Ethics in Pastoral Counseling

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.

The Role of the Church in Pastoral Counseling

Pastoral counseling, as its name implies, happens in the context of the church. As the pastor is the person primarily responsible for the job, his role as the leader of the flock Christ has entrusted to him is indispensable to his duty as counselor. The pastor’s knowledge of of the conduct in the church of the people under his care provides clues to a deeper understanding of their psychological and spiritual condition.

According to Samuel Southard, “One of the characteristics of the Christian church is its ability to demonstrate God’s love through human relationships. In the Christian fellowship a believer may find tangible expression of the supernatural grace that endows his life.” He further stated that the standard for the Christian’s life among men is the relationship which exists between Christ and his disciples in such a way that to walk worthy of God’s calling is to forebear one another in love and walk honorably among men. Most importantly, the church is not to be defined just in terms of relationships among men but in terms of the quality of the relationship that exists among men because they have become sons of God. The church provides a purpose for living and the fellowship through which love may be made real.

The setting and atmosphere of the church is the best condition to facilitate the effectiveness of the counseling ministry. This includes the relationship between the pastor and his flock and the flock among themselves. In fact, whenever I tell my wife that we should go and seek counseling, she would always tell me that she wants someone whom we can trust. The adage, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is absolutely true when it comes to counseling. Most people, especially Filipinos, will not listen to some stranger telling them how to run their lives. Instead of looking at the educational and professional attainments of the counselor—no matter how important that is—they will need someone who they trust. Someone whom they will entrust with their deepest secrets and innermost turmoils. And what better place to look for aside from one’s biological family than one’s spiritual family?

The Counselor

One of the most important elements of counseling is the counselor himself and according to Adams in his The Christian Counselor’s Manual, “While every Christian must become a counselor to his fellow Christians, the work of counseling as a special calling is assigned particularly to the pastor.”

Corollary to this is his apparent antagonism towards the “science” of psychiatry, positing that biblically, there is no warrant for acknowledging its existence as a separate and distinct discipline because there are only three specified sources of personal problems in living, namely: demonic activity, personal sin, and organic illness, and that all options are covered under these three heads, leaving no room for a fourth—non-organic mental illness. So, there is therefore no place in a biblical scheme for the psychiatrist as a separate practitioner. The same is true with respect to his view on non-directive counseling saying that those words represent a contradiction of terms.

As ordained Christian ministers are the ones specifically tasked to do the work of counseling, the qualifications of a counselor are the same as those of a minister. To be an effective nouthetic counselor, one must possess the following: (a) adequate scriptural knowledge of the will of God; (b) divine wisdom in one’s relationships to others; and (c) good will and concern for other members of the body of Christ. In short, he must be convinced that the Bible is true and be ready and able to direct others to its promises with assurance and conviction. The counselor, as an ordained man of God, exercises the full authority for counseling that Christ gave to the organized church. As such, he must also exhibit faithful obedience to God’s Word in his daily life.

Aside from the qualifications discussed above, the emotional health and attitudes of the counselor are likewise vitally important. A person who is undergoing emotional turmoil due to his own personal problems may not be in the best condition to counsel others. He will be out of focus, distracted by his own issues that he would not be able to listen attentively and effectively process the information his counselee is sharing. Moreover, the emotionally disturbed counselor’s judgment might become clouded and colored by his own biases and desired solutions to his own problems.

As the person primarily responsible in helping other people deal with their life problems and issues, the minister must see to it that before he enters the counseling room or office and meets with his counselees, his emotional and mental disposition is well-balanced and free from any distractions that may affect his performance and functions as such. To help achieve this, the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit is indispensable, which can be gained through prayer and meditation on God’s Word.

The Counselee

In reading chapter four of The Christian Counselor’s Manual by Adams, I found some important things that a Christian counselor needs to know and realize before he proceeds with the counseling proper.

The first is that as Christians who regularly read and meditate on God’s Word, we already know a lot about human nature. Even in the study of theology in seminary where the Bible is our primary and only infallible source of truth, the topic of anthropology is included. As the Bible contains the truths of God relative to His creation, coupled with intense observation of verbal and non-verbal messages put across by our counselee, we are able to effectively diagnose the main problems that commonly beset man. According to Adams, there are three sources of information available to the Christian or pastoral counselor with the first one being primary and foundational and the other two secondary and derivative, to wit: (1) the Scriptures, as mentioned above; (2) the counselor’s and others’ experiences; and (3) the dynamics of his own sinful heart. While the first source is inerrant and infallible being the Word of God, the interpretations of the second and third sources are subject to the first.

The second thing that pastoral counselors need to remember is that the Bible contains every solution to every human problem. Of course, this does not mean that it contains the solutions to every mathematical or scientific problem but that which relates to the nature of man in relation to his God. In other words, those relating to faith and morals. In fact, these are the only kinds of issues that truly have eternal significance. Jesus, being both fully God and fully human, knows and understands all the problems, difficulties, and temptations that all men face. As a man, he himself faced the same temptations and yet did not sin.

Third, in view of the foregoing, we also need to know how to properly apply the truths of Scripture to the issues of our counselees. We can do this by going through our counselee’s history so as to correctly understand his or her situation well. Otherwise, our diagnosis of the real problem may be faulty or at best, incomplete. We have to learn how to listen carefully with patient endurance guided by the Holy Spirit and the truths of Scripture in interpreting the signs.

Fourth and last, we have to take confidence that our counselees can indeed change. This is a very crucial plank in the Christian counselor’s platform. Even though modern psychologists and psychiatrists seem to have given up on a seemingly “mental” patient, we, as Christian counselors should not give up easily but instead see the root cause of the problem as it relates to our sinful nature which is not beyond the redemptive powers of the Blood of Christ. The idea itself of being “born again” signifies a radical change in our being. It not only illustrates a cleansing or repairs of a certain person but a total change of that person’s nature. Everywhere the Scriptures either demand change or assume its possibility. Knowing such truth gives the Christian counselor hope that his labor shall bear fruit because he knows that God is in the business of changing lives.

Counseling and the Bible

Pastoral counseling would not be as such without the Bible. As Christians, our primary source of wisdom for faith and morals is Sacred Scripture. Without the Word of God, our counsel may only be based on the hollow and deceptive philosophies of man. According to Allen Brabham: “The shepherd role of the pastor, the closeness that exists between pastor and parishioners, and the working of the Spirit through Scripture afford pastoral counselors an ideal teaching opportunity.” However, pastoral counseling is more than just teaching, otherwise, it would have no difference with preaching, which is primarily didactic in nature. While counseling also involves teaching, it is in reality a sharing of one’s life in God in a more personal and individualized manner.

St. Paul the apostle said that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, ESV). Moreover, the author of Hebrews posits that “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12, ESV). It is clear that unlike the wisdom of man, when correctly used, the Word of God has power, power to affect and change people’s lives. Jesus himself prayed to the Father that his disciples shall be sanctified by the truth, and this truth is the Word of God (John 17:17) as Jesus himself is the “way the truth and the life” (John 14:6).

Some people may counter by saying that the Bible is an outdated ancient document irrelevant to our present-day issues and problems. Granting that we in the 21st century are culturally, linguistically, and chronologically far apart from biblical times, surely nonetheless, the issues and circumstances illustrated and addressed in the Bible are human issues which transcend time, language, and culture. Because the Bible is the Word of God, it is just as immutable and eternal as its divine Author. The Word of God convicts man of sin; it brings the message of salvation; it produces faith; it ushers in new life; offers cleansing to the believer; gives unerring guidance; it offers discernment; produces knowledge; and offers protection against sin.

Of course, as pastoral counselors, we must be careful in our use of Scripture. The apostle Paul exhorted the young bishop Timothy to keep a close watch on himself and on his teaching, for by doing so, he will save both himself and his hearers (1 Timothy 4:16). This he could do by doing his best to present himself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). Just like in preaching, we should likewise observe good and established rules of hermeneutics when quoting and applying Scripture to the various situations of our counselees.

The Bible is a Christian counselor’s best manual as it was authored by God who created us. As said in the movie “The Guru,” The B.I.B.L.E. is our Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.

The Importance of Counseling

As a lawyer, I have experienced counseling other people regarding their problems, albeit, on the legal aspect. Aside from legal counseling where provisions of law are consulted in order to address a particular issue, there are various kinds of counseling such as medical and psychological. However, in this article, we will be focusing on pastoral counseling. Other terms for pastoral counseling include spiritual or biblical counseling, because in order to address the issues of a certain counselee, the Word of God, the Bible, is consulted.

​We live in a fallen world. As believers of Jesus Christ, we are in a unique position to help those who are suffering by bringing them the light of the Gospel. Very real and practical examples are those people who have suffered the onslaught of super typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan). Sadly, we have been hearing reports that there were instances of looting, stealing, and even killing committed by the typhoon victims against each other. According to news reports and those who have visited the affected areas, chaos and anarchy now reign therein. The rule of law has been foregone. Apparently, due to their extreme hunger and thirst, they have somewhat forgotten their humanity. These people, among others, especially need the grace and wisdom of God that we Christian counselors could offer. To be sure, they have lots of questions regarding the character of God or the problem of evil. Oftentimes, they wonder how a supposedly loving, compassionate and merciful God could allow such atrocities.

​And yet, others would say that all these people need is to hear sermons where the Word of God is expounded. According to Narramore, most pastors realize the importance of the pulpit ministry but some have not fully considered the significance of the counseling ministry. It has been said that a minister who does not place a strong emphasis on counseling is only “half a minister.” Counseling, insofar as it is more personal in approach, is more effective in addressing the specific needs of individuals rather than a sermon, which employs a “shotgun” approach. During the homily, the respective problems and issues of those seated in the pews may or may not be addressed.

​Nevertheless, there are some important factors that we need to consider when it comes to counseling. First is the counselor himself. The effectiveness of a counseling session largely depends on the skill and character of the counselor. People won’t just go to any counselor regardless of his academic and professional qualifications. What is more important is that the Christian counselor is mature in his walk with God as evidenced by the way he lives his life. In most cases, the only Bible that other people will read is us. Counseling is, in a sense, a projection of the counselor. The counselee must see in us the wisdom of God. Wisdom that is pure, peaceable, gentle, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. As Christian counselors, there must still be real compassion and love for the sinner without any sympathy for sin.