Academic journal article Counseling and Values

Nonsectarian Counseling in Churches: A Delicate Balance

Academic journal article Counseling and Values

Nonsectarian Counseling in Churches: A Delicate Balance

Article excerpt

This account of the author's 2 contrasting experiences as a church counselor raises awareness regarding counseling in new venues and in response to congregational and community needs. Church members responded to the invitation to come to counseling before problems became crises; the majority of the members explored midlife and other developmental issues. Specific concerns related to confidentiality and privacy, counselor values and attitudes, the extent of pro bono services, the counselor's relationship with clerics, counseling of clerics, church membership, outreach, and boundaries are addressed, as well as the effective use of discussion groups for youth, men, women, and parents in building a sense of community.

********** Many clerics lack adequate preparation for counseling (Domino, 1990; Orthner, 1986). Nevertheless, individuals, couples, and families continue to seek out pastors, ministers, priests, and rabbis for mental health counseling. Several factors may contribute to this phenomenon, including the lack of available counselors in various locations (see Weaver, Koenig, & Ochberg, 1996), potential clients' lack of financial resources for assistance elsewhere (Delafield, 1997; Wenzel & Thomsen, 1997), preference for religious counseling, and concern that secular counselors cannot help them with religious or other issues (Privette, Quackenbos, & Bundrick, 1994). In particular, individuals who attended church frequently (McClure, 1987) tended to look for help in the church, where they anticipated spiritual congruence (Carpenter, 1999; Delafield, 1997).

There seems to be a need and a desire to have counselors in churches (Pierce, 1980), and some churches work cooperatively with other churches to provide such services (Wenzel & Thomsen, 1997). To their credit, many individuals in the clergy understand their limitations regarding their counseling skills, and they attempt to obtain mental health training through workshops and seminars, including those sponsored by mental health organizations (Weaver et al., 1996). According to Wright (1984), clerics who took advantage of such continuing education opportunities were more likely to make referrals. Clients' lack of resources seemed to be a major factor that discouraged clerics from referring their church members to mental health professionals when such services were needed (Virkler, 1979).

Most of the previously mentioned concerns were confirmed during 5 instructive years that I spent as a nonsectarian church counselor. What follows are my reflections on those years, which are presented to raise counselors' awareness of various aspects of counseling in churches.

The Experience

Counselor Dispositions

After completing graduate work and beginning work as a counselor educator, and taking seriously professional admonitions to bring services to where the needs are, I served as a counselor for one church and, later, for another church in a different state. In each case, the church was one of at least two concurrent part-time counseling experiences that provided a clinical foundation for my work as a counselor educator and also provided a vehicle for obtaining the hours required to become a licensed counselor. The other locations were two substance-abuse treatment centers, an alternative school, and a Head Start center that emphasized play therapy.

Several assumptions led to my involvement with the churches. One of these assumptions was that individuals who seek counseling services in a church often wonder if they are "bad enough" to warrant seeking counseling in an agency. Another assumption was that individuals who attend church expect to consider personal direction and individual and family health and development. Therefore, I also assumed that churches offer a place that is already associated with personal and spiritual growth for addressing a variety of personal issues, from "not so bad" to serious. …

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