Choosing a Pastoral Counselor as your mental health service provider.
by Richard Rudd, M.A., NCPC-II
In the largely unregulated marketplace of Pastoral Counseling you must have great discernment when choosing a pastoral counselor as your mental health service provider. This article is intended to provide you with a list of questions to use when choosing a pastoral counselor. This is only intended to be a guide and starting point for a frank and in-depth discussion with your potential pastoral counselor.
It is imperative that you discuss, and have a thorough understanding, of the skills, education and experience of any mental health provider. This is especially true of pastoral counselors. Pastoral counseling is a unique form of psychotherapy and the therapist must have a unique set of skills and experience. The counselor that you choose must have a detailed understanding of counseling theories and practices but must also be able to integrate religious or spiritual beliefs into the therapy.
In the world of pastoral counseling there are good as well as not-so-good therapists. This is especially true when working with lay counselors or volunteer counselors, such as in a crisis call center or the first stop in a churches care ministry. These lay counselors could range from licensed psychologist with 20 years of experience who is volunteering their time, to a well meaning and very nice parishioner who has little or no training in counseling and who’s spiritual beliefs differ greatly from your own.
Ask your prospective counselor for a short telephone or personal interview before you agree to become a client. Explain that this interview is for you to determine if this counselor is appropriate for you. You should not be charged for this interview if your time and scheduling requests are considerate and reasonable. During your first phone call or meeting with your potential pastoral counselor take the time to explore the following items:
- Discuss the pastoral counselor’s formal education and training in both ministry as well as in counseling. Ask about the accreditation of the schools to get an idea of the credibility of the therapist’s degrees and training. Keep in mind that there are many “fly-by-night” diploma mills, however, there are also many quality schools are not formally accredited. Additionally, the counselor’s educational level does not necessarily relate to counseling competence, but the greater investment of time, labor, and funds into a counseling education, the greater the likelihood that the counselor is serious about his or her profession.
- Question how the counselor will integrate spiritual and religious beliefs into the therapy. This is a critical skill of any pastoral counselor and is what separates them from traditional mental health service providers. It also is one the main reasons people choose to see a Pastoral Counselor.
- Ask about the counselor’s current licenses and certifications. A governmental body grants licensure, while certification is a review of credentials and experience by a private organization. There are many organizations that will certify a person as a pastor, pastoral counselor, therapist, etc. Some are very reputable; some merely require a valid credit card. Unfortunately, there are several organizations that offer very impressively sounding credentials or even licensure to anyone who applies. Take the time to investigate the certification body by researching it on the Internet, reading brochures, and reviewing the code of ethics or statement of faith.
- Discuss any memberships in professional associations the counselor may have. Similar to licensing and certification organizations, some professional associations are very reputable; some merely require a valid credit card.
- Ask about overall counseling experience and any areas of specialization. This should give you a general idea about the breadth and depth of the counselor’s skills. However, just because a counselor doesn’t have many years of experience or doesn’t specialize in the particular area that you’re seeking treatment, doesn’t mean that the therapy won’t be successful.
- Talk about the therapist’s experience with clients that have had similar problems. This will start to give you an idea about the depth of applicable skills that the counselor has. Additionally, most Code’s of Ethics allow counselors to only work with patients falling within the therapist’s boundaries of competence.
- Ask about confidentiality and mandated reporter requirements. The therapist should be able to explain exactly what information is covered by confidentiality and/or privilege and exactly what situation(s) would legally or ethically require the therapist to breach privilege. Be careful about sharing confidences with someone who is not legally or ethically bound by confidentiality requirements or who might not have the counseling experience or wisdom to respect your privacy.
- Discuss the therapist’s supervision requirements, or any consultation agreements with other counselors. Also question how the therapist maintains confidentiality when discussing your case with other counselors.
- Question the types and theories of therapy the counselor uses. The different types and theories in counseling make up the counselors tool kit. Generally, the more types and theories mean more tools the counselor can draw upon. The counselor may use a different type of therapy based upon your personality or the specific issue. Most counselors have developed their own style based on several theories combined with their own personality.
- Discuss any pertinent religious beliefs that may impact therapy. Don’t forget that the reason you made the appointment with a pastoral counselor is because they integrate spiritual and religious beliefs into the therapy. Make sure that you and the counselor don’t have any major, pertinent disagreements. If you are seeing the therapist for marital counseling, differing beliefs about the ordination of woman probably won’t impact the counseling. However, significant differences in beliefs about Salvation, Spiritual Warfare, or Forgiveness may greatly affect any type of therapy.
- Discuss any issues or any types of clients that the counselor is not comfortable providing services to. Find out about the referral policy to other counselors, in what situations the therapist would refer and how that process would work.
- Ask for a brochure or document that outlines the counselor-client relationship in writing. Many states require counselors to provide a Client Bill of Rights to you. This document should outline the policies, procedures and expectations in your relationship. Another document may be a Code of Ethics or Code of Conduct that the counselor subscribes to.
This list is only a start. There are several other factors to take into account such as personality styles and your comfort level talking with the therapist. You also should discuss fees, 3rd party payer options (insurance), and sliding scale for fees.
By asking these questions you will start to discover the skills, education, experience, and knowledge level of your potential mental health provider. If you don’t feel completely comfortable, immediately discuss the issue with the counselor or continue your search for another therapist.
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