By Mary Stadnyk | Associate Editor

Whether it’s dealing with marriage and family issues, bereavement or other stresses resulting from significant change or loss, everyone at one time or another can use a little extra support.

For almost five years, the Trenton Diocese has provided assistance through its Parish Counseling Services program, offering affordable, short-term professional counseling services to those trying to handle the challenges of life that come their way.

A joint program provided by the Diocese and Catholic Charities, Parish Counseling Services was created by Daughter of Charity Sister Joanne Dress, then diocesan executive director of Catholic Social Services, and overseen by Maureen Fitzsimmons, who now serves the Diocese as the victims’ assistance coordinator, when parish priests throughout the Diocese saw a need for such assistance. The clergy wanted to provide increased support to their parishioners and “opportunities to talk with caring, licensed, Catholic-minded professionals about the more challenging situations in their lives,” according to Eileen Ziesmer, the program’s associate director of Parish Counseling Services.

When Parish Counseling Services was first started, Brenda Rascher, current diocesan executive director of Catholic Social Services, said bereavement related matters was the most common reason why people were in need of counseling. As the program continued to grow, the reasons broadened to include anxiety, marital and parenting matters, job loss and  gender identity. She also added that Parish Counseling Services has also provided services to family members who are dealing with a loved one’s addiction and substance abuse issues.

When speaking of Parish Counseling Services, Rascher was firm when she said that it is not about identifying someone as being mentally ill.

“It’s about helping people deal with life events that are causing an issue,” she said, than added that Parish Counseling Services Parish Counseling Services “provides a comfortable door for people to walk through” so they can deal with their issue.

Finding Their Way

Explaining the program’s logistics, Ziesmer said that all referrals, which average about 20 per month, are made directly to Catholic Charities by the pastor or parish priest who initially meets with the parishioner seeking assistance. Catholic Charities’ staff determines the type of counseling needed.

If the situation requires long-term assistance or if more extensive mental health related issues are involved, then Catholic Charities’ staff will provide the parishioner with appropriate direction and referrals. If the situation is determined to be short-term and can be handled in six sessions, the parishioner would be eligible to meet with one of Parish Counseling Services’ 20 private counselors, from around the Diocese, all of whom are either Catholic or are educated in Church teaching. Factors that would determine if a parishioner would meet with a Catholic Charities counselor or a Parish Counseling Services counselor include location and travel requirements between the counselor and parishioner; if the parishioner is seeking services that include a higher level of prayer experiences, and the availability of Spanish speaking counselors.

The basic cost to the client served through Parish Counseling Services is $90 per session. 

However, thanks to funding from the Diocese’s Annual Catholic Appeal,  parishioners may be eligible for financial assistance, leaving them with only a small copay for each session.

A Worthy Ministry

Since the program’s inception, Ziesmer indicated that PCS has received more than 400 referrals with 154 persons receiving services through Catholic Charities counselors and 186 persons through Parish Counseling Services. She added that about 340 parishioners received assistance by attending the six full sessions and that there were 65 persons who did not respond to follow-up about services after the initial inquiry.

At the conclusion of the counseling services, whether it takes one session or six, parishioners are encouraged to provide feedback and evaluate the services they received through an anonymous survey, Ziesmer said. She noted that about 35 percent of the clients have completed the surveys and of that number, the percentage who have indicated positive feedback on Parish Counseling Services and would highly recommend the program to others ranges between 90 to 95 percent.

The survey comments, she said, revealed that regardless of the situations that prompted a person to seek support, “a great benefit was derived from it. Also, that the concerns they were facing had improved as a result of the services that had been provided by their counselor.”

 “Regardless of the life issues they were addressing, what individuals have found and keep finding most helpful about Parish Counseling Services is the chance to talk with someone who offers unbiased perspectives on situations and acquiring the tools to deal with the issues they were facing,” Ziesmer said. Clients indicated they were most pleased about finding the counselors to be caring, comforting, knowledgeable, nonjudgmental listeners and professionals who understand their religious beliefs.

Ziesmer acknowledged that various obstacles can inhibit a person’s decision to seek counseling because he or she is unsure about what counseling is, what it will cost or how they can go about finding a quality therapist. She noted that sometimes well-meaning loved ones may try to discourage them from seeking counseling or they are concerned about talking to someone who will not take into account their faith beliefs. And because they are nervous or hesitant to seek counseling, a person then waits until his or her situation becomes unbearable, Ziesmer said, “and that is unfortunate.”

For persons in stressful situations, Ziesmer encourages them to consider talking with their parish priest. By allowing the priest to connect the parishioner to counseling services, they will then have a new way to address the challenge and receive the support they need to handle that life concern they have, up until that time, been carrying alone, she said.

“Reaching out to your pastor to talk about the concerns in your life and counseling that is available may be a great first step,” Ziesmer said.

Ziesmer noted that additional counselors are needed especially in Southern Ocean and Burlington Counties. Any Catholic counselors who may be interested in working with Parish Counseling Services can contact Ziesmer for more information at or call 609-403-7203.