Counseling and the Church
Pastor Dave Bovenmyer, Stonebrook Community Church, Ames, Iowa
© Great Commission Churches, 2004, 2007, used by permission
Recently, I was involved in a conversation where a fellow-pastor expressed concern about how many people in his church were going for counseling. People were taking issues that he felt could and should be addressed within the church to a counselor—issues like struggles within marriage or with the kids, or with anxiety or discouragement. He questioned whether this was really good. Should our people be running off to counselors for issues that we can and ought to be addressing? It seems that psychiatric counseling has gained so great an acceptance in our culture that even within the church many people’s first impulse when confronted with a difficult problem is to seek a counselor rather than a pastor or other church leader. Gradually, psychologists have replaced the clergy as the experts in how to change human behavior.
But this change doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t Christian pastors be the authorities and experts in the healing of souls? Yet, on the other hand, from the place of the pastor, I’ve often been discouraged and frustrated with people’s problems. Often it seems that sharing the Word and prayer and fellowship have so little effect on people with deep-seated problems. Sometimes it seems that all the exhortation and accountability and encouragement and prayer and Scripture memorization just seem to run off people’s backs. People often remain stuck in their sinful behavior, many times for years, in spite of an apparent deep desire for change and great efforts to that end. Are we pastors missing something that a better-trained counselor could supply? Furthermore, the Lord exhorts pastors to devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer. Where can a pastor or Christian leader find the time for ongoing counseling of troubled individuals? Sometimes it is certainly tempting just to refer those extra-grace-required people to a counselor and not have to deal with them ourselves.
What is the place of professional counseling in the church? Does it have a place at all? And, if so, how should counselors and counseling interface with the discipleship efforts of the pastor and church? When should a Christian leader refer someone to counseling? And who should he refer them to? With such a bewildering array of approaches and philosophies, even among Christian counselors, it’s hard to know where to start. In this paper, I would like to address these questions as I present four points concerning how the church can meet the needs of those who have persistent or life-consuming problems and what part a professional counselor may be able to play in this.
1) We must have confidence in the ability of the Spirit and of the church to meet people’s deepest needs.
The Scriptures states that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10) Faith in God and in Jesus Christ is the foundation of all right thinking and right living. Every problem and difficulty in life relates either directly or indirectly to our faith in God and our fear of God. This includes behavioral problems, emotional problems, and psychological problems. The fear of the Lord and the wisdom of the Scriptures provide the foundation for the solution to every non-organic mental health problem. Therefore, only the community of faith can fully and properly address psychological and emotional problems.
The world-view that a “worker with souls” starts with is of utmost importance. This can be demonstrated even with the definition of mental health itself. Recently, I came across the World Health Organization’s definition of mental health. The definition included “subjective wellbeing” (happiness), optimal mental functioning, and the ability to achieve individual and collective goals.
“Mental health is not simply the absence of detectable mental disease but a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to contribute to his or her community.”
Yet, homosexuals could easily fit within this definition of mental health. But should we really consider someone mentally healthy who is thoroughly and deeply confused about his or her own God-given sexual identity? Or consider an atheist, who denies and suppresses the knowledge of God—rejecting one of the most obvious facts in the universe. Such repression is certainly far from mental health.
I suggest a better definition of mental health: “The ability to correctly perceive and accept reality and respond appropriately to it.” God is the greatest of all realities, and with this definition, proper mental health would include an acceptance of all we know of Him. By this definition, all sin would demonstrate a lack of mental health, a lack of acceptance of reality. The Christian goal for mental health can be no less than full sanctification, life lived in the image of Jesus Christ, in full recognition of reality as it actually exists. True mental health can only be found in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So, a thoroughly Christian world-view is essential for all who seek to care for the souls of others. This is not to say that non-Christian counselors may not at times embrace Christian goals for the health of the soul. But they will not do so in fullness and will often have goals counter to those that God desires.
The word “psychology” is derived from the Greek word psukhê, “soul.” So, we might say that psychology is the study of souls. This is the pastor’s job, not only to study souls, but to care for them. Taking this broad definition, we could say that every pastor is in the business of psychology. The care of souls is our turf, our forte, our territory. We must not hand this job off to the world, to those who lack a Biblical worldview and a fear of the Lord, which are the foundation of wisdom and of all true mental health.
Unquestionably, our most powerful resource in caring for souls is the gospel, the “good news” of our salvation. It is the “power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Faith in the gospel not only brings us salvation from the wrath of God but also salvation in every aspect of life, including proper mental functioning. The gospel is the only truly freeing solution for depressing and immobilizing shame that often plagues us as a result of our wicked thoughts, words, and behavior. In addition, the gospel validates our worth. We are immeasurably valuable to the only person who ultimately matters. With the greatest possible demonstration of love—the death of His own Son—He forever proved how much He loves us and how much we are valued by Him. The gospel provides hope, it provides a purpose for life, and it gives a compelling argument for releasing destructive anger and bitterness—we must forgive others as we have been forgiven. The gospel is our most powerful weapon for life change and right thinking. We must proclaim it and the truths of our position in Christ from our pulpits, in our small groups and in our individual interactions with others. Through this means, we inspire true inner peace, kindle joy, foster hope and promote right thinking and living.
As we proclaim the truth of the gospel and indeed of the entirety of the Scriptures in our churches, we inspire an ever-growing number of people to accept the love of God and then to live out the truth of the gospel in flesh and blood relationships. Those who have been touched by the love of God are able to care, accept, admonish, forgive, engage, respect, and love. Such loving, caring saints give the church powerful resources unavailable to the secular counseling community. Most “emotional problems” are rooted in or exacerbated by painful emotions or false beliefs—grief, worthlessness, shame, fear, worry, loneliness, insecurity, etc. The compassion, acceptance, forgiveness, security, and empathy of other human beings are often indispensable in helping people overcome their problems. The love of Christ, embodied in another human being is a powerful force for comfort, healing, admonition, and hope.
In addition, the church provides models of right living that inspire and give hope. Couples within the church can serve as models of a loving marriage, especially for those who were raised by a single parent or in a home with a dysfunctional or abusive marriage. Parents can model what it means to be a caring father or nurturing mother for those who were abandoned, neglected, or abused by one or both of their parents. Attitudes are more often caught than taught. Living demonstrations of how to resolve conflict or deal with anger and bitterness often speak more powerfully than multiple sermons or counseling sessions.
Discipleship has been designed by God to be church-o-centric—revolving around the church and the community of faith. Much teaching and counseling and care of the soul will go on here. Rebellious children can be confronted. Fervent prayer and honest concern can help bring peace to an anxious heart. As people weep with those who weep, sorrow is shared and made more bearable. Certainly, there will be times and conditions that need special attention and skilled intervention and advice, yet even here, skilled intervention works best within or in partnership with a caring community.
Dr. Larry Crabb, in his book Connecting challenges the church to rise up and lay hold of this hard spiritual work of discipleship that has partially drifted over to the “professionals.”
It seems very few Christians value the profound healing possibilities of friendship and shepherding enough to think hard about what that might require. An important conversation about difficult matters with someone who listens and understands outside of the counselor’s office is rare in our culture. As long as the resources of community remain undeveloped, professional counselors will occupy a legitimate place. What good counselors do more closely resembles what real friends, wise shepherds, and seasoned spiritual directors do than what we assume technical competence enables. Qualifications to effectively counsel have more to do with wisdom and character than with training and degrees. Wisdom and character should be developed in Christian communities. When it isn’t, we turn to educational institutions to provide us with trained, degreed helpers. When these folks are effective, however, it has more to do with their wisdom and character than with their technical knowledge or procedure.
Much of what occurs in Christian counseling offices is not very different from the traditional function of discipleship. Marriage counseling, parental advice, encouragement for the discouraged, comfort for the grieving, admonition for the wayward—these are squarely within the traditional scope of discipleship. Bolstering our caring and discipleship skills will eliminate or diminish the need for many to seek a Christian counselor outside the local church.
When a church member chooses, or because of lacks in the church is forced to seek help from a person outside the church, the advice and help and follow-up are often disconnected from the community of faith. The leadership and authority of a pastor may not be present or engaged in the issue. Additionally, the counselor may have approaches, traditions, and core values that are different or at odds with those of the person’s church community and spiritual leaders, resulting in conflict or confusion.
We must maintain our confidence in the power of the Spirit and the resources He has given in His church. In many ways they are way more powerful in helping the troubled than a weekly appointment with a counselor could ever be. And we must teach our people and encourage them to use the resources God has given within the church as their first and primary source of help.
2) We must create a healing atmosphere and culture in the church
Our churches must be places of power, where the power of the Spirit of God is changing lives. They must be powerful places where people connect with God in heart-changing ways. As leaders we must model this and make sure that our own hearts are honestly connecting with God in authentic relationship and our own lives are being transformed in a way that is obvious to all. “Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress” (I Timothy 4:15 NIV). An additional way to encourage this atmosphere is to publicly celebrate what God is doing in the lives of others and lift up examples of people whose lives are being transformed in deep and powerful ways.
In addition, we must work to make the church a safe place, where people can openly struggle, find support, and know that they will not be condemned by others. Again, we do this primarily by modeling. When pastors openly share their struggles, temptations, and failures, it allows the whole church to breathe, to let down defenses, and reveal struggles. Again, celebrating what God is doing in the lives of those who have deeply struggled and even failed has the same effect.
When people open up about their struggles and temptations, it has a powerful healing effect. Paul says, “But all things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light” (Ephesians 5:13 NASB). Darkness is dispelled by light. The first step in any growth in holiness is to wake up out of the darkness of sleep and come into the light (Eph. 5:14). This is primarily done by bringing the evil and impurity that we find in our hearts and lives to God and confessing it to Him. But it also involves confessing to others and seeking prayer, help, and encouragement from His body. Small groups are often a good place for this to happen. Small group leaders should encourage and model such openness. Those who are struggling with a particular problem or who have struggled in the past may find it helpful to band together in a small group especially designed to address the problem.
Our churches must recognize people’s brokenness and make allowances for it. People are deeply wounded by the sin of others and seemingly enslaved by sin of their own. Rapid change and “supernatural conversions” where people’s lives do an about-face are thrilling and encouraging. Yet many people, especially those who have been treated poorly or traumatically or who have had little or no example of loving relationships, take many months and even years to make significant progress. Our churches need the stimulus of the example of lives that are powerfully changing, yet the patience to love and accept those whose struggle is intense and change is slow.
Another key to creating a healing atmosphere within the church is to encourage people to pray through disappointments, hurts, and wounds from their past. In my own life, I’ve been learning that viewing my past experiences and hurts from God’s perspective is necessary for the greatest growth in faith and love. One example is unresolved anger or bitterness. The Scriptures command us to forgive those who have wounded us in the past. But of all the hundreds of people I’ve worked with who were bitter or resentful, only a small minority acknowledged that they were bitter. Like the root of a tree or plant, roots of bitterness are often buried. People don’t know how to deal with their anger and yet they know they shouldn’t be angry, so they bury the anger and try to ignore it. Yet that root can’t fully remain hidden and the anger and bitterness inevitably leak out, sometimes spilling out inappropriately toward innocent others and sometimes festering and causing distress and depression.
The anger and bitterness must be brought to the light and acknowledged. The reasons for the anger must be remembered and the hurt must be owned. Then the anger must be released to God with the trust that He, as judge, can bring any needed vengeance way more effectively than we ever could. As the anger is acknowledged and released, God will often allow us to see the good that He worked, even in the most horrible of situations. Often when there is a bitter root, anger toward God is mixed in with anger toward others who have hurt us. Releasing this anger toward God and seeing how He worked good through the pain are often necessary before we can trust God at a deep and heart-felt level.
As with anger, the same basic scenario can be true with other emotions, such as fear. Take the example of a woman who is working at the sink, preparing dinner when her husband comes up from behind her and gives her a hug. But instead of appreciating her husband’s loving and tender gesture, the woman reacts in anger, “Don’t do that, I don’t like that!” What’s happening here? There’s a good chance that this tender, loving gesture is reminding that woman of a time when she was held against her will and abused by someone who was neither tender or loving. And her mind’s association with this traumatic event produces terror, which causes her to lash out in anger. The woman might not even realize where these emotions are coming from. She may simply think that she doesn’t like to be held if it’s a surprise. The truth is that all of us associate present situations with times in the past that were similar. And if those memories are filled with fear, shame, anger, or feelings of worthlessness, our minds and emotions will react appropriately, even if such a reaction is not appropriate in the present situation.
Again, what is needed is to face the fear in the memory and let God give His perspective. God may need to provide comfort at a deep level and may need to bring assurance that the trauma is over and that she is OK. Again, He may need to show her how He used that event for good in her life. As she understands and embraces God’s perspective of the past trauma, she will be more fully able to trust the Lord in all kinds of life experiences as well as receive the loving affection of her husband.
All this is to say that a truth-filled and God-like view of past experiences and situations is an essential part of the sanctification process. Our minds have embraced attitudes and convictions or made firm decisions based on our past experiences. For example, we may have made a decision not to ever get close to anyone again, since the pain was so unbearably great that it is better to remain lonely and in isolation than to have the possibility of experiencing that pain again. Unless a person can see that painful situation from God’s perspective and see how He was working there for good and renounce the decision to live in isolation because of it, he will have great difficulty loving others. He will remain isolated in his fear. And he may not even realize the reason for his inability to get close to others.
Our churches must be places that encourage people to work through these issues and resolve wounds from the past. We must be aware of these issues and speak about ways God has resolved bitterness or other hurts in our own past and encourage others who have done the same to share testimonies of what God has done in them.
3) We must seek wisdom concerning how to deal with broken, sinful people
“An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.”
(Proverbs 18:15, English Standard Version)
King Solomon sought wisdom from God, not for personal prestige, but so that he might have wisdom to govern God’s people for their benefit. God was pleased with his request and granted it. God is also pleased when pastors and Christian leaders seek wisdom to lead the church into greater sanctification and Christ-likeness.
When confronted with a problem that is beyond our experience or wisdom to handle, our first reaction should not be to refer to a counselor or even to seek wisdom from a Christian author, but to seek wisdom from God in prayer and in the Scriptures. The Apostle Paul gives a fabulous promise for Christian workers: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16). Foundational to all pastoral care is a thorough knowledge and understanding of the Scriptures. The Scriptures show us the problems of man and the solutions of God and the goals of our work. Often we too early conclude that the Scriptures say little or nothing about a particular problem. But even though the Bible may not directly speak about issues such as eating disorders, panic attacks, depression, compulsions, and many other psychiatric disorders, it does thoroughly address the roots of all disorders of the soul, roots such as fear, shame, loneliness, insignificance, anger, discouragement, pride, and the like.
Each Christian leader must be on a journey of seeking to understand people, their problems and God’s solutions. This is not a simple task and requires careful and persevering thought. Too often we share a verse or encourage prayer or Bible reading without really understanding the depth of a person’s issues and sin. Often, we settle for shallow solutions, because we don’t really understand people and their problems. If we skip the difficult work of figuring out who we are, why we struggle so much, and how we can truly change, then our efforts to help people will be shallow and only marginally helpful.
One way we can learn more about people and their problems is to grow in the skill of listening. Paying close attention to what people say is going on in their hearts is, perhaps, the most basic and helpful way of gaining wisdom to help them with their problems. Of equal importance is the discipline of paying attention to what is happening in our own hearts. “Watch over your heart with all diligence, For from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23 NASB). If we are honestly grappling with the pride and rebellion and coping strategies and defense mechanisms and deep longings of our own hearts and finding the wisdom of God to cope, we will learn powerful lessons that will be able to deeply affect others as well.
When we fail to listen well, we often miss the right solution because we have missed the real problem. Paul instructs: “We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” (1 Thes. 5:14 NASB). Whether we are to admonish, encourage, or help is dependant upon rightly diagnosing the problem. Is the person unruly, fainthearted, or weak? Applying the wrong solution may make the problem worse, even if your intention is totally pure.
It is amazing how often skillful listening and asking questions can uncover the roots of a person’s problem that were often hidden even from the person himself. “The purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out” (Proverbs 20:25 NIV). Expressing empathy is also vital in listening. It communicates to the person that you not only heard what he said, but also felt the emotion that accompanied it. If he senses that you are truly listening and truly care, he will be much more likely to let you know more of what is going on in his heart and life. Often we fail to help people simply because we don’t have all the facts, and the reason we don’t have the facts is that the person does not sense a genuine interest and connection with their problem and withholds vital information.
As important as it is to seek God in prayer and the Word and to listen well, we must also seek wisdom from others. We must seek the experience and knowledge of wise and godly men who have sought God as deeply and perhaps more so than we have. Proverbs 13:14 says that “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life…” and Proverbs 22:17 exhorts us to “Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise.”(ESV). God commands us to seek wisdom from the wise. Many godly men have far more experience dealing with certain sins and behaviors than we have and it would be arrogant for us not to seek to learn from them.
However, this presents another problem. There is such a plethora of resources out there and a sometimes bewildering variety of approaches, that seeking wisdom can seem overwhelming. Who do we listen to? Which philosophy is correct? Sometimes it seems that we must become more expert than the experts to know which one to listen to.
All that I can say here is that we must start somewhere. Yes, reading and study can lead to seasons of confusion or to a lack of balance, but it can also open up our minds to new and more powerful understandings and approaches to helping people with their problems. We should not simply jump on the bandwagon of every new or novel approach that comes along, but neither should we bury our heads in the sand and keep doing what we’ve always done, even if it is only nominally effective. There is danger in studying an alternate view—we might be led astray into error. But there is also danger that, unbeknownst to us, our present point of view is in error. Certainly, this was a major problem for the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were so entrenched in their way of thinking that, even when confronted with the power of God displayed in Jesus, they refused to budge from their beliefs and way of thinking. So, as we seek to learn from the “experts,” let’s be open to learn, yet cautious, examining everything against the Scriptures.
Of course, pastors must take the lead in learning from the Word and from other men who are wise. Certainly, some pastors will be more passionate and gifted than others in helping deeply troubled people. But all should seek to learn and grow in their understanding of people’s problems and God’s solutions to them. Pastors who devote themselves exclusively to the public ministry of the Word and prayer and spend little time with hurting individuals and grappling with their problems will eventually become stale in their public teaching. If we are not growing in our ability to affect individuals powerfully and deeply, we will probably not be growing in our ability to affect the church powerfully and deeply through the public ministry as well. I am not arguing that we should neglect the public ministry of the Word, but that we should encourage growth in personal ministry at the same time. And some pastors and leaders will have passion and gifting to work with hurting individuals as a significant part of their ministry.
4) When necessary, we must use resources beyond the local church to help people overcome their problems.
Some situations will be beyond the ability of the local church to handle. An obvious example is when there is a serious threat that the person will harm himself or others and law enforcement officials or social services need to become involved. Situations where children are obstinately rebellious may need similar involvement from public officials.
Even for less severe problems, many times a pastor or Christians leader’s care can be greatly augmented by the input of a Christian counselor. Some physical ailments can be resolved with self-care, others need the knowledge and skill of a doctor, while others require the additional knowledge and skill of a surgeon. The same is true for ailments of the soul. Someone who has worked with hundreds of people who have a particular dysfunction, such as homosexuality, or eating disorders, or panic attacks, will, no doubt, have experience and insights into the roots of these problems and can more easily and successfully point out areas that require repentance and mind renewal.
Pastors ought to have a sense for where they are equipped and be willing to refer those who are beyond their skill to other pastors or Christian counselors who are more thoroughly experienced and equipped. No pastor has all the gifts. Neither should we assume that every local church will necessarily have (or be operating strongly in) all the gifts, especially if the church is small. New Testament churches shared resources—both teachers and finances. Why should we be resistant to share resources between churches today? If a city has a pastor or pastors who are gifted at helping hurting people, why not seek their help? Or if there are lay ministers or counselors who are both spiritually mature and gifted, why not seek their help as well? If you are faced with a problem or issue that is beyond your understanding or experience, first fervently seek the Lord in prayer and seek His wisdom in the Word. But also seek help from others who may have more experience and wisdom to help the particular problem.
But this presents a problem. Many, if not most, of us don’t know mature and gifted and experienced pastors or counselors that we trust and have confidence in. Many counselors, even when they are truly Christians, employ approaches and techniques that they learned in a humanistically-oriented counseling department of a university or seminary. Just because someone is a Christian counselor and quotes the Bible, doesn’t necessarily mean that the counseling he does stems from a thoroughly Christian world view.
Whenever outside counseling is required, attempts should be made to integrate it with the care and counsel that the person is receiving in the church. The pastor or church leader involved should work together with the Christian counselor and either regularly talk with the counselor or even sit in on some or all of the sessions. A church leader’s involvement can help insure unity in the counsel the person is receiving as well as help insure that the counseling is Biblical. Leadership involvement many also help the leader learn how to better deal with similar problems in the future.
Professional counselors are required by law to maintain strict confidentiality. The person receiving counseling will need to sign a consent form before the counselor will be able to discuss the person’s needs, progress, or any other details of the counseling sessions. If you send someone to a counselor, encourage them to ask for a form allowing you to discuss their progress with their counselor.
In conclusion, God has given the church powerful tools to meet the deepest soul needs. Yet, as we minister to people and see the intensity of their struggles and the extent of the damage in their lives, we can easily become discouraged and overwhelmed. Truly, we have so little to offer in ourselves. Our human resources seem so puny and insignificant compared to the immensity of people’s problems. But we must remember that it is God who is at work in us to will and to work for His good pleasure. God “..is able to do exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works within us.” (Eph. 3:20). We must learn to tap into that power ourselves and teach others to do the same. We must foster in our churches an atmosphere where healing, growth, and sanctification are fostered and encouraged. We must also tap into the wisdom of God to understand the depth of people’s problems and search the Scriptures for truth and solutions. And we must humbly seek to learn from others who have sought God as fervently as we have or have gone before us in a particular area. Might God bless us in our endeavors.
 World Mental Health: Problems and Priorities in Developing Countries, Desjarlais et al, Oxford University Press, 1995.
 Dr. Lawrence Crabb, Connecting