I am not allowed to share the exact stats, but in general terms the statistics for Christianity.SE show the vast majority of our daily traffic is now from people drifting in as a result of Google searches. But I didn't need the numbers to tell me that. The kind of newbie questions we are getting bears this out.

One kind of first-timer question we get now on a regular basis are pastoral advice questions. I know we decided early on in the life of this site that we weren't going to try to be the venue to handle these. True to that calling we've been closing them quickly and moving on.

I am, however, concerned that we're cheating that system a little bit. In the last week we've had at least half a dozen of these, several of them marriage related, others that sound like earnest seekers. On a few of these, I've seen people commenting with what can only be called pastoral-advice. Whether the posters are lay people or not, the advice was clearly personal and tailored to their situation.

Is it constructive and in the best long term interests of this site to "answer" questions that are closed because we don't think this is the right venue to handle them with comments that "handle" the question?

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If anybody feels like my "no" below is proposing the wrong solution, feel free to add your own answer here and lets vet them! –  Caleb Mar 23 '13 at 14:31
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Related: Should we edit Pastoral Advice questions? –  Alypius Mar 25 '13 at 16:05
    
What about answering in such a way that point them to the bible or to their own spiritual leaders? I try to avoid adding bias to my answers, but I also know as a human that is impossible. I agree with what is being said here though. Advice would gum up the works of answering a question because it involves personal opinion. –  Jeremy Dec 11 '13 at 20:10

5 Answers 5

up vote 18 down vote accepted

Yes! But only the party line.

There is a tension between the perception and the reality of a secular Q&A site that is named Christianity. The reality is that we are abysmally equipped to deal with "pastoral advice" questions. I mean, there are many of you who I would love to have in a small group with me or chat about life over coffee or worship in prayer with. But that's real-life and we are on the internet. There are way more ways giving advice can go wrong than we would care to imagine.

Meanwhile, the average person discovering this site will likely assume that a Christianity site would allow or even encourage pastoral advice questions. If they proceed to act on that assumption and pour out their hearts, it seems rude to slap [closed] on it without comment. It's the right thing to do, but it reminds me of the parable in which the Levite and the priest avoided becoming unclean. The odds are at least some hurting people will come through our doors and it's our duty to treat them the way we ourselves would be treated if we were in their shoes.

To resolve the issue, I'd like to propose a standard comment to be posted on "pastoral advice" questions after they have been closed. The text should be copied and only the username be filled in. The goal is to be polite, but firm:

Hello <username> and thank you for your question.  
The [mission](http://meta.christianity.stackexchange.com/a/1380) of our site is to
answer factual questions about Christianity.  We are not able to answer 
[more personal questions](http://meta.christianity.stackexchange.com/q/255).  We invite 
you to consult your local church, pastor, priest, mentor, or other trustworthy counselor.

If you have any suggestions about how to rephrase this, please let me know in the comments below. I will also monitor the Upper Room for discussion of this question and it's answers.

I believe that taking these sorts of questions to God in prayer is always appropriate

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I really like this ... right up to the last line about the Prayer Room. I'm pretty hesitant about that. How about you separate the rest of this proposal for the handling of closures and stock comments without that bit and move that suggestion to a separate answer (or meta post). Right now I love the rest of your post, but am uncomfortable also signing off on that issue as the de-facto way to do things on C.SE without at least a trial. –  Caleb Mar 26 '13 at 20:36
    
@Caleb: Agreed. I've proposed the Prayer Room separately. –  Jon Ericson Mar 26 '13 at 20:41
    
Hello this is a test and thank you for your question. The mission of our site is to answer factual questions about Christianity. We are not able to answer more personal questions. We invite you to consult your local church, pastor, priest, mentor, or someone else you can trust. –  Jon Ericson Mar 26 '13 at 20:41
    
I just "proposed" a small wording change via edit. Please review and if necessary revert. I am on board with the idea but it is your idea after all :) –  Caleb Mar 26 '13 at 20:44
    
I do like this, indeed. I think we should put a line in there like "If you are young and your parents are believers you should talk to them as well." –  fredsbend Mar 26 '13 at 20:58
    
@fredsbend: FYI: In theory, anyone younger than 13 may not participate here. In reality, anyone in their teenage years is unlikely to listen to their parents. ;) –  Jon Ericson Mar 26 '13 at 21:05
    
I suppose that may be true, but I still think it is sound advice and should be mentioned, especially considering the girl who posted concerning sexual sins, seemed quite troubled, and stated she was only 13. –  fredsbend Mar 26 '13 at 21:18
    
@Caleb: I think I'm ok with the change. I think there's a lot more that the average lay person can do to help counsel others and that we don't need to turn to professionals as quickly as we think we do. But there's no telling what sort of person the questioner will turn to and pointing to "experts" and not us is probably the wisest course of action. –  Jon Ericson Mar 27 '13 at 16:47
    
@JonEricson: I also believe there is a role for lay folks in this, I did not mean to limit to professionals. I did mean to limit it to people who are actually equipped for the role. I believe lay people should be equipped for all sorts of counseling, but that doesn't mean that they always are, and there is a big difference between somebody "you can trust" and somebody "who's spiritual counsel you can trust". There is no reason the latter needs to be professional clergy, but it does cut down the pool. –  Caleb Mar 27 '13 at 16:51
    
I was thinking that we could add in a part that links the faq saying If you can make this question fit within [site guidelines](link) then please edit it. –  fredsbend Apr 10 '13 at 20:12

NO! I would suggest that we refrain from handling these at all, even in comments.

I know most folks here mean well. The advice I've seen dolled out is even mostly things I strongly agree with and would advise myself. A couple of them however made me cringe. They were things I would immediately step in to correct if I was counseling somebody in person.

The real problem arises not with those bits of advice we approve of, but when ones inevitably come along that we don't. It's all well and good to let a "Love your wife" comment on a marriage conflict question slide by, but what happens when your favorite cult drops a comment inviting a seeker to join their fellowship? What happens when somebody drops a comment approving of a potential divorce as the best solution?

As a moderator, seeing these comments stirs up an instant conflict of interest. I want to delete the ones I think are bad advice and leave the ones that look good to me. However I recognize that this is unacceptable.

Rather than compromise by resorting to moderation based on content, I suggest we all refrain from offering anything in that can be construed as personal counseling advice on the main site. I would make an exception to this in chat, if you are engaged in talking to somebody in chat, this kind of rule can be more flexible.

I would propose that the limits of our personal advice be to send them to find a pastor/priest in real life. No advice on what church to go to, no word-in-edgewise on the issue, just a redirect. Explain the reasons why this is not the appropriate venue and suggest that the best course of action they could take is to talk to a pastor or priest in real life. Then leave it at that.

As a pastor myself, I realize not stepping in an doing what we would usually do is counter-intuitive, but I can't think of any other way to mitigate this becoming a place where people get bad advice since we are not prepared to moderate based on content/doctrine/belief/practice.

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I agree. I'm occasionally guilty, but you are right. –  David Stratton Mar 23 '13 at 14:27
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Yes, for sure. This is the way it should be. –  fredsbend Mar 23 '13 at 15:17
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Yes - you are totally correct. The problem is once a single caring comment is added five or six bad ones might be placed by their side. Best to leave it clean with no comments. Directing to a pastor/priest phrase seems ok - when both are put together. Maybe we should flag pastoral comments for mod deletion. Directing a person to a priest only, or directing a person to a pastor only, seems like pastoral advice that could be deleted. –  Mike Mar 24 '13 at 2:07

The really hard part of this (and the reason why I gave Peter a +1, and would give him a bounty if I could!) is because there is a presumption of action on the part of a Christian seeing a fellow traveller in need. When I read the story of the Good Samaritan, and I see the priests and Levites who leave that battered and bruised body on the road, I get indignant. And I should.

If I didn't, then I don't have a heart.

That said, every EMT knows that sometimes moving a battered body can be more dangerous and injurious than leaving it be. As such, when I comment (and let's be honest, I do), I do so with the greatest of solemnity and the uttermost conviction of "Do no harm."

  1. Directing people to their pastor or priest is my first and strongest line.

  2. Clear, but general reference to Scripture or tradition, as befitting any general question seems to me to be on topic, as if I were rescuing any question. I usually know the difference between something 75% of Christians would agree on and something that 95% of Christians would agree on. I wouldn't give advice at the 75% level, but at the 95% level - well, I'll at least point out the source.

  3. People can find my email address. And, frankly, I've had off-line queries. I answer them. But I do so with prayer and referral to pastors and priests that can know them individually.

Am I skirting the rules a little bit? Yes and no. To do nothing would be to violate my conscience. But - and I say this as one of those "professionals" to whom I would otherwise refer someone - I know my limitations too.

If I was a lawyer, I'd still say "Consult a lawyer." Really basic short-term advice like "Don't sign that paper until you talk to a professional!" is not malpractice. Attempting a full-on diagnosis most certainly is.

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As a Pastor and an EMT, I hear you loud and clear. And I really think you do know where the >95% level is at and your comments don't throw up any red flags in my mind. But how would you like to see us handle comments that come at the <75% range? Should moderators be making the judgement call to cull these? What about comments meant to be consolatory but end up tacitly condoning sin? Should we be making constant judgement calls or just flat avoiding them? –  Caleb Mar 25 '13 at 18:21
    
Great answer! Perhaps for the 75% questions, if there are two major positions which together added up to 95% it might be appropriate to give both positions? –  curiousdannii Jan 7 at 15:41

(I had a draft question written related to this issue. Half of it overlaps with this question. I'll cut that example out of my draft and paste it below. The other half I'll probably post as a question.)

Here is a concrete example where we have already screwed up on this, and quite badly.

There was a question, not too long ago, that involved a person of a young age who was concerned about having committed a mortal sin. While the question was handled well by the moderator who got to it (directed to a priest, account deleted, question deleted), other responses were less than ideal. This young person was Catholic, and the response in one comment read:

I encourage you to read the bible on its own and figure out what salvation is. [...] My concern for you is not ..., but no apparent understanding of the gospel. Find out how a sinner is saved by faith [...]

No further details need to be mentioned. The comment berates a worried child for not understanding the Gospel, and attempts to use a sensitive occasion as an opportunity to advance an "opposing" denominational view. This sort of response does not belong on this site. I expect that the issue was handled by the moderators in an appropriate and private way. The point here is that apparently we need to be more careful even about what sort of "directions" we give.


For example, when the person is Catholic and facing a spiritual issue, we do not direct them to read scripture (see Acts 8:30), or to a pastor (not all priests are pastors), or to a "solid believer", or to a "faith person", or to a "godly man", or to a youth leader, we simply say:

  • You should speak to your priest about this matter.
  • If it concerns sin:
    The best advice I've heard is for you to speak to a priest about this during confession.
  • If the person is young:
    The best thing is to tell your parents that you would like to go to confession / reconciliation.

Do not say anything else unless you know the drill.


We do not give pastoral advice. We shut the question down, and we direct people asking for this sort of advice to their church.

  • We do not direct people to our church. We direct them to their church.
  • We behave nicely towards them, and especially towards people we realize are young or in some sort of distress.
  • We do not try to give any form of advice at all. Not only because we don't want to set a precedent (for cults, as Caleb mentioned), but because we have no idea what the person's issue really is.

Here is another point:

  • Though we may give the person consolation ("I hope everything turns out well. I will pray for you"), we avoid taking their side in a dispute, even implicitly or conditionally (so we do not say: "if what you say really is true, then that is horrible and you have been wronged!").

A recent question had another young person complaining about parental authority, about how "my dad treats me like a slave". Anyone who might have responded with "sympathetic" comments may well have been supporting this person in breaking the commandment to honour thy father and mother (secular translation: we might have been implicitly siding with the youth in a personal family dispute where the youth was entirely in the wrong).

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Proposal: Edit the question to bring it inline with some inane standard

Imagine this question exists:

Q: What should I do if I just masturbated but I've got a date with my Catholic girlfriend in two hours who wants me to go to Mass with her and she'll expect me to go to communion

No one should ever answer this question. It's not "not constructive" it's "too localized" and that's what all these really are. What it could be turned into is

Q: What might I expect that a priest/pastor tell me that I should do if...

And that seriously would make a lot of difference and here's why

  1. It is answerable (more or less)

    • If people vote up your answer it means, (yeah, I can see someone saying that)
    • If they vote down your answer it means (no, no one in their right mind would ever say that)
  2. It asks not for our opinion, but of the opinion of one who we would be going to get pastoral advice from.

  3. It is not in and of itself pastoral advice, but merely what to expect when you do get pastoral advice.


I think there's a lot to Caleb's stance on this and it takes some guts to go against everything you stand for as a Christian to not try and help some random person in need on the Internet. But, I also think in some cases, there is a middle road we can and should take.

Furthermore, if you have a "pathway to citizenship" for these new users and passerbys (not just assuming that they're a one-off googler) that include editing their questions in a way that they will gain the rep needed on the site to be better participants, we'll increase the awareness of the site and it's reputation as a good place to enounter Christianity which will hopefully inspire a few souls to go and learn who Christ is and have that greater encounter.


In the end, we should always and only answer what we know and not what we think. Unless we can't know or don't have the authority to speak to something, in which case we can do our best by saying what we think and why.

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I had this question written up and ended up posting it about 5 minutes after you posted this answer. Your answer seems very relevant to that question. –  Alypius Mar 24 '13 at 3:15
    
A lot of questions can be salvaged, but I don't think pastoral advice questions are good candidates for this. Trying to almost inevitably ends up doing just what we set out not to do. By editing and saying "ask this instead" aren't we both giving out a diagnosis and prescribing something for it? If people come here having not yet made the mental leap to abstract their problem and find out something about Christianity, is spoon feeding them that step really going to help? Isn't it going to leave them farther behind the curve and more likely to still have wrong expectations about finding truth? –  Caleb Mar 24 '13 at 5:59
    
@Caleb It would really help if you included this comment in your answer to the question I linked above. It's closely related to the concern I had in this comment. –  Alypius Mar 24 '13 at 17:50
    
@Alypius Yes, this comment is probably more to the point than my original answer there. I've edited it in. –  Caleb Mar 25 '13 at 15:18

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