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Pastors Referring Counselees

November 22, 2008

For the follower of Jesus Christ, especially the follower who is a member of a local church, the pastor or other local church leader should be an option as a counselor should the need arise. In order to increase his effectiveness as pastor, including as counselor, the pastor will necessarily have to refer some cases. I will address three themes: why refer, how to refer, and who to refer to. This is a summary of my position on referral and my referral procedures.

Any counselor, including a pastor, will sometimes find it advisable or even necessary to refer a particular case to someone else. There are many good reasons for this. In one way or another, most of these reasons relate to limitations on the pastoral counselor. The most obvious limitation would be a pastor’s ability or expertise in a particular area. For example, the areas of substance abuse or sexual issues certainly include spiritual elements that the pastor may be equipped to handle, but they also are specialized enough to warrant the counsel of someone trained in those particular areas. In my opinion, the most important limitation on the pastor that would require him to refer cases is his time. The pastor’s primary responsibility is not counseling; in fact, that is only one element of his pastoral duties. Even in the typical church, the pastor could schedule a full-time counseling load. He must not do this. He must guard his time to be able to fulfill his primary functions of study, prayer, and teaching. There are other limitations which are related to these, such as: ability to lead necessary programs for some cases, training in a particular area, or even conflict of interest.

Once the necessity of referrals is established, we can look at how to go about referring a case. If an individual has met with the pastor for some time, he/she is likely emotionally attached. This makes referral difficult. I think the pastor should approach the subject with the client honestly. Admit that he does not have the training or resources to appropriately handle the situation. Reassure the counselee regarding their mental health (as far as he can tell). Reassure the client about their relationship. While the counseling relationship may be ending, the pastoral relationship is not. The pastor should work to maintain that relationship. Appropriate ways to do this may be through telephone calls, email, notes, and visits.

The pastor should work hard to form a network of sources to refer counselees to. The pastor has a responsibility to know the variety of professionals to whom he might refer. These should range from psychiatrists to Christian counseling programs. He should be careful not to overlook addiction recovery and marriage enrichment programs. The pastor will want to know some things about the counselor or program he is utilizing these include: reputation, training, experience, professional supervision, network of other professionals or hospitals to call on, and faith commitment or appreciation of such a commitment in the client.

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One Comment
  1. Liz permalink

    Good job! I’m enjoying your articles.

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