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When you relate too much in ministry

young man sitting on a railing next to a waterway

Written by: Jerome Jumawan

During this past Lenten season, I had a chance to sit down and pray and ask the Lord how to be a better Social Worker and Clinician. I work at a hospital setting and provide crisis intervention services. In my prayer, I had a chance to reflect on Proverbs 12:25:

“Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down,
but a good word makes him glad.”

I walked away with that verse thinking that my emotions can lead me to a place where I do not focus on the specific needs of a person with which I am working, but attach their circumstances to other encounters that I had in the past.  This can be dangerous and would make anyone second guess a professional's ability to serve a person. Most importantly, when professionals attach circumstances to their own personal experience, they are not seeing the person they are serving with a fresh pair of eyes and only see reminders of that personal connection-whether it is a son, daughter, niece, nephew, cousin, etc.

Over the last few years I have recognized why I have come to the profession of serving people, specifically mental health. I came to serve those who need help. The basis and tenet of any helping field is seeing yourself in the service of those who need your support. Whether it is helping a child who is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder learn appropriate coping skills or a client who needs support in an emotional crisis situation, we are all drawn to help people and serve with a full heart.

But have you ever cared for person in your work or in your church and a familiarity starts to form. You may think “Hmmm…. they remind me of my-insert family member, friend or acquaintance.” Usually our reaction is to associate that person to how we would care for them. If, for example, you are caring for a client who is diagnosed with Down Syndrome and you start to see that client as that relative that you took care of in the past, you start to associate or be affected by how you treat the client because of your past experience.  Some would say that it is important to care for clients as you would your own family. That idea identifies a certain necessary empathy, but blurs the lines between personal and professional care of clients or those served.

When professionals start to blur this line, countertransference is occurring-a common word used in the mental health field. Countertransference means that the clinician or caregiver is triggered by certain characteristics or features their client possesses or in this case, a person you may be serving in ministry, to approach the work in the same way as they had in their own personal connection. An example might be that as a professional looks into a kid with whom they are working, the professional sees their own son or daughter through them. The professional may start treating the kid the same way he or she would treat other kids. Those approaches, while very noble, if not put on check, can be dangerous and lead to boundary issues.  It is very common to hear how a caregiver sees their loved ones through a client and want to treat them exactly the same way they would treat their loved one. However, that may not always be the best approach because your client is not your “loved one”. Your client or ministry attendee has different needs and is a different person.

As caregivers and stewards to the helping profession, we must recognize the need to help every single person with their unique goals and objectives. Look at each person you are serving and see them-do not compare their circumstances to your past encounters-but see each person the way the Lord would see them , “…because I am wonderfully made!” (Psalm 139:14).


Jerome is a Social Worker and Therapist in California where sunsets are the best! He provides crisis intervention in a hospital setting by leading group therapy for a range of mental health needs and has his own private practice. In his free time, he practices self-care at the gym, plays hockey and makes the best 90s R&B throwback playlists of all time! He is Catholic, Filipino, and godfather to many.


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