One of the regular tasks of a pastor is to offer counseling for members of the congregation. Over the years in my counseling I dealt with a number of issues ranging from the mundane to the outright bizarre. I always did my best to offer people biblical advice, teach them what the word of God had to say about their questions, and instruct them about the importance and necessity of biblical wisdom. As much as I enjoyed helping people in my church, I had a self-imposed policy that I would never counsel a woman alone. Why did I, and still do, hold such a conviction?
Over the years I have heard and know of too many instances where pastors have compromised their personal integrity by falling into some sort of sexual sin, which sometimes innocently started in the pastor’s office as a woman sought counseling. What started off as counseling drifted into other things and eventually led sinful conduct. How does such a pattern occur and why?
In pastoral counseling, if it is to be effective, people must lay themselves emotionally and spiritually bare. They must tell the truth, divulge their thoughts, emotions, tell the pastor things, perhaps, that they have not told anyone else. Pastoral counseling is a venue where the pastor and the member of his congregation become emotionally intimate as the details of a person’s life are laid out in the open. In such circumstances, when a woman opens her heart it is quite natural for the pastor to want to console, comfort, and offer assurance to a suffering person. It’s at this point where the lines from genuine pastoral concern and lust can become very blurry and grey, and before you know it, concern and pastoral care becomes lust. Lust then gives birth to action and the pastor and his counselee transgress the seventh commandment. Given these dangers what is a pastor to do?
While lust often lurks in the heart, invisible to the people around you, it is difficult to act on that temptation when someone else is present in the room. In such a situation the pastor and counselee have no room to give in to temptation. This is not to say they should shelter their lust so long as they don’t act on it—absolutely not. When recognized, anyone who becomes aware of his sin should take immediate action to repent of it and seek the forgiveness of Christ. But what we are considering here is preserving the integrity of the pastor-counselee relationship when the counselee is a woman.
I always made an effort to have one of my ruling elders present with me when I offered counseling to a woman in the church. If the woman was married, I always insisted that the woman inform her husband, something I would verify, so that she was honoring her husband’s spiritual authority. The same would go for a young woman who was still living under her parents’ roof. When one of my elders wasn’t available, I would ask my wife to sit in on the counseling session, or at least be in the next room within earshot so she could hear the conversation (I did this, of course, with the consent of the woman I was counseling). On one occasion I had an unscheduled drop-in and I ended up standing in the drizzle on my front stoop while I talked for a few minutes with a young woman; I offered her some brief counsel and then encouraged her to set up an appointment where someone else could be present. I worked at home and did not want my neighbors seeing a young woman enter my home when my wife was not present. I was happy to get soaked in the rain rather than send a very misleading message to my neighbors.
I went to great lengths because of several factors. First, pastors need to protect the sexual purity and integrity of their sacred office; it is precious—far too many pastors take it for granted and their lax attitude renders them liable to failure. Such failure harms not only their personal reputation but the reputation of their office. I remember reading about a poll conducted in the late-eighties during a time when several high-profile pastors were caught in sexual scandals; the poll revealed that the people surveyed had more respect for prostitutes than they did for ministers.
Second, ministers must be zealous to protect the honor of Christ. They have been called by Christ to serve him and protect the flock—defend, feed, and care for Christ’s sheep. They haven’t been called to take advantage of Christ’s flock. Sexual scandal has terrible long-lasting effects upon a congregation.
Third, the pastor has to be honest with himself. I never wanted to think that I was above sin and that I was incapable of violating the seventh commandment. In a word, I don’t trust myself. I, therefore, did not want to set myself up for sin when it could be easily avoided.
So for these reasons, I never counseled a woman alone.