This blog post is a companion piece to this week’s podcast titled “A Discussion on Sexual Misconduct” with Aaron Sironi, Alasdair Groves, and Tim Lane.
In our podcast, we discussed an important and sadly prevalent issue: sexual misconduct in ministry perpetrated by the very pastors and counselors who set out to be to be careful guardians to other brothers and sisters in Christ. We stressed that this is a temptation to which no one is immune, and that all sexual violations start with subtle problems in the heart of the caregiver. Acknowledging this fact and taking appropriate precautions can help prevent these situations from developing and guide counselors on what to do when problems do arise.
If you regularly counsel people of the opposite gender, we suggest the following guidelines to proactively create a safe counseling environment. As the overwhelming majority of cases of sexual misconduct involve men exploiting women, we will focus on advice to men. With that said, these thoughts apply equally to men and women.
Creating a Safe Counseling Environment
- Good accountability is nonnegotiable. Surround yourself with several wise brothers or sisters who know you well and know your personal weaknesses and temptations. Tell these people about your counseling work, and be especially careful to share about any time you are tempted or aroused by what you talked about with someone. This is usually an established practice in a counseling ministry but is equally important for pastors who may work in a more isolated environment.
- If you are discussing sexual issues and/or struggles with someone of the opposite gender, regularly speak of this counseling relationship in supervision or with your elders.
- Always make sure someone else is nearby and aware that you are speaking with a counselee.
- Consider introducing your counselee to the woman who works in the next office (if there is someone) for your counselee’s sake. It can be very helpful for a woman coming to see you to know there is another woman nearby whose name she knows and to whom she has at least spoken. (This would also be effective in reminding a man speaking to a female counselor that he is not completely unaccountable.)
- In some cases, it may be profitable for the counselee to invite another faithful friend (e.g., husband, sister, or mentor) into counseling sessions with you.
- If you are married, make sure your office has photos of your wife (and children) in plain sight. This visual reminder of your family sends an important yet subtle message to your counselee (i.e., who you are and to whom you are connected). Most importantly, it serves to ground you in this as well! When appropriate, speak favorably about your spouse and family. This communicates your devotion to them above any attachment to the counselee.
- Consider installing a sizable window in your office door.
- Be careful if you are counseling using internet technology like Skype. In a world full of internet pornography, where computer videos are for secret sexual sin, speaking over the computer makes it easier to feel like you are speaking to an object rather than a person. Further, the sense of distance—being physically removed from her world and having a screen between you—can give you a sense of privacy or protection that may embolden you to say or do things you would not do in person. Having someone sit with your counselee during your conversations will help enormously.
- Do not hold sessions outside your counseling office and do not meet outside your regular counseling hours. Do not even meet in your office if there is nobody else around. Do not go over your agreed-upon time. If you said you had an hour, take an hour, not an hour and a half.
- Do not touch the counselee beyond (possibly) shaking hands. Do not give out your cell phone number, chat online, or engage using a personal Facebook account, etc.
- Only share things in counseling that you would want your spouse and pastor to overhear.
- Finally, on the broadest level, you should continually be on the lookout for the many ways you are tempted to use your counseling/pastoral role to feed your own selfish pleasures and desires (for admiration, respect, appreciation, to be needed, to be special/important, to rescue, etc.). Remember too that you are in a position of power and are held responsible before God (and by the church and the government) for what transpires between you and the counselee.
How to Respond When an Issue Develops
- Never reciprocate a counselee’s expressions of romantic affection.
- Understand that you may need to end a counseling relationship in certain situations. It is better to discontinue counseling and to refer the person to another helper than to lead someone into a relationship where you abuse the power and trust she has given you. A decision to stop counseling because of romantic attraction—from either side—should be made in concert with other wise members of the body. This is tricky to do, but it must be considered.
- If a counselee expresses her attraction to you, and it seems appropriate to continue counseling her, be very careful to maintain protective boundaries around and in your counseling relationship. Be significantly more guarded and less forthcoming than you normally would about your personal life. To share personally in that situation may communicate a tenderness, affection, or intimacy you do not intend. Making these kinds of self-disclosures may communicate that a counselee has a special role in your life that will feed her struggle (and/or yours!). Recognize that a counselee’s romantic attraction to you is not an uncommon dynamic in counseling ministry yet one that requires careful and thoughtful handling. Again, this should be discussed with a colleague, mentor, or supervisor.
- Likewise, when you are speaking with someone to whom you feel any romantic attraction, never keep this information to yourself! Never. As a counselor, speak to your supervisor or supervision team. As a pastor, speak to your elders or pre-established accountability partner. Do not give into the foolishness of believing you can “handle it on your own.” Regardless of how many years you’ve been doing counseling ministry, make a habit of speaking to the appropriate people about any sexual arousal.
- If you are married, wisely consider sharing the sexual thoughts and feelings you experience in counseling with your wife (without betraying a counselee’s trust or violating confidentiality). She too needs to understand the impact on you of counseling people who are being vulnerable to you and toward whom you feel tenderness, affection, and concern. This is actually an important way to strengthen your marriage and build trust between you. Bringing these issues into the light in your marriage can be challenging, but it allows you to pray together for your ministry more wisely, and it gives your wife an opportunity to voice both concerns and encouragement to you in a way that will both guide you and strengthen your resolve to walk uprightly when you are confronted with temptation.
In all these suggestions, our purpose is not to scare counselors or pastors as much as it is to promote a healthy respect for our own vulnerability to temptation and sin. Indeed, our goal is transparent living, where openness and accountability with regard to our temptations in counseling is simply an extension of the honesty and living-in-the-light nature of the rest of our lives! So let our discussion in the podcast, together with these follow-up recommendations, serve as a start in setting practical guidelines for yourself as you seek to minister the gospel effectively wherever God has called you.