In his office at a Southern California Catholic church, a monsignor counsels a parishioner. Spencer Grant/Alamy Stock Photo

Father, I Need to Talk

When a parishioner reaches out in need, here’s how to respond

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Perhaps they call you and want an appointment because they “need to talk.” Or maybe you’re uncomfortable as someone pours out their heart to you while standing in the aisle of a grocery store. Or even perhaps you ask someone politely, “How are you?” and they proceed to tell you something quite personal! What do you do?

I used to watch a pastor accomplish more in five minutes of conversation in the rectory driveway than I could provide in an hour in my office. He was very skilled at assessing the injury, administering first aid and moving on, and the “patient” felt better. It is amazing what can happen when we are invited and are willing to step into another’s life and pain, which in itself can be healing. How can we do that?

Assess the Injury

1. Listen carefully to what you are told. Listen carefully for more than the facts. Is it a personal issue, a relationship problem, or perhaps one person (or God) is being blamed for something when the responsibility lies elsewhere? Is it an acute situation that requires immediate attention or a chronic problem?

I remember a parishioner demanding that I see her immediately for an emergency. With a couple more questions I learned that it was a marital problem she admitted had existed for 25 years. Listen carefully to see if the person speaking to you is in position to take action, or whether you are being told about a predicament that neither you nor the speaker can readily resolve. The answers to these sorts of questions help determine your response.

2. Understand and reflect to them what you are hearing — not like a parrot simply repeating their words, but more like a summary. I know a therapist who could listen to a 15-minute monologue and then accurately summarize it in two sentences. Understanding conveys both your comprehension and your empathy; it includes the facts and the emotional content that has been shared with you. This in itself may accomplish more than you realize.

3. Evaluate whether there is any danger of suicide or self-harm. Listen for expressions that indicate an intention to hurt someone or a wish to be dead. The more concrete the expressions, the more danger. It is OK to ask, “Are you thinking of hurting yourself or ending your life?” People are often afraid that this question is “giving them the idea.” The fact is, either they have had such thoughts or they haven’t; it is often a relief for them to be able to speak about it when you open the door. Don’t let them leave if you believe they are a danger to themselves or others; get help.

Administer First Aid

4. Respond to their concerns as best you can, remembering that what they want from you may not be in your power to give, or even helpful. First, you can “normalize” their response — “I might feel that way too, if it happened to me.” You can express compassion — “I’m sorry this is happening to you.”

Don’t fall into the trap of giving your solution, which relieves them of responsibility for their behavior and allows them to blame you when things don’t work out. Instead, invite them to consider how they will respond — “What will you do?” or “What could be your next step?” If they ask, “But what would you do, Father?” you can remind them that you’re not the one who will reap the rewards or have to live with the consequences of their decision.

Another important response is to give them hope: “This is really painful right now, but it won’t feel this way forever,” or “You can survive this even if it doesn’t feel like it right this minute.” When they show resistance to taking any action, you may remind them: “Do you want the way you feel now to last for the rest of your life? It can change if you make a change, and stay the same if you don’t.” If they cannot find some hope at the time, you can offer to “hold on to their hope” until they are ready to accept it.

Finally, you can pray with them, being careful not to convey that you are trying to run away from them or their pain with a glib prayer. Rather, invite God’s spiritual strength, healing and wisdom into the situation. When we listen and understand, and God is brought into the situation, paths are revealed for people to identify and pursue their own solution.

5. Refer them to resources that can be of assistance; you don’t have to do it all yourself. Perhaps they need a medical doctor to investigate whether there are physical issues, or a therapist to address emotional concerns, historic or recent trauma or behaviors that are causing them difficulties. Consider referring them to 12-step groups such as Alcoholic Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous or Al-Anon, and remind them that these groups are spiritual programs.

It’s very helpful to have a list of resources ready when you need it. It can contain a community resource and referral service for your locale; a list of local agencies for food, shelter, clothing, rent and utility emergencies, low-cost medical care, etc.; and contact information and websites for 12-step groups that host meetings by phone and virtually for those who have no physical meeting available in their vicinity or whose schedule requires a different time.

Don’t try to be a counselor if you’re not a trained professional — it’s unethical; it could be damaging, and you could be held legally liable. When people ask me to help them with marital counseling, I tell them, “You deserve someone better than me. Let me offer some suggestions.” Have another list for yourself of mental health professionals and their areas of treatment — individual growth, marital therapy, trauma, addictions, sexual issues, etc. You can compile your list by asking parishioners and friends who they recommend (and don’t).

6. Support the people who have confided in you. Change is difficult and they may not be ready to act immediately, even when they know it’s a good idea. They may have to visit you more than once to be heard and understood (remember, that itself is a help) and to summon up the courage to take the next step. Also, be careful they don’t use you as their crutch and a way to avoid doing what needs to be done; sometimes you may have to gently push the baby bird out of the nest so that it discovers it can fly.

Care for Yourself

One additional thing to consider: If you are going to administer first aid to others, then you need to take care of yourself. Recently, Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, courageously shared about his need for mental health care, acknowledging that he could not do it on his own — what a powerful witness!

You are no good to others if you are unhealthy yourself — you set a bad example; you can be deemed hypocritical and, therefore, be ignored; and you can even damage others. “Do no harm” is an oft-quoted principle for people who provide care — you should neither overestimate your capacity to heal nor underestimate your capacity to cause harm.

Know yourself. Be aware of what “sets you off,” be it rudeness, marital issues, anger or other “triggers” that increase your distress. Know your skills, and step back and make referrals when you don’t have what is needed.

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Pandemic Resource

The pandemic is a significant new cause of stress throughout the world. We may think we’re managing well until we do something that shows we’re not doing as well as we’d like to think. The pandemic is a profound experience of helplessness and powerlessness, and so people exhibit a wide variety of behaviors to deal with stress, fear, anger, sadness, depression and exhaustion from being forced to change. All of these things can also be triggers that stir up memories, thoughts, emotions and maladaptive behaviors for people who suffered from childhood trauma.

RENEW/RENOVARSE is a free and confidential program available online for downloading (www.TraumaRecoveryAssociates.com). It teaches skills that can help people deal with the pandemic and its effects. It also has a Q & A Forum and a chat room schedule available to participants.

We are fortunate to be in positions of trust so that many people choose to confide in us. We can be of great help to them by offering a competent and heartfelt response and pointing them in directions where they can receive more help when it’s indicated. We can also set a good example by doing the same for ourselves.

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Enhance your skills

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You can learn empathic listening; it’s a skill that can be practiced and developed and is well worth the time and effort. You can increase your understanding by taking a mental health first aid course; it could be a wonderful thing for your parish to sponsor such a course open to your entire community.

Know what the reporting laws are in your state (they vary) as well as the canonical and moral imperatives. Be clear about when and where you must report abusive or neglectful behavior, and ask if you are not sure; avoid the possibility of being charged with a crime later. Resist the urge to stay quiet and not get involved because it makes you uncomfortable, or you are “not sure,” or it will get complicated. It may be that a child’s health and safety is at risk.

Confidentiality is often helpful to those who are sharing personal information with you. Often parishioners will assume what they are saying will be confidential, or they may request it directly. However, the principle of confidentiality does not apply when there is reason to believe that there is self-harm, including a suicide threat, or a threat to otherst. (Of course, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is excluded, but nothing else.)

FATHER KENNETH W. SCHMIDT is an advocate for priestly ministry and support in the Diocese of Kalamazoo.

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Revelation of Abuse

It is not uncommon for people to unburden themselves in the Sacrament of Penance by confessing that they had been abused. The priest must receive that information with humility because the penitent has made an incredible act of trust. It is also important that the priest not absolve the penitent for that “sin,” because being a victim of abuse is not a sin. To absolve them is to collude in their shame and guilt that they did something wrong, or that they are responsible for their abuse or brought it on themselves. This is a deeply rooted therapeutic issue for survivors of childhood trauma, and the priest is in a great position to begin to interrupt and counteract their long-held guilt and shame by clearly stating that, as a child, they did nothing wrong; the perpetrator did. Most survivors need to hear this many times before they begin to believe it.

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