Navigating Pastoral Counseling Pitfalls
Counselors and counselees are not always lured into traps by evil intentions. In fact, many times what starts innocently, ends up going awry.
By M. Wayne Benson
Ancient hunters dug pits in the ground and deliberately concealed them to trap wild animals. The genius of the trap was its simplicity: When an animal fell into it, it could not get out. Some pits were particularly wicked in that the creator of the trap embedded sharp stakes in the bottom of the pit to impale the animal.
Unfortunately, human combatants have also fallen prey to pitfalls during wartime. The Vietnamese used pits in the jungles of Viet Nam to capture or kill allied soldiers.
The deceiving cloak of innocence atop the pit is its camouflage. The pit is difficult to spot because the hole is covered with a thin veil of leaves or sticks to make it appear similar to the surrounding landscape. By the time the victim is aware of the subterranean trap, it is too late. The descent is swift and his fate is sealed.
I cannot think of a more accurate analogy to describe the hazards that have ensnared many pastors or counselors who fell into a deep pit and could not find their way out before they became casualties.
Let us begin with a hypothetical case study of “Pastor Jim” and “Counselee Sue.” Though the story and the names are fictional, the scenario is a montage of real circumstances that have occurred to pastors and lay counselors, well-meaning people of faith, and leaders with previously untarnished reputations.
Jim was a pastor with over 20 years of faithful ministry and many considered him a godly man. Many in his regional circle of professional relationships knew him and his congregation and peers respected him. Yet, he would classify himself today as disqualified from ministry. And there are many other casualties in the wake of the events that transpired.
The members Jim served are wounded and confused. Some feel betrayed by the shepherd they trusted, and this has shaken their faith. Others have processed it differently. Their disappointment and disbelief have turned to anger as they make their way through stages of grief for the loss they feel. The whole situation has created division within the church as people are polarized around differing opinions about how the leaders should have handled it.
Financially there is deep concern as the church is in the middle of a building program. Can they sustain this blow? Will the people who have made sacrificial commitments keep them? How will a new pastor manage this? Will he even embrace the vision for the building program?
It is the talk of the community that the pastor had to step down. In fact, the news even made the B Section of the local newspaper. Believers would echo the lament of David of the Old Testament as he grieved over the death of King Saul, “How the mighty have fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19). Or Nathan’s lament over David’s sin with Bathsheba: “You have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme” (2 Samuel 12:14, NKJV).1
How will this impact the outreach efforts of the church? What about the new converts or the people who have been visiting — those who are searching but have not yet responded to Christ’s claims for their lives?
Jim and Sue’s behavior has especially wounded two families. The counselee, Sue, and her husband, Tom, are considering divorce. Divorce was already on the table when she first sought counsel from the church. Now the prospect seems more imminent.
Then there is the pastor’s family. Will his marriage remain intact? His wife has forgiven him, but all that has happened has deeply hurt her. There are the inevitable, practical issues that Pastor Jim will have to consider such as the economic realities. Pastor Jim has immersed his whole life in ministry. How will he support his family? He has virtually no other training or marketable skills. Where will he and his family go to church? What kind of ministry roles, if any, will his district supervisors allow him to assume in the future?
Would it surprise you if I told you that, in this hypothetical case study, Pastor Jim did not actually commit the physical act of adultery? And, neither he nor his wife would have considered their marriage vulnerable. In fact, he loved his wife and was basically satisfied with his marriage. But he fell into a number of cleverly camouflaged pitfalls that resulted in an emotional involvement with the woman he was counseling. Pastor Jim slipped past boundary markers that should have been red flags waving in the breeze.
In this hypothetical scenario, I am going to recreate a history of how things began to move in the wrong direction. I will then identify some common counseling pitfalls and how to avoid them.
Let me assert this premise: Counselors and counselees are not always lured into traps by evil intentions. In fact, many times what starts innocently, ends up going awry.
Let me start with some basic statistics about pastoral counseling:
First, far more women seek counseling than men. This is true in professional counseling as well as pastoral counseling. Couple this with the fact the majority of pastors are male.
Second, the most common reason for women seeking pastoral counseling is related to problems within the marriage. Pastors — not professional counselors are the first line of defense in marriage counseling.
In Pastor Jim’s situation, he had placed some safeguards around himself, such as having a window in his office door with a view to his administrative assistant, and scheduling appointments when the assistant was usually there.
It was Sue’s marriage problems that first brought her to her pastor. Her marriage was dysfunctional in terms of communication and tenderness. She reported that her husband does not listen to her. Though he is a good provider, he has little time for her.
In contrast, Pastor Jim listens patiently and expresses compassion. In some ways he reminds her of her father who was a loving, caring person. Sue’s husband has never been a spiritual leader. Pastor Jim, by comparison, is the consummate spiritual leader, whether in the pulpit or in counseling. He quotes Scripture, expounds on spiritual truths, and seems to have a direct line to God. For the first time, Sue seems to be growing in her faith.
Pastor Jim is receiving fulfillment in the apparent success he is having with this counselee. Sue is finding herself and is no longer despondent. She is becoming a bubbly personality again. Pastor Jim finds it refreshing that Sue reminds him of his sister who passed away prematurely several years earlier from cancer.
Can you identify the potential pitfalls in this relationship? What are the danger signs that Jim should have observed? How does one navigate these pitfalls?
The Transference Pitfall
A number of realities exists in counseling that pastors need to understand. The first is that of transference and counter-transference, a common problem virtually every counselor faces. A practical (nonclinical) definition of transference follows: The counselor reminds the counselee of a person who had influence in her life.
Transference is a fundamental process that human beings are constantly doing, whether for good or bad. Most of the time it is in the form of totally innocent and harmless comparisons.
Transference is a way of organizing people into convenient file folders in our minds. They may be authority figures such as parents or employers. They may be our peers, like siblings or friends. Or they may be people we are responsible for, such as our children or employees. They can be people we like or dislike. But transference is most often an unconscious process like hunger or natural reflexes.
Transference can be helpful in innocent ways. It can reveal our thoughts and expose our motives. So professional therapists have often found that an understanding of how and why a counselee makes comparisons with her therapist can be a key to unlocking certain attitudes or behaviors.
Transference, however, can also be very negative and harmful. People form stereotypes and racial prejudices that distort their view of reality based on either real or contrived ideas. People can justify a basis for their hatred for certain people because someone has a vague resemblance to someone they knew in their past.
It is easy to see how this can happen in the counseling process. A counselee who hates her father because of his abuse may become resistant to a male counselor who reminds her of her abusive father. Or a man whose mother manipulated him may not respond well to the changes suggested by his female counselor.
If that happens in professional clinical work, you can be sure it happens in pastoral counseling. But let us look at this from another perspective. What we read into people also reveals our unfulfilled wishes and secret desires. We may make these mental comparisons against an imaginary ideal — or a fantasy. Transference can create an attraction toward a counselor based on some ideal that the counselee has in her mind.
Transference is a relational illusion where we meet someone and try to form an understanding of who he is based on impressions. Tranference does not require any effort or discussion. In fact, you may only discover that it is happening when the person you thought you had figured out does something that does not fit the pattern you had in mind.
And this could not be more apparent than in counseling. The counseling session can become like a surrealistic bubble that you have to break through to find solid ground. In fact, the Bible says that “the heart is deceitful above all things; and desperately wicked: who can know it” (Jeremiah 17:9, NKJV). If we do not even know ourselves, how can we expect a pastoral counselor to fully understand the counselee in a brief period of time?
For that reason a Christian counselor needs every advantage that the Holy Spirit offers as well as good counseling skills. We need discernment and sensitivity. We also need to be wise in seeing the problems that transference can create.
The Counter-Transference Pitfall
There is also a phenomenon called counter-transference. The perception here is that of the counselor rather than the counselee. The practical (nonclinical) definition is, “the counselee reminds you of a person who had influence in your life.”
Let me go back to the story of Pastor Jim and Sue, his counselee. Can you identify several things already present in the story — before you know the rest of it — that added elements of danger to this scenario, even before they began their first session?
Jim’s behavior reminds Sue of her father who was kind and compassionate toward her. Not only that, but she has an imaginary picture of the kind of spiritual leader she longs for in her marriage. Her pastor fits that picture; her husband does not.
Pastor Jim has stumbled unaware into Sue’s pit as well as his own. Sue reminds him of his sister who had a bubbly and vivacious personality. In addition, his grief at her loss has made him even more vulnerable. And then there is that I’m her hero syndrome where he is meeting the needs of a counselee and seeing apparent success, unlike some of the other high-maintenance, low-reward counseling appointments he has been working with.
The Pitfall of Ignored Warnings
In this hypothetical story, both Pastor Jim and Sue began to have questions and warnings about their own vulnerability after awhile. They both felt a twinge of danger as sessions became longer.
The pastor is enjoying the attention of an attractive woman who admires his ministry. In contrast, at home his wife is becoming increasingly frustrated and disillusioned over the time he is devoting to his work, even to the neglect of her and his family.
Sue is longing for a stable relationship with a man like her father. She has respect for her pastor because of his pulpit ministry and spiritual leadership. She is getting from him the emotional support she is not getting from her husband. And within a few sessions she finds herself falling in love with her pastor instead of her husband.
Neither the pastor nor the counselee had any intention of crossing moral or ethical lines. But the innocent hug became a regular pattern, and that, one day, led to a kiss.
The Rationalization Pitfall
The pastor realized he had gone too far, but by then the price of corrective action seemed too high. He developed seven rationalizations for keeping things hidden:
- If he went to his fellow pastors or to the board to confess his fault, not only would he experience terrible embarrassment, but they too would be disappointed and embarrassed.
- Enemies outside the church would discredit him and God’s work. Opponents within might be eager to make an example out of him.
- Sue’s husband might tell the church or do something rash.
- If he told his wife, she would be deeply hurt.
- He has not actually committed adultery.
- God is still blessing his ministry.
- He is now strong enough to keep the situation under control.
The Pitfall of Toxic Secrecy
A dirty little secret becomes more contaminated over time. When this one finally leaked out, it was toxic. The disclosure by someone else was even more devastating than the pastor’s confession and repentance might have been. When a member of the church discovered the relationship and began to share it with a few friends, it ran through the church like molten lava setting everything ablaze with gossip. By the time the leaders dealt with the matter, the stories were even more graphic than the actual offenses. Jim and Sue’s behavior ruined a ministry, devastated a church, and deeply wounded two marriages, if they survive at all.
The Failure to Refer
Had Pastor Jim or even his counselee recognized the problem, the pastor may have referred Sue to another counselor, probably a female, possibly a professional. Or perhaps Pastor Jim’s wife could have participated in joint counseling with Sue, even for a couple of sessions. Recognizing the vulnerability may have been enough to set roadblocks in place. The problem was not inevitable if they had realized the inherent dangers.
We need to remember that the vast majority of ministers never have a moral failure. When one occurs, however, all too often it begins within the context of pastoral counseling. Unfortunately, most pastors have insufficient preparation for the counseling that will be required of them, making them more vulnerable to the risks.
Pastors need to know when to refer and to whom they refer counselees. Know your own limits. (See sidebar “Nonprofessional Counselors Are Not Usually Equipped” for a list of counseling issues that usually reach beyond the skill and qualifications of a pastoral counselor.)
In today’s complex society, pastors are no longer pastoring the congregation of The Little House on the Prairie but rather one that more resembles The Simpsons. This means that referral will be a likely possibility at some point. I urge pastors to have prepared in advance a list of potential referral resources prior to the need becoming evident. (See sidebar “Referral Resources.”)
The Pitfall of Wrong Motivations
How do we in ministry stay safe? People-helping is inextricably bound to the call of God. It goes with the territory of shepherding the flock. But that call needs to be the primary motivating factor in helping people — not our own needs.
Here are some wrong motivations in counseling people:
- 1. Rescuing the needy: If you are a person who is meeting your own need to be someone’s hero, this is an unhealthy motivation.
- 2. Looking for relationships: If you are trying to find relationships through counseling, you are looking for friends in the wrong place.
- 3. Voyeurism: The curiosity to know intimate details of people’s lives is an unethical motivation. Counseling should never be an excuse to satisfy one’s personal appetites.
- 4. Desire for affirmation: The need to be liked can influence everything a counselor says and will color the counselor’s recommendations.
- 5. Seeking people to control: Some people think of themselves as spiritual chiropractors in the body of Christ, putting all the bones in place. This kind of authoritarian attitude yields poor results.
- 6. Quest for personal healing: To use the counseling sessions as personal therapy for your own issues is not only a poor motivation for counseling, but could be damaging to both you and those you counsel.
Make sure your motivations are healthy and pure if you want to avoid counselor pitfalls.
The Attraction Pitfall
Physical or emotional attraction can become a dangerous pitfall. Some people are just naturally more attractive to us than others. And when we work with people whose characteristics we find to be attractive, we need to be especially guarded. Feelings of warmth and closeness, especially between people of the opposite sex, can have a sexual connotation.
Here are some preventative measures that will guard our hearts as pastoral counselors:
- Prepare spiritually before every appointment: When we invite the presence of God into each session, there is far less room for temptation.
- Do not trust the flesh: Human nature tends to resist God and the work of the Holy Spirit. It is always seeking to satisfy our self-will. Be aware of your own vulnerability.
Here are some danger signals to observe1:
Danger signals from the counselee:
- Seductive behavior
- Frequent desire to discuss sexual issues
- Complaints of loneliness
- Physical familiarity
- Gift giving
Danger signals from within the counselor:
- Thoughts of the counselee between sessions
- Comparing the counselee to your spouse
- Fantasies about the counselee
- Seeing the counselee as special
- Excuses to prolong contact
- Desire to disclose your personal problems
- Make strict rules and adhere to them: Predetermine how much time you are going to spend in sessions, when and where they are going to be, and who is going to be present. Decide how many sessions you are going to have per month, such as one per week. Position yourself during the sessions in a way that avoids inappropriate visual stimulation. These are basic, fundamental rules. Maintain them.
- Respect the counselee’s marriage: Do not undermine a husband or a wife’s relationship in the marriage, regardless of how dysfunctional you may assume it is. Remember, if you are not meeting with both parties, you do not have a complete picture anyway. Your goal is to heal — or in the words of the physician’s pledge in the Hippocratic Oath: “Above all do no harm.”
- Always have Plan B: Always have a referral plan in place. Do not wait until you need to develop one. A referral plan should be part of your basic counseling preparation.
- Be intentional about accountability: Whether to a peer or someone who is in supervision over our ministry, we all need to be accountable.
- Be honest with yourself: Scripture warns, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12, NKJV).
Burden bearing is essential in the body of Christ. The apostle Paul suggested the high priority of this ministry when he revealed that, in this expression of pastoral care, we “fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). I trust this article will help you in your effort to do it with skill and care. The mandate to care and the awareness of our own limitations serve to help us remember we are totally dependent upon the Lord and His help in order to see lasting, spiritual change.
This article was adapted from the online Center for Pastoral Counseling (www.cpc.org).
1. Scripture quotations marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright Â© 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2. Adapted from Gary Collins, Christian Counseling, A Comprehensive Guide, (Nashville: Nelson Publishers, 2007), 93,94.