Tuesday, 08 September 2015 07:25

Pastoral Care: When to Refer

Written by  Saralu (Sam) Belkofer
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Faith communities are the crisis hospital for souls and provider of mental and spiritual health services in our culture.  Through worship, education, fellowship and mission, the church invites people into healthy relationships with God, self and others.  Since churches offer these services to the community, then the church can count itself among the providers of mental health.

Sometimes it is appropriate for clergy to partner with service providers in the community to care for an individual, couple or family due to the degree of severity, need, availability of time, and level of training required.  In these instances, the ministry and art of referral are extensions of the Church’s ministry.

Statistics demonstrate that 43% of church members with marriage and family issues, mental health or spiritual concerns will turn to their pastor for help.  However, of the clients who reach mental health resources, very few are referred by clergy.  Most clergy rarely practice the ministry of referral.


Frequently, clergy do not make referrals because the pastor has:

•  Felt that the Gospel should be adequate to meet the needs of their congregation.

•  Believed that any referral is admission that the Gospel is inadequate.

•  Felt that they should be able to deal with any situation presented by Church members.

•  Feared that the referral would be admission of weakness or inadequacy as a minister.

•  Failed to understand that God works through professionals too.

•  Fear that the faith of their members will not be supported.

•  Failed to become familiar with resources they can trust.

•  Feared that referral might cause parishioners to feel rejected.

•  Not developed the skill of referral.

•  Failed to identify trusted health professionals as a resource for their member.


Howard Clinebell wrote a chapter on “Referral Counseling” in, Basic Types of Pastoral Counseling.  Below is a summary.


Whom to Refer:

•  Those who can be helped more effectively by someone else.

•  Those who do not respond to pastoral counseling after three to five sessions.

•  Those whose needs obviously surpass the time and/or training of the clergy.

•  Those with problems for which effective specialized agencies are readily available in the community (e.g. substance abuse, domestic violence, those with developmental disabilities, those needing legal aid, etc.)

•  Those with severe chronic financial needs.  Public welfare agencies with trained social workers are appropriate referrals.

•  Those who need medical care and/or hospitalization.

•  Those who need more intensive psychotherapy.

•  Those who are severely depressed and/or suicidal.


How to refer effectively:

•  Create the expectation of possible referral by explaining your trust in working with other professionals and/or getting consultation.

•  Mention the possibility of referral early in pastoral conversations when you sense you might refer.

•  Start with the person’s perception of the problem and then move to suggesting there might be a more specialized resource.

•  Clarify to the counselee why you feel limited.

•  Partner with their trusted professional providers if appropriate.

•  Expect resistance initially and work to reduce anxiety about the referral.

•  Communicate the general nature of the help the person may expect to receive and how their needs may be met.

•  Provide the information so they can make their own appointment or offer to communicate with the referral source if requested.

•  Encourage and motivate the person to try the referral source.

•  In extreme helplessness or depression you may have to make contact with emergency services or family members.

•  Assure the person of your continued pastoral concern, prayer and care after the referral.

•  Ask the person to let you know about the initial contact with the referral resource.

It is possible to find faith informed and family friendly professional counseling in the River Region.  Make it a point to know when and how to refer.


There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are

different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working,

but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.  

1 Corinthians 12:4-6 (NIV)




Last modified on Wednesday, 09 September 2015 09:07
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