It’s an unfortunate fact that many Catholic parishes have truly horrible websites. The reasons for this are many, varied, and generally valid – budgets, time, staffing constraints, and so on. But the end result is that potential parishioners and visitors have a very difficult time getting the information they need, and may form some negative opinions about the parish based on this virtual first impression. It also means that any services that rely on these websites to communicate with clients are in danger of being overlooked, misunderstood, or alienating those in need. This is especially true of services that require potential clients to trust in the professionalism of those involved, such as pastoral counseling.
Web presence is not a conversation topic that comes up frequently in counseling classes, but it could be viewed as the first portion of rapport building. The way that a pastoral counselor presents him or her self online should be something that the counselor takes personal responsibility for, in the say way that they would take responsibility for the environment within the office and their personal appearance. It is not enough to rely on the official website of the parish or diocese with which the counselor is associated (although a presence on these sites is still a wonderful idea). Rather, a pastoral counselor should have their own professional webspace that relies on the basic tenants of communication: ethos, pathos, and logos.
Wait, what? Just as in-person communication relies on tone, body language, and word choice in order to build a relationship, written communication must communicate on the levels of personal authority (ethos), emotion (pathos), and logic (logos). If you can speak to potential clients on these levels, you can begin to build a solid foundation of professionalism on which to base a therapeutic alliance.
Ethos – Your personal authority as a pastoral counselor comes from two separate sources: your professional training (license, education, certifications, and so on) and your active membership within your pastoral community. In order to communicate this properly on your website, be sure to list your credentials prominently, and to explain what they mean; a short bio would also not be out of place. Your professional ethos can be further communicated by the basic design of your site – clean, easy to navigate, and devoid of gimmicks and (if at all possible) without ads.
Pathos – The emotional appeal can be very touchy in online communication, especially when dealing with individuals who may already be feeling emotionally raw. In the case of a pastoral counselor, clients can effectively relate on the level of ethos by being sensitive to the needs of their clients. For example, ensuring that the contact information on the website does not require a client to reach out in a way that might breach confidentiality. Clients should not be required to make any motions in a public way (for example, discussing their desire to make a counseling appointment with the secretary in the busy parish office or leaving a message in a shared voice mailbox). By providing confidential methods of contact via the site, counselors can provide for the emotional needs of potential clients before any one-on-one discussions take place.
Logos – There is a fine balance between providing logos (generally in the form of statistics, research, links to relevant articles, and so on) and overwhelming potential clients with counselor-ese. The presence of some research-validated information and links to professional publications can reassure some clients who tend to be researchers, who feel more comfortable walking into a new situation already armed with some vocabulary. Providing access to this information – especially from a Christian perspective – can provide these individuals with a firmly reassuring footing. It is important to remember the purpose of your website, however. You are not providing access to your professional services, and links to other sources should support that purpose.