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Ethics of Dual & Multiple Relationships in
Pastoral Counseling and Faith, Religious & Spiritual Communities


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.

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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.


Online Resources

Codes of Ethics on Dual Relationships in Pastoral Counseling

  • American Association of Pastoral Counselors, AAPC Code of Ethics
    E. We recognize the trust placed in and unique power of the therapeutic relationship. While acknowledging the complexity of some pastoral relationships, we avoid exploiting the trust and dependency of clients. We avoid those dual or multiple relationships with clients which could impair our professional judgment, compromise the integrity of the treatment, and/or use the relationship for our own gain. A multiple relationship occurs when a pastoral counselor is in a professional role with a person and 1) at the same time is in another role with the same person, 2) at the same time is in a relationship with a person closely associated with or related to the person with whom the pastoral counselor has the professional relationship, or 3) promises to enter into another relationship in the future with the person or a person closely associated with or related to the person. In instances when dual or multiple relationships are unavoidable, particularly within congregations or in family or couples counseling, we take reasonable steps to protect the clients and are responsible for setting clear and appropriate boundaries.
  • National Association for Pastoral Counseling and Psychotherapy (NAPCP, Ireland, 2008). General Ethical Principles and Code of Conduct
    1.10 Misuse of influence and Multiple Relationships
    b) Members will also take due care in regard to dual or multiple relationships with clients and students, particularly if such non-therapeutic relationships have a potential to impair the pastoral counselling or psychotherapeutic relationship (cf 2.03, 2.04, 2.05, 2.09, 2.10 below). Members do not engage in business or other financial affairs or advisory roles with clients or students, nor do they suggest or promote training courses to their counselling or psychotherapy patients, or suggest to others to do the same to their clients.

    2.09 Members should be aware of the problematic nature of dual relationships and recognise that while it is not always possible to avoid them (e.g. when offering services in a small community, or engaging in training, where possible, counsellors shall avoid such relationships; where it is not possible they shall take active steps to safeguard the interests of those involved.
  • 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.
  • Australian Psychological Society. (2014). Psychology, religion and spirituality: Ethical Issues to consider.

Additional Resources

  • Bleiberg, R. J., & Skufca, L. (2005). Clergy dual relationships, boundaries, and attachment. Pastoral Psychology, 54(1), 3-22.
  • Craig, J. D. (1991). Preventing dual relationships in pastoral counseling. Counseling and Values, 36(1), 49-55.
  • Geyer, M. C. (1994). Dual role relationships and Christian counseling. Journal of Psychology & Theology, 22(3), 187-195.
  • Hill, M. R. & Mamalakis, P. M. (2001). Family Therapists and Religious Communities: Negotiating Dual Relationships,. Family Relations, 50/3, 199-208.
  • Justice, J. A., & Garland, D. R. (2010). Dual relationships in congregational practice: ethical guidelines for congregational social workers and pastors. Social Work and Christianity, 37, 437–445.
  • Korb, W. R. & Bourland, M. V. (2008). Keeping your church out of court (3rd ed.). Dallas, TX: Christian Life Commission.
  • Llewellyn, R. (2002). Sanity and sanctity: The counselor and multiple relationships in the church. In A. A. Lazarus & O. Zur (Eds.). Dual Relationships and Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Co.
  • Lynch, G. (2003). Dual Relationships in Pastoral Counseling. Ch. 6 In G. Lynch Clinical Counseling in Pastoral Settings. pp 63-74. Lees Routledge.
  • Mamalakis, P. M. & Hill, M. R. (2001). Evaluating Potential Dual Relationships: A Response to Butler and Gardner. Family Relations, 5/3, 214–219.
  • McMinn, M. R. & Meek, K. R. (1996). Ethics among Christian counselors: A survey of beliefs and behaviors. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 24, 26-37.
  • Melton, J. T. (2009). Safe Sanctuaries for ministers: Best practices and ethical decisions. Nashville, TN: The Upper Room.
  • Merrill, T. H. & Trathen, D. W. (2003). Dual role relationships: Toward a greater understanding in the church-based setting. Marriage & Family: A Christian Journal, 6(1), 69-77.
  • Mok, D. S. (2003). Multiple/dual relationships in counseling: implications for the Asian context. Asian Journal of Counselling, 10, 95–125.
  • Oordt, M.S. (1990). Ethics of practice among Christian psychologists: A pilot study. Journal of Psychology and Theology. Fall, Vol, 18 (3),255-260.
  • Parent, M. S. (2005). Boundaries and roles in ministry counseling. American Journal of Pastoral Counseling, 8(2), p 1-25.
  • Sanders, R. K., (In Press). Multiple Relationships in Faith Communities. In Zur, O. (Ed.) Multiple Relationships in Psychotherapy and Counseling: Unavoidable, Common and Mandatory Dual Relations in Therapy. New York: Routledge.
  • Sanders, R. K. (2013). Non-sexual multiple relationships. In R. K. Sanders (Ed.), Christian counseling ethics: A handbook for psychologists, therapists and pastors, (pp. 139-157). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  • Sanders, R. K., Swenson, J. E., and Schneller, G. R. (2011). Beliefs and practices of Christian psychotherapists regarding non-sexual multiple relationships. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 39, 330-344.
  • Schank, J. A., & Skovholt, T. M. (1997). Dual-relationship dilemmas of rural and small-community psychologists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 28, 44–49.
  • Schindler, F., Berren, M. R., Hannah, M. T., Beigel, A., & Santiago, J. M. (1987). How the public perceives psychiatrists, psychologists, nonpsychiatric physicians, and members of the clergy. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 18(4), 371-376.
  • Schneller, G. R., Swenson, J. E., & Sanders, R. K. (2010). Training for ethical situations arising in Christian counseling: A survey of members of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 29, 343-353.
  • Stander, Valerie, et. al. (1994). Spirituality, Religion and Family Therapy: Competing or Complementary Worlds? American Journal of Family Therapy, 22/1 27-41.
  • Swenson, J. E., Schneller, G. R., & Sanders, R. K. (2009). Ethical issues in integrating Christian faith and psychotherapy: Beliefs and behaviors among CAPS members. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 28, 302-314.
  • Turkes-Habibovic, M. (2015). Boundary considerations in counseling Muslim clients. In B. Herlihy & G. Corey (Eds.), Boundaries in Counseling: Multiple Roles and Responsibilities (3rd ed.) (pp. 104–108). Alexandria, VA: ACA.
  • Zur, O. (2007). Boundaries in Psychotherapy: Ethical and Clinical Explorations. Washington, DC: APA.

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