Clergy as Counselor

The Psychology of Pastoral Care

Posted May 18, 2015

By: Michelle Friedman, M.D.

Source: Photo: iStock

Don and Melissa seem to have everything. High school sweethearts, they married right after college, have three wonderful pre-teen children and flourishing careers. They enjoy a comfortable life and are respected members of their school community and synagogue. So when Melissa runs into her rabbi at Hebrew school drop off, and asks “Do you have a minute to chat?”

Rabbi Gordon assumes that her question is about her older son’s upcoming bar-mitzvah. Melissa’s voice shakes as she blurts out, “Its Don’s drinking. It’s worse and worse. He gets so irrational and belligerent. I’m scared. I don’t know what to do.”

Rabbi Gordon doesn’t know what to do either.

When it comes to life issues, Americans turn to their ministers, priests, rabbis and imams far sooner than they consult mental health professionals. However, while clergy are first responders to the demanding human situations of everyday life as well as crisis and life cycle events, they are often not formally trained to deal with the pastoral component of their work. Formal seminary education tends to emphasize text erudition over interpersonal skill development.

Although some rabbis, priests, imams and ministers have good instincts as listeners and advisors, many, like Rabbi Gordon, get anxious in the hot spot of raw need. The sheer intensity of human need overwhelms even those clergy naturally talented in counseling.

Setting Boundaries:

Another stress to consider is the constant blur between professional and personal life. Unlike mental health workers who draw a clear division between these spheres, clergy pray, eat, celebrate and socialize with their congregants. The core mission of religious vocation, to inspire lives of faith and meaning, demands emotional engagement between clergy and congregant.

This intensity can itself blur boundaries. People in the midst of a powerful religious experience can feel a deep sense of intimacy and love for their minister, imam, rabbi or priest. Clergy must be prepared to hear confessions of all kinds and to respond with tact, sensitivity and wisdom. These moments are rife with potent feelings that can lead to boundary violations. A tearful congregant might reach to hug her rabbi. How the rabbi reacts can lead in vastly different directions.

He can gently pat the congregant and disengage. Or, he can respond with a fuller, more suggestive embrace. To do the second would be a serious boundary violation. Taking advantage of sexual or economic opportunities constitutes an exploitation of congregants’ vulnerability and is a defilement of sacred trust.

Listener vs. Advisor:

Pastoral counseling requires a special kind of listening. This listening is active, compassionate, and non-judgmental. It takes a lot of work.

A minister must stay in touch with her own emotional pulse, evaluate urgency and think through her role in any given pastoral encounter. An imam must anticipate the shame that congregants are likely to feel when divulging wrongdoing. A priest must understand how maintaining boundaries provides emotional support and religious guidance both in the present situation as well as going forward. All clergy need to listen as to whether deeper issues lie behind seeming routine questions.

First, they need to quiet down inside so that they can listen. Before Rabbi Gordon can counsel Melissa, he needs to recognize any feelings from his own life story that her situation triggers. Perhaps alcoholism played a part in his early life. Perhaps he has first hand knowledge of the shame that comes when a family colludes around a terrible secret. Whatever his past, Rabbi Gordon, like all clergy, can draw from the well of personal experience to empathize with those he counsels.

To Refer or Not to Refer:

Clergy approach counseling from vastly different points of view. Some feel that their sacred tests or seminary education covered all they need to know. Others are caught up in the historic tension between religion and psychology and see psychology as a threat. Or, they worry that the very mention of emotional troubles will offend a parishioner. Many get caught up in the polarizing tensions of a case and cause more harm than good.

A lot is required of clergy, it’s a fulfilling but demanding calling. Today’s spiritual leader must know something about psychology and how and when to triage.

It’s a must.

Psychological Training:

In addition to tact and common sense about human nature, competent clergy today need to have basic knowledge about the common issues of human struggle and suffering. These include marital and family dynamics, depression, anxiety and addictions. With the right tools in hand, well trained and self-aware clergy can help people through life’s journey in ways that offer practical support and a sense of deeper purpose..

In the above vignette, Rabbi Gordon needs to check out whether Melissa and the children are safe at home with Don. He should be familiar with basic alcohol treatment programs such as Alanon and AA as well as be ready with other resources. He can also be sensitive to the notion that Don may be suffering from a depression. In addition to Alanon and Alcoholics Anonymous, a referral to a good mental health professional may be in the cards.

Most of all, Rabbi Gordon must have the patience and compassion to support Melissa and the entire family over the long haul. Melissa may not accept an intervention today, but if Rabbi Gordon is prepared, he can make an enormous difference by staying available and concerned until she is ready to make change.

Blending Faith & Psychology:

As a psychiatrist and committed Jew, I am so grateful to have the opportunity to blend my passion for psychological inquiry and religious life in the pastoral training program at YCT Rabbinical School. I know that the work I do applies to all clergy. While our world seems to move faster and faster, people continue to seek meaning and support from spiritual tradition.

Basic grounding in pastoral counseling helps spiritual leaders of all religions guide people through life’s challenges as well as communicate the beauty and vibrancy of their faith traditions.


Michelle Friedman, MD is Director of Pastoral Counseling, YCT Rabbinical School. She is a practicing psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, and the co-author of the upcoming book: This is Hard to Talk About: A Jewish Guide to Pastoral Counseling.

She can be reached at:

Michelle Friedman, MD

205 West End Avenue, New York, NY 10023



We thank Dr. Friedman for this excellent article. In addition, if you want to learn more about The Intelligent Divorce see:

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Amazon)

The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Yourself  (Amazon) 

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