a counseling situation deteriorate before you referred the client? I look forward to hearing your stories about how you handle counseling.
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