The Importance of Effective Counseling Approaches in Ministry
by Robert J. Young
©, 2001, Robert J. Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]
What should one do when a family member exhibits behavior extreme enough to be a
threat to self or others? What if behavior is disruptive, but not threatening? Does belief in the
Word of God mean that one calls a minister rather than a professional counselor?
What should be the position of leaders in local churches concerning who may or may not
perform wedding ceremonies? Since churches of Christ historically have defined a "lay clergy"
with few qualifications or distinctions, should any "Tom, Dick or Mary[?]" be encouraged to
assist friends or family in performing weddings? Does belief in the Word of God influence who
one calls? In some states, those who perform ceremonies have legally-defined obligations. In at
least one state, clergy must meet strict qualifications to perform wedding ceremonies, and an
attorney in that state has suggested to me that the legal authority to perform ceremonies may
technically be limited to active ministers. Across our land, lawsuits which raise questions
concerning qualifications and competence are arising in various counseling and marital
I raise these matters with several memories fresh on my mind. I recently counseled a couple whose marriage was in trouble. Both parties had unresolved issues from childhood. My brief interviews from the first session revealed that both families of origin would be clinically characterized as dysfunctional. Obsessive-compulsive behaviors were ripping at the very fabric of the marriage. When I inquired concerning what, if any, pre-marital counseling had been done, I learned that the marriage had been performed by a physician friend and that the couple had visited with an associate minister "a time or two."
An acquaintance has been threatened with a counseling malpractice suit because he offered counseling with almost no background or training in therapy.
In another church, four cases of childhood sexual abuse recently came to light. That problem is undoubtedly more widespread (even among religious people) than most have been willing to admit.
An elderly woman I knew suffered from delusions--the Communists were out to get her
and she was always being pursued. Others believe they are being videotaped through their
televisions, "hear voices," or refuse to care for themselves. Some such cases may well be
indicators of early stages of Alzheimer's disease.
My own experiences with troubled marriages, troubled families, and troubled individuals is that many preachers can best serve by keeping a current referral network of qualified therapists and by maintaining open lines of communication with those to whom referrals are made. In most geographic areas, counselors who approach therapy from some kind of Christian perspective are available, but sometimes careful inquiry is necessary to identify such. Additionally preachers should attempt to keep current in the literature from the medical and counseling fields. Cultivate friendships with professionals in your area who can assist you in the task.
In times of severe crises, troubled minds frequently need more than the advice of a well-intentioned friend or the wisdom of a preacher. The emotional and physical aspects of the human being are closely connected. Emotional disturbances may be rooted in physical disorders and physical illnesses may be emotionally induced. There is much about the human mind we do not understand. I feel a great debt, and much gratitude, for mental health specialists, social workers, and well-trained therapists who are able to competently deal with individuals with deep-seated problems. That debt and gratitude do not mean that I, as a minister, never counsel. I do counsel, usually with a brief therapy model which limits the number of sessions. Time constraints usually necessitate such limitations. Further, I recognize that my expertise gets stretched in longer therapy.
Those of us who preach, minister, and work in therapy should use the very best inventory tools at our disposal to help surface problems beyond our ability to handle. Many times referral to a professional is the best approach. Not every problem should be, or can be, handled by a minister. Some problems may be adequately handled by a counseling minister. Prospective brides and grooms should be encouraged to receive adequate pre-marital counseling. At a minimum, such would include fairly complete family histories (genograms), the administration of the Prepare inventory or some similar pre-marital inventory, interviews and discussions to allow interaction, and anticipation of some of the potential pitfalls in marriage. Ministers should not feel guilty for requiring such pre-marital counseling, and should in fact feel guilty for not requiring it. Elders could make such a condition for those desiring to use church facilities.
There is an art in knowing when to refer and when to counsel. It is not a sign of weakness when one understands one's own limitations and makes the referral--it is a sign of strength. Competence in ministry provides the people to whom we minister the very best of whatever kind of assistance they need.
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