Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Sexual and Gender Boundaries in Pastoral Counseling

Most male pastors -- if not most men in general -- have a healthy paranoia about being alone with a woman in the workplace, lest there be misunderstanding by third parties, or outright deception by the woman, about what occurs behind closed doors. Accusations or rumors of sexual harassment or misconduct can destroy a church and its pastor.

Pastoral counseling, by its nature, requires privacy and discretion, further complicating efforts to avoid such accusations (or temptations to cross intimate boundaries). Some male pastors, I have heard, refer a female parishioner to a female counselor after the first session.

I raised this practice with my counseling professor today and asked what he thought. He said that he found such policies repugnant and a repudiation of pastoral duty to opposite-sex members.

Yet there are very real dangers to pastors, not only in false accusations, but in the temptation to sin adulterously. There must be a balance somewhere so that opposite-sex parishioners are not neglected.

How do you think pastors should address gender boundaries in counseling?

And although what I have written addresses the risk to male pastors, we should not neglect how these issues effect female clergy. I ask that female ministers and laypeople also share their thoughts on the subject.


Richard Hall said...

It is very important that pastors (and pastors-to-be) take these issues seriously. Of course, the pastoral relationship requires one-to-one contact, and privacy. But, for example, I would never meet a woman alone without telling my wife the where, when and for long, preferably before the meeting takes place. If I can manage it, I try to arrange privacy but with other people not too far away.

rev-ed said...

It is a serious issue. I know of pastors who will meet in a room with a large window to the lobby or the secretary's desk to avoid problems.

Wabi-Sabi said...

The same challenges face professional counselors and therapists, and there are a number of guidelines and ethical standards to address this issue.

When I was coordinator for a Shelter for Runaway and Homeless Youth we had extensive training requirements and ethics training specifically to avoid problems with this and other ethical issues related to counseling.

Having a third party, perhaps the secretary or a colleague, aware that you will be in a counseling session is good practice. You also want to document the session and what was discussed, either during the session or immediately following. These are private notes, but a contemporaneous account can be evidence in the unlikely event that an allegation is made later.

It's also important to realize that these guidelines are for mutual protection. Unfortunately, there are too many examples of pastors and other counselors crossing boundaries and engaging in inappropriate behavior.

Also, what is good for the goose is good for the gander. I would use the same guidelines when meeting and counseling men and boys. Unfortunately abuse, as well as the remote possibility of a false allegation, can occur regardless of gender. To the extent possible it is good practice and recommended to use the same procedures for all counseling situations. Your consistency will be in your favor as opposed to answering difficult questions about why you made an exception in a certain situation potentially leading to an appearance of impropriety even if there is none.

Social workers, professional counselors and others are required to take continuing education courses in ethics every two years, so they are offered frequently and don't cost too much to attend. Perhaps it would be beneficial.

My wife who is a Pastor went to one of ours and got alot out of it. Unfortunately her M.Div. program did not offer as much related to counseling as she would have liked.

Sorry to ramble.

Betty Newman said...

I've thought about that more, lately since our pastor is young (late 20's.) He's a good looking young man, and it would be easy for the girls to "have a crush" on him. (Does that phrase date me?)

Anyway, as Lay Leader, I will begin meeting with him regularly for prayer and planning, and it did cross my mind of what people might think.

I am WELL old enough to be his mother (even been married long enough to be his mother!) but I also know about "The Graduate." lol (Seriously - look at my photo - do I look like a threat? I don't think so!)

Anyway, for other pastors/counselors, I like the idea of complete privacy, so the "large window" concept seems to be the best.

Greg Hazelrig said...

I love the window idea, but don't think my church will put one in. Also, it wouldn't matter seeing as how there's no one at my church anyway throughout the week. People can just pop in at any time.

I've thought a lot about that in the last couple years, especially after hearing of pastors getting into trouble over this time. Honestly, John, if I read your post right, I believe your counselor isn't taking the subject seriously enough. One false accusation and our ministries, as well as lives, can be destroyed. It's awful to think that this could happen among Christians. But it does.

Anonymous said...

This knife cuts both ways. I was once accused of sexual harassment by a woman I had never met. I was counseling a married couple at the time and there were some supicious things going on with this other woman. I simply asked about it, which got back to her. She immediately called the bishop and made an accusation against me. It was dealt with and there's been no repercussions, but it was scary for a time.

I learned through that what wabi-sabi said is absolutely true, document everything.

Please understand why I wish to remain anonymous.

John Wilks said...

In my youth ministry, I try to stay in "private-public places" such as an empty hallway or the like. There is enough privacy that anyone can see me talking to a student very clearly, yet they won't be able to hear the conversation unless they walk right up and interupt. Of course, we're talking short conversations, not in-depth counseling.

In that event, I go out of my way for a room with a window (preferably a window big enough so that I can be clearly seen in full, but small enough that should the person break down and cry, the whole world won't know it) and I make darn sure that at least my wife knows the who's and where's. Our Senior High Sunday School room is perfect.

I've toyed with the idea of taping sessions (with the person's permission, of course) so that there is always a confidential record which can be accessed if a misunderstanding arises. Plenty of shrinks do it- why not pastors?

Reverun said...

As a minister and a minister's husband, I think it's important to point out that women in ministry are much more likely to be sexually harassed in some form in the course of their career than male clergy (and unfortunately the inverse is also true- Male clergy are more likely to sexually harass and/or have inappropriate sexual relationships with congregants). I say this only to say that women need to protect themselves just as much, if not more in the counseling arena.

Developing a strict policy for how and where you are willing to counsel someone is your best bet. And do not break the boundaries you have set for anyone or for any situation. Whether the person is 8, 18, or 80, let the person know that it is your policy for all people you counsel.

see-through faith said...

this is serious - on both sides (also for female clergy)

the don't counsel /be alone with same-sex is a good general rule, but doesn't take into account those with homosexual tendancies too.

privacy and confidentiality is important but so is feeling safe. (for both sides)