Counseling, Evangelism and Discipleship Part 1

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Yesterday I held the first Freedom Workshop of 2017: “Understanding Mental Illness.” We had such a great time, thanks to all who came out! Listening in on some of the group discussions got me so pumped, as people talked through the physical, psychological and spiritual issues related to mental health. One point I heard in the discussion was related to the role of the counselor: should he or she be someone who evangelizes to the client, guiding a non-believer into faith? Or is that not the role of the counselor? What about those who are already following Christ? What is the role of counseling in the discipleship process?

We know that pastors are called to evangelize and disciple. This is an incredibly important job! In the Church Therapy model, pastors are able to freely serve in these ways and church therapists are able to function in a different role. Without this model, when pastors are also trying to provide counseling, the roles become much more complex and the lines are blurry. When someone needs mental health care and they seek out a counselor, they may or may not also be exploring faith questions.

In Part 1, we will explore three reasons why a counselor/therapist should not also take on the role of evangelist. Next week, we’ll do Part 2, exploring ways that counselors can play an important role in the discipleship process for those who are already following Christ. So let’s take a look at why counselors should not be in the role of evangelist with clients who are not Christians:

Vulnerability and Power

In a counseling situation, there is an automatic power dynamic present. This is not created by the particular counselor or client, it is inherent in the relationship which is one-sided. The counselor is viewed as the “expert” (whether or not he/she is actually skilled) and the client is the one in need. In normal healthy relationships, there is a mutual give and take, where both parties give sometimes and take at other times. In a healthy therapeutic relationship, the boundaries and ethical guidelines keep the one-sidedness healthy even though that would be imbalanced in a “real life” scenario. The fact that the counselor and client are not friends, but rather have a professional relationship that has specific limits, means that the counselor has a tremendous amount of power. The client is coming in vulnerable, sharing deep emotions and experiences (while the counselor does not share deeply at all). The counselor seemingly provides the guidance and help, doing all of the emotional supporting of the client.

Because of this power dynamic, the counselor simply cannot also play the role of an evangelist because the client is too vulnerable. To take advantage of this situation would really not allow the person to freely consider his or her beliefs. The counselor’s desire for the client to convert, and the power that the counselor has over the client to guide his/her choices, sets up a forced system in which the client may say “yes” without being truly free to say “no.” The client may be unaware of this lack of freedom, but over time it will reveal itself and could actually be detrimental to the client’s spiritual journey in the long run.

Bait and Switch

Another reason that a counselor cannot also play the role of evangelist is that it could be a “bait and switch” kind of scenario. “Come to our office, we offer free counseling!” may be the tagline. People who are in need, and possibly lacking in finances or health insurance, may be drawn into this counseling ministry believing that it will help them work through their emotional issues. If the counseling ministry sign read, “Come to our office, we want to convert you!” some might not enter. But that is typically not the advertisement, thus creating a bait and switch. Your church is advertising mental health services when it is really offering Bible study and personal evangelism. Now, even if we truly believe deep down in our hearts that the only way for people to get well is to follow Jesus (true, by the way, for one’s spiritual life, but not true for the symptoms of a mental illness which often persist even for the Christian), it is unethical to lure people into your office with the wrong set of assumptions about what will take place there.

Respect for the Journey

The spiritual journey does not always occur in a linear fashion. (Step 1: Have problems in your life and realize you can’t do it on your own. Step 2: Turn your life over to Jesus. Step 3: Get better from all your problems.) An evangelist has one goal: share the Gospel to win souls for Christ. A counselor’s goal is to meet a person where he/she is at, working collaboratively on the goals the client sets for him/herself. We cannot have an agenda going in. Instead, we must respect the journey of the client. If he/she wants to explore spiritual issues, then by all means (but without an agenda), help them explore. We do not need to get antsy about this — the Holy Spirit is more than able to draw the client to Him when that person is ready. Let’s lay that burden down and trust the Lord to lead them in their journey, while we as counselors simply come alongside as a fellow explorer.

If the client does some spiritual exploring and decides that they want to know more about Jesus, the counselor should at that point connect the client with a local church. They can attend services and the pastor can help them learn to study the Bible. The counselor can continue to be involved to do the work of healing the emotional issues that created the need for mental health services. Over time, these services may not be needed if the positive support of the church creates an adequate social system that meets the client’s needs. In the case of chronic/persistent mental illness, the counselor will likely remain a support in addition to other positive social supports.

Stay tuned for next week’s conversation about how the counselor can play an important role in the discipleship process for those who have already given their lives to Christ.