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Ethical Issues in Pastoral Counseling

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Professional counseling touches on ethical issues, but pastors who counsel fulfill other roles, the combination of which can lead to a minefield of ethical issues. For example, although the pastor gives spiritual guidance to his congregation, he also often leads fundraising drives and has to direct the business aspects of the church. However, it is incumbent on the pastor to keep those other roles separate from his role as pastoral counselor.

Dual Relationships

All counselors are warned to avoid dual relationships – acting as both counselor and personal friend to a client. Dual relationships create the danger of misusing – even unintentionally – the authority as counselor for personal benefit. Conversely, it can cause the counselor to attempt to water down advice out of a false sense of compassion. This is even more difficult for pastoral counselors because they may deal with people whom they count on to help support and raise money for the church community.

Religious Message

The pastoral counselor is confronted with the challenge of authentically proclaiming his church's message while reconciling it with what will best help the client correct unhealthy behaviors. In Christian pastoral counseling, the dynamic tension is often found in sexual issues. To simply state a rule is not counsel; to simply accept what is contrary to faith teachings betrays the faith community. The counselor must authentically teach the faith while compassionately helping his client struggle through what could be a long process to practicing healthy behaviors.

Conflicting Relationships

A pastor must be aware of the danger of counseling someone with whom he does not have a dual relationship but who does have a significant connection to someone with whom the pastor works or is friends in another context. The most obvious case is when only one partner in a marriage seeks counseling about the marriage while both are members of the church. Less obvious, but equally perilous, are cases that involve someone in a dispute with a friend or key donor of the church. Pastors must always be aware of conflicts that could slant their judgment, either favorably or unfavorably, of someone with whom they regularly work or socialize who is not involved in counseling.

Right to Continued Counsel

It is unethical for a counselor to abandon a client or continue therapy that is clearly not showing any results. If a counselor reaches a point where her feelings – whether of disgust, affection or any other strong emotion – intrude, she must refer the client to another counselor. Similarly, when progress is not being made, a counselor is obliged to refer. This can be particularly difficult for a pastor if it involves someone who is a member of her church, but professional ethics require it.

Legal Issues

Many clients automatically assume that any discussion between a pastor or counselor is privileged. Some may seek pastoral counseling because of the seeming double privilege involved. A pastoral counselor is obliged to disclose to clients what sort of communications are not privileged and could be subject to subpoenas and other legal actions.


Joe McElroy has been writing on politics and culture since 1983. His articles have appeared in a diverse array of publications, including the "Chicago Daily Observer" and "Immaculata" magazine. McElroy works occasionally as a strategic consultant to federal candidates. He majored in American history at Northwestern University.