A common conundrum for counselors of all types, and health care professionals, is how to handle dual relationships. They can be tricky, awkward and uncertain things for everyone. What do you do when the person who just told you their hard secrets greets you in the grocery store? Or when the child you see every week asks for a hug when they see you at a church function?
For the pastoral counselor this poses a unique problem. Unlike a priest or pastor, a counselor is not necessarily always functioning pastorally. And unlike other health professionals, there is a good chance that the pastoral counselor is a bit more embedded in the community they serve. Of course, a lot depends on the counselor and the community, but for the sake of argument let’s imagine the pastoral counselor serves in a mid-size church community as a Clinical/Pastoral Counselor and as a minister or teacher.
Now there really isn’t one right way of managing all those relationships. There are at least two generalized approaches to such a position.
Let me elaborate. Superheroes generally take two positions on the same issue. Some heroes, like Spiderman (my favorite hero!), keep their identity secret when they are seen publicly. In fact, Spiderman goes to great lengths to hide his identity. Iron Man, on the other hand, broadcasts himself publically and really doesn’t have a private life.
Spiderman hides his identity to protect the people that he loves. If his enemies knew who he was, they might hurt his family to get to him. Unfortunately, keeping his identity a secret is extremely difficult, and Peter often longs to tell the people he loves. This internal struggle is a central part of the character. Iron Man enjoys the attention and uses his public identity as a tool to inspire others. So without analyzing the characters too much, we can see some pros and cons. (Keep in mind that the danger level is much lower for most counselors).
A Peter Parker approach means keeping a professional distance from clients and community members which makes things less complicated on some level, but it also means a lonely state because at that point you aren’t really a full member of the community. By keeping a distance you protect yourself and them, especially if the community you serve is a dangerous one (more relevant to working with people living on the streets). This professional distance would mean giving minimal amounts of detail about yourself, where you live and your familial relations. Chances are if your family is part of the same community, they already know that kind of stuff. With this approach you would be less likely to stop and chat with a client in the grocery store, and brief with your hugs for child clients. A Peter Parker approach to your pastoral career is bound to be difficult and not always possible at all times, but it provides safety and avoids complicated relationships.
A Tony Stark approach has more risks, but in my opinion, more payoff. In a community setting this approach is more practical, because you don’t have to feel like you are living a double life or keeping secrets from everyone. In this approach you would give a moderate amount of self-disclosure, such as talking about your family, and maybe even some of your own struggles when they are relevant. Of course, you can’t make your problems their problems. That’s counter-productive. This approach allows you to utilize your own personal experiences and humanity to reach the people that you are trying to help. You would be more open to chatting with a client at the grocery store, and you would look forward to a hug from your young client and even talk casually with their parents perhaps. In a ministerial role you might give your testimony or sit with clients and their families at a church meal.
I don’t know about superheroes, but for counselors with a slightly different job description, I have found that a little self-disclosure helps people become more comfortable sharing about themselves. It can also gain you respect from people who might assume you don’t understand what they are going through, and especially in a pastoral role it can make you more relatable. When I worked at a community shelter I would eat with the same people that I counselled. It made me more human, and I even got to talk to some people in counseling because we had lunch first. It’s much less intimidating for them sometimes. The flip side is you are going to need a break. Attending a service at another church one Sunday, and having another community to turn to when you need to be the one ministered to, rather than the minister, is a must.
In the end, there is no one right way. I’m just giving my two cents on the better way (sorry Peter Parker, you are still my favorite though).