I mean, elders are under tremendous pressure to become “shepherds,” which seems to imply counseling. And when a church member approaches an elder to request counseling, the elder is quite naturally flattered — and excited that he finally gets to do what elders are supposed to do. The trouble is, no one has trained the elders on how to counsel — or more to the point, how not to counsel.
1. Here’s the first rule: Being ordained an elder doesn’t make you an expert in counseling. Don’t try to be what real counselors spend years learning to be. Most professional counselors have masters degrees in counseling. Some have doctorates. And yet even they aren’t very good at their job until they’ve had years of experience. To get experience, professional counselors intern under experienced counselors — because you can only learn so much from a book.
Therefore, you are not a professional counselor. You are not qualified to treat difficult issues. On the other hand, you are a great spouse and great parent and maybe even a great money manager. You are likely very qualified to coach husbands and fathers on parenting, marriage, and money — very desperately needed coaching, by the way.
But you are not qualified to help someone deal with being bipolar, clinical depression, thoughts of suicide, or sexual dysphoria. You can be a friend. You can listen. And you can refer the more serious cases for professional help — Christian professional help. But you can’t counsel people with truly serious issues. Don’t try.
2. Here’s the next rule: Three sessions and out. Many churches have adopted a policy that limits non-professional counselors to three sessions. (In Cautious Counseling, Richard Hammar recommends no more than five sessions of no more than 45 minutes apiece in any 12-month period.) You see, some members will demand weekly sessions for as long you’ll allow just because they’re lonely. Or because they’ve developed romantic feelings for the elder. You can’t let yourself be used. The church needs you to serve the church — and if you let emotional sponges take over your life, they will. You could lose your marriage because of such people. (Have seen it happen up close.)
You’ll feel terribly guilty and hurt for the lonely person. But if you tell them at the very first session it’s three times only — and then a referral to a professional — maybe sooner — it’ll be easier. After all, if you can’t help them in three sessions, they really need to see a professional.
3. And, by the way, if you learn the person your counseling has romantic feelings for you, leave the room. Refer them to someone else. Do not attempt to counsel someone who thinks he or she is falling in love with you. You’ll only hurt them, and they’ll likely misinterpret your kindness as reciprocating their feelings. Stay away.
4. Never meet with someone of the opposite sex (or gay person of the same sex) alone. Not in a restaurant. Not in a conference room. Not in a car. If you meet at the church, be sure there’s a window in the door and someone else is present in the office area throughout your session. Some people who need counseling are, you know, crazy — and some will imagine all sorts of things and accuse you of all sorts of things. Protect yourself. You should record the entire session. Easy with a smartphone. Some churches install cameras for this purpose. Again: protect yourself.
The church should have a formal policy regarding such things. Follow it. You’re an elder, and that doesn’t make you so holy you don’t need to follow the rules. In fact, you should be an example of how to follow the rules scrupulously.
Some recommend that no man counsel a woman and that you instead provide a woman as counselor — and I think there’s a lot of wisdom in that advice. Of course, this requires the church to have a woman available and qualified to counsel — but many do.
5. Explain the rules regarding confidentiality in advance — in writing. In most states, since you aren’t a licensed counselor, the sessions aren’t privileged and what is said can be discovered in a court proceeding. If so, the person being counseled needs to be told, since he/she will assume the sessions are privileged (although some states do protect church counselors from being subpoenaed).
In addition, you likely want to be able to talk to the preacher and other elders about your counseling sessions. If so, the person being counseled should be told in advance that you might do this. I mean, what if this person admits to being a pedophile? Well, you really need to tell the youth minister not to allow the pedophile to teach teens — and this is a problem if you’ve promised confidentiality.
If the person you’re counseling confesses to a clear and imminent danger — such as a desire to kill someone or himself — you are likely under a duty to disclose this information to the authorities. If they confess to child abuse, you may also have such a duty. State laws vary.
You’re an elder. Your first duty is to the church. If your duty to the person counseled conflicts with your duties to the church, the church comes first — which will be a surprise to many. Tell them in advance how it works — in writing. Make them sign a form acknowledging that they know this.
Oh, and some counselors have been sued for violating a client’s confidentiality. The only safe protection is to have them sign a form acknowledging the limits on their privacy. (The First Amendment may give some protection here, but the law is not well developed — and who wants to face a jury on such a question?)
6. Build a portfolio of wise people to whom you can refer members for counseling. If you know someone better than you at financial management, don’t let your ego get in the way. Refer the person needing counseling to the better advisor. If someone needs professional counseling, get to know the professionals in your community so you can make a good recommendation. Talk to people who travel in those circles — some of the primary care physicians and social workers, for example — and ask whom they recommend to their patients and clients.
Very often the best advice you can give someone is the right person to talk to — who is often not you.
7. In Counseling Do’s and Don’ts, Link Care Center advises,
The ultimate goal of Christian counseling is to increase the client’s dependence upon God, not man. Counselors are tempted to assume responsibility for the outcome of the presenting dilemma. An over-responsible counselor can unknowingly cripple a client’s growth by fostering an unhealthy dependence that resembles a parent-child relationship. Meeting every need and answering every request is a sure way to burnout. Learning to assist those in need without controlling the counseling process is a masterful art
Insist that the person you’re counseling take responsibility for their own decisions. Don’t live their lives for them.