A Chronicle of Renewal and Revival

Counselling Christianly:
implications for pastors and church-based counselling professionals

Pastor Ann Crawford (Ph.D. candidate) is the Pastor-in-Charge of Citipointe Transformations in Christian Outreach Centre, and teaches Pastoral Care subjects at Citipointe Ministry College, the School of Ministries of Christian Heritage College, Brisbane.  This article was presented as a paper given at the Contemporary Issues in Ministry Conference, October 31, 2002, at Christian Heritage College, Brisbane, Australia.

This article examines the presuppositions and processes that distinguish Christian counselling from other forms of counselling, explores some of the issues raised including ethics and training, and makes suggestions as to how such a model of counselling may be applied to church-based counselling.

Over the last twenty years or so, interest in “inner healing” or “prayer counselling”, which is often labelled Christian counselling has arisen, particularly among the lay people of the church.   Although these methods have been seen at times to have achieved very positive results, these practices have caused considerable dissention within the church.   Fouque expresses concern: “a Christian, who engages in a healing relationship without the skills necessary to recognize these powerful processes, can fail to maintain the integrity of the therapeutic encounter” (2000: 204).

Often well meaning people in the church, in their desire to help, can actually harm people or hurt themselves through lack of training and knowledge.   Issues of confidentiality, dual relationships, power and control can also create ethical dilemmas, and spiritual abuse is just as real as physical and verbal abuse.

Traditionally, counselling has been considered by people in Western culture to be an element of the pastoral function of the church.   Whether the person considers themselves “religious” or not, it is the priest or minister who is available at times of birth, marriage, death, grief, when relationships breakdown, or when a crisis strikes.   However, there is strong evidence to suggest that most seminary training includes very little counselling theory or practice.  Collins comments on these seminary courses in pastoral counselling stating that they “tend to be more people-centred and relevant, but even here the student (and sometimes the professor) may be lost in a mass of theories and techniques that are not very useful when one is face-to-face with a confused, hurting human being” (1988: 21).

More recently, in the twenty-first century church, counselling is experiencing a growing credibility, leaving clergy grappling with the dilemma of how best to minister to the physical, emotional, intellectual, relational and spiritual needs of their people who are seeking counselling as never before (Lukens in Sanders, 1997: 43).  Consequently, “Pastors, many of whom never felt adequate to the task in the first place, have often turned their counselling role over to the professionals.  …  [and] individual believers often come to Christian psychologists with the express belief that ‘since you are a Christian psychologist, you will be able to help me with my emotional life and my spiritual life at the same time’” (Mangis, 2000: 259-260).

Although this situation may appear to be fraught with danger, Johnson sees this era of the church to hold previously unknown opportunities for the Christian psychological community and he encourages them to become immersed in Scripture and the Christian tradition.  In this way, he sees that Christian psychologists “may be enabled to discover new facts and theories, devising new lines of research to more accurately understand the human nature the way it really is, the way God sees it” (1997: 22).

Several interesting factors are emerging from the growing acceptance of church-based counselling services.

¨      The large number of hurting, damaged people, both inside and outside the church, who are open to counselling.

¨      The relatively small number of thoroughly trained professionals who desire to or are free to counsel Christianly.

¨      The willingness of pastors (particularly of large churches) to refer their people to “specialists” for counselling.

¨      The considerable potential for a church-based counselling service, using both physical resources (buildings, etc.) and the more subjective assets (church-community support) to successfully meet the needs of church members, Christians from other churches and people from the local community.

Hunter argues that “we need a ‘theologically informed psychotherapy’.  But we also need a distinctly pastoral, therapeutically informed art of spiritual and moral counsel” (2001: 22).


However, to be truly well informed both theologically and psychologically, the person who desires to counsel Christianly requires a framework that examines and analyses such presuppositions as those derived from worldview responses to the questions of; what is humankind? What is reality?  What is God?  What is right and wrong? The answers to these question shape not only the Christian counsellor’s way of counselling but also their way of being.   A clearly defined picture of the structure of personality forms another part of this framework.   The unique tenets of belief of Christian theism, allow the Christian counsellor to see facets of the human person that may well be missed by a less spiritually aware therapist.

As this framework of Christian counselling develops, the purpose and desired outcomes of therapy are other factors to be considered in the light of theology as well as psychology.   An analysis of these outcomes from the perspective of the client, the therapist and postmodern society presents a more realistic and comprehensive position for the Christian to counsel Christianly .

The next concern of the Christian counsellor is to develop a method of counselling that will not so much integrate the principles of theology and psychology as carefully examine the very fundamental presuppositions of both these disciplines and create a model that has firm foundations, allowing for both professional, ethical counselling practice and theologically sound, pastoral counselling practice to come together effectively.   The therapeutic process employed to achieve these desired outcomes, the therapist’s role, the client’s experience and the therapist/client relationship are all vital components to be explored.

Theological Issues

An important element of the framework of a Christian counselling model is an exploration of the historical relationship between Christian counselling and psychology.   Although in recent years the polarised positions traditionally taken by psychologists and theologians have begun to find a meeting place, the legacy of this struggle still effects the status of professional Christian counselling today.    McMinn (2000) sees the integration of these two disciplines as an epistemological challenge.    On one hand, psychology  “is deeply rooted in a scientific epistemology (p.  251) while on the other hand, “Christian theology is bounded by central doctrines, forged over centuries” (p.  251).   He continues by observing that those who have been most successful in this integration “have learned to value both epistemologies” (p.  251).   The implications in this debate for pastors and professional church-based counsellors could well be contained in this assumption.

Another lively debate that impacts this study is the delineation between Christian counselling and pastoral care.   The differences, the similarities and the overlaps in these occupations make defining these a controversial matter.  The increasing interest of psychology and counselling in the spiritual aspects of the person has, in effect, pushed the Christian people-helper into the spotlight.   For the church, whose mandate is to “heal the broken-hearted” and “release those that are bound”, this can be seen as a God-given opportunity to fulfil this mandate powerfully and effectively and the roles of counselling-pastor and Christian counsellor are gradually emerging into the arena of professionalism.   However, as with any emergence, this progress is not without pain.

The Christian counselling professional is beginning to come to grips with the changes that are required for this transition and many of the mindsets and religious traditions of the modern era are being carefully examined in the light of scripture and scientific knowledge, giving rise to policies, codes of practice, training programs and academic learning that satisfies, not only the Christian mandate but also the professional credibility.  From the theological perspective, Williams (1996) sees that the role of the church is both that of evangelism and the meeting of the needs of the people.   He sees the danger of extremes – “evangelism or social action” (p.  153).   He continues, stating the theological position he holds by saying, “This does not mean an equality between the gospel of salvation and the ‘social gospel’, for the gospel is the message of salvation and must have priority.   However, the meeting of other human, social needs must not be neglected”  (p.  153).

Zinnbauer discusses the meeting of these human, social needs.    “To offer distressed individuals more than simple empathy or medication, it is necessary for counsellors to base their work on theoretical orienting systems”.  (2000: 163).   For Christian counsellors, the theoretical systems available may not always be acceptable or appropriate.   Eclecticism is the obvious solution to this dilemma.   The general consensus of the literature on eclecticism in therapy would seem to point to a generally positive response from therapists and researchers provided the eclectic approach has a system.  However, it would also appear that a thorough knowledge of a broad range of therapies is a requirement of a true eclectic therapist.   Silverman also sees more “sophisticated matching studies to formulate conceptions of the right therapist for the right client in the right context as opposed to the right technique for the right problem” (2000: 312).

Bridger and Atkinson observe that the Christian (counselling) scene is dominated by all kinds of eclectic approaches which, in their opinion, eventually “collapse under the weight of their internal contradictions” (1998: 7).   This inevitable collapse, according to these authors, can be attributed to an “uncritical acceptance of presuppositions drawn from a variety of sources” (1998: 7).   The inference of these writers would seem to be that, with critical attention to presuppositions and underlying philosophies, a truly eclectic model of Christian counselling is possible.  This reasoning is substantiated by much of the research already cited in this article which supports eclecticism with the proviso of a comprehensive structure to build upon.

Counselling Christianly

Johnson expresses what is perhaps the essence of the findings of this paper when he writes,  “the Christian psychological community is set free to chart new territory in psychology” (1997: 22).  He then continues, “Christians in psychology must do more than simply contribute to the field of psychology as it is.   They have an obligation to God and to his people to work towards a psychology that is thoroughly consistent with a Christian framework”  (1997: 22).   Maybe the territory is not “new” (Solomon proclaims that “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc.1:9) but it is certainly uncharted.   As outlined in the introduction, this paper has set out to address the presuppositions and processes that distinguish counselling in a Christian way from other forms of counselling, explore some of the issues such as ethics and training and make suggestions as to how such a model of counselling may be applied to the church-based counselling situation.

Having explored the presuppositions, processes and issues, I will endeavour to synthesise some of these findings and apply them not only to good professional practice but also to the components that make Christian counselling Christian.

For the Christian counsellor, the presuppositions must begin and end with the Word of God.   This is the benchmark, the blueprint for the construction of reality, truth, the knowledge of right and wrong and the structure of personality.  The postmodern worldview apparently is the antithesis of Christian theism.   However, scholars have pointed out that, despite the diametrically opposed philosophies regarding truth and reality, both postmodernists and Christian theists agree that truth and reality are constructed – the postmodernist sees constructivism as being the product of the human person’s own experiences while the Christian theist recognises that God, through his living Word, is the constructor of the individual’s reality and truth.  This understanding gives the Christian counsellor an ability to find a place in a postmodern world that enables him or her to successfully dialogue with clients using their own discourse and thereby facilitating a relationship that encourages change.

Likewise, presuppositions based on the foundational biblical beliefs of the fall of mankind, as found in the first three chapters of Genesis, lead Christian therapists to base their practice on the footing that the human person is made in the image of God but is sinful in predisposition.   That people are accountable for their behaviour, are capable of repentance and can be forgiven by the God against whom they have transgressed, opens an avenue of freedom for the Christian therapist to explore that is not available to a theorist who chooses not to access the promises contained in God’s Word.

A Christian counsellor also has the conviction that the human being is made in the image of God; known intimately by a loving, Father God; created by him with a plan and a purpose; and destined for an eternity in joyful relationship.  Counselling in a Christian way must therefore be unique in the ability of the therapist to be able to encourage the client to exchange the “facts” of their life (e.g. their being unwanted, valueless, a victim, etc.) with the “truth” as ordained by God (e.g. their being made by God in his image, valued as such, etc.).   The internal belief system of the client can be exchanged rather than reprogrammed; and the story not reconstructed but replaced by a narrative that has resolved the dramas of the past; has the strength and strategies to walk through the joys and trials of the present; and looks to a conclusion full of hope, a narrative that always includes the presence of God.

The Therapeutic Relationship

The goals of Christian counselling are to encourage the client towards change of non-productive or dysfunctional lifestyles.   However, for the Christian therapist, the story does not end here.   The wholeness and holiness of the client is the transcendent goal of counselling in a Christian way.   Therefore, as this therapist “connects” with the client he or she is confident that the therapeutic interventions used, the subjective dynamic of the counselling relationship and the active involvement of the Holy Spirit will combine to meet the needs of every facet of the human person – physical, emotional, intellectual, relational and spiritual.

The outcome of the theology versus psychology debate has far reaching consequences for church-based counselling in the twenty-first century.   The fruit of the long and arduous struggle by committed Christian professionals of the last century can now be seen as both the clergy and the mental health practitioner, in increasing numbers, are finding a place of agreement, or at least compromise.   This opens doors, not only for the psychologist to consider the validity of the spiritual, but also for the Christian counsellor to explore the many fascinating discoveries researchers have made and theories scholars have developed in all fields of human behaviour and counselling.

A new breed of Christian counsellors is emerging as more and more mental health researchers undertake both qualitative and quantitative projects.   These empirical findings, coupled with documented subjective or spiritual experience provide knowledge and techniques to increase both effectiveness and efficiency in many areas that are applicable to counselling in a Christian way..

In line with the research into eclectic counselling practice, there seems to be a feasible case for an eclectic model of Christian counselling.   As one of the requirements of eclectic theory as outlined by researchers was a sound theoretical structure, the Christian model, based as it is on the firm presuppositions of Christian theism, would seem to fit the criteria from the eclectic perspective.   This serves to widen the lens for the Christian counsellor and provides more keys with which to unlock the hidden places of people’s lives and see them set free.

This “widening of the lens” is also being seen in the areas of pastoral care and pastoral counselling.   We live in a world where specialisation is increasing in many places both within and outside of the church.   Although many pastors, especially those from large churches, do not have the time for long term counselling, it is more than busy-ness and even the threat of litigation that persuades pastors to refer, or use a person or team of people, both lay and professional, to minister to the people in various areas and at different levels of counselling.   Church leaders are beginning to utilise diagnostic tests to ascertain where the strengths and weaknesses of their congregation lie and many pastors, especially in the charismatic church, tend to be stronger in the more evangelical areas.  This leads us to the area of competency and training.

Whereas secular counsellors and those Christians working in private practice are required to be registered through their respective associations, Christians who counsel within the church, whether they be counsellors or pastors often do not seek registration.  This leaves the individual organisation to train and deem as competent their professional and lay counsellors.   With the increasing cry for counselling, there is a corresponding need for more counsellors who counsel the Christian way.   This would indicate that, not only is counsellor training a priority but policies and procedures to assess the competency of those already counselling is also necessary.

Implications for pastors and church-based professional counsellors

If the twenty-first century church is to continue to grow both in size and influence, it will embrace the cultural shift that began in the latter half of the twentieth century.    This is a time when, rather than being catapulted into the postmodern paradigm, thoughtful Christians are seeking training in many fields of specific pastoral care, including counselling.   There is a new awareness of the need for training in the area of ethics to prevent even inadvertent misconduct by lay counsellors or professionals.

The time is ripe for large churches to begin to establish professional counselling departments – not just to provide for the needy but to reach out to couples in conflict, those in grief, depression, anxiety and addictions.   There are many other “broken-hearted” who are beginning to tentatively reach out for counselling as never before:  those with sexual addictions, those involved in homosexual lifestyles, ones who struggle with anorexia, and many, many more.   It is obvious that, to provide excellent care for these people with the long term goal of wholeness and holiness, counselling training in these specialised fields is essential.

It has always been the mandate of the body of Christ to be the “people helpers” of the broken-hearted and troubled of this fallen world.   It is time for both lay people and professionals to become equipped to take up this mandate with confidence and skill, to have an understanding of what is required of a counsellor, of the standard of character and integrity that is expected of a person in this role and to have knowledge of the moral and legal responsibilities.   Added to this is the essential expertise in the technique and theory of counselling and adequate supervision.  All these elements combine to make a professional counsellor but those who counsel Christianly have the added dimension of continually seeking to become Christlike.

References and Bibliography

Benner, D. (1998)  Care of Souls.  Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker.

Bridger, F & Atkinson, D. (1998)  Counselling in Context.  London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

Carter, R. B. (1999)  “Christian counselling: An emerging speciality.”  Counseling and Values, 43 (3), pp. 189-199.

Clayton, P. (2000)  The Problem of God in Modern Thought. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans.

Collins, G. R. (1988)  Christian Counseling.  Dallas, TA.: Word.

Conn, J. W. (1999)  “Spiritual formation.” Theology Today. 56(1), pp. 86-97.

Corey, G. (1996). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy.  Pacific Grove, CA.: Brooks/Cole.

Fouque, P. & Glachan, M. (2000)  “The impact of Christian counseling on the survivors of sexual abuse.  Counseling Psychology Quarterly, 13(2), pp. 201-220.

Grenz, S. J. (1996)  A primer on postmodernism.  Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans.

Hunter, R. J. (2001)  “Spiritual counsel.”  The Christian Century, 118(28), pp. 20-25.

Ingeborg, E. H. (1999)  “Boundaries and the use and misuse of power and authority:  Ethical complexities for clergy psychotherapists.”  Journal of Counselling and Development, no volume number or page number available.

Ivey, A., E., Ivey, M. B., & Simek-Morgan, L. (1997)  Counseling and psychotherapy. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Johnson, E. J. (1997)  “Christ, the Lord of psychology.  Journal of Psychology and Theology, 25(1), pp. 11-25.

Jones, S. L. & Butman, R. E. (1991)  Modern Psychotherapies. Downers Grove, ILL.: InterVarsity.

Kirwan, W. T (1984)  Biblical Concepts for Christian Counselling. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker.

Mangis, M. W. (2000)  “Spiritual formation and Christian psychology: a response and application of Willard’s perspective.”  Journal of Psychology and Theology, 28(4), pp. 259-262.

McMinn, M. R. & Hall, T. W. (2000)  “Christian spirituality in a postmodern era.”  Journal of Psychology and Theology, 28(4), pp. 251-253.

Moore, T. (1994). The Care of the Soul.  London: Judy Piatkus.

Moreland, J. P & Ciocchi, D. M. (1993)  Christian Perspectives on Being Human. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker.

Neimeyer, R. A. (1998)  “Social constructionism in the counselling context.”  Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 11(2).135-150.

Sanders, R. K. (ed.) (1997)  Christian Counselling Ethics.  Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity

Sliverman, W. H. (2000)  “New trends for a new millennium.” American Journal of Psychotherapy 54(3), pp. 312-317.

Smith, R. E. (1993)  Psychology.  St Paul. MN: West.

Snyder, H. A. (1995)  Earthcurrents. Nashville: Abigdon.

Thwaites, J. (1999)  The Church beyond the Congregation.  Carlisle,UK: Paternoster.

Williams, J. R. (1996)  Renewal Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Zinnbauer, B.J . & Pargament, K. I. (2000)  “Working with the sacred: four approaches to religious and spiritual issues in counselling.”  Journal of Counselling and Development, 78 (2), 162-172.

©  Renewal Journal #19: Church (2002, 2012)  www.renewaljournal.com
Reproduction is allowed with the copyright included in the text.

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Comments on: "Counselling Christianly, by Ann Crawford" (1)

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