I haven't seen any yet, but I would imagine that we are going to get questions asking for pastoral input. It may be anything from "I can't seem to stop surfing internet porn", to (if we're really having a bad day) "My friend has started cutting herself and cursing Jesus - is she demon-possessed?". We have the potential to be on dangerous ground here, nearly as dangerous as medical advice. And like the medical questions, we almost certainly don't have the information anyone would need in order to offer good quality help. How do we want to deal with them?

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"nearly as dangerous?" Did you mean "more dangerous?" –  Flimzy Aug 29 '11 at 20:55
    
I wasn't intending to be precise. Whichever it is, its dangerous. –  DJClayworth Aug 29 '11 at 21:00
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Ref. policies on Judaism.SE. –  TRiG Aug 31 '11 at 0:56
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Yes, this is a major issue for us on Judaism.SE. Now that we're sharing this issue with more sites, I've proposed a mechanism to help deal with it on MSO. –  Isaac Moses Sep 2 '11 at 2:11
    
See also: But can't I say just one thing? –  Jon Ericson Sep 5 '13 at 21:44

5 Answers 5

up vote 22 down vote accepted

The most important thing is that we resist the temptation of providing an answer. I know that Christians are supposed to love others, and questions like this will undoubtedly tug at the heart-strings, but answering questions like this will always be a disservice to the questioner.

Why? The analogy of a medical diagnosis is a good one. Would any of us make a clinical diagnosis on the basis of a post on the internet? I don't think so. And neither should we make a spiritual one. We simply don't know the people involved, their motivations, their support network, their beliefs, their hurts... By answering requests for pastoral input we are more likely to do harm than good.

What we can do is the following:

  • Add a note in the FAQ that clearly states that this is a Q&A web site, not a church, and that this means that requests for pastoral input are off-topic.
  • Immediately close questions like this as off topic. Explain why the question has been closed.
  • Immediately delete answers that actually give personal advice.
  • Signpost the questioner to other agencies: their local minister, doctor, Citizens Advice service or whatever appears appropriate. Add a note that explains that we're offering suggestions, but they are no more than that. The questioner must take responsibility for their own actions.
  • Make it clear that we'd love to help directly, and explain why we can't.
  • Pray.

The FAQ should contain boilerplate text that covers all of the above, and copy and paste this in (or at least a link) so that questions receive a kind, thoughtful and well-expressed "no" to the request.

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Good answer. It may be appropriate to put a blessing in the comment that refers the questioner. For example, "Please ask an adult you know and trust...a pastor, counselor, teacher, parent... about this. Get help, you are worth it. May the peace of God that surpasses our understanding guard your heart and mind." –  user116 Sep 1 '11 at 2:55

I think they should be closed promptly as "Off-Topic" and comments can point out a relevant course of action to take instead of consulting this site. This site is not a church. Pastoral advice questions should be referred to the relevant pastor in that persons life. Other resources can also be suggested, but in the form of comments, not answers and the main point should emphasize that that sort of thing is off-topic.

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@wax_eagle suggested that "too localized" might be a better close reason for these, and I tend to agree. The point of my post above is that they should be promptly closed -- what close reason we use can be decided upon. –  Caleb Sep 5 '11 at 11:50

What is the difference between "pastoral" and just "a question someone has because it affects them?" Because that is the main point of an SE, to answer questions that YOU have, that are relevant to YOU.

Sure, if someone is asking for an answer that is only specific to them, it should be closed as "too localized." enter image description here

"Pastoral" should only mean "the center circle."

However, this does not mean you should not ask questions that are IMPORTANT TO YOU. On SEs, you are encouraged to ask questions that you actually, personally have, not just "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" thought questions.

So here's the first question to get closed on "pastoral" grounds and it demonstrates the weakness of this approach.

Though the poster shares a bunch of personal details, he does not ask "help me!"... He asks extremely specific and legitimate Christian belief questions.

How is it fair that I am not aloud into heaven when God was the one who made me homosexual?

In that case, should homosexuals be able to marry and love one another (husband/husband, wife/wife) but be forbidden from sexual conduct?

How can a God who created my body and mind, create a world where I am specifically hated or considered "mentally ill", and/or "not of God".

If someone who wasn't gay asked these same questions, they would be legitimate? If someone was "just askin'" out of morbid curiosity?

So someone who actually has a vested interest in the question can't ask them? And you think that is a positive think that will make this SE more valuable?

There is a huge difference between someone asking for specific pastoral advice, and someone asking about general Christianity questions because they bear upon their specific situation.

I'll be honest, interpreting questions like this as OT is more restrictive than what other "subjective" SEs are doing. Go look at parenting.SE. The highest rated questions there are EXACTLY parallel to questions like this one. http://parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/1776/how-can-i-prevent-my-8-year-old-from-spending-time-with-his-bad-friend

Or heck, like my Tyranny of the Weaker Brother question. It's a point of theology, but it does affect me. Is that asking for "pastoral advice" and should be mod-closed? Because I see zero difference in nature between the two questions.

Furthermore, I hear concerns about legal implications of giving religious advice. Unless this is based on real feedback from the SE team, it is totally a made up concern. Someone might write bad code based on Stack Overflow and crush someone under a bridge. Someone can poison themselves off Gardening, or crush their kids' fragile little minds from Parenting. This is known and accepted, and is no different here.

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For me the critical point about a pastoral question is that the answer will depend on the person asking it and there circumstances. Questions like "How can I stop looking at pornography", "How can I know if I've committed the unforgiveable sin", and yes the Tyrrany of the Weaker Brother; even "can you get to heaven without believing in Jesus". –  DJClayworth Sep 5 '11 at 22:20
    
@DJClayworth depend how? "Because the person cares" is a terrible reason to make something off topic, and one that has no justification. –  mxyzplk Sep 6 '11 at 1:14
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No, because "How can I stop looking at pornography" has an answer that depends on the person and why they are looking, and no competent pastor would give an answer based on 50 words written on the internet. –  DJClayworth Sep 6 '11 at 1:50
    
I can see both sides of this. I agree with mxyzplk that the questions he's referring to aren't "help me!" pastoral advice questions. But they are worded in a somewhat aggressive, making-a-point way rather than an I'd-like-to-know-more-about-this way - perhaps that's the issue here. –  Waggers Sep 23 '11 at 14:13

This is not a Christian site!

Refer to this Meta post, Brothers, we are not Christians!, where Caleb writes: "I am a Christian. You say you are. But we are not." I would like to add that I am not a Christian. I am an ignostic atheist with humanistic tendencies. As such, I am not qualified to give an answer to a pastoral advice question, for I am not a pastor, and if I do express my empathetic opinion and advice, they are bound to contain humanism, which may not be pleasing to Christian posters who may oppose humanism. One example that I can think of is "Why God has not spoken to me?". Since this is a secular website, and assuming that pastoral advice questions are allowed, I would be free to offer my opinion and advice, even though I am not trained in pastoral counseling or mental health counseling, which may have devastating consequences. For instance, in my opinion, I believe the reason why God has not spoken to the user is that God does not exist. The inefficacy of prayer is proof that God does not exist. God only exists within the pages of the Bible as merely a character. Get my point?

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This probably explains why you've been very keen to point out when answers don't specify a specific doctrinal position. I don't think that's always necessary - sometimes there are answers from a sort of broad all-encompassing 'Mere Christianity' that all the Christian branches would agree with. –  curiousdannii Mar 16 at 0:45
    
@curiousdannii There are always exceptions. There are even Christians-who-call-themselves-Christians-but-do-not-believe-in-God (i.e. non-theist Quakers). To conclude that there is an all-encompassing "Mere Christianity" is misleading. As it has been officially stated, the SE is not here to label who's the Christian. Self-identification is enough. Therefore, the non-theist Quakers are Christian, as long as they still identify themselves as Christian. –  Anonymous Mar 16 at 0:51

I've got some good news for you: God actually speaks through people. Furthermore, He has made us able to communicate for a very good reason: so that we can communicate good and useful things to each other, which is part of loving each other as we love ourselves. As such there are many blessings available through wholesome communication. Whilst it's true that people abuse the gift of communication, if we allow this to prohibit communication in any way, evil has won: as long as evil can stop good being commuincated, that cuts off those in need of help from that help: a cruel blow to many. Of course God can send help to them through any number of sources other than this website, but it does seem strange that the most helpful form of communication (pastoral advice) is what's being prohibited. For any pastoral advice to be credible, it must surely refer to The Bible, which thankfully we've been provided precisely for the purpose of answering such questions.

On the related subject of what this site is supposed to be about, this is what the site currently says its about: 'Q&A for committed Christians, experts in Christianity and those interested in learning more'. I've seen these words on another question: 'brothers we are not Christians'. It seems at best misleading, at worst dishonest, to claim to be a site where committed Chrsitians can ask questions but not answer them. Anyone reading the description of the site above would surely conclude that answers are provided by committed Chrsitians. Why would a committed Christian seek guidance on the Bible from someone who isn't a committed Christian. It's utterly preposterous.

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It doesn't say anywhere the committed Christians can't answer questions. But the point is that non=Christians can also answer questions, if they have the necessary knowledge. –  DJClayworth Oct 11 '13 at 21:39
    
ok, but by ruling out 'pastoral advice' questions, I argue that least some if not the majority of useful questions and answers are prohibited. The chief (if not only) preoccuapation of the committed Christian is to find out and practice the will of God and to communicate it to others. This preoccpation seems prohibited on this website and I think the description of the website is misleading as a result. –  George Tomlinson Oct 11 '13 at 21:53
    
@bluesh34 I understand where you're coming from, but that's simply not the purpose of this site. I struggled with whether or not this site was a waste of my time for that very reason. I know I'm not going to reach lost souls through this site. The reason I use this site is that it helps me to understand various doctrines and differences between Christian groups so that I am better equipped to do God's will elsewhere. If you're hoping only that this site is an avenue to spread the Truth of God's word, or learn His will, this site is going to be a waste of your time. –  David Stratton Oct 11 '13 at 23:26
    
There's more on the reason giving pastoral advice online is a bad idea here –  David Stratton Oct 11 '13 at 23:28
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The "no pastoral advice" rule actually addresses the other problem you have - because we don't allow personal advice we don't have non-Christians providing "guidance on the Bible from someone who isn't a committed Christian." One of these is necessary. –  Ryan Frame Oct 12 '13 at 1:39
    
IMO, the about page is in desperate need of a rewrite. That being said, this post might help you out: Newcomers: Be patient. You will get there if you follow our direction. Keep trying –  fredsbend Oct 14 '13 at 3:07
    
@Ryan Frame One of what is necessary and which one? –  George Tomlinson Mar 28 at 12:25
    
Either preventing pastoral/personal advice questions or allowing non-Christians to provide guidance. If we allow these questions then we cannot keep anyone and everyone from answering them. –  Ryan Frame Mar 28 at 13:24

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