Can churches do biblical counseling in a safe way? Is there a code of ethics that churches or biblical counselors could adopt to protect clients?

I really only intended to write one post about biblical counseling, but I wrote that post, and then the floodgates of emails opened. Initially I wrote about the 10 questions you should ask a biblical counselor to make sure they’re safe–because some biblical counselors are not. Then I wrote about the two big elements any safe counseling situation would include–referrals to specialists when you’re out of your depth, and a guarantee of confidentiality.

I have had a church ask me how how they can set up biblical counseling so that it’s safe for clients, and some seminary professors contact me. Like it says in Ecclesiastes, there is a time to tear down and a time to build up. I feel like I tear down a lot, so today I’d like to try to build up!

I know not all my readers will be interested in this, but I do hope you will bear with me, because rather than respond to inquiries individually, I’d like to have a post to point them to. What I’m going to do here is create a “code of ethics” that churches should establish for biblical counselors who work for them. I’m hoping this post will become a “living” post. I’ll give my suggestions, but then, as good suggestions come in in the comments or subsequent emails, I’ll add them to the post here. That way I don’t have to keep writing new posts about biblical counseling, and I can move on to other things!

Again, the issue I have with biblical counselors is that there are no licenses that can be taken away, and thus there are no enforceable professional ethics. Because of that, there’s a great power imbalance between the counselor and the client, which is not healthy in a counseling situation.

Here, then, is what I would recommend churches agree to, publish, and distribute to clients as part of the consent to counseling form. These values simply hold biblical counselors to the same ethical standards as licensed marriage and family therapists, and are in keeping with best practices for licensed mental health professionals.

If churches did this, I would be much more comfortable with biblical counseling!

(I am not including the traditional wording about how churches do things in light of Scripture, or in light of the cross, or through the leading of the Holy Spirit, because churches tend to already include that language, and I leave that up to them. I am only including here the areas that I fear may be lacking.)

A Code of Ethics for Biblical Counselors

Our goal, in counseling, is to protect the emotional, spiritual, and physical health of our clients above all else. This comes before the preservation of the marriage or concerns for the church.

To that end, we counsel using these values:

1. We consider all our counselors, whether they are paid or not, and whether the law requires it or not, to be mandatory reporters in the case of suspicion of abuse, including, but not limited to, child abuse, spousal abuse, or elder abuse.

2. We consider any sexual contact between a counselor and a client to constitute clergy sexual abuse, and we will report it to the authorities.

3. We recognize that while we have been trained in biblical counseling, there are many areas in which we are not well-equipped. We will refer clients who suffer from trauma, mental illnesses, depression or anxiety, or other things that we know we are not equipped to handle to other mental health professionals. We may counsel them simultaneously, but we will also advise that they get further help.

4. We recognize that mental health professionals and physicians have areas of expertise that we do not have, and we will not advise clients to contravene doctor’s orders, or discourage them from seeking medical attention if the client wishes. If we have concerns about medical treatment, we may advise that the client seek a second opinion from a medical professional, but we will not speak against medical treatment.

5. We believe that client confidentiality is vital to the health of a counseling relationship. Confidentiality will not be broken except when necessary to report crimes; to report suspicion of abuse; or if the client poses a harm to him/herself or others. In these cases the concern will be reported to legal authorities. Other than these exceptions, what is disclosed in counseling will be kept private. The counselor will be the only one with access to files concerning the client, unless the counselor is under supervision for the purposes of training, and then only that supervisor would also have access. These files will be kept locked up where other church employees will not have access. If digital, the files will be kept password-protected.

6. We recognize that in cases where marital abuse is the reason for counseling, couples counseling at outset is inappropriate. Abuse is not a relationship problem, but an individual issue. We will refer the offender to a trained counselor specializing in abuse, who understands the abuse cycle and narcissism, and is familiar with appropriate counseling methodologies in the case of abuse. We will support the abused spouse and any minor children in the interim, and will also look at referring the abused spouse for specialized counseling where appropriate.

7. We recognize that while many issues have sin at the root–such as addictions or pornography use–that sin, when practised over a long period of time, often leads to emotional issues which also have to be addressed in order for full healing to occur and freedom to be found. We realize, too, that much sin has its roots in brokenness, and thus healing will only be achieved when the initial brokenness is also dealt with. Thus, our focus will not only be on repentance, but on full healing at all levels. In some cases, this may also involve referring to further professionals.

8. We recognize that in the case of sin, confession and repentance must be accompanied by the fruits of repentance for relationship restoration. We realize that these fruits must be visible over a period of time, the length of which is commensurate with the degree of the offense. We recognize that the offended party has insight into the offender that we may never have, and thus the offended party will not be pressured to reconcile at any timeline other than the one he or she chooses.

9. Should disputes arise between the counselor and the client, the client can bring those concerns to the leadership of the church. If the client is still not happy with the way that counseling was handled, and believes that some of these values espoused above were violated, the church will hire an independent, third party licensed counselor in the area (such as PERSON YOU INTEND TO HIRE) to review the case and offer recommendations. This report will be given to both the church leadership and the client simultaneously.

A Code of Ethics for Biblical Counselors, and Best Practices for Safe Biblical Counseling

Okay, those would be my recommendations to help ensure that clients’ needs are respected, and that clients are treated appropriately.

Many of these do involve referring to outside counselors, and I think it wise for churches to dedicate a portion of the budget to supporting members in obtaining this counseling. Some areas have a counseling program a church can subscribe to, where any member can get a certain number of sessions a year. That’s another great idea.

Anything else you would add to these 9?

Seriously–this would be the best of both worlds. A person being able to get safe counseling from a church, but also being referred to experts when warranted, and a church protecting the client above all else. This is what the church needs.

So what do you think? I invite your suggestions. And especially if you are a licensed counselor, other mental health professional, or a biblical counselor–do you have issues with any of these? Would you word them differently? Any other concerns? Let’s talk!

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