Note: this article has been excerpted from the SmallGroups.com training download Launching a Lay Counseling Ministry.
Counseling ministries can serve a significant nurturing function—both in a church as a whole and a small-group ministry. But they are not immune from legal risk. Church leaders need to know the risks of a lay-counseling program and how to manage them before offering counseling services.
The risk of negligent counseling can arise in a number of ways: a counselee may claim that his emotional problems were aggravated rather than helped by lay counseling. Or a person may claim that the counselor is responsible for the suicide of a counselee who was not referred. This is in contrast to clergy counselors, who are virtually immune from liability if they fail to report a suicidal person.
Child abuse reporting
Counselors may receive confessions of child abuse or information giving them reasonable suspicion that abuse has occurred. It is imperative for church leaders to obtain a copy of their state child abuse reporting statute and ensure that all counselors are aware of their reporting obligations under state law. Remember: these laws change frequently.
Seduction of counselees
Private counseling sessions involving dependent or emotionally vulnerable persons can present formidable temptations. If inappropriate sexual contacts are initiated, or even falsely accused, there can be substantial damage to the victim and the victim's family.
The costs of such behavior or accusations often devastate the counselor, as well, and can lead to criminal charges, removal from ministry, and unavailability of insurance coverage for either a legal defense or payment of damages.
Counselors (and the church) can be sued if they intentionally or inadvertently disclose confidential information to third parties. This can occur in several ways—for example, if the counselor directly communicates the information, or if the counselor's counseling notes are accessible to church staff. Counselors need to be strictly admonished to maintain the confidences. The one possible exception is child abuse reporting.
The church must screen candidates to ensure the suitability of prospective counselors for a counseling ministry. This should include a screening form, references, background check, and contacts with other churches the counselor has served.
Church leaders must ensure that trained and licensed mental health professionals supervise unlicensed lay counselors. Policies should also be developed that set forth standards on issues such as suicidal counselees, counselees threatening to harm others, counselees who confess to criminal activities, and counselees who are child abusers. Lay counselors should not attempt to diagnose multiple personality disorders or engage in controversial therapies. Finally, counselors also need policies for how and when to refer a crisis case to a professional.
Some churches charge or recommend a fee for counseling services. Leaders need to know that these fees are not tax deductible as charitable contributions. To be deductible, payments must be voluntary, and no preference given to those who can afford to pay.
Here are several strategies for controlling the risks that threaten your counseling program:
- The "third person" rule. This rule prohibits any male counselor from counseling privately with an unaccompanied female unless a third person is present.