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Counseling Values Pt. 2
power and responsibility
This is a followup to my post earlier this week about integrating some of the values from the counseling profession into pastoral ministry. That post was about how showing others unconditional positive regard tracks closely with Catholic Tradition and undermines the fear and rigidity that is all too common within the Church. Now I want to shift a little and focus on power and responsibility.
Something that has been repeated throughout my courses is that there is a power imbalance between a counselor and their client. In the counselor/client relationship, clients are usually struggling with some sort of emotional or mental health concern and they often view the counselor as the expert. Likewise, the counselor has education, training, and confidence—they have the ability to manipulate and coerce.
No matter how kind and sensitive the counselor is, the client is in the vulnerable position. This means that the counselor—the person with power—has the responsibility to make sure that the client is not harmed. It's the counselor's responsibility to be aware of the power differentials in a given scenario and to ensure the well-being of their client.
As I’ve mentioned before, this is basic Spider-Man ethics, "With great power comes great responsibility."
This responsibility can play out in all sorts of ways. For example, it’s the counselor’s responsibility to make sure the client is informed before they consent to treatment. Likewise, if the counselor thinks a client has benefited all then can from treatment, it’s the counselor’s responsibility to initiate the “do we need to continue meeting?” conversation. It’s also the counselor’s responsibility to be aware of the personal values they may have that could interfere with being able to give the client empathy and unconditional positive regard.
Counselors must internalize the realization of the power imbalance inherent in their relationships with clients if they desire to respect their client’s freedom and avoid inadvertently doing harm.
The counseling profession has structures in place to help instill this value into counselors and to hold them accountable for not taking necessary responsibility in their relationships with clients. These structures include requirements for counselor education, requirements for licensing, and an ethics code. Likewise, the profession has authorities and processes to hold counselors accountable to those ethical codes. Ultimately, these structures exist to promote the welfare of clients, specifically to protect them from counselors.
Unfortunately, within the Catholic ministry world, I haven’t seen much, if any, emphasis on power and responsibility. Neither have I seen real accountability for when ministers misuse their power.
The reality is that there’s a huge power imbalance between ministers and the people they serve. For example, when I’m on a prayer team at a retreat, the person coming up to me for prayer is usually struggling with some sort of emotional or spiritual concern and they view me as someone who can help them in some way. And, in that scenario, not only do I have training, but I’m in a position to speak with spiritual authority. In that scenario, I have the power to manipulate and coerce.
This power dynamic, and subsequently the harm that can be done to vulnerable people, only gets more severe when the minister is a spiritual director or a priest.
That last scenario is especially grave because the priest himself, because of his ordination, represents Christ in a particular way. This is heightened even more within the Sacrament of Reconciliation because the priest has the power of withholding absolution. If there’s severe power imbalances between counselors and their clients, how much more imbalance is there in situations that involve someone’s eternal salvation?
Yet rarely do I ever hear from ministers (lay or ordained) that they are aware of this power imbalance and the responsibility that comes with it. But all too often I hear stories from people about terrible—I’d say spiritually abusive—experiences with ministers, especially with priests. I’m not even talking about criminal abuse here, I’m talking about everyday spiritual abuse from well meaning ministers.
In Catholic Social Teaching, there’s a preferential option for the poor. That is, when a society is ordering is social, political, and economic life, the poor must be given preferential concern. Similarly, in pastoral ministry, I think there is a preferential option for the vulnerable. In any decision that a minister makes, the person who is vulnerable must be given preferential concern.
I think that Catholic ministers need to do a lot of self-reflection here. Likewise, leaders in the Catholic Church have a lot of work to do so that ministers—especially priests—are held accountable for any harm they do with the power that they have.