Clergy Counseling Limits & When to Refer

Below is a snippet from a clergy ethics lecture I did for the WABAPLC (Washington-Baltimore Area Pagan Leadership Conference) February 2007 conference.   The topic concerns when Pagan clergy can handle counseling matters themselves and when they should refer out.  Two primary points are made:

  1. Clergy should refer out to professional counselors when beyond their training expertise, and
  2. clergy are on safer legal ground if they stick to spiritual counseling. (consult your own attorney — not legal advice)

What are your thoughts on the guidelines below?  What other considerations are needed? 


Licenses & Counseling Limits

Psychological counseling is licensed (in Maryland and most of USA).  Usually breaking law without a license to practice.

However, you CAN do spiritual counseling. In general, spiritual and religious counseling seems to be an assumed right of clergy, but rarely ever spelled out in law.  [This document is written from a Maryland point of view.  However I believe this to be generally true.]

Then again, are you legally clergy?

The borderline between spiritual and psychological counseling is unclear.

Refer client to a professional counselor for psychological counseling when:

  • Emotional abnormalities
  • In-depth childhood trauma background
  • Psychological problems, hallucinations, delusions, etc.
  • Consider the “3 times then refer” rule. (Not legal advice) [This rule-of-thumb is that if you find yourself counseling the same person three times about the same non-spiritual counseling issue, it’s safest to refer out to a licensed counselor at that point to not run afoul of licensing laws.]

When Doing Spiritual Counseling:

  • Ask yourself “does the person need spiritual counseling?”
  • Always tie your counseling to spiritual matters
  • Have a spiritual counseling framework
  • Make it a point to study spiritual needs and what you Tradition says about this
  • Highfield & Cason’s four spiritual needs model
    • Need for Meaning & Purpose
    • Need to Give Love
    • Need to Receive Love
    • Need for Hope and Creative Expression

Highfield & Cason’s model — while it can be used in a more in-depth way — is a good “back of the napkin” checklist.  That is, you can easily listen to the content and emotion of the person talking to you to detect strengths and deficits in the above four areas.  These then provide a rough roadmap to spiritual counseling.  Clergy will want to read-up on this and other spiritual counseling models.

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