Dual Relationships in Pastoral Counseling, Term Paper Example
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The Issues: Dual relationships, or relationships that involve more than one role, “are proscribed in the standards of ethical conduct for most professional groups that provide counseling or psychotherapy” (Montgomery & DeBell, 1997, p. 30). Dual relationships “are thought to be unethical because they cloud the clinical judgment of the counselor” (p. 30). Pastors are much more at risk of developing a dual relationship, inasmuch as they “often maintain other roles and relationships” with the people they help (p. 30). Pastors themselves are divided between those who promote a vision of pastoral counseling as a purely spiritual endeavor, and those who promote integration between pastoral care and secular psychotherapy, both in terms of goals and techniques (p. 31). Thus, although the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) proscribes dual relationships, many other pastoral counselors see these “multiple roles and relationships… as assets rather than clinical liabilities” (Clinebell, 1984, ctd. in Montgomery & DeBell, 1997, p. 32). Thus, ethical standards vary, depending upon the vision of pastoral counseling that the pastor-counselor subscribes to.
Potential role confusions for the pastoral counselor may result from the pastor-counselor’s own dependence upon his/her congregation, ranging from “gifts and gratuities” to “volunteer participation” and, of course, “continued salary support for the clerical office itself” (pp. 32-33). Another area of possible role overlap and conflict pertains to the nature of the kinds of problems that counselee-congregants may be having: such issues, confided in therapy, may prompt the minister to “educate the congregation to prevent these problems or to support those who may encounter them” (p. 33). However, counselee-congregants may feel themselves to be singled out; that “the minister is being unduly personal or even breaking confidentiality” (p. 33). Then again, if a minister deigned not to address any issue from private counseling in his ministry, such a minister “may not be responsibly responding to the needs of the congregation” (p. 33).
As Bleiberg and Skufca (2005) explained, dual relationships are not prohibited in the pastoral setting, and are in fact often welcomed by congregants (p. 3). However, this very situation often leaves clergy in a bind, inasmuch as they must attempt to navigate the various boundaries demarcating each of these relationships (p. 4). Bleiberg and Skufca argued that in such cases, “one set [of boundaries] generally trumps the others”, leading to the very real risk that “one party will transgress the obscured boundaries of the other” (p. 4). A further concern is the distribution of power in the relationships: congregants tend to ascribe an “idealized power” to their clergy, further increasing the probability of a transgression of boundaries (p. 4). Haug (1999) explained that a key source of sensitivity in the counseling relationship is the vulnerability of the client: after all, “a client, but not the counselor, shares highly personal and often embarrassing matters in counseling” (p. 412). Haug argued that this vulnerability “might be heightened” in instances wherein a client consults a clergy psychotherapist: the very fact that the therapist is also a pastor may lead the client to “grant them extraordinary trust, power, and authority over their lives” (p. 412).
Literature Review: Bleiberg and Skufca (2005) examined “the relationship between boundary permeability and attachment style” in clergy, in order to ascertain potential risks for a boundary violation in a dual relationship (p. 5). Moreover, they distinguished between outer boundaries, which “regulate our awareness of external experience” and inner boundaries, which “regulate our awareness of inner experience” (p. 8). Thick boundaries help individuals to “maintain perceptions, thoughts, and feelings as distinct and separate”, and promote a strong sense of self (Bleiberg & Skufca, 2005, p. 8). Such individuals tend to be more socially conventional, are “less likely to enter inappropriate relationships impulsively”, and “establish relationships with care but once established they are exceedingly loyal” (p. 8). By contrast, thin boundaries tend to lead an individual to “experience thoughts and feelings as merged” (p. 8). These people have a vivid fantasy life and “are less quick to distinguish fantasy from reality”; as such, they are impulsive, prone to becoming “over-involved in relationships”, and more vulnerable to inappropriate relationships (p. 8).
Bleiberg and Skufca (2005) found that some “fifty-five percent of the participants… tended to be thick in regard to boundary styles [referred to as ‘Chestnuts’]”, an encouraging sign (p. 10). Those with thin boundary styles, referred to as “Grapes”, constituted only five percent of the sample (p. 10). However, the remainder fell within the mixed or “inconsistent” category: those with thinner outer boundaries but thicker inner boundaries (“Plums”), were thirty-six percent of the total; the remaining four percent had thicker outer boundaries but thinner inner boundaries (“Cacti”) (p. 10). They also found that individuals with an inconsistent boundary style “had significantly higher anxiety scores than those… in the uniform thick/thin boundary style group” (p. 11).
The authors explained that those with consistently-thick boundaries, the Chestnuts, “tend to brush off anxiety”, while those with consistently-thin boundaries, the ‘Grapes’, “have an ‘easy come easy go’ attitude that buffers them from anxiety” (Bleiberg & Skufca, 2005, p. 14). On the other hand, those with thick inner boundaries but thin outer boundaries, the ‘Plums’, experience anxiety because they lack the Chestnuts’ “comfort from behaving in a socially conventional manner” and the Grapes’ ability to easily “garner support from others” (p. 14). Cacti, on the other hand, evince “a higher level of psychopathology”: they are “psychologically fragile with a tendency towards paranoia” (p. 14). Clearly, boundary styles have a bearing on whether or not a pastor is prone to a violation of boundaries in a dual relationship.
Justice and Garland (2010) explained that for counseling professionals dual relationships, with all their attendant boundary concerns, can come about due to “some of the most common social situations… such as sharing a cup of coffee or attending a Bible study class” (pp. 437-438). However, they argued for the distinction between “boundary crossings and boundary violations” as presented by Jackson (2004): “engaging in a casual social relationship with a client in a congregational setting is such a boundary crossing,” and may actually be helpful (p. 438). These concerns are even more salient for pastors, given their complex and multivariate interactions with congregants: pastors may serve as “’friend, teacher, spiritual advisor, shepherd, and sometimes even coworker’” (Parent, 2005, qtd. in Justice & Garland, 2010, p. 440).
One area of considerable concern for a boundary violation is the principle of self-determination: whereas secular counselors are bound to observe this principle, “even if the client’s choices are contrary to the beliefs or actions” of the church body, pastors have a moral and spiritual obligation to uphold the Word of God (Justice & Garland, 2010, p. 440). In such a situation the pastor must either abdicate his moral and spiritual responsibilities, or place God and His Word above the principle of self-determination (pp. 440-441). Pastors must also be aware of the power that many congregants vest in them: a pastor who does not recognize this may minimize or ignore boundaries (p. 441). As Justice and Garland observed, pastors can influence congregants’ “beliefs about God, about forgiveness and worth, and about eternity”, a power that they must use responsibly (p. 441).
For all of these reasons, Justice and Garland (2010) recommended that pastors abstain from acting as therapists (p. 441). Dual relationships are inevitable, as is the “confusion of roles and boundaries” that they bring (p. 441). The authors recommended that all faith-based groups “establish ethical codes of conduct that give clear guidance to the roles that religious leaders should and should not assume with those they lead” (p. 442). Inasmuch as the position of a pastor inevitably consists of multiple roles, congregations should also “develop clear accountability structures… that provide the leaders guidance and consultation” (p. 442).
Haug (1999) argued that clergy are particularly vulnerable to boundary violations and misuse of power because of their backgrounds and training (p. 412). In general, training for the ministry “does not include mandatory course work in professional ethics or emphasis on personal growth and development, sexuality, or clergy self-care” (p. 413). Moreover, in training to be psychotherapists, pastor-counselors “may or may not have received specific training in ethics and professional issues” (p. 413). Another area of concern is gender: traditional theology and gender norms in faith-based communities may “desensitize male clergy… in power positions to the experiences of women” (p. 413). The fact that congregants tend to idealize clergy, as so frequently noted already, may lead some pastors to ignore “their own humanity and ‘shadow side,’ including self-serving or sexual impulses” (p. 413). Moreover, clergy are vulnerable to the pressure of public image, which may lead them to “disassociate their public from their private life” (p. 413). This combination of congregants’ idealizations and disassociated public and private lives is particularly risky, and may lead pastor-counselors to act out on inappropriate impulses (p. 413).
Pastoral socialization patterns are another area of concern for pastor-counselors: pastors “are generally expected to be friendly and warm and to demonstrate their caring by initiating contacts with members” (Haug, 1999, p. 413). Socialization with congregants is par for the course, and a successful pastor must be ready to show considerable dedication—often at the cost of neglecting “personal and family lives in the service of others” (p. 413). If counseling is added into the mix, temptations and risks for an abuse of power will mount. Practice structures are still another area of concern: pastoral work is characterized by “poorly defined” job descriptions, often leading to a “lack of clear boundaries between the professional and personal”; as such, it may be difficult for clergy to take on the very different professional values and ethical codes of the counselor (pp. 413-414).
In light of these vulnerabilities, it may be very difficult for pastor counselors in a dual relationship with a client to avoid a harmful boundary crossing (Haug, 1999, p. 414). Gestures intended as kindness, such as “taking clients out to lunch, putting an arm around them, offering financially needy clients employment or bartering arrangements, forgiving outstanding balances,” all may open the door to “misunderstandings and complications” (p. 414). Pastor-counselors must carefully consider the ramifications of such a boundary crossing (p. 414). The well-known tendency of pastors to neglect their personal lives, coupled with “the strong transferential feelings and desires directed at clergy psychotherapists”, makes pastor-counselors and their clients particularly vulnerable to sexual relationships (p. 415). Confidentiality is another area of risk: although clergy “are obliged and protected by law to keep confessions confidential”, there are plenty of other communications that are not confidential for clergy but are for counselors (p. 415). Finally, client autonomy is also an area of concern: if the pastor-counselor sees a client who is not also a congregant and who does not share the same beliefs, the pastor-counselor may find it difficult to respect the client’s “disinterest in exploring this area of their lives, or their strongly held divergent views” (p. 416).
Beck (2003) presented a case study in “church-clinic tension”, wherein board members of a North Florida church were confronted with the case of a deteriorating marriage, between congregants Amy and Brian: “Amy had initiated divorce proceedings,” and Brian was endeavoring to stall them and change her mind (p. 68). Though both were members of the church, Amy’s attendance “had been spotty, but Brian consistently took the children to Sunday School” and was an active member (p. 68). Brian had eschewed psychotherapy in favor of pastoral care, which Amy refused to participate in (p. 68). The problems deepened after Amy’s filing for divorce, when Brian found out that his wife had been unfaithful to him on two occasions in the past (Beck, 2003, p. 69). When another married couple moved back to the area after a protracted absence, they met Amy for dinner; much to their surprise, she brought a male friend, with whom it soon became clear that she was having a romantic liaison (pp. 68-69). Brian was outraged, and brought the matter to a pastor, complaining that the couple “had publicly supported Amy in her infidelity by eating dinner with her and her live-in friend” (p. 69). The board responded by confronting the couple, Dave and Adrianna, and the pastors “suggested… that church disciplinary procedures be initiated against Amy” (p. 69).
Whilst the couple explained and apologized, Dave, a professional counselor, “knew… that the church board had a very incomplete understanding of what had made this marriage a bad one” (Beck, 2003, p. 69). Nonetheless, he was in a bind: the knowledge that he had of the couple resulted from his friendship with them, “and not from any professional relationship,” and as such, “he did not feel that he could share what he knew with the board” (p. 69). Therein, Beck argued, lies the crux of “a tension that exists between church and clinic”: church boards must stand for the sanctity of marriage, and “church discipline is, for church boards, a legitimate function” (p. 69). Nevertheless, churches tend to be biased towards “the party that does not want the divorce… did not initiate the divorce, or… has maintained the closest relationship with the church” (p. 70). Therapists, on the other hand, “tend to have broader viewpoints as to the cause of a couple’s marital distress”, and may discover that the party that did not initiate and/or does not want the divorce nonetheless contributed to marital dysfunction in key ways (p. 70).
Conclusion and Summary: It is clear that it is very difficult for a pastor to avoid dual relationships in pastoral counseling. Moreover, because so many pastors provide some type of counseling as a part of their services to their congregants, it is clear that most pastors will have to contend with dual relationships and all their attendant issues. Pastoral ministry does not lend itself to the clearly-delineated job expectations and strict ethical proscriptions of conventional secular psychotherapy, for pastoral ministry itself involves pastors being many things to their congregants. Nonetheless, there is some division of opinion regarding whether dual relationships are, for the pastor-counselor, problematic: while it is clear that such relationships are often fraught with risks of boundary violations, it is also clear that many congregations welcome the multiple roles of their pastors’ work, and many pastor-counselors see counseling as an integral part of their ministry. What, then, should a pastor do?
The pastor-counselor has a number of options, the first being to forgo one of the relationships (Montgomery & DeBell, 1997, pp. 33-34). For some pastor-counselors, the best course of action may well be to forgo ministry work in order to take up private practice, which has much clearer ethical codes of conduct (p. 34). Alternatively, the pastor could maintain the pastoral role, but insist on referring congregants to “professional clinicians who can provide ongoing care in a less ethically ambiguous setting” (p. 34). The second option is for the pastor-counselor to maintain the dual relationship, but get supervision. Finally, there is the continuum view, that “not all dual relationships can be avoided… and there may even be some beneficial aspects to some” (pp. 34-35). Here, a pastor should get the client’s informed consent, discuss with them “both the potential risks and the benefits of dual relationships,” and consult with other professionals or seek supervision at need (p. 35).
Arguably the best course of action for a pastor to follow would be to offer counseling services as an integral part of ministry work, and only as ministry. This is a part of the continuum view: the pastor has much to offer their congregants and may be able to help them; however, they must take care in their approach. Not every situation will lend itself to the pastor’s expertise and attention. Whilst pastoral ministry and secular counseling have some apparent similarities, in truth their demands are quite disparate: secular counselors have different and generally stricter standards of confidentiality, and the codes of ethics of counseling bodies often threaten to undermine key goals of pastoral ministry—i.e. in areas such as clients’ personal religious beliefs, attitudes about divorce, gender issues, etc. The training required for each profession is also very different, as are the standards of practice, patterns of socialization, etc. Moreover, the idealized power and trust that congregants vest in their clergy has been remarked upon in these pages at some length, as have the risks that it poses for such a dual relationship.
Pastors can best avoid the perils of abuse of power and boundary violations in dual relationships by taking stock of themselves and their work. By understanding themselves, how they perceive their work and how others perceive it, pastors can avoid many of these perils. As seen, the occupational hazards of pastoral work, such as overwork, neglect of personal and family life, the pressure of public image, and multiple roles outside of counseling are all risks in and of themselves. By taking proper care of themselves and their families, spiritually as well as in every other way, pastors can ensure their own peace of mind and well-being. Pastors who do so will be better equipped to meet the trials, challenges and pressures of their vocation: to understand their multiple roles with congregants and manage them so as to avoid the risks.
Beck, J. R. (2003). Church-clinic tension: A case of good intentions mingled with misinformation. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 22(1), pp. 68-70. Retrieved from http://www.search.ebscohost.com/
Bleiberg, J. R., & Skufca, L. (2005, September). Clergy dual relationships, boundaries, and attachment. Pastoral Psychology, 54(1), pp. 3-22. DOI: 10.1007/s11089-005-6179-5
Haug, I. E. (1999, Fall). Boundaries and the use and misuse of power and authority: Ethical complexities for clergy psychotherapists. Journal of Counseling & Development, 77, 411-417.
Justice, J. A., & Garland, D. R. (2010, Winter). Dual relationships in congregational practice: Ethical guidelines for congregational social workers and pastors. Social Work & Christianity, 37(4), pp. 437-445. Retrieved from http://www.search.ebscohost.com/
Montgomery, M. J., & DeBell, C. (1997, October). Dual relationships and pastoral counseling: Asset or liability? Counseling & Values, 42(1), pp. 30-37. Retrieved from http://www.search.ebscohost.com/
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