Church Therapy is a model of counseling ministry that connects Christian professional counselors to church leadership. Too often, pastors with many roles to play in the church are overburdened and unable to adequately provide counseling well. In other churches, there may be a pastor specifically assigned to the task of offering counseling, but his or her training does not include studies of human behavior, mental health disorders, or evidence-based therapeutic techniques. In the Church Therapy model, those who are called both to church staff and to professional counseling find their niche.
In the past, many who would espouse a biblical counseling model argued with an integration of psychology and theology. Humanistic philosophies, they argued, must be rejected because they are at odds with the Bible. I agree with this statement, and at the time (in the 1960s and 1970s) it was an important statement to make. Freud, Jung, and many others were forming theories that sought to answer questions about humanity, such as “Who are we at our core?” and “What connects all of us as humans?” The Bible has offered answers on these topics for centuries and these early psychology theorists were often in opposition to biblical ideas. (Freud did assert that “religion is a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality”… Christians naturally must disagree with that!).
Despite our rejection of humanistic philosophies, we need to give credit to Freud, Jung, Rogers, Adler, and so many others who were pioneers paving the way into the study of human behavior. The behaviorists bolstered the idea that human behavior could be manipulated, or “conditioned,” and this led into a study of why and how this happens. Questions about why we seek certain rewards, including food and drugs, began to have some clearer answers.
Enter the 21st century and you begin to hear words like “evidence-based practices” and “epigenetics”. You are going to be hard pressed to find any pure psychoanalysts out there (who can afford it, anyway?). All types of theories, both regarding the human condition and on which treatment modalities work best, have been explored and studied. With epigenetics and findings about neuroplasticity, we now know that our genes are not set in stone but can be “locked” or “unlocked” depending on stressors in the environment. The nature versus nurture debate ended in a tie. We know our brains can change with experience, and that secure, loving human connections heal the brain.
It is my assertion that those who study to serve the church as a counselor must be skilled to the highest level, and I personally believe that guidelines provided by states for counseling licensure provide a rigorous framework for study. I believe that the church should be providing the BEST care of all available options.
I do not assert one specific treatment approach over another (for example, brief cognitive-behavioral therapy versus a family systems model). I believe that God has gifted even counselors differently, and as long as your approach is well-informed biblically and psychologically and is grounded in empathy the counselor must use the approach best suited to his or her style and personality.
So why is Church Therapy not often done? There are many reasons, largest of which I believe is a lack of in-roads. Pastors must be open to understanding the need for therapy, and must see the scope of therapy needed in the congregation. The rates of sexual abuse among women, for example, are extremely high (up to 1 in 3!). If the church is attracting broken people, the rates of trauma as well as depression or other types of mental illness will be even higher. Those who are vocal enough may end up with a referral to a Christian counselor outside the church but most often they do not follow up. Thus their spiritual development is stunted as they repeat negative relationship patterns or continue in unresolved trauma and grief.
It has been my observation that there are many who attend seminary in hopes of providing counseling in a church setting. But upon graduation, there are not church jobs listed, so they begin to work for a secular agency and typically end up in a private practice seeing both Christians and non-Christians. This presents difficulties in fulfilling their original calling to church leadership.
Having a counselor on church staff decreases stigma about getting help and increases accessibility of services. Professional therapists on church staff can also provide guidance on emotional health and its connection to spiritual health. And with licensure, a professional counselor on church staff can generate revenue through billing insurance companies, leaving church funds available for other needs.
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