As a pastor, it will serve you well to get to know the mental health professionals in your community and identify several who have a strong faith commitment that can be a part of a trusted referral network. This post is meant to help you think through how to vet counselors in your community; whether (a) you are new to a community and building an initial referral network, or (b) a new counselor contacts your church and wants to become a referral resource.
In the eight questions below two priorities are attempted to be kept in balance:
- Integrity – You want to know each counselor you utilize sufficiently to be able to recommend them with integrity.
- Efficiency – You wear many hats and need to be able to vet potential counselors in a time frame that does not impede your ability to fulfill other ministry responsibilities.
It is preferable if you could meet in person with a counselor and discuss these eight questions. But, due to the number of counselors in their community, some churches choose to have a written questionnaire that they ask potential counselors to complete and only follow up in person with those who present as the best-fit for their church’s beliefs and needs.
1. How did you come to faith in Christ and what church are you a member of?
The first part of getting to know what someone means by being a “Christian counselor” is getting to know what they mean by being a Christian; both initial profession of faith and ongoing spiritual maturity. These should be natural conversations for a pastor. You are not looking for someone who is necessarily part of your same denomination, but you want to hear a clear understanding of the gospel and a joyful commitment to growing in their personal faith.
2. Why did you become a counselor? What do you enjoy about it? What is the most difficult part of the profession for you?
In this response you not only get to know the counselor more personally, you will also get a foreshadowing of their answer to the next question. Good counselors can talk about what is rewarding and draining in their profession. You want to assess how comfortably the counselor can talk about unpleasant things (an important skill for counseling effectiveness). A counselor who is flat or non-engaging on a question like this may be viewing your church simply as a referral source (purely business relationship) rather than a partner in caring well for your congregants.
3. In your opinion, what is the difference between being a pastor and a counselor?
It is vital to have a shared answer on this question in order to partner well with one another. In my opinion, it is different views on this question that account for a large percentage of the conflicts that emerge between pastors and counselors. Here are three posts that may be helpful in forming your views on this question (if they’re not already established):
- What is the difference between meeting with a pastor and a formal counselor?
- Comparing Pastoral Ethics and Counseling Ethics
If the conversation goes well and the two of you want to explore this question further (as a way to build a better working relationship), consider sending these links to the counselor and discussing them in a second meeting.
4. What are your areas of specialty in counseling? What life struggles do you not counsel?
No counselor is competent at everything. If a counselor cannot clearly and comfortably talk about the life struggles they are not equipped to serve, this should be a red flag. It either means they are ill-experienced (not yet aware of the areas they are not equipped to serve) or overly-idealistic (convinced they are competent in all matters). A huge win in these conversations is when you find a counselor who (a) has a strong faith commitment, (b) knows their limits, and (c) is well-connected with other counselors in the area who are competent in their areas of weakness. This becomes your “go to counselor” who can help you ensure your people get to the best-fit counselor when more experienced-professional care is needed.
5. How do you approach moral guidance in counseling? How do you determine if a given individual’s struggle is more rooted in sin or suffering?
Often when pastors ask counselors, “Do you use the Bible in counseling?” this is what they really want to know. Question #4 may influence how a counselor answers this question. For example, a counselor who specializes in trauma is more likely to be focused on the suffering side of counseling. This question can provide the opportunity to assess how effective this counselor may be in counseling that is part of a restorative church discipline requirement. You want a counselor who has the ability to speak of both sin and suffering in a ways that are comfortable, because every member of your congregation is simultaneously a sinner-sufferer-saint and will need a counselor who can speak in receivable ways about each aspect of the human struggle.
6. What do you view as the best and worst practices between counselors and local churches?
This question sets up an opportunity for the two of you to discuss your best and worst experiences about the relationship between counselors and churches. Each you can bring up examples of what has worked or not worked for you in the past as a way of establishing shared expectations for how you can work well together in the future.
During this discussion it would be wise to discuss why a release of information is needed for consultation between the counselor and pastor, when-how the pastor could ask a church member to request a release of information agreement for the pastor and counselor to consult, and how consultation would be done. Note: A release of information must be requested by the counselee in order for any consultation on their case to be discussed; the counselor is not being uncooperative or “disregarding the role of the church” when they require this… they are merely honoring the ethical guidelines of their profession.
7. Who are your favorite Christian counseling authors? What one book would you have me read?
Let’s face it, pastors love books and are always looking for a good recommendation. But beyond this, you will get a good feel for the approach of a counselor by reading the amazon review on several books from their favorite authors and reading at least a few chapters from their favorite Christian counseling book. This will also give you a sample for the kind of reading this counselor would recommend to a member of your congregation.
8. As you come across good resources on [subject] can you send me links or recommendations?
If you are pleased with the conversation to this point, then this question can be a great way to end this conversation. Have a list of the 3-5 most pressing counseling subjects facing members of your church. Ask the counselor to send you links to blog posts, podcasts, articles, or books they find that are relevant to these topics. A counselor who takes the time to do this (a) shows you they are interested in serving your church, not just having your church as a referral source, and (b) is helping you be a better pastor to members of your congregation.
If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on the Church and Counseling” post which address other facets of this subject.