Safeguarding Your Church Against Counseling Misconduct

By Sue Brage

Today’s topic is a serious one. As someone who has seen churches destroyed and careers ruined as a result of sexual and emotional misconduct, I have strong feelings on this topic. I have a relative whose family was impacted by inappropriate relationships born out of a counseling situation. It is all too common in our churches-and yet, these situations could be avoided with the application of wisdom, common sense, and corporate accountability.

I hope you will hear my heart today and take this list in the way it is intended. These are not legalistic rules set out to help your church “appear righteous.” They are practical, and necessary, steps to protect your leaders and the hurting people in your congregation. Taking these actions do not communicate distrust of the individuals involved; but are a responsible response to a fallen world.

Use a counseling covenant or agreement. Prepare a written counseling agreement to provide to the counselee that describes the scope of counseling and its length, duration, and confidential nature. We also recommend an “alternate dispute resolution clause” in the agreement. Such a clause can state that any disputes arising from the counseling relationship will be submitted to mediation and/or arbitration instead of filing a lawsuit. Consult with an attorney to draft this covenant/agreement.

Limit the scope of counseling. Counseling provided by church employees should be limited to spiritual or biblical counseling. Counseling for matters such as domestic abuse, mental health, and addiction rehabilitation should be referred to professional counselors who have expertise and certification in such areas.

Establish a policy for opposite gender counseling. To avoid allegations of impropriety, carefully consider how to handle opposite gender counseling. Some churches prohibit members of one gender from counseling the other gender. Among churches that permit opposite gender counseling, some require the presence of a third party. However, since including a third party in counseling sessions has implications for the clergy-penitent privilege, it is wise to consult with a local attorney concerning the laws of your state.

Limit the number of sessions. Avoid open-ended counseling relationships that last for extended periods of time. Establish a limit on the total number of sessions that will be provided (such as three to five per year). If the counselee has needs that extend beyond the session limit, refer him or her to a professional counselor.

Limit locations and meet in a visible setting. For instance, allow counseling only in the pastor’s office or another location on church property. It is often wise to avoid off-campus counseling. Also, the greater the visibility of the counseling sessions, without compromising confidentiality, the less likely there will be an allegation of misconduct.

To increase visibility, consider installing a window in the counseling (or pastor’s) office and/or leaving the door open. Some churches have even installed video cameras in the office (without audio) to record activities during counseling, but it is best to consult with a local attorney before doing this to determine if a video camera is permissible by law.

Maintain confidentiality. If notes or other documents are generated during the counseling sessions, make sure that those documents are kept in a locked location. Also, the counselor should not discuss the substance of the counseling sessions with other parties, and all conversations should remain confidential. One exception is if a minister learns of child abuse during the counseling relationship. In that instance, the minister should consult with a local attorney concerning the mandatory reporting statute in the state and its relationship to the clergy-penitent privilege.

Watch for boundary violations. Individuals who provide counseling should be aware of the risks and know what types of situations to watch for. Counselors are advised to establish an accountability system with their spouse and/or other persons to head off improprieties in counseling relationships

Here are some warning signs that counselors should be aware of: increasingly personal conversations, particularly concerning the counselor’s, personal life; any physical contact beyond handshake greetings, such as inappropriate pats or hugs; offering to drive a counselee home; arranging meetings outside of the normal counseling time; other behavior that exhibits emotional attachment or preferential treatment toward the counselee.

While this is a sensitive subject, it is too important to ignore. Let this article be a beginning for critical conversations in your church. The Missing Ministry is also a useful tool to facilitate communication and establish safeguards within your congregation. Keep your church safe! God cares about the people in it.

This article “Safeguarding Your Church against Counseling Misconduct” by Sue Brage was excerpted from: The Missing Ministry-Safe Church Resource. web site. January 2008. It may be used for study & research purposes only.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”