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Thursday, December 03, 2009

Ask the Matriarch - Can I Help You Edition

As pastoral leaders, we often are called upon to counsel with persons who are distressed or discerning. However, many of us have received minimal training in counseling. How do we determine when we can help and when we should refer? That is the nature of today's question from "Lucky Fresh."

Dear Matriarchs,
A couple I've never met has been referred to me for marital counseling (by a church member). I am quite aware that I am unqualified to do this, and I know all about referring when you're unqualified. But it was also made clear that they don't have the money to pay anyone. So I figured I'd give it a shot.

I do pre-marital counseling with couples I am going to do weddings for, and I have a pretty standardized routine for that. But this is different. It appears to be a young couple, and they've been separated. I think they're wanting to get back together, but wanted to talk some things through first. I know the wife specifically wanted to talk with a female "counselor" which is how they ended up with me. I'm not sure if there are kids or if infidelity was involved. Basically I know nothing about them.

We have our first appointment on Nov. 29th (of who knows how many?). Can you give me some hints about what kinds of questions to ask them? I'm at a bit of a loss as to where to start, beyond "Help me get to know you and understand the situation a little." Also, at what point do I tell them I can't help them anymore?

Lucky Fresh

Mompriest, who blogs at Seeking Authentic Voice offers the following insights:

As you recognize, this is a sticky situation. Although I have an MSW and an M.Div, I refer folks out when the situation is beyond my abilities and training. Also, because of boundary concerns, I will only see parishioners for 3-6 sessions before referring them out. It seems to me the wisest choice in this case is to refer them to a professional couples therapist.

But under the circumstances since you have decided to see them I suggest the following: Pull together a list of people in your area who are credentialed Marriage and Family therapists,
especially those who work for an agency and may have a sliding scale. You can find them through this website: American Association for Marriage and Family Therapists. Some agencies will charge folks next to nothing for several sessions if they meet some financial criteria.

Tell the couple you will work with them for a few sessions but beyond that they will need to see a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. I would also make sure they understand completely that you are clergy and not a therapist, and can only help them from that perspective. Perhaps, as is sometimes the case, the couple only needs a neutral presence to listen to them tell their story and ask them the tough questions they should be asking themselves and each other. If that's what they need, and you can do that, it might help.
Some pointers: Do not take sides. No matter what, stay neutral. You may feel more empathy for one or the other, do not let that show. Strive for balanced questions, answers, and reflecting back their answers to each of them. Ask them each, one at a time, to tell the story. "How did you meet?" "How long have you known each other?" "When and why did you marry?" "Help me understand what has happened now." They need to agree that as one speaks, the other listens and cannot interrupt, each will have their turn. After each has had a turn to tell the story repeat back what you have heard, "So, I heard you that correct?" Then ask each member of the couple what they heard the other say. You may also ask a couple of clarifying questions to each of them: "Do you understand what she/he is feeling/saying when he/she says....." "What do you think would help this situation?"

After a session or two you may be able to summarize your time together giving them some tools for better communication. Sometimes it is a matter of improving communication skills. One may need to listen better and the other may need to express needs more clearly.
Premarital communication tools can help with this.

One thing to make note of: If you suspect that there is abuse going on they need to be referred immediately to a counselor who is skilled at dealing with domestic abuse. This is a very particular issue and cannot be handled by untrained folk.

And from Jennifer, who blogs at An Orientation of Heart

Dear Lucky Fresh,
It’s clear that you’re feeling a little ill at ease, but I think you made a good choice to give it a shot, as you said.

I’d be honest with them about your background and training and be forthcoming about what you are qualified to do (listen, reflect, offer a faith perspective, etc). You know your strengths and qualifications!

I’d suggest finding out from them what their goals/hopes/expectations are for talking with someone and I think you’ll learn a lot from them right there. You’ll discover if both partners are willing to meet with you, or perhaps that it’s one partner’s idea and the other is reluctant.

I expect, too, that many of the questions that you ask in pre-marital counseling will also be relevant as you get to know them. You might think about adapting some of those questions as a way to get better acquainted with them and their situation.

Determining how long or how often you will meet with them is also something that would be good to establish with them up front, in order to keep expectations clear and to keep a good handle on your time and boundaries. I’d suggest negotiating to meet two times and then negotiate the need, if any, for future meetings.

When is it time to refer? Just before the time you feel in over your head, or if you feel that the time involved is greater than you can give to it.

There's great wisdom in our matriarchs' responses. Perhaps you too have some experience and/or insight to share? Please use the comment function at the end of this post to share your thoughts with us.

May you live in God's amazing grace+

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure that people realize that most pastors are not trained to do in depth counseling. And there are the role and boundary issues mentioned by the other people. There is also the issue of money: people don't want to/can't afford a counselor. But what will a divorce cost??? And, meanwhile, are they spending money on other things that may not be necessary, but that add up, such as beer, chips, cigarettes? Maybe we afford what we want to afford, but that is an issue for another type of counseling.

    There may be some type of subsidized counseling available in the area, such as Lutheran Social Services, that could be worth knowing about.

    My sister got her daughter and son-in-law to see a pastor for a particular acute situation (not abuse.) They really did need to see somebody, and the guy hadn't been honest with the medical person he had been to. But I told my sister later, "Most pastors aren't trained in counseling." She had no idea that was true.

    There may be some type of subsidized counseling available in the area, such as Lutheran Social Services, that could be worth knowing about.


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