By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.
This page provides background and resources regarding the ethics of the often complex therapeutic boundaries and multiple relationships in faith communities, such as churches, synagogues, ashrams, mosques, or temples.
Faith communities, such as churches, synagogues, ashrams, temples, mosques, etc., often involve dual and multiple roles between the religious leaders and members of the congregations. This type of role blending may take place when pastors, priests, clergy, rabbis, swamis, imams and other spiritual leaders, in addition to their spiritual leadership roles, also provide spiritual or other types of individual or couples counseling. Spiritual or pastoral counseling is a very wide term, which refers to exclusive spiritual counseling by non-licensed people, as well as to services that combine spiritual and mental health counseling by licensed professionals, such as marriage and family therapists, social workers, psychologists, etc. Spiritual counseling or pastoral counseling can also be offered to individuals as well as couples as part of pre-marital couple counseling or as couple/family therapy. (Note: Spiritual counselors are usually exempt from state licensure as mental health practitioners and, in some states, their private counseling communications with their congregants are legally privileged.)
Another form of multiple relationships takes place in faith, religious or spiritual communities when members choose licensed mental health professionals who are fellow congregation members, because they know them, trust them, and with whom they, obviously, share a spiritual practice and belief system. In fact, in some of these communities, a professional’s affiliation with the religious community itself may be regarded by some members as a standard of professional competence. These overlapping relationships of therapist and fellow congregation members are not uncommon in Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist religious and spiritual communities. In such settings the therapist and client are likely to co-attend the general sermons or dharma talks in the spiritual community, as well as religious classes, small discussion groups, and other community-wide activities and festivities. Therapists and clients may also interact with each other outside the consulting rooms if their children are involved in the congregation’s youth activities. Therapists and clients in these communities may also find themselves at each other’s homes when community activities are held in their homes.
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- Ethical Statement for Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS – 2005)
4.11 Multiple Relationships
a. CAPS members recognize that dual or multiple relationships occur when a psychologist is in a professional role with a person at the same time that he or she is in another role with the same person, or is in a relationship with a person closely associated with the person with whom the psychologist has the professional relationship, or promises to enter into a conflicting relationship in the future.
b. CAPS members avoid multiple relationships if they could reasonably be expected to impair their objectivity, competence, or effectiveness in performing their duties or otherwise risk exploitation or harm to the person with whom the professional relationship exists.
c. Multiple relationships that would not reasonably be expected to cause impairment or risk exploitation or harm are not unethical.
d. If a CAPS member finds that, due to unforeseen factors, a potentially harmful multiple relationship has arisen, he or she takes reasonable steps to resolve it with due regard for the best interests of the affected person.
e. CAPS members avoid engaging in professional activities that would create a conflict of interest with a client or recipients of services.
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