Advice to a New Elder: They Smell Like Sheep, Part 11 (Counseling Boundaries)

shepherd3Both new and experienced elders often get in trouble when they to counsel church members. There are some real dangers here that most are not sensitive to — because we do so little elder training.

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.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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16 Responses to Advice to a New Elder: They Smell Like Sheep, Part 11 (Counseling Boundaries)

  1. Larry Cheek says:

    I guess I am just very lucky that I have only had a few opportunities to help a brother or a sister while they were under distress. The majority of those whom I have been asked to help were being unjustly disciplined by the local church. Yes, I said unjustly because the concepts the church was pushing were easily proven unbiblical. But, something that I have noticed in your post is the lack of the Spirits involvement in both the individual looking for counseling and an individual being asked to do counseling. Personally, I would have thought that the scriptures with the help of the Spirit would be a greater qualification than any amount of secular school credentials. I know that the courts would not recognize the Spirit as a qualified counselor, but when we look to Jesus and his instructors The Apostles, I don’t believe that they would have backed down from counseling anyone. In fact it could be easily shown that they went out of their way to counsel with disagreeable lifestyles.
    So as we are discussing some of these things I believe somewhere in this document I had encountered the subject of bipolar. I have encountered many people who claim to be bipolar. Most of them are on drugs to keep them on one side of the pole. Can a Christian (a follower of Christ) who is on drugs to alter their mental state be held accountable for their inability to control their own bodies? What kind of diseases were mind controlling in the scriptures? What kind of drugs would Christ or his Apostles have offered as a substitute for an individual controlling their own actions? Could it be that demons are still active within human bodies today? If that could be true, then drugs are used to appease the demon?
    Just major questions of mine which seem not covered in bible communications. But, are applied in the world.

  2. Mark says:

    I definitely agree re confidentiality. Either the seal of confessional (or counseling rules) applies or it doesn’t. The worst thing is the college coed who talks to an elder or his wife in supposed confidentiality and word of the discussion reaches her parents before the sun goes down. That is a betrayal of trust.

  3. Dwight says:

    I believe counseling should be as a friend and brother, not as a profession, even though many of the same rules may apply.
    And I agree, Stephen was filled with the Spirit, and thus presumably would have made a great counselor or confident or helper. Being filled with the Spirit of someone who cares which would aid in the wisdom should be encouraged even past the point of a degree. Even someone trained in listening can sometimes help more than one who is trained in problem solving.

    Confidentiality is a must, because it lays down trust. When the scriptures tell us to confess our sins one to another, there is no expectation that the confession will be passed along down the line.
    Unfortunately preachers are some of the worst in this, as they believe that among there peers they have carte blanche to pass on information of a personal basis.
    I have been the victim of this.
    What was passed on wasn’t a problem I was having, but rather an article I was writing that I had asked another preacher to critique and they agreed, but they didn’t and then passed the article on to another preacher who then confronted me.
    What we often forget is that we aren’t dealing with problems, we are dealing with people who have problems.

  4. Johnny says:

    As someone that has family members with mental illness I agree strongly with the suggestion of referring to a professional. A chemical imbalance in the brain is not going to be solved with a counseling session with an elder any more than diabetes can be solved with a session. An elder and/or staff member needs to recognize the difference in a spiritual/moral issue and a medical one. I have seen too many who went without treatment for too long while counseling and prayer were being held by the ministers.

  5. Dwight says:

    Johnny, As I work in the medical profession I agree that there is a line between what an elder or other Christian can handle and what they can’t on some level. But I also believe that this doesn’t mean hands-off, but rather work together, after all the spirit and soul are involved in a person. A bi-polar person, and I know a few, needs support and understanding from others as well. But for the general person someone to talk to and listen and confide in can be a powerful thing. God first, then your brother or sister.

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    Thanks for the comments. I should have also mentioned the question of church discipline. What if a woman seeks counseling from the preacher. During the session, she admits to an ongoing affair with a non-member who is married to someone else. She refuses to end the affair.

    May the preacher tell the elders about the affair? Must he?

    Suppose he does and the elders meet with her and urge her to stop her adultery. She refuses. They threaten to disfellowship her. She threatens a suit for breaching her confidence.

    This exact situation happened in Oklahoma and was litigated. Ultimately, she withdrew from the church before they could withdraw from her, and yet the elders went ahead and “disfellowshipped” her — even though she had withdrawn from the church. She sued and won a huge jury verdict, because the elders announced that adultery was the basis for the withdrawal.

    Ultimately, the Oklahoma Supreme Court held that church may exercise discipline largely as they please — but only against members. When someone withdraws, they are no longer a member and so they no longer consent to the church’s disciplinary rules. In that case, the law governs, not the First Amendment, and the law does not allow the breach of her confidence.

    But if she had remained a member, the First Amendment would have kept the courts out of the case and she could be withdrawn from and the reasons announced.

    However, there is also law that says discipline is allowed, not due to the First Amendment (and hence completely protected), but due to implied consent — assuming the member is aware of the church’s policies regarding counseling and withdrawal. If the church can’t show reasonable notice of the risk of disclosure, they might have liability even if the member doesn’t withdraw before the announcement is made.

    In short, if the church’s policy is that telling the preacher you are an unrepentant adulterer in a counseling session can lead to discipline, your best position is to be able to show that the counseled client was aware of the rules — that public rebuke and discipline is a possibility.

    And even with full disclosure, if the member withdraws from the church because the elders exercise discipline, well, you really can’t withdraw from someone who has withdrawn from you — and that makes it hard to impose any discipline. But if the member would prefer to leave the church rather than her lover, it’s unlikely that the withdrawal was going to work.

    In short, it’s complicated: but you always do best by telling a person being counseled — in advance — when their secrets will not be kept. And there are cases when church leaders really can’t keep a secret.

    Some churches have professional counselors on staff. In that case, the leaders and counselor need a clear understanding as to what confidences the counselor will keep. If he’s not an elder, he doesn’t have quite the same conflict because he’s not been charged with the protection of the church as his highest duty. But the elders need to know this — or they may get very upset when they find out that the staff member counselor has kept a member’s pedophilia or affair with the preacher’s wife a secret from them. They may not understand that paying the counselor’s salary doesn’t entitle them to know what he knows.

    It’s a good conversation for the ministerial staff to have with the elders — and the ministers should be aware of the problems they create when they share counseling issues with an elder who has spiritual duties that may conflict with the minister’s duty of confidentiality.

    Again: it’s complicated.

  7. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    The point of the post was to focus on the boundaries, not the actual task of counseling. There are areas of great danger. For example, if a member admits to contemplating suicide, you may well be able to help despite your lack of a license — as a trusted friend. But you may have a legal duty to report that person to the state counseling service so a professional can help, too. If you don’t report the potential suicide, and the member kills himself, a church leader who was counseling him and who didn’t report the suicide to the state can be sued for failing to involve a professional in trying to save this person’s life. (Not true in every state.),_Duty_to_Protect/

    I can prattle on all day about the First Amendment and how much risk a church counselor takes on — but who wants to see the person he is counseling kill himself, kill someone else, molest a child, pass on a dangerous disease, etc.? Even if you can’t be sued? Who wants to pay for the lawyers to determine whether you can be sued?

    Very unlikely that someone who is just a friend ever gets caught up in these questions. But if a preacher or elders holds himself out as a “counselor” and keeps regular hours for “counseling,” the courts may well hold him to the professional standards of a counselor.

    Obviously, this is all quite different if you’re just helping a friend through a parenting or marriage issue — but these kinds of conversations frequently turn to questions of depression, suicide, and domestic violence. Our campus ministers have all heard some pretty gruesome stories about abuse of girls by their parents or other relatives. Do they have a duty to report the parent for abuse of a minor? What if the girl is now an adult but she was abused as a minor? And you never see these things coming, you know.

    We all know people, I’m sure, who’ve received horrifically bad advice from a preacher or elder. Battered wives have been told to return to their brutalizing husbands and to submit. Children have been told to honor their father and mother — who abuse, rape, and even sell their sexual services to others. So being a Christian, minister, or elder does not qualify you to counsel. In theory, any minister or elder should be qualified to counsel in some areas — they should never have been ordained. But we do seem to ordain men with some very peculiar views of scripture.

    So I’m just saying to know your limits. Not many of us could help someone with clinical depression — but we can walk alongside them, be with them, listen to them, and help them seek professional help and do what the professional recommends. We can remind our bipolar friend to take her pills even when she’s feeling good and help her cope with the effects of the disease. And I’ll pray for healing — but insist she take her pills until God decides to work a miracle. I’m not going to decide for God who gets divine relief. That’s entirely up to him.

  8. Larry Cheek says:

    A part of my point which I failed to present was that if you are not in a position of authority within an organization it would be very unlikely that a lawsuit could be implicated against an individual who just offers an opinion. Also a Christian which I assumed was the individual in need of counseling should understand that counseling with referencing of the scriptures is really not the individual but God’s Word doing the counseling. I would suggest that the session be identified as Bible study of a problem in life, rather than identifying it as counseling. And the fact that professionals are definitely subject to the laws of society for attempting to use the scriptures as a basis of authority for actions to be applied to the subject. Therefore, as members of God’s family guiding an individual to professionals removes almost any guidance from God’s Word.
    I really do agree that any Christian who confesses to items as you have suggested who could not be influenced by the one who they confessed, to correct the (sinful actions), there would be a need to investigate an alternate opportunity for the deed to be exposed which would not implicate the the one who was given the direct confession. Hardly anyone lives a life that is so secret that only their revelation of an attitude is known by individuals who associate with them. Just look how the lives of those who have committed heinous acts have been reveled to many prior to the acts. In other words many become just as responsible as the actor, just because of lack of taking action to properly insure that the action would not succeed.

  9. Monty says:

    I’m guessing here but I would tend to think that and Elder or the Minister carry with the titles a certain amount of authority. The Members tend to hold them in high regard generally. What if a Minister or an Elder counseled,(instructed), recommended, that say a physically abused wife return to her abusive husband and God forbid he beat her or even worse took her life. What then? What if the woman had told (say her daughters) she was going back to her husband because of the recommendation(counsel) of the elders? What if they filed a lawsuit? Could the Minister or the Elder be held responsible in that case?

  10. Dwight says:

    Unfortunately there are many cases where the elders, preacher, etc. handled the other bother or sister correctly and still were brought before the courts simply because the church and the societal courts do not always see eye to eye. While the church might withdraw from a homosexual, this might be seen as slander, to which the external courts could see it as an action based on hate.
    One thing is true is that we are encouraged to confess our sins to another, this would seemingly be without consequence, but the other would most likely or should strongly encourage correction by the sinful person.
    In the case of the Corinthians the sin was well known, but according to the OT law and presumably the NT law there has to be witnesses to the sin to confront or convict another of that sin.
    Where does telling another fall into this? I don’t know.
    It is possible that the one confessing could be lying about a greater sin to get sympathy or make the situation worse than it is. I could tell another that I am a murderer, but have never killed anyone, so I am only guilty of lying, but not murder, but the other person doesn’t know this.
    Can they act on what they have heard and not been a witness to?
    Should they?
    There would have to be an investigation into the truth by someone at some point.
    My thoughts are that I have seen many people jump-the-shark to conclusion without vetting the truth. At least in the OT if one accused another, let’s say a complaint of the loss of virginity before marriage, there was an investigation by the elders to determine the truth.
    But a confession while an admission of sin, isn’t the sin itself
    And if the confession doesn’t overtly involve others, let’s say drug use, then the other should seek the best for the other in whatever way possible…this is called love.

    True Story: My sister’s husband had an affair, a homosexual affair, and they kept the sin between themselves and God. His sin was before my sister and God and he came back to her and confessed and presumably was forgiven by all. He died of AIDS about seven years later after having three children and being good and faithful. The situation never made it to the church, because the church didn’t need to be involved. Only a few other people knew. There were no witnesses, but just a confession and then proof seven years later. My sister heIped her husband get through the sin and supported him until he died.
    Sin happens and forgiveness happens.

  11. Alabama John says:

    In many cases folks can get better advise at the local bar than with the church.

    If a child is getting molested and tried to stop it by telling to the church and authorities and nothing helped.what positive advice should an elder give?

    Train the child to shoot and when it is happening again, have it shoot the culprit (for a better name than the one I want to use) and then go down to the front of the church and sincerely ask for prayers for forgiveness for the killing by God.

    God would forgive the person and a positive lesson would of been learned by a lot of folks, young and old.
    The authorities would even be telling it positively quietly to each other in private. So would the folks at the bar.

  12. Dwight says:

    I’ll repeat what my wife has told me in the past, “Sometimes many people talk to be heard and know they are being listened to and to know someone cares to listen and aren’t always looking for a fix and many times know what the answer is” (paraphrased).

    AJ, that is scary talk. If it is self-defense, do they need to confess wrong (I don’t know, but I doubt it), otherwise it is premeditated murder and vengeance resides in God’s hands. Now days children have a voice and will be heard, but are afraid or ashamed to speak up. We need to make it known to our children that they will be heard and they can speak…to the adults and it will be handled by the adults for them.

  13. Alabama John says:

    Dwight, adults handling it sounds good but in many cases the advice is go back for more. Now that to me is SCARY!
    Being afraid to take action to protect yourself is good advice in my opinion and I believe its Gods way too.
    Instruction to protect yourself instead of submitting to sexual misconduct by someone older is stupid advice. If that is a churches instructions to go back for more, no wonder our churches are in trouble.
    Protect yourself would be the advice from any bar.

  14. Dwight says:

    AJ, I don’t understand. I don’t know of any elders or church that would argue that one should go back for “more” child molestation or even “more” spousal abuse, if it is truly going on.
    They system is fairly hyper-vigilant right now in regards to child abuse…to the extent they will even remove a child who has been yelled at by a parent.
    Most adults in the congregations I have been to would try to remove the child from this situation.
    I have actually been one of these people, where a friend of my daughter (16 YO) claimed she was verbally abused and kicked out of the house by her mother and we offered her a place to stay.

    If the child does kill another who he/she claims sexually abused them without proof, the child will most likely be brought up on murder, unless underage and then will be in another system. Informing an adult/authority will lay down a report and will allow investigation before it comes to killing another.
    I am not a lawyer, but there are many cases on the books where the “innocent” people have killed “an abuser” and been sent to jail due to lack of reported incidents or good proof.

  15. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:


    Legally, it’s hard to say. Merely giving bad advice does not get one sued — not successfully. But acting as a professional counselor and giving incompetent, negligent advice just might. Factors to consider would include whether the minister/elder charges for the counseling service, whether they hold themselves out as “counselors” (laws vary), whether they were acting within the scope of their church office (might invoke First Amendment protection), whether they violated a state law (such as by failing to report sexual abuse when required to do so) — but that’s for negligent advice.

    You can be sued for breaching confidentiality under similar circumstances, and it’s probably easier to prove a confidential relationship than a counseling relationship that mandates meeting a certain standard of care.

    Good Samaritan laws may protect elders who aren’t paid unless they act recklessly.

    So you see that it’s complicated — and laws will differ from state to state — and you may just get the pleasure of making new law as the judge sends your case to a jury to see what they think. And juries are mad at church leaders because of the pedophile stories coming out of the Catholic Church (not that they are alone in this sin). It used to be unthinkable to sue a church, and now it happens every day.

    Pay your insurance premiums. Notify your carrier quickly of potential claims. Call in the pros quickly when you have a hard case. Always put the safety of children and the church first. Disclose the rules on privacy before the first counseling session begins.

  16. Monty says:

    Thanks, Jay.

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