(Paul, 2005) In fact, the AAPC survey found that African-Americans, devout evangelicals, people without a college degree, the elderly and people age 18 to 29 are most likely to fear that a professional counselor won’t take their religious beliefs into serious consideration when treating them. (Paul, 2005)
People come to Christian counselors for two reasons,” commented Randolph Sanders, executive director of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, an association of Christians in mental health and behavioral sciences. “One is faith perspective; they want a therapist who resonates with their worldview. The second is moral ethics; they want a counselor who understands what guides their decisions.” (Paul, 2005)
Christian counseling, more than secular counseling, has the ability to present a starkly positive viewpoint. In fact, the origins of Christian counseling were planted in the clergy, whom parishioners historically consulted about emotional and spiritual well-being and health.
According to Paul, The progenitors of faith-based counseling may well have been psychologist William James, Freudian psychiatrist Smiley Blanton and Norman Vincent Peale, the New York preacher and apostle of self-esteem whose widely broadcast sermons and 1952 best seller, “The Power of Positive Thinking,” asked people to realize their psychological potential.
With this new focus on Christian counseling, change came quickly to the AAPC. In 1957, some 42% of Americans sought counseling for their personal problems from the clergy. Even today, the amount of time clergy spend counseling parishioners is equal to that of all members of the American Psychological Association practicing 35 to 40 hours per week. (Paul, 2005)
As a bottom line, the church is called on to care for persons in need. But this is generally interpreted as only physical needs. What do faith communities and their leaders offer those who need physical, psychological, and spiritual healing? What is the role of pastoral counseling in the church’s ministry of pastoral care?
Today, overwhelmingly, the answer is a combination of psychology and theology. Kelcourse’s research supports this assessment: “North American pastors and congregations typically encourage their members to seek medical treatment for physical illness while providing visitation and intercessory prayer. Pastors and elders are less likely to refer members to counselors, treatment centers, and twelve step programs for psychosocial/spiritual problems such as depression, marital discord, parenting difficulties, post-traumatic stress, and addictions. Mental health care is sometimes viewed with suspicion as being individualistic, based on a secular belief system not in keeping with the gospel. While such concerns may occasionally be justified, this essay focuses on the role of pastoral counseling as a healing resource for the church, fully compatible with the life of faith.” (Kelcourse, 2002)
The Christian church’s historical response, especially in America, to the need for healing, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual, has focused on the redemptive power of the gospel, specific practices of pastoral care, spiritual direction, “the cure of souls.” (McNeill, 1977)
Christian counseling is generally undertaken by practitioners who may or may not be ordained, with distinct connections to recognized congregations that include experience in community leadership. A Christian counselor’s practice of psychotherapy is, as follows logically, theologically grounded, informed by psychological theory, and tempered through supervised clinical experience, as mandated for membership in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC). (www.aapc.org) In fact, Christian counseling is a particular ministry within the large gamut of the church’s outreach to its patrons, just as completely trained chaplains are nationally recognized specialists in pastoral care. (www.aapc.org)
But Kelcourse asks the question that is central to his paper: “What does it mean to say that the pastoral counselor’s work is “theologically grounded”? Pastoral counselors hold the values of their faith tradition to be normative for their work. This is in contrast to a secular model of counseling that may view self-actualization and personal fulfillment as the highest goals of health, disregarding at times the necessary relational claims that family and community covenants place on individual lives. Like marriage and family therapists, pastoral counselors give attention to relational responsibilities — love of neighbor, love for self – as essential to human wholeness.” (Kelcourse, 2002)
However, on the other hand, Christian counselors also possess a uniquely theological bent: In other words, they view and analyze life’s stories and encounters and experiences in the context of God’s love and justice as revealed through biblical scripture and the actual practices of religious – Christian — communities.
Christian counselors acknowledge the existential relevance for all persons of theological categories such as “ultimate concern” or “Ground of Being,” with or without a consciously identified covenant relationship with God. (Tillich, 1951)
Indeed, that leaves the most pressing role belong to Christian counseling specialists in the life of the church as support of congregations and their leaders in their ministries of health and healing. Health is more than physical well-being, and it is the Christian counselor’s calling to combine theology and psychology to establish that not only to the patient, but to the church as well.
Christian counseling combines integrity, right relationship with self, others, and God. As Kelcourse concludes, “Healing is the redemptive work of God through grace and by people of faith as co-creators of shalom, peace founded on justice and relational harmony. Given these definitions, how does the work of pastoral counseling promote health and healing? A look at the actual pastoral care demands placed on leaders and congregations suggests the kind of support needed and the ways pastoral counselors are equipped to respond.” (Kelcourse, 2002)
Applying These Findings To The Role Of A Christian Counselor
It is one thing to acknowledge the inexorable link that must exist between theology and psychology in successful Christian counseling; it is entirely another thing to implement and practice it.
Bluntly put, being a Christian counselor means not only establishing the need of faith-based psychology to the patient, but to the church too. Being a Christian counselor can indeed be a lonely job. As Kelcourse points out, well-intentioned laity, family, and friends do not always understand the professional responsibilities of Christian counselors. In fact, the woes of ministers overwhelmed by the demands of their role include children who get into trouble, affairs, divorce, depression, exhaustion, addictions, and loss of faith. Is it any wonder at all, then, that by their third job after ordination 37% of women and 26% of men are no longer serving in congregational settings? (Zikmund, 1988)
According to Kelcourse’s research, “Pastoral counseling specialists support congregational leaders through consultation, supervision, referrals, and denominational “nurture and certification” committees as well as offering personal support for the minister and his or her family. Every minister could use a pastoral counseling consultant with whom to be in dialogue about their own needs and the needs of the congregation, in the same way that pastoral counselors and chaplains receive on-going supervision. What frequently stops ministers from seeking support is a “god complex” – the belief that while the minister should be prepared at all times to meet the needs of others, ministers do not or should not need support for themselves. To deny one’s own legitimate human need for support and encouragement in such an emotionally demanding profession is to fail to model the appropriate self-care ministers encourage for their members.” (Kelcourse, 2002)
The Christian counselor has three callings, then, according to the research presented in this paper:
Establish to the patient that a religious perspective on problems is not only “okay,” but in some situations and in some patients, favored.
Establish to the church that funding for Christian counseling is critical to the completion of the church’s mission: help with both physical an mental healing of parishioners.
Ensure that any prescription of medication is in full compliance with the AAPC’s guidelines; if any doubts arise, referral to a secular counselor may be appropriate.
In the post-9/11 world, the role of the Christian counselor is undeniable and rapidly accelerating. As a result, Christian counselors such as myself have heightened responsibilities to this new found “profession,” not only to our patients. We must simultaneously heal our patients while demonstrating to the church and the world at large that our methods of healing are legitimate and this recent surge in popularity is one that is justified by psychologically sound results.
Tillich, Paul. 1951. Systematic Theology, vol. 1. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Friedman, Edwin. 1985. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York: Guilford Press.
Zikmund, Barbara, et al. 1988. Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
Yust, Karen. 2002. “The Toddler and the Community,” in Human Development and Faith, ed. Felicity Kelcourse. St. Louis: Chalice Press.
Lyon, Brynolf. 2000. “The Hatred of Learning from Experience: Why Pastors and Congregations Fail One Another.” Encounter 61, no. 4 (Autumn 2000): 465-477.
Tillich, Paul. 1963. The Eternal Now. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Kelcourse, Felicity. 2002. Pastoral counseling…