Not Christian Counseling
Last year I mentioned to a colleague that, in general, I don’t refer to therapists who identify themselves as “Christian Counselors” or as offering “Christian Counseling.” Without further discussion, he concluded my behavior was “arbitrary,” “a priori,” and “disturbing.” It’s certainly not the first two, but I thought I would explain and you can decide if it’s disturbing or not.
There’s a couple of points that should be clarified before we explore these ideas in depth:
1. I certainly refer to counselors who identify as Christians and practice Christianity in their personal lives. I think I probably refer to Buddhist, Jewish, Pagan, Agnostic and Atheist therapists. I usually don’t know.
2. I’m going to refer to “counseling” because it’s a natural way to tell the story. You should know I am talking about many professional tracks that are licensed including Counseling, Social Work, Marriage and Family Therapy, and Psychology.
The Odds Game
When you are referring clients, you are looking for competence. Competence is multifaceted, but for this conversation, we’re going to pretend it’s one thing. Finding competence is an odds game. It’s like drawing business cards out of a paper bag, where the card represents a person and the bag represents some category – like education or experience. So let’s say my electrical outlets suddenly have no power and I can’t figure out why. I see a bag of business cards and someone has written “Electricians” on it to let me know that everyone in that bag is a licensed electrician. The other bag says “Plumbers” on it and it is full of licensed plumbers. I get to draw one card and have that person come and try to fix my problem. I’m going to draw a card out of the “Electrical” bag. Does that mean that there is no one in the “Plumber” bag that could solve my problem? Not at all. There might be a bunch of people in there who could. And there are probably a couple in the “Electrical” bag that can’t solve my problem. But this is an odds game and I am confident that I have a better chance of getting my electrical problem solved effectively and efficiently by drawing out of the “Electrician” bag.
Generally when I am referring to a therapist I am referring to therapists I already know, but occasionally I am referring to either an area of expertise that I am unfamiliar with OR a geographic area I am unfamiliar with. On a good day, I’ll have a trusted colleague that will know a “good eating disorder therapist in Benbrook” or a “couples therapist in Keller.” But sometimes no one seems to know anyone and you end up “reading the bags” and drawing cards. In that instance, I am very likely to draw from some bags that increase my sense of confidence. For example, I’m very likely to reach in a bag that says Cognitive Behavioral Therapist on it and, returning to our topic… rarely going to reach in the “Christian Counseling” bag. Are there some competent therapists in the “Christian Counseling” bag? Absolutely. But the risks are higher of drawing some undesirable and even dangerous professionals out of that bag.
Therapists in the “Christian Counselors” bag are more likely to not understand the importance of counseling being centered on the client. Regardless of professional track, I believe that being client centered is a central principle of both our training and of successful practices. I think the best therapists start with a relatively blank slate, listen deeply to their clients and help their clients find their renewed paths or renewed selves. Starting empty is not an easy thing and is part of our rigorous training and ongoing practice. When you advertise as a Christian Counselor, I hear you saying that this focus on the client’s experience is not the most important. You have already filled in some of the slate with values and beliefs that you think are most important and they will likely take supremacy over the client’s values and beliefs. I think that is to the detriment of the client. I think some do this because they didn’t receive good skills training and others fall into it when they are unable to master the challenge of starting empty. Whatever the reason, they are not starting where the client is, but starting with the counselor’s religious anchors. Their anchor is also in one of many religious world views, which will hinder their effectiveness not only with other religious views, but even with different sects of Christianity. Professional Counselors should be equally effective regardless of the religious or spiritual belief of the therapist or the client.
A Meaningless and Misleading Phrase
The original Christian Counseling (Jay E. Adams) asserted that mental illness was simply moral failing. I will assume compassionately that this is not what any current professional counselor is advertising, especially since Adams doesn’t believe one needs to be a professional. If they are, I have concerns that go way beyond this writing.
One might argue that Christian Counseling is a legitimate specialty, but it’s too narrow to be a specialty. Well trained professional therapists know the importance of a person’s spiritual belief and practice to their emotional and mental well-being. Competent professional therapists include this critical part of people’s lives in their counseling, regardless of the faith tradition that the client embraces.
I would refer to a therapist with a specialty or interest area in spirituality and religious practices. That therapist would have a strong background in areas like human development and particularly in models like James Fowlers Stages of Faith Development and Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. They would be knowledgeable about how people’s beliefs move through the processes of confirmation bias and perturbation, unto more evolved understandings of their spiritual lives. But unlike a Christian Counselor, their specialty would apply to any or no faith tradition. Their expertise is in the process, not the religion specific content.
The consumer of Christian Counseling might make some assumption that the Christian Counselor will have special knowledge about Christianity, their life’s challenge in the context of Christianity, or at least share the client’s culture of Christianity. It doesn’t take much reflection on our part to realize that because of the great diversity of belief among those that claim Christianity, a client might be surprised when they meet their Christian Counselor. The sell-all-your-possessions-give-to-the-poor (Mark 10:21) Christian Counselor might hang a shingle right next door to the snake-picker-upper-poison-drinking (Mark 16:18) Christian Counselor. Among the 43,000 Christian denominations there are likely to be some that do not share your world view in the way you had assumed.
The risk to the client is varied, depending upon the difference in world view, how the belief relates to the presenting problem, and how strong the client’s sense of self is. Minimally, it may just be a disappointment like discovering that the product wasn’t as advertised. In a worst case scenario, a client might defer to the authority of the therapist, make life choices based on that therapist’s authority and be damaged in some way. With a professional therapist, all of that risk is minimized, because the client’s belief system is the one that matters and the therapist’s authority is anchored in the process, not the religious content.
Dangers to Christian Women
One of the outright dangers of Christian Counseling is that it is often sought out by those who wish to maintain some objectively unhealthy dynamic in their relationship with their spouse. Most often this will be a husband who is coercively controlling (with or without violence). He has agreed to go to counseling, but wants to be sure to choose a therapist with a particular view of the husband and wife relationship in a Christian marriage. A view that might be big on submission and forgiveness. He wants to be sure that certain tenets of their marital contract won’t be questioned. If he is successful in finding that therapist, the wife will continue to be marginalized or even victimized in the relationship. Fortunately, there are fewer of those therapists in the bag these days. Most professional therapists would recognize this dynamic for the dysfunction that it is, but there are still some therapists in that particular bag that won’t. In addition to the risk to women, the marriage will also continue to suffer because the couple has been denied the opportunity to examine their marital contract against their beliefs and to do the hard work of re-negotiating it in a way that would bring them greater satisfaction.
Dangers to Youth
The other group that this is specifically dangerous to is LGBT youth growing up in some socially conservative Christian homes. When these parents discover their children’s sexual orientation or sexual identity, their fear makes them want to find a therapist who will support a certain world view and discourage their children from “choosing” this “sinful lifestyle.” So where do they shop? They look for Christian Counselors in hopes they will find one that will share their bias. Again, there are fewer of those therapists in the bag these days, but they still exist. What these parents need is an education. What these families need is assistance in communicating about these realities in light of their religious traditions. What these children need is acceptance! Minimally, the rejection of their parents is going to be reinforced and the child (and family) will continue to suffer – not the outcome I hope for when making a referral. Considering this group’s higher risk of suicide and other bad outcomes, the worst possible scenarios are literally life changing and not worth the risk when I am making a referral. The first time that LGBT youth tell a professional of their identity, orientation, or vocalize questions about those topics, there needs to be no doubt about the professional’s knowledge of the research and commitment to their client’s wholeness.
Damaging to our Professions
I don’t know of any other profession where it is somehow acceptable to advertise based on your religious view. No one in my town practices Christian Law or Eastern Orthodox Urology. The plumber might have a little fish symbol on his business card, but his actual plumbing is non-sectarian. In my profession, Social Work, we are all about educating the public about our profession and the many ways in which we are trying to make the world a better place. Adding a religious label to any of our services creates the opposite outcome. It creates misunderstanding. I have an ethical concern that it sends a message that something about our services is sectarian and not available to all or perhaps is provided differently to preferred and non-preferred religions. It sends the wrong message about the knowledge and skills that we have worked hard to achieve in our individual professional development. It sends the wrong message about the relationship between therapist and client and the client-centered dynamics that we know lead to sustainable growth. And finally, it provides cover for therapists who might mis-use the power differential that exists in every counseling office.
But What if I Need Religious Expertise?
Sometimes you want to talk to someone in your faith tradition about your faith tradition and you need someone with greater expertise than you in that specific faith tradition. That’s called pastoral counseling, and in Texas does not require a license if provided by a “recognized religious practitioner.” You would sit down with a minister, a rabbi, an elder or whatever that expert is called in your tradition and talk. In that conversation, the faith tradition is the center of the work. They, of course, have their own boundary challenges. They have to maintain their role as a guide to your specific faith tradition and not get drawn into a psychotherapeutic role. Good clergy that I know all have a short list of therapists to whom they refer when a parishioner needs to do that therapeutic work.
There are some very good therapists in the “Christian Counseling” bag. Some of them are smart, experienced and effective. Some are thoughtful. But when I am looking to choose a therapist, I rarely draw from that bag. There’s just too many scary things in there. Instead, I draw from bags that say “Cognitive Behavioral,” “Interest, Experience and Training in [challenge that has you stuck],” “Recommended by trusted friends and other medical professionals,” and when I’m not sure, I call them up and briefly interview them – and clients should too!
If you have a religious interest or concern – ASK! When potential clients ask me if I am a Christian, my first response is to learn what they mean and why it is important to them. Their answers vary widely, but a common one that I hear as a couples counselor is that they want a therapist who believes marriage is forever. This is particularly a fair question for me, since one of my other specialties is divorce, divorce recovery, and children of divorce. After a visit to my web page, one might wonder if someone who also likes helping people during their divorce would work as hard at helping people stay married (for the record – yes, he will!). But it’s great that they asked and we get to start our relationship with an important conversation about their marital contract in the context of their religious beliefs.
Whatever your concern, if you’ve chosen well, your potential therapist will tell you that your beliefs are the important ones and that they will work to understand how you view the world and that’s where the work will begin. That’s the only place the work can begin. That’s where you’re at. If they are professional and competent and you ask them more questions they will tell you that they WILL question your beliefs, religious and otherwise. Sometimes they will ask about them to confirm their importance – how they are helping you to be the person you most want to be. Sometimes they will question your beliefs because you seem to have believed yourself into a bind and your beliefs are now hurting you or someone you love. And you’ll have to work harder. But since you chose your therapist well and you are safely in their office and you and your interests are the center of the work, you can do that. Go ahead and schedule with that therapist.
I hope that’s not disturbing.
Jake Jacobson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker at CCD Counseling.