Aids to Finding a Christ-Centered Counselor

Three Attempts to Classify Christian Counselors and Counseling Approaches

First Attempt

Neil Anderson and Terry and Julianne Zuehlke, in their book Christ-Centered Therapy: The Practical Integration of Theology and Psychology divide Christian counselors into four broad categories.

  1. Closed counselors are Christian counselors who do not use Christian principles or Scripture in their counseling.
  2. Closet counselors use a mixture of Christian philosophy mixed with psychology, but their Christian principles are not overt in their counseling.
  3. Conjoint counselors freely and openly use a mix of Christian philosophy and principles from psychology.
  4. Bible Only counselors use little or nothing from psychology.

Second Attempt

Rick Beemer and Tammy Smith, in their seminars at the 2002 GCAC pastor’s conference presented the following range of viewpoints and where they would place different authors and teachers in relation to it:

Bible and Psychology—With the “Bible and” approach, psychology is freely and directly integrated into Biblical thinking and practice. Psychology makes a vital contribution to the construction of a counseling model. The idea is that there are two sources of truth, the Bible and the careful study of human nature.  The understanding is “All truth is God’s truth,” whether it is discovered through study of the Bible or study of creation. Some challenges of this approach are:

  • psychology has an historical bias against theistic, spiritual viewpoints
  • it is a difficult challenge for the typical psychology student to sort through the myriad of philosophies and techniques he encounters and then make an informed judgment as to whether or not each is Biblical.
  • a lack of thorough evaluation of different philosophies and approaches has, in many cases, resulted in an integration of non-Biblical philosophies and practices along with Biblical approaches.

Bible Over—The “Bible over” approach is similar to the “Bible and” approach, except that a more rigorous attempt is make to place the Bible over all claims of truth. A more thorough attempt is made to evaluate all psychological theories and techniques in light of explicit Biblical teachings and Christian theology.  Some challenges of this approach are:

  • although the historical anti-theistic biases in psychology are more clearly acknowledged, the task of evaluating secular psychological theories and approaches is still immense and difficult.
  • a tremendous amount of diversity in these folks has made it difficult to proceed

Bible Only—With the “Bible only” approach, psychology is viewed with suspicion or hostility. The conviction is that there are comprehensive resources within the Bible that are distinct from prevailing cultural paradigms. “Bible only” has developed mostly as a reaction to the “over acceptance” of psychology in the church. Some challenges to this approach are:

  • it has sometimes resulted in pat answers, legalism, and haughty separatism
  • it sounds too much like Biblicistic quick fixes (“just identify sin and exhort change”)
  • instead of encouraging hard Biblical thought and discussion, it has tended to have the effect of closing eyes to life as lived and ignoring the real demands of the problems counselors are facing.

 3  On a somewhat more philosophical level, Dr. Larry Crabb, in his book Understanding People, first notes that there are perhaps about 200 different models in today’s psychological market place.  Then he sorts these into three basic models, each of which reflects different assumptions about the nature of our problems and the solutions to our problems.

The Dynamic model — According to this model, people are often controlled by internal processes (often called personality dynamics) of which they are usually unaware.  The roots of these dynamic realities are found in the past, in the person’s childhood.  The client is often seen primarily as a victim of bad parenting or other wounding experiences.  He is in need of therapy aimed at rearranging these subconscious internal processes.  The treatment consists essentially of a search for the hidden roots of the problem with the assumption that exposing the roots will lead to increased freedom from the present problem.

The Moral Model — To the Moral Model counselor, the core of people’s problems is a lack of willingness.  Moral Model counseling keeps the focus on chosen patterns of behavior and largely involves stripping away the many excuses for continued irresponsibility.  Homework assignments play a significant role.  Often little attention is given to the motives beneath behavior.

The Relational Model — To Relational Model counselors, the most significant fact about people is that they are made to love and be loved.  We are designed for relationship and consequently we yearn for it.  Human problems are best understood as defensive attempts to handle the pain of fear and tension in significant relationships.  People are caught up in a vicious cycle of hurt, defensive retreat, more hurt, more retreat.  Relational counselors try to provide the client with an affirming relationship to spark hope and to offer a safe setting for trying out new, non-defensive patterns of relating.  Relational counselors typically emphasize values such as courage, openness, vulnerability, and assertiveness.

The essentials of each model could be summarized as follows:

Dynamic ModelWoundednessTherapy exposing roots  
Moral ModelIrresponsibility/SinExhortation to change behavior
Relational ModelLonelinessAffirmation/ Self Expression

Most forms of counseling reflect the core assumptions of one or more of these models.  Rogerian counseling is Relational in focus.  Traditional psychotherapy is Dynamic.  Other forms of counseling blend different models.  Behavior therapy is a blend of the Dynamic and Moral models in its insistence that people are victims of bad environments and yet it is their behavior that needs to change, not internal structures.  Gestalt therapy and its stepchild, primal therapy, reflect a blend of Dynamic and Relational assumptions.

In Understanding People, Crabb goes on to present his understanding of who we are as humans and the core of our problem. He looks at four aspects of what it means to be made in the image of God.  God made us to be 1) personal (relational), 2) rational (able to think and reason), 3) volitional (able to choose), and 4) emotional (able to feel and express emotion).  Our problem is that sin has compromised each of these areas.  In our foolish commitment to independence, we refuse to look to or trust or rely upon God to meet our needs in each of these areas. Sin affects all areas of our being—our relational desires and abilities are compromised, we become foolish thinkers, we lose or appear to lose some of our ability to choose rightly, and our emotions are often inappropriate for the situation at hand.  In his book, Crabb presents examples of how God wants to restore our proper functioning in each of these areas through the sanctification process.  Crabb believes that any counseling model must address all four aspects of human nature as well as the affect that sin has had on each.  Crabb’s book is an honest attempt to provide a careful philosophical foundation for developing a thoroughly Christian counseling approach that addresses all types of the psychological and emotional problems that humans face.  He appears to be advocating an approach that endeavors to address in a balanced way the same facets of human personality that are targeted by the dynamic, moral, and relational models of counseling.  Yet he does this with the understanding that the root of dysfunction in every area is our stubborn resistance to trusting God and our insistence on attempting to live independently from Him.

Hopefully these brief (but probably overly simplistic) summaries of the various approaches will help you be informed concerning the range of possible approaches that counselors may take and allow you to choose an approach that you agree with most closely.

Finding and Evaluating a Counselor

But practically, how can I find a counselor for situations that may be beyond my wisdom and expertise?  Here are some suggestions.

  1. Ask other pastors in your city.  Who do they know, trust, or refer people to themselves.
  2. Ask other pastors in our association of Churches.  Several individuals in our movement who may have recommendations on how to find a counselor for a particular problem are Rick Beemer, Tammy Smith and Greg Van Nada.
  3. Call counselors from the yellow pages who identify themselves as Christian and ask them to send you information. 
  4. Invite a counselor to lunch with you.
  5. Consult Christian counseling organizations to find members in your area. (I do not have enough knowledge of these organizations to have confidence in their approaches or ability to provide a good referral.  Be sure to thoroughly check out any recommended counselor.)
American Association of Christian Counselors  (814)-525-9470  
New Life Treatment NEW-LIFE
Focus on the Family (referral service)
National Association of Nouthetic 337-9100  

Perhaps the best idea is to sit down with the counselor and ask him questions.  Here are some possibilities:

  1. Tell me your understanding of the gospel and how you came to trust Christ as your Savior.
  2. In your understanding, what is the goal of counseling?
  3. What is your view of scripture and how do you use it in counseling
  4. What is sin and to what extent is it involved in personal problems?
  5. What part does the gospel play in resolving people’s problems?
  6. Do you believe that the demonic can have influence in a person’s problems and, if so, how do you deal with this?
  7. Do you incorporate prayer in your work with clients?  If so, how?
  8. What kind of counseling training have you received?
  9. What ministry experience do you have?
  10. Is there a particular counseling model that you favor?
  11. In what way do you feel that the person’s past and childhood experiences affect the problem, and how would you go about dealing with this?
  12. What is your experience with the particular problems of the person I am referring to you?
  13. How will you go about helping the person I am referring?
  14. Are you involved in a local church?  How are you serving there?
  15. Are you open to discussing your clients’ problems with me if they give their permission? 
  16. Are you open to having me sit in on your counseling sessions, if the client agrees to this?
  17. What part do you feel that the church or small group has to play in resolving this person’s problems?

Another essential way of getting feedback concerning the approaches and effectiveness of a counselor is to talk with the person who is receiving counsel.  Here are some possible questions:

  1. Does your counselor pray with you?
  2. How’s it going from your perspective?
  3. What assignments has your counselor given you (books to read)?
  4. Are you comfortable with this person? Are you feeling comfortable enough to open up?
  5. Do you have any concerns? Has the counselor said anything or done anything that you were uncomfortable with?
  6. What goals have you and your counselor identified?
  7. What part has Scripture played in your counseling?

Suggestions for When a Pastor Should Refer to a Trusted Professional Christian Counselor

Finally, what guidelines should a pastor use as far as when to refer a person to a counselor?  Rick Beemer and Tammy Smith adapted the following suggestions from the following sources:

  • A handout by Gary Sweeten given at EMI training courses
  • Managing Managed Care: A Mental Health Practitioner’s Survival Guide by Michael Goodman, Janet Brown, and Pamela Deitz; 1992

Important assessments which go into making a referral from a pastor’s perspective:

1. Assessment of personal time limitations.

2. Assessment of personal training, gift, and experience limitations.

3. When progress has not occurred after counseling someone for a time.

4. Spiritual/emotional demands of person are more serious in nature.

  • Acute nature of a person’s problems.

There are levels of evaluation involved in assessing how serious a situation is.


There are people that are basically functional, but bothered or upset by some issues,

patterns, or incidents in their lives. You can identify them by:

  1. No life interrupting problems (such as inability to work, in bed all day, etc.)
  2. Meeting family, work, church obligations.
  3. Possessing a full range of emotions (not dulled, but able to identify good days and bad).
  4. In general, responsible about dealing with problems in their circumstances that arise (car breaks down, loss of job, disobedient child – not paralyzing).
  5. Possess some good relationships.

These people would best benefit by engaging in training and growth activities, but do not need professional counseling.


There are people that are bothered by ongoing problems, such as family difficulties,

work-related anxieties, and physical ailments.

You can identify them by:

  1. Experiencing a disruption in life.
  2. Fairly consistently worried or anxious.
  3. Many spiritual conflicts, concerns, and questions.
  4. Conflicts at home, school, work or church.
  5. Dissatisfied with job, life goals, etc.
  6. Is able to learn and respond to general advice and guidance.
  7. Does not have harmful thoughts or acts.

These people would be benefit by meeting with a pastor, lay care giver, or support

group of some sort, but do not necessarily need professional counseling.


There are people that have intense emotional distress and pain and seem “stuck,”

“paralyzed,” or ruled by some ongoing pain or problem. You can identify them by the presence of emotional distress and pain and at least one of the following:

  1. Finds it difficult to respond to advice, counsel, guidance.
  2. Has distorted thoughts, perceptions, and feelings which are very difficult to change.
  3. Occasional thoughts of harming self or others.
  4. Engaging in obsessive or harmful behavior, including eating, sex, gambling, alcohol intake, spending, etc.
  5. Difficult meeting normal expectations at home, school, or work (sometimes able to keep house clean, sometimes not; meets deadlines about 50% of the time, etc.)
  6. Anxiety, panic, or worry for no reason.
  7. Sad, blue, unable to pick self up.
  8. Marriage or family conflicts that are not resolved.
  9. Sleeping difficulties or nightmares.

These people likely need to be referred to a professional Christian counselor, therapist, or social worker in addition to pastoral guidance, lay support, and engaging in training and growth activities.


These are people who have acute problems for which serious action must be taken. They can be identified by an unusually high amount of ongoing emotional pain and at least one of the following:

  1. Lay help, pastoral intervention, education, and professional counseling have not been successful.
  2. Thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions are clearly distorted.
  3. Thoughts or harm to self or others are often and fairly specific, suggesting a safety risk.
  4. Addictive behaviors are likely to cause lasting damage.
  5. Does not function or meet normal expectations.
  6. Acting out in violent or destructive ways.
  7. Detoxification is necessary.

These people probably require inpatient or partial hospital care in addition to a therapist, pastor, recovery group, education, etc.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what ways does the gospel promote mental health?
  2. Give an example that shows the power that a living, flesh-and-blood demonstration of the grace and love of God has had on someone who was deeply troubled.
  3. How well does your church do in creating a “safe” environment for hurting, wounded, and struggling people?
  4. Since the church has resources to help troubled people, how practically is your church doing so?  What could you do to help more effectively?
  5. What training or resources have helped you or your church be effective helping troubled people?
  6. People who have life-dominating problems can consume enormous amounts of a pastor’s time or of church members’ time.  How do you balance priorities—helping the hurting without neglecting other important relationships and responsibilities?
  7. How important do you feel it is for a person to work through unresolved issues from his or her past?  Is this a principle only for “troubled” people or one that we all should apply to our lives?
  8. How can a pastor know his limits in counseling?
  9. What has been your experience in referring people to a counselor?  Has counseling proven to be helpful?  What problems have arisen?
  10. What model of counseling do you feel is most Biblical?


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