SHOULD clergy be held liable for providing pastoral care when their efforts apparently fail to help troubled church members? What has often been regarded as a philosophical question became a real legal issue recently in California. A couple brought suit against the pastors of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley after their son had committed suicide despite counseling efforts of the pastors. Walter and Maria Nally contended that the church's clergy failed to encourage their son, Kenneth, to seek psychiatric help when he fell into depression after the breakup of a romantic relationship and, furthermore, taught that people would go to heaven even if they committed suicide.
In the first clergy-malpractice suit in the United States, the California Supreme Court ruled that clergy and other unlicensed individuals cannot be held legally liable for giving people bad advice or inadequate care. In reaching this decision, the court drew a bold line between licensed counselors and those who are willing to befriend troubled people. Licensed counselors, the court said, consider themselves capable of helping distraught people and therefore have a duty of care imposed by the state. But the Nally ruling indicates that clergy and other nonprofessional counselors should not be held liable when attempts to help don't work.
Of course, that doesn't mean that clergy can conduct themselves in outrageous ways while helping people who are struggling with problems. But the court did recognize that talking to a member of the clergy about personal troubles is usually different from having a professional session with a licensed counselor.
Clergy don't always have the advantage of dealing with a parishioner's needs during the best of times and places. For example, a church member stops by a pastor's table at a restaurant for a brief chat that turns into something more intense and personal. Not exactly a professional setting. The pastor may patiently listen to a host of woes and then respond by encouraging the member to pray about the problem and make an appointment for a more private session. Instead, the member returns home and chooses to commit suicide.
Is the pastor responsible? Was inadequate care given? Should the family of the member consider the pastor legally liable for their loved one's death?
Clergy often deal with parishioners' problems in such informal settings. Rarely do religious professionals have the technical advantages that accompany a licensed counselor's practice. Also, very often clergy are expected to decipher a problem instantly, dispense advice, and with little time for reflection, hit upon a simple plan for relief.
A professional counselor, particularly one who is aware of legal hazards, would probably refuse to conduct such a session in such a public setting. But if a clergy person refused to listen to a parishioner's problems, that person may well be judged cold and uncaring.
Talking to a minister, priest, or rabbi about personal problems is not to be regarded as similar to a counseling session with a professional therapist. If the parents of Kenneth Nally had been successful in their suit, it might have forever altered the relationship between clergy and parishioners. Clergy would have been forced to count the cost before agreeing to listen to a parishioner's problems.
The American religious community can take comfort in the realization that a judicial body recognizes the rights of members of religious groups to seek advice and pastoral care from their leaders in an atmosphere that is unencumbered by the threat of legal action. It is of no small consequence that a price has not been set on ministry to those who are troubled and that calculated risks are not a part of the process of providing care by those who have dedicated their lives to doing so.