We hear it said all the time, ‘where words fail, music speaks.’ Yet, we underestimate how true that statement can be. Music can help us release emotions, de-stress, and overcome pain; among other things. In my work as a therapist, I’ve discovered how powerful music really is. During sessions, I utilize music activities to help individuals grow and overcome.
One example of this is my use of song lyrics. Individuals listen to songs with the lyrics printed out and are able to mark what they feel, relate to, and so forth, but may not be able to vocalize. They are empowered to open up to how they feel, because someone has given them the words. The concrete verses allow for a dialogue to happen with the individual leading the way.
Furthermore, music can help put things into perspective and show different sides of situations. It can set a tone that allows people to reflect. In addition to having individuals use song lyrics, I also have them listen to songs that relate to them on some level, i.e., situation, emotion, or mood that they have experienced, and focus on their feelings and thoughts. This can create an energy that leads to personal reflection and insight. The songs create a bridge between what someone has experienced and the words they need in order to cope and move forward.
I believe that everyone has an innate strength and resilience inside them; sometimes they just need assistance with discovering it. That’s where music comes in. After all, it says what we can’t.
I am very honored to have been included in the article “Mental Illness and The Church: Living On A Prayer?” by Ken Lambert on The US Independent news site.
…telling people to just pray more or have more quiet time. It’s finding patterns & solutions to real life issues” – SCC tweet/facebook post 03/08/14
I honestly wondered how this Tweet and Facebook post that I did would be received. I wondered if I would get angry comments and emails telling me that prayer and quiet times solve all human problems and that there is no need for professional training when working with people in counseling. I am happy to say that the feedback has been overwhelming and all positive. I guess there are a few others out there that feel the same way I do about what Christian counseling should be and perhaps what it shouldn’t be.
I chose to send out the post via social media because it’s really at the heart of why I opened Southlake Christian Counseling and the driving force behind everything we continue to do today. Far too many people have wandered into our office looking for some solid encouragement and professional counseling, after having experienced guilt, shame and honestly not very helpful advice that was under the umbrella of “Christian counseling.” Churches are notorious for providing peer or pastoral support and calling it counseling, but it really isn’t. Now there are fabulous faith-based programs going on out there. But the minute it is called counseling or attempts to address issues that are better suited for a trained mental health professional, that’s where some trouble can and does start.
There are many great resources right here in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and across the country that are truly operating out of a grace-filled perspective and provide quality professional counseling services. I by no means believe we alone have the market cornered in this area. What I also know is that real damage has been done and continues to be done in God’s name. With this in mind, I want to share what I believe Christian counseling should be and what should be red flags that it might not be a safe emotional environment.
Let’s start with just a few things that reflect my opinions…
1) Quality professional Christian counseling should be between clients and a licensed mental health provider. The only true way to call it “counseling” is if the provider is licensed within the state they practice. There are laws governing confidentiality and standards that licensed folks must adhere to or they lose their licenses. Plan and simple. These are safe-guards for the clients. If you go speak about very personal and intimate issues with a peer “counselor” or a pastor, they are NOT legally required to keep what you said confidential. Now they might, but they are not legally bound to do so like a therapist. Kind of scary to me honestly. I have heard story after story of people sharing their hearts and burdens to only find out that information was shared with others and it spread around a ministry, church or community.
2) The biases of the therapist should be checked at the door. By this I mean that the therapist is to act as a mirror, reflecting back what the client is saying and presenting. Christian therapists can share what they believe to be helpful but ultimately it is up to the client to decide what is right for him or her. This is not at all usually the case with peer or pastoral counseling. It is often a place of clear biases and opinions about the “correct” course of action a person should take. Peers and pastors are not trained in the deeper understandings of human behaviors, psychology and the inner workings of patterns that humans take in their lives. Therefore, majority of the time (not all but majority) they are ill-equipped to help people figure out the pattern, let alone a lasting solution. Temporary fixes don’t count.
3) Christian counseling should always reflect the character traits Jesus represented when he was here; grace, hope, compassion, equality between the genders, encouragement, bearing one another’s burdens, joining together as community, not judging others but taking care of our own hang-ups before we even attempt to point out others (which we are never done dealing with our own junk so I have to believe that Jesus might have been trying to make that point but I could be wrong) and the list goes on and on.
4) Christian counselors should not give up on people. I know it happens but it’s wrong. Now there are times that we need to refer to another therapist because our skill set and training isn’t helping unlock what needs to be dealt with but we always (and are required by our licensing boards) help clients get with another therapist. We don’t discard people. I am grieved every time another new client shares that they were told not to come back somewhere else. I will say it again, licensed counselors can not just give up on people.
5) Professional Christian counselors should NOT point to the Bible and say “well, I have told you what it says, you are not following it so you’re in rebellion. I don’t see a need to meet anymore, until you get right with God.” ACK! That’s horrible to say to someone. Professional counselors are trained to walk through barriers with people and not allow our own lack of patience get in the way. I honestly have heard people say this to folks who have come to them for help. Trust me when I say it happens and often. It’s wounding and harmful to people. Professional Christian counselors work with folks while they figure out the barriers to living the type of lives they say they want to live. We don’t, or shouldn’t, just point at the Bible and go “It’s in there, follow it.” This does happen too.
There are many other things to discuss regarding Christian counseling and it’s place in the world but I just wanted to touch on a few things today. Why did I chose to write about this topic now? I heard, yet again, about a person having been told by a different Christian counselor previous to me that if only she prayed more, she wouldn’t need counseling. Ouch and yuck. How damaging to tell someone.
It is high time the face of Christian counseling changes and we are doing our little part in the world to see that it happens. I want to pause here and say that if you have experienced some of the negative things I have talked about, while trying to get help from a ministry, church or a therapist who advertised as being a Christian counselor, let me say on behalf of them that I am very sorry. I am sorry that you walked in with hope that you would be understood, helped and accepted but walked out feeling very different than those things. It truly was not about you but that other person and their personal limitations. There are good resources out there so try again and my desire would be that you find what you were originally looking for; which was probably grace and solutions to real life issues.
Often clients will tell me how they have been feeling and then ask whether I think they are depressed. That can be tricky to answer honestly. I hate labels. Yes, there are mental health diagnosing guidelines to follow but so what? So maybe I do “diagnose” depression but the diagnosis isn’t important to me. What’s really important is for the client to understand the root of the feelings and for them to get free from the dark cloud hanging overhead.
I have to say right out of the gate that if you feel depressed to the point of thinking about hurting yourself, get help right now. Don’t wait. Go to your nearest emergency room, call 911 or get an appointment with a counselor. The enemy is lying to you about the worth of your life and his only power is if we believe his lies.
A lot of people don’t think about hurting themselves but they do live with a consistent sense of unhappiness. What I call a case of the ongoing blahs. Nothing is really enjoyable, not miserable, but not joy-filled. They go through the motions of life but can’t remember feeling really passionate about something. There may be a mix of anxiety added to the blahs and you have a sad recipe for daily life. Does that sound familiar?
There are a few steps that I walk with clients through as they begin to step out of the blahs and I am happy to share them:
1) Get a physical. Go to your family doctor and get a complete blood count. Check your thyroid. Check your blood sugars. A low level of depression can be caused by a variety of treatable medical conditions. Don’t fear that you are going to open a can of worms by getting a physical. There could be a simple solution to how you are feeling and avoidance isn’t going to help you out.
2) Exercise! I am not talking about hiring a trainer to torture you 6 days a week for 2 hours at a time. Experiment with what type of exercise and for how long works for you. Most people benefit from less exercise than they think. Start small and work your way up until you feel that you’ve gone too far and then back down to your sweet spot.
3) Talk to someone. You have to seek wisdom to get to the root of the feelings. When, where and how did this pattern of thinking and feeling start? What are the spiritual causes also? What we think dictates how we feel. If we are not aware of our inner thought life, feelings will pop up that we never expected and we are surprised by.
My caution is that you need to find someone who will speak truth into your life but doesn’t feel the need to throw in a little shame or guilt on the side. Be careful! Sharing your heart makes you vulnerable and we all need to be wise about who we invite into our innermost feelings.
While on this topic, I have to say that I am not a huge fan of pastoral counseling. Sorry Pastors. But from my experience 9 out of 10 pastors are not trained or anointed to do counseling. Sure if you’ve got a theological question, they are the ones to go to for answers. However, unless your church is highly trained in counseling or inner-healing ministry, be careful when seeking counseling at a church. I have heard time and time again clients that went for pastoral counseling with one problem but came out with two. Went in with a worry about depression and came out with the depression and condemnation. Sad I know. It honestly breaks my heart and makes me furious but that’s a topic for another blog post.
Ok, so now you are cleared medically, exercising, talking about your feelings and you still feel the blahs? It might be time for a medication evaluation with a psychiatrist. Not your family doc but a highly regarded psychiatrist , with a good track record, who can point you in the right direction. Mediation is the option of last resort for me but there are times that it is necessary to help move people forward and out of the blahs for good.
Is it depression? I don’t know but lets get going in life and leave the dark cloud behind…
I am the therapist but I want to share some of my own feelings for a moment if that’s ok
I am frustrated
I am frustrated and I am sad
I am sad because there are people who are hurting and who could greatly benefit from a season of counseling. I am frustrated because of the biases and prejudges against counseling that some church staff and leaders harbor and pass on to their congregation members.
I know there are churches that appreciate quality Christian counseling and from the pulpit, they speak highly of counseling and its potential benefits. However, there are pastors and church staff that believe ministry and counseling are two very different things. They make remarks that counseling only teachings people to blame others for their problems without taking personal responsibility. They make remarks that make it sound like ministry can only happen at churches and counseling is just the option of last resort. These church leaders are feeding the negative misconceptions about counseling that is already within our culture. Many believe that only the really “messed-up” people attend counseling and these viewpoints from some churches are not helping break the stereotypes. My clients are not “messed-up” at all but are high functioning and successful people. They want everything God has for their lives and are willing to grow personally to get it.
Is counseling ministry? The therapists in my practice would say a loud, hearty YES! So why do some in the western church have negative biases and prejudges against counseling?
Well, quite frankly, some counselors are weird. Some worldly counselors give strange advice. Some christian counselors give strange advice. Finding a counselor you connect with can be a little bit of a challenge sometimes. That is why we tell all new clients to come meet with us, visit and see if it works. If it does, great, we are on our way. If not, we know a lot of other therapists to refer to who may be a better fit.
Just because there are unhealthy churches in the world, doesn’t mean we would encourage people to never attend church. The same goes for counseling.
In my opinion, healthy Christian counseling should mirror what is being done in healthy churches to help set people free. Christian counseling should be focusing on renewal and restoration. Counseling should be positive and healing focused. Clients should see progress and be excited about what God is doing for them.
So, there it is. My concerns regarding how christian counseling is being represented by some pastors and church staff. Counseling is not for everyone but for many it is the exact thing that God wants for a season.