However, there were other factors as well, and I think the most pressing issue was the responsibility of “giving advice” around which people actually made significant decisions. I am not so vain as to think all of my pearls were eagerly gathered; I don’t follow my own providers’ instructions to the letter, either. But I suspect this is a factor of aging: the older you get, the more you realize the potential for good or harm in your words and behaviors in any setting, not just counseling settings.
Although I closed my office eighteen months ago, I still maintain a license and am still state required to take my 36-hours of coursework to renew. (Catechists, are you listening?) I use an on-line service which requires the reading of books followed by an on-line test. I shopped around for some courses recently and found one that required the reading of Doing the Right Thing: An Approach to Moral Issues in Mental Health Treatment. Every night before supper I take 30-45 minutes to plod through it and mark off answers on a copy of the test I downloaded courtesy of the company. It is hard not to get 100% but you do have to read the book.
The opening chapter of Doing the Right Thing addressed not just what kinds of advice are professionally appropriate, but whether a therapist should even offer moral advice at all. If you have attained a certain age, the very discussion of such a thing seems incongruous. Therapists probed, not preached. Freud himself employed exploration of the psyche and interpretation, not the giving of advice. The American icon Carl Rogers originally termed his “client-centered” theory of psychology “non-directive.” By the 1980’s and 1990’s the ethical textbooks of the mental health profession were generally hardnosed about any intrusion by the therapist of his values or his personal life.
At another level, though, many of us knew that not only was it impossible to keep our personalities out of our work but our values as well. I remember a summer school course in the 1980’s offered by an elderly psychoanalytic Freudian, a true old-school practitioner. He told us that back in the day he had a patient who, session after session, rambled on about how, in childhood, the parent would not give the patient a penny for a pickle during the Depression. Our speaker laughed. “Finally, I reached in my pocket, produced some change, handed it to the patient, and said, ‘Go out and buy all the damn pickles you want, and then get on with your life.’”
This old-timer, for all his immersion in the Freudian and the Rogerian traditions, had not lost his common sense, either. Sometimes the direct intervention is the correct one. However, it should not be the easiest one or become standard in the way that we assist others, and in the context of our blog there needs to be considerable discussion among church ministers about the best ways to help parishioners and the general public.
For one thing, the old church/state separation about laws and liabilities no longer exists. There are bishops, clergy, and laity now dealing with the long arm of the law for failure to report child abuse, for example. I suspect that church ministers—paid and volunteer—will be held to higher criminal standards of reporting. How about Eucharistic ministers who visit the elderly and observe family neglect or abuse, physically unsafe accommodations, psychological deterioration, etc.? What are the legal obligations here, and what standards do we bring into play?
But how liable are catechists and church ministers for the more commonplace advice we give or fail to give? It is important that we understand how seriously some people take our opinions and suggestions—from matters of religion to issues of personal problems. The Church does advertise itself as a place of unconditional love and acceptance, so the expectation is hanging out there that the Church is a kind of AAA on the highway of life. But, it does matter whether you are trained to pump gas or trained to dismantle and rebuild a Mercedes engine. In parish life it does matter whether you are trained and certified to teach religious studies or certified in Canon Law to advise and direct annulments. (You can certainly do both, but the skill sets are not interchangeable.)
Because of the fluid nature of parish life—we interact on many levels on varieties of projects and we may actually be neighbors—we tend to look at all of our parish contacts as “friends” or comrades in the faith, forgetting that (1) our ministry requires us to represent the Church publicly, whatever our private opinions might be, and thus we are not always able to be as “chummy” as we might like; and (2) we are often privy to information from parishioners that we cannot share, and sometimes when cornered we have to feign ignorance.
On this second point, as a church minister you will inevitably be asked for advice or an opinion, and this exchange can take place in a parish office or behind the backstop at a parish softball game. The range of subjects is potentially limitless: will reading Mother Faustina improve my prayer life? Should I put my mother in an assisted living facility or am I breaking the Fourth Commandment? Should I quit my job? Should I take out a second mortgage to send a child to a Catholic college? In the best of all worlds these questions are best directed toward (1) a confessor or certified spiritual director; (2) a gerontology social worker, for starters; (3) a vocational counselor, and maybe one’s financial advisor; and (4) a financial/retirement planner, again for starters.
In many cases you are part of his or her discernment process; the average person knows the targeted professional specialty, but he or she may not want to jump with both feet into the care or consult of a professional where hard decisions need to be made. So casual interlocutions are safer because they allow for more wiggle room; the questioner can gauge your emotional reaction to the question as well as your general opinion of the situation. Here is where caution comes to the fore. As Ben Bradlee said to Woodward and Bernstein in All the President’s Men, “Just make sure you’re right.” There is something intoxicating about playing expert, about being asked. The hubris can blind us to the fact that real lives with long-range impact can flow from our input.
By contrast, there are individuals who approach us over and over about the same problem. After a while it becomes evident that the person enjoys the attention and sympathy of a church worker and has no real interest in giving it up. After all, aren’t church people always supposed to be nice, and available? Not necessarily. I had a rule of thumb as a pastor and a therapist. I allowed two sessions for a parishioner or patient to “tell his story.” If the third session began as a rerun of the other two, I would stop the narrative, acknowledge that I had the picture, and begin planning behavioral changes with the person to rehearse for the next session. Sometimes giving advice is not the head trip we imagine it to be.