(Originally published Jan. 4, 2007)

During a recent sermon, the Rev. Gerry Stoltzfoos stood in front of his congregation and explained why there's a charge for the counseling ministry at his church.

When's the last time you got something for free, asked Stoltzfoos, senior pastor of the 1,200-member Freedom Valley Worship Center outside Gettysburg.

"We've found our counseling is much more effective when there's an investment in it," Stoltzfoos said.

Counseling at Freedom Valley -- a mix of life coaching, spiritual guidance and psychology -- was free until about two years ago.

Stoltzfoos' church in Straban Township, Adams County, isn't the only large congregation that's considered fees for counseling services.

Staff at some other churches in the region have debated whether to introduce a fee schedule of some sort or another.

Some couldn't stomach charging for a service many pastors consider part of their everyday duties.

Others said they think it would cut down on people skipping appointments unannounced.

Fees didn't matter to Jeffrey Yeingst and Jan, his wife of 32 years.

Five months ago, the York Springs couple was on the cusp of divorce when they heard about Freedom Christian Counseling Services, the center at Freedom Valley headed by Stoltzfoos' wife, Julie.

They had already tried and failed with regular counseling, but the Bible-based approach made a difference, Yeingst said. Now, he and Jan pray together daily, and he believes their communication has greatly improved.


Advertisement

Plus, the $50-an-hour price at FCC was much lower than the $120 an hour they paid a secular therapist in Carlisle, Yeingst said.

At Freedom Christian Counseling, half of the counseling fee goes to the lay counselor and half to the church's counseling center for administrative support.

Arrangements are made for those who can't afford the cost. But the sacrifice of the "payment" itself -- even in the alternate form of community service -- is an important part of the healing process, Stoltzfoos said.

Counseling at churches can take different forms.

Some flocks offer members meetings with lay counselors who have limited training, while others employ staff with doctorates in pastoral counseling.

Whatever they do, churches should communicate to congregants the kind of counseling they offer and guidelines for counselors and counselees, said Douglas Ronsheim, executive director of the American Association of Pastoral Counseling in Fairfax, Va.

Leaders should examine whether their staff has the education and skills to charge for counseling services, considering the legal liabilities involved, such as malpractice, he said.

Pennsylvania doesn't require licensing for the counseling ministers do as part of their daily pastoral duties for a congregation, such as grief and premarital counseling.

"The gray area is when someone without a license to practice begins seeing people for long periods of time and charging for that," said Ronsheim, a Presbyterian minister and pastoral counselor with a doctorate in marriage and family therapy.

"That starts to look more like a mental-health professional and less like clergy."

In small churches, roles can also become confused, Ronsheim said.

How a pastor or lay counselor acts around a counselee in a church council meeting or an ice-cream social carries more weight because of the intense emotional connections that arise in a long-term counseling relationship.

At most churches, such the mainline Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church, clergy generally don't charge for individual counseling at the congregational level.

Indeed, many church bodies encourage congregational pastors to limit their meetings with counselees to two or three sessions and then refer the person to qualified mental-health professionals for further treatment.

For one thing, counseling takes up a lot of time, which congregational pastors usually can't afford to spend in long-term counseling relationships, Ronsheim said.

Stoltzfoos acknowledged that charging for pastoral counseling is rare and won't work for every church.

"But it's worked extremely well for us," he said.

Indeed, large churches with memberships topping 1,000 or 2,000 often have staff responsible for counseling services, according to Scott Thumma, a megachurch expert at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Counseling is among the many services provided by megachurches that make them attractive, he said.

When demand is high, large churches want to find a way to meet it.

Some, such as Freedom Valley and Stillmeadow Church of the Nazarene in Manchester Township, set up separate nonprofit organizations specifically to provide Christian counseling for church members and the community at large.

Grace Fellowship, a large congregation in New Salem, debated a small charge for nonmembers of the church who requested counseling. Leaders decided not to for the time being.

"We do not believe in charging for God's word," said Cathy Barshinger, the church director of counseling and family care.

Charging fees has also been brought up at Living Word Community Church in York Township because it's not uncommon for clients to skip counseling sessions without notice, said Lisa Long, the church employee who schedules the appointments.

That's wasted time when the church's service is short on counselors and so busy it can't schedule all requests -- it had to stop making appointments for those who don't regularly attend Living Word.

A fee, even a minimal one, might make people more likely to show up and commit, Long said. The church doesn't currently charge.

Counselor Linda Reinheimer said she's had significantly fewer cancellations since Freedom Christian Counseling began charging fees.

She's also seen increased demand for counseling -- although, at Christmastime, several clients decided they needed the money instead for gifts, she said.

Her focus is marriage, family and personal crisis counseling. Like most of the other counselors at Freedom Christian Counseling, she has no advanced degree in pastoral counseling, psychology or social work.

She recently completed a certificate program with Emerge Ministries Inc. in Akron, Ohio, to improve her counseling skills -- a correspondence course that FCC counselors are required to take.

The center and its literature clearly state its counselors are not mental-health professionals, she said.

They refer clients if it's something they can't handle, such as a manic depressive, Reinheimer said. "All of us are trained to know those symptoms and signs of deeper mental health issues."

Pastor Stoltzfoos said the counselors don't pretend to offer clients psychology or psychiatry.

"We have people who come in and say they don't want to discuss faith or God, and we say, 'You're in the wrong place,'" he said.

771-2024; mburke@ydr.com

ON THE WEB


American Association of Pastoral Counselors, www.aapc.org

Freedom Christian Couseling Services, www.freedomcounseling.org