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Ethics and Religion Talk: Should religious leaders provide therapy?

Our question this week is: Should individuals and families seek therapy from their religious leaders; and conversely, should religious leaders provide therapy?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Notice -- Ethics and Religion Talk needs your questions. Please send questions about ethical issues you have encountered in the course of your day, or Biblical or theological questions that a panel of religious experts can answer from a multi-faith perspective.

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“If by therapy you mean a course of treatment intended to cure disorders of the mind administered by a skilled and accredited practitioner, the answer is no. Presbyterian and Reformed ministers receive only a modicum of training as counselors. Some ministers seek additional training after seminary in order to enhance their skills and qualify as therapists, but they are relatively few in number.

“Presbyterian ministers are trained to interpret and apply the teaching of Holy Scripture to the lives and needs of their people. Individuals and families should seek that kind of help from their pastors. Knowing how to apply God’s Word to your life can be therapeutic and transformative (see Psalm 119). But expecting your pastor to do the work of a psychologist, psychiatrist, or psycho-therapist is unreasonable and unwise.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“This depends on several factors. According to the American Psychology Association, successful therapy depends, in part, on the relationship that is built between the person seeking therapy and the therapist. Another consideration is the qualification of the religious leader, does he/she have a degree and/or is he/she a licensed psychologist? Another point to consider is the area needed for therapy, does the religious leader have expertise in the necessary area of analysis?

“Religious leaders do provide spiritual counseling. Some are qualified to provide more in-depth psychological counseling. Should religious leaders provide therapy depends on the credentials held. Should individuals and families seek therapy from their religious leaders depends on the relationship and comfortability, especially trust.

“I know religious leaders who are excellent therapists. I am not a therapist. When someone comes to me with a concern I listen to him/her; but, if I cannot provide counseling beyond the spiritual then I recommend the person seek professional help.”

R. Scot Miller, who writes from an Anabaptist and Quaker Christian perspective, responds: 

“Mainstream or evangelical, liberal or conservative, pastors who are not academically trained and licensed as therapy or mental health providers should not offer therapy, marriage counseling, or counseling for families and children. I would recommend that religious leaders of any faith community in the west, especially in the United States, refrain from trying to perform professional duties that they are not prepared or trained to provide. One reason is the relationships between the spiritual and the emotional are often separated by Americans, and not only can the combining of the two as a form of therapy often be confusing, religious discourse often prevents the discussion from focusing on underlying issues that a pastor may not be able to respond to as a religious leader. Also, the pastor often knows others involved, and is caught between her relationship with one family member and the expectations of others. Pastors are perfect for an empathetic and listening ear, but for professional therapeutic services, they should refer individuals to licensed professionals, community mental health, or self-help groups.

“Another reason that non-credentialed clergy should not provide therapy has to do with the personality types of individuals who become clergy. Such people are often very invested in being liked, avoiding conflict, and being affirming or uplifting to those experiencing brokenness. These qualities are often detriments to therapeutic relationships, and can lead to manipulation, poor boundaries, and a failure to be honest in therapeutic reflection. This comes out primarily in prayers that are often spoken aloud before, during, or after a therapeutic-like session; reducing the issue to one of supernatural realms and outcomes rather than the hard work necessary to make healthy individually accounted for choices about life.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“Unless the clergy is also a licensed therapist the answer should be no. In my denomination the general rule is to offer three pastoral care visits on a given topic making it clear that a referral to a licensed therapist would be the next move. I often find it a great relief to learn when a member of my congregation has built a solid support network of qualified professionals.”

Note from Rabbi Krishef: The panel is in agreement that clergy may offer spiritual or pastoral counseling, but should not offer psychological therapy unless they are specifically trained and licensed. Watch for a future column on the difference between Spiritual and psychological counseling.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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