In a previous newsletter we asked several “Questions to Ponder.” One of the questions was: “Does your pastor/church refer individuals to licensed mental-health professionals?” In the article we gave an example of Dr. Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and his church referring people to mental-health professionals. In addition, we gave examples of a number of large churches in America doing likewise.

Let’s look at the background and at some of the reasons pastors and churches refer out to mental-health professionals. Historically this type of psychology (counseling psychology) existed nowhere in the church, almost not at all in the higher education institutions of America, and certainly nowhere in Christian higher education institutions. In her book The Romance of American Psychology, Ellen Herman reveals: “Before world War II, professional healers and counselors were few; most individuals allied with psychology did work unrelated to ‘helping.'”1

After World War II the federal government poured large sums of money into universities to prepare mental health practitioners. Herman traces the rise of psychology as a helping profession and says: “Throughout the entire postwar era, the United States has trained and employed more psychological experts, per capita, than any other country in the world.”2

Through political efforts within the American Psychological Association (APA) and in the public arena, counseling psychologists established educational programs and licensing in each of the 50 states and, very importantly, were able to obtain insurance coverage.

Christians who were enrolled at public universities soon began majoring in clinical psychology with many becoming licensed mental-health practitioners. Those degreed Christians took this new-found faith in psychology to their own churches as well to Christian higher education institutions and elsewhere in the church. Many pastors were indoctrinated into this new-found faith by the newly degreed and licensed believers in their congregations.

As we have demonstrated in our writings, during the past 50 years counseling psychology has mushroomed throughout nearly every facet of the church. Christian schools at all levels, churches, denominations, and mission agencies are all either heavily influenced by or heavily involved in this type of psychology. Because it is so pervasive throughout the church and because so many pastors have been indoctrinated, it has become acceptable to either refer out to licensed mental-health professionals or, if a large enough church, to have a licensed mental-health professional on the staff. Over the years local psychotherapists would meet individually with pastors or with groups of pastors to convince them that referral was the right thing to do.

Fear of a Lawsuit

Looming in the background of all the forces to refer out was a fear that failure to refer out could lead to a lawsuit. This one fear was often promoted by psychotherapists to the pastors in their communities. This one pernicious reason has caused many pastors to refer out because they are convinced that they may be sued for not doing so. Many pastors heard of the lawsuit of ÒNally versus Grace Community Church,Ó but failed to recognize that the suit was won by the church. The answer to the question, ÒCan someone sue the church or pastor?Ó is Òyes.Ó However, someone could sue the church or pastor for referring out as well as for not referring out. For example, a pastor refers an individual or couple out to a local psychotherapist. The psychotherapist uses some approach, such as recovering so-called repressed memories. The therapy ends up with the individual having a Ònervous breakdownÓ and being hospitalized or the couple files for divorce. The individual or couple then sues the pastor for sending them to the psychotherapist.

There is probably a greater possibility of a successful lawsuit against the pastor who refers out in the above examples than against the pastor who does not refer out. There is no legal mandate for a pastor to refer out to any mental-health professional. If a pastor is to be held legally responsible for not referring out to a mental-health professional, would he not also be legally responsible for not referring out to a medical doctor?

For example, the pastor might become aware of a medical condition of a congregant but does not refer out. Should he be legally held responsible to do so? Or, the pastor becomes aware of a dental condition reported to him by an individual. Is he legally responsible to refer the person to a dentist or to an orthodontist? Or, the pastor becomes aware of an individual who is having trouble hearing his sermons. Is he legally responsible to refer him to an audiologist?

As a matter of fact, the practices mentioned above are all considered to be scientific with the exception of the mental-health professional. Why would a court rule in favor of the plaintiff for any of the above examples and especially in the case of the refusal of a pastor to refer out to a mental-health professional? This is one of the many reasons why there is no such legal mandate to do so.

An excellent article on clergy malpractice has been written by Attorney Samuel E. Ericsson. Ericsson brings an interesting twist to the threat of clergy malpractice against pastors who do not refer out. He says:

The propriety of imposing on the clergy a duty to refer leads to the question of whether the courts should create a reciprocal legal duty on the part of the mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists and psychologists, to refer to clergymen all spiritual cases—the simple as well as the serious—with a consequent liability for failing to refer their patients to the “proper” clergyman in the event of suicide? Should the moral model take a backseat to the medical model in counseling? (emphasis his).3

The reference to “suicide” in this quote from Ericsson is an obvious reference to the law case mentioned earlier in which Nally did commit suicide and his parents sued and lost the case against Grace Community Church. However, the same logic holds and can be generalized to requirements for all psychotherapists to refer “all spiritual cases” back to the church. This is an exaggeration to make a point, which is an example of the idiom, “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.” But, this exaggeration makes the excellent point that the likelihood of a successful lawsuit against a pastor or psychotherapist, if either does not refer, is very unlikely, and, if instituted, would no doubt be lost by the plaintiff. So pastors and churches should not fear this bogus bogeyman.

The bottom line on all of this is the biblical responsibility of a church and pastor to minister to those personal, marital and family problems that are normally referred out to psychotherapists. Ericsson says, “The pastor is under a mandate to protect those in his care from counsel that might undermine their faith.”4 Ericsson supplies the following footnote for this statement: “See, e.g., Psalm 1; 2 Timothy 4:1-4; Titus 1.” Even if a psychotherapist is a Christian and even if he attends the church that refers out to him, the faith of the individuals referred will not likely be protected since the licensed psychotherapist is legally obligated to treat the individual psychologically. It will be the faith of the therapeutic system used that will be expressed during the counseling. This psychotherapeutic faith too often conflicts with one’s biblical faith.

Pastors, churches, and fellow Christians should not refer congregants, family, and friends to a mental-health professional. We have written extensively on the biblical and scientific reasons why this should not be done. There should be no fear of a successful lawsuit against the pastor or church ministering biblically and not charging fees. We know of no instance in which this has been accomplished. Pastors and churches should minister to their own through the Word of God, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the fellowship of the saints. If you are a pastor, please repent from referring congregants out to mental-health professionals, and if you are a congregant, do not go to a mental-health professional. Instead, seek biblical ministry in your own church.

(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, May-June 2008, Vol. 16, No. 3)

1 Ellen Herman. The Romance of American Psychology: Political Culture in the Age of Experts. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, p. 3.
3 Samuel E. Ericsson, ÒClergyman Malpractice: Ramifications of a New Theory, Valparaiso University Law Review, Vol. 16, p. 175.