Professional Distance in Addiction Counseling

Sooner or later, every counselor will face the fact that he or she is not able to help everyone who becomes involved with their program. Recovery programs can have a very high turnover rate among their residents. Among rescue mission workers, some have reacted to this situation by becoming discouraged, “burned out,” or even skeptical about the chances of any homeless addict “making it.”

A. Why Professional Distance is Needed Often, when people first hear the term “professional distance”, they think it means are to be cold, unloving and uninvolved with those we counsel. Actually, it is just the opposite! Over involvement on an emotional level causes counselors to lose their objectivity. They cannot exercise proper judgment in their dealings with those with whom they are seeking to help. Instead, counselors can practice favoritism toward some residents and even end up feeling rejected by them when they don’t respond favorably to their attempts to help them.Mostly, a lack of professional distance is manifested when workers have an improper sense of responsibility for the actions and decisions of their clients. And, it is important to remember that, since so many of those we work with at rescue missions have a background of addiction and codependency, they know how to make others feel guilty about not “taking care of them.”Mission workers must be committed to being part of the solution and not a part of the problem. Their own unresolved issues will inevitably hinder their ability to minister effectively to others.

B. Professional Distance is All About Boundaries – To be a successful counselor in a rescue mission setting, an individual needs good personal boundaries. This means allowing residents to be responsible for their own decisions and actions – and allowing them to experience the consequences fully. My job is not to fix you. My job is to share what I found out and you can either take it or leave it. Whatever you do with what I’m sharing with you is your choice. I’m not going to own any of that for myself. It’s being able to leave residents and their problems at the mission when we go home at night.

C. Professional Distance Means Knowing When to “Let Go” – In over twenty years of working with troubled people, I have found that there are basically just two reasons:

  • They are not a ready for the help we have to offer
  • They have problems we are not equipped to handle

At times, people may have more problems than a mission’s facility and staff is equipped to handle. This can be especially true when we encounter individuals with severe mental problems. For them, the most loving direction is certainly a good referral to a place where the help they need can be found. So, staff members need to know; a) what resources are available in-house, and b) resources are available to meet residents’ needs in the community outside of the rescue mission.

On the other hand, there are people who simply are not ready for what we have to offer. With mission program participants this usually shows up in the form of resistance. One manifestation of resistance is a refusal to abide by expectations and rules to which they initially agreed when they first entered your facility or program. Using alcohol and/or drugs while in the program is another form of resistance. Keeping such people around can be both bad for them and unfair to those who do have a sincere desire for a new life.

Certainly, troubled people need a lot of love and compassion. Yet on the other hand, like Jesus, rescue mission staff members do need, at times, to confront people who are in sin and denial. Truth is always uncomfortable to the hard-hearted. People continue to abuse alcohol and drugs (and persist in dysfunctional behaviors) as long as they feel the benefits outweigh the costs. While it can be extremely difficult to dismiss certain people from a program, we really are doing what is best for them. For those in denial about their problems, consequences can be their salvation! People only recover from addiction when they learn to take responsibility (with God’s help) for their own actions and lives. We cannot do this for them!

Employment Laws in Work Programs

workI am often asked about what needs to be done in order to comply with state and federal laws when recovery programs clients do actual work in the facility.   In all cases, I suggest that an employment attorney or tax professional familiar with the laws in your state be consulted in these matters.   However, here are a few suggestions that can be   taken to help you comply with laws regarding the payment of the minimum wage for recovery program participants.

A. The work must be therapeutic — Too often, the lines have been blurred between mission employees and clients (beneficiaries). The most effective means of clarifying these lines is having a well-documented recovery program in place that uses a written recovery plan that lists the work performed by the client as being rehabilitative in nature. There is no problem in giving some stipend to program participants who perform work as part of their recovery program. If this is done, it is important to avoid the use of the terms “staff” and “wages” or any other terminology that could imply an employee/employer relationship. Instead, call this stipend a “sustenance allowance” or “gift.” In the initial intake session, clients should sign an agreement indicating that they understand that some hours of work will be a part of their recovery program, but that this is a part of their rehabilitation and not establishing an employee/employer relationship for which they will receive wages.

B. Stipend amounts and level of participation in program activities must be equal for all clients — It is acceptable to offer differing amounts for stipends during different phases of the program as a form of incentive. But, it is critical that all clients in the same phase receive the same amount — regardless of actual hours worked. Also, regardless of what “job” a client has been assigned, he must not be exempt from participating in the same activities required of others at the same level or phase of the recovery program. Tying compensation to hours worked or exempting certain individuals from fully participating in the program’s recovery-oriented activities may give the appearance of establishing an employee/employer relationship.

C. “Key” positions are best filled by employees – It is very tempting to “missionize” talented people by keeping them “in the program” indefinitely. A better arrangement is to fill important positions (cooks, drivers, etc.) with individuals in a latter phase of a program who become actual temporary employees of the mission. These individuals will naturally be more stable and dependable. Not only will this arrangement reward those who are doing well in their recovery, it also assists them to begin re-establishing an employment record.   In some states, minimum wage requirements might be met by combining cash payments with the established “fair market” value of the housing and meals that are provided. The program may   then only responsible for the FICA withholding and matching payments, since non-cash compensation is usually not subject to state and federal employment taxes. Consult a professional for details about laws in your state.



Adapted from an article that originally appeared AGRM‘s Rescue Magazine, Fall 1993

Make the Most of the New Year!

Urban mission work and recovery outreach are certainly unique. The rewards can be tremendous, as well as the discouragements. So, here are a few of my thoughts on how to avoid burn-out by practicing good self-care:

A. Keep a life for yourself —I often struggle to find the balance between personal priorities and ministry opportunities. It’s easy to get caught up in ministry and put my own needs on the “back burner.” Because urban missions can be a very stressful place to work good self-care practices are essential. One of the most important of them is to cultivate a life that is separate from the mission and its staff and clients. We need to leave work stress behind and pursue our own interests and relationships. For people who live in the mission facilities, failing to develop meaningful outside relationships and activities is a sure path to “burn-out.”

B. Make time for the Lord, your spouse, and your children — Spiritual service is no replacement for spiritual relationship. We need to protect our walk with the Lord and continue to grow in our faith. In regard to the family, Paul said it best, “If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church? (1 Timothy 3:3 NIV) Too many Christian workers have not made their marriages and their children a priority and have suffered greatly as a result.

C. Get committed to a local church – We all need our own church home where we can be spiritually nourished and develop relationships with people who can minister to us, instead of looking to us for help. An effective urban mission worker knows where to go to get his or her “tank refilled’ spiritually.

D. Develop yourself professionally – Cultivate your gifts and take advantage of education and training opportunities. Find ways to grow to be more effective in your calling from God. Maybe you need to take advantage of formal aptitude testing offered by employment and career counselors. In urban ministry, there are a variety of different roles in which we may serve. These include fund raising and administration as well as direct supervision of clients, counseling and case management. Getting the best “fit” for yourself will certainly lead to a more satisfying and effective ministry.

E. Find a Mentor/Confessor — Again this past week, I heard another Christian leader, whom I greatly respected, destroyed his marriage and his ministry through infidelity. We all face temptations like resentment, jealousy, sex, greed, and power. Some of us also have a past that includes addictions. My friend with the Navigators likes to ask — “Who’s your Timothy and who’s your Paul?” There is a real benefit to having the accountability and input of a mature believer who can serve as our “Paul.” And, at the same time, why not take some time to seek out a “Timothy” if you don’t already have one. There is surely at least one other younger Christian worker who could benefit from what you have learned in your years of service. Few things are as rewarding as Investing in the life of other leader.

F. Be a team player — When working with troubled people, it’s important to see ourselves as part of a team that God has assembled to reach out to them. He has been at work in every individual’s life long before they ever came to the mission So, If I’m not God’s only representative to this person, whether they leave or stay, He will continue to work in their lives (with or without me). Though this may be your time to work with a certain person you are not expected to have all the answers or resources. But, there is probably someone else who does. Sometimes, the greatest help we can give someone is to point him or her to another resource where he or she can get needed help. And, if you are stuck, remember that it’s OK to ask a fellow worker for input and assistance.

G. To God, our faithfulness is more important than our fruitfulness. – A “performance orientation” is another path to burnout. Deep, lasting life change is a process — and an often time-consuming one at that. Each individual makes progress at his or her own rate. So, we need to be mindful to set realistic goals for our clients — and for ourselves. Above all, it’s God who ultimately does the changing. So, we need to avoid shame and guilt-driven efforts, which are from self not the Spirit. Sometimes the most effective thing we can do is to get out of God’s way.


Michael Liimatta is now serving as Chief Academic Officer for City Vision University.

From January 2012