A surge in malpractice suits against clergy in their counseling practices has led to a sharp decrease in such forms of consultation with their members, reports the Wall Street Journal (Feb. 5).
Since the early 1990s when a series of lawsuits on cases ranging from sexual abuse to malpractice (such as counselees who committed suicide) found their way through the courts, clergy began to limit their counseling hours, and make more referrals to psychological professionals. Although the denominations involved in such litigation nearly always won these cases, they set in motion a tendency for church hierarchies to issue strict guidelines to their clergy in their counseling work.
The main way clergy have limited their counseling hours is to refer people to outside counselors. David Kelly of Kenwood Psychological Services in New York says referrals have surged 20 percent since 1990. Another psychotherapist in Virginia says her referrals from clergy have increased by 50 percent. Another way pastors try to avoid litigation is to limit their conversations as much as possible to faith and God.
Some churches are taking a more direct approach. In Maryville, Tenn., trustees of the First Baptist Church plan to recommend that congregants sign a statement promising they won’t litigate in the event of a dispute.