…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.