5 Times A Pastor Should Refer A Counselee


Pastoral counseling is an important of pastoral care. However, there are times when the pastor should not deal with a problem (or should not deal with it on his or her own). Sometimes the problem is just too difficult for the pastor to deal with, and other times there is doubt as to whether the pastor has the skill set to solve the problem. Here are 5 times when it is perfectly okay for a pastor to refer to someone more specialized than him or her:

1. When the Problem is Beyond His or Her Level of Expertise

Pastors need to know and understand their limits. If an individual comes to a pastor for psychiatric help, the odds are that the pastor does not have sufficient training to help that individual. It is in the person's best interest to be referred to a trained psychiatrist who can help that individual through his or her problem. A pastor who has his or her flock's best interest in mind will recognize this and act accordingly. Furthermore, the wise pastor will know his or her limits and only work within those boundaries. In this way, the pastor is the most help to the largest number of people in his or her care.

2. When the Counselee Threatens to Harm Himself or Herself

If an individual threatens harm to himself or herself, it is time to call for additional help. This also includes any time the pastor has a strong reason to suspect that the individual is hurting himself. For example, if the patient threatens to cut himself or herself, it is a good idea to help seek additional help for the counselee. If the pastor can clearly see marks on the body of the counselee that indicate that he or she has been cutting himself or herself, it is always wise to help the counselee find help that is more adequately trained to help the individual. If the individual threatens suicide, it is important to get him or her IMMEDIATE help, as he or she may be a danger to themselves. Always take any threat of suicide seriously, never assuming that the individual does not mean it. There is no shame in finding a clever way to contact 911 while the counselee is still at the church (or wherever the counseling session is taking place). The individual needs help at this stage, and the pastor should take every possible step to get that help to the counselee as soon as possible.

3. When the Counselee Threatens to Harm Others

This situation is similar to the last one, except the counselee has threatened harm to others rather than himself or herself. The best advice for this type of situation is similar to that above. Get this individual help as soon as possible. Someone's life may depend on it.

4. When the Pastor Suspects a Specialized Problem

Pastors do not have training in every area. Therefore, it is normal for pastors to refer to others who specialize in different areas. For example, I have heard the story of an individual who was always happy and joyful, especially in the church. This young lady would always bring cheer to those around her. Suddenly, one day she became depressed. There were no obvious causes for her depression. Her pastor spoke with her about it, and recommended that she see a medical doctor about her depression. She did, and the doctor discovered a thyroid problem which was contributing to her depression. Once this problem was managed, she returned to her happy, joyful self.

5. When Someone Else Can Help the Counselee Better

There may be times when a pastor can handle a problem, but knows of an individual who has more training than him or her in a particular area. When a counselee comes in with a problem in this area, there is no shame in referring to someone who has more experience or practice, even if you have the skill set to handle the situation. Remember, the members of your congregation, not your personal pride, come first. Seek the best care for those who come to you for help, even if it means that the help does not come from you. This will yield the best possible result for all involved.


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