As with most, if not all professions, pastoral counseling as a profession also has its own ethical standards. Ethical standards are essential to all kinds of professions, especially to those which particularly deal directly with confidential information such as counseling. This is why as with lawyers and physicians who are involved in legal and medical counseling respectively, information gathered through the practice of their professions are considered privileged and hence cannot be legally forced out of the professional except for specific valid reasons as determined by law and the courts of justice.
The confidential treatment of all personal information is first and foremost the backbone of any of the counseling professions and this is no less true for the ministry of pastoral counseling. People come to professional counselors because they trust that the counselor, being a licensed professional or ordained minister, would handle their personal information in strict confidentiality. Otherwise, potential clients will become afraid to share their deepest and darkest secrets, which are usually the cause of their problems, to the counselor. According to Dr. Narramore in his authoritative book, The Psychology of Counseling, the counselee wants understanding, sympathy and respect for the seriousness of his or her situation. Although there are several other areas of ethical concern in counseling, the manner of handling confidential information, both verbal and written, is of utmost importance. To stress the gravity of this, let me give an example from my own job as a project attorney at Integreon, a knowledge process outsourcing company. In our office, we have what they call service delivery centers where we actually perform our work, which is to review, sort, and tag thousands of documents for use as evidence in litigation. In order to protect the confidentiality of the sensitive documents that come our way, we are not allowed to bring inside the delivery center any mobile phone, data storage device or even pieces of paper unless we shred it on our way out.
Another important area of ethical concern for pastoral counselors and ordained ministers is propriety in dealing with counselees of the opposite sex, especially if one or both of them are married. This involves conducting the counseling session in an appropriate place, limiting physical contact to the shaking of hands, and avoiding emotional attachment and dependency brought about by probing for unnecessary intimate details. To be sure, it is well to keep in mind that when your own personal desires are unsatisfied, it is easy to be unconsciously seductive toward another person.
Lastly, a counselor should recognize his limitations and learn to refer to other professionals, such as physicians or lawyers who may be more competent to handle his client’s medical or legal problems.