For the Christian Who Needs Counseling:
Traditionally, when a Christian needs professional counseling help, there are several obstacles that must be overcome. The most immediate is the difficulty in finding a competent professional who will encourage and utilize their faith. Unfortunately, not everyone who claims to be a “Christian counselor” operates with a personal and professional commitment to Christ-centered care, and utilizes a biblically based counseling philosophy. In order for a Christian to make a wise decision regarding accessing professional care, it is important to understand the variety of options that are available.
Most communities offer some form of counseling resources. Churches may provide a pastoral counselor, lay counselors, or support groups. Professional counselors may be available in many different settings, including private practice, clinics, agencies, treatment centers, etc. When considering the most appropriate counselor for you or a family member, several factors need to be addressed, including:
- The individual’s needs – Is the problem chronic or situational, severe or mild, life threatening, or incapacitating?
- The individual’s resources – Funds, time, and the availability of a support system needs to be considered.
- The church’s resources – Pastoral counseling, lay counseling, support groups, and funds available the person pay for professional counseling need to be evaluated.
- The community’s resources – Are there competent counselors, psychiatrists and agencies available?
Choosing the most appropriate counseling resource requires a working knowledge of the spectrum of counseling roles.
- Pastoral Counselors – Due to the broad-based nature of the profession uniquely known as “pastoral counselor,” a specific definition with definable professional criteria may be difficult to generate. Simply, pastoral counseling is a specialized component of general ministry, usually provided by an ordained minister with specific gifts in counseling and with some form of extended education and experience which has prepared the minister for pastoral counseling.
Most ministers have a degree in advanced theological training, but some also acquire degrees in psychology or counseling. For those who desire official status for their counseling ministry, certification is available through Christian organizations, Christian colleges and universities, and some denominations.
- Lay Counselors – Many different types of lay helping ministries have been developed in efforts to mobilize people in the church to meet the needs of people. Some of these focus on meeting physical needs. Others are dedicated to a broader spectrum of care needs, such as comforting those who grieve and visiting the sick. Others concentrate on ministering Christ’s redemptive love and strength to the emotional and relational traumas in the family of God. Those who minister to the broader spectrum of care are typically called lay helpers or lay caregivers. Those who provide care as an extension of pastoral counseling are called lay counselors.
Some lay individuals in local church settings are gifted in counseling though they do not have education or professional credentials. Various local and regional organizations provide materials, training, and possibly even supervision to equip individuals as lay counselors. Lay counselors donate their time in church or parachurch settings to provide free counseling to individuals and families unable to afford professional counseling.
- Support Groups – Support groups play a vital role in meeting the needs of a congregation. The proliferation of these groups suggests that these environments offer safety and encouragement for those who struggle with situational or addictive problems. Many churches use support groups as independent islands of care, but many others integrate their care ministries so that the people who receive individual care in one setting are also encouraged to receive the mutual reinforcement of a group.
- Counseling Centers in the Church – Large churches with a staff person assigned primarily or exclusively to pastoral care may have a selfcontained counseling center at the church. When this is done, counselors (licensed or unlicensed) are hired to serve on the staff of the counseling center.
- Professional Clinicians – Professional clinicians are distinctly qualified due to their education, licensure or certification. In selecting a Christian professional counselor, you should be familiar with the various degrees and professional associations designated by the initials following the professional’s name. Indeed, there are more differences between a psychologist and a psychiatrist than just ten dollars an hour.
Unfortunately, there are few national norms. Many states have liberal laws regarding who can call themselves professional counselors. Many of the terms of the industry are confusing, and may have little to say about the professional’s qualifications, experience, or education. It is a “buyer beware” market. However, the following professions are generally regulated across the U.S. and represent large professional organizations monitoring and supervising their candidates and members:
- Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselors (LCDC, CADAC) generally have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in chemical dependency counseling. Most psychiatric hospitals and chemical dependency rehab programs feature LCDC’s in 12-Step programming. Chemical dependency counselors are also found in private and state mental health programs, private practice, and outpatient clinics.
- Licensed Social Workers (LSW, MSW, CSW, ACP) usually have earned a master’s degree in social work or a related behavioral science. They are often employed in private practice or state institutions, hospitals, abuse shelters, clinics, or private practice providing family counseling, child placement, individual counseling, psychosocial assessments, case management, employee assistance programs and other associated behavioral counseling.
- Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT) usually hold a master’s degree (M.S., M.A., M.Ed.) and specialize in overcoming family or relational difficulties. The license generally requires a minimum of two years of professional work experience in marital and family therapy and supervision following receipt of the qualifying graduate degree. The term “family systems” is often used to describe a working model addressing each individual as part of the entire social system. MFTs often have outpatient practices, but are also employed in psychiatric facilities, clinics and shelters.
- Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC) have earned a master’s (M.S., M.A., M.Ed.) or doctoral degree (Ph.D., Psy.D., Ed.D.), have generally completed 2,000 hours of supervised, postqualifying degree experience in the provision of counseling services, and have passed a licensing exam (state by state requirements vary). LPCs may specialize in various counseling models, including family systems, sexual abuse, depression and other mood disorders, chemical dependencies, personality disorders, cognitive-behavioral interventions, Gestalt therapies, etc. LPCs may hold positions in psychiatric facilities, outpatient practices, clinics, schools and other civil and state institutions.
- Licensed Clinical and Counseling Psychologists have received Ph.D., Psy.D., or Ed.D. degrees after five or six years of graduate study. Psychologists often specialize in diagnostics, research, education, applied counseling, personality and intelligence testing. They are often employed in institutions, schools, businesses, private practice, hospitals and psychiatric facilities and clinics.
- Board Certified Psychiatrists are medical doctors (M.D., D.O.) who have advanced training in the psychological and behavioral sciences. They are qualified to prescribe psychiatric medications and supervise mental health treatment.
Selecting a Professional Counselor:
The choice of a professional counselor, as in most professions, may be productive or harmful. Counselors may refer to themselves, as “Christian” merely to increase their market exposure and develop trust with churches that are reluctant to refer to nonChristian sources. Few state and federal requirements address the Christian counseling profession, so poorly qualified individuals may be practicing under the banner “Christian Counselor” to avoid the stringent licensing requirements of most professional counseling organizations.
When choosing a professional counselor it is important to investigate the following questions:
- What kind of certification or licensure does the counselor have? What were the course requirements? How many hours of supervision were required?
- What kind of experience does the counselor have with your specific issue?
- What is the ministry experience of the counselor? What is their church affiliation?
- What schools did he/she attend, and what degree(s) was earned? To what professional organizations does the counselor belong and how is he/she held accountable?
- Is the counselor a male or a female? Does this matter to you?
- What is the counselor’s basic view of Scripture? Does the counselor integrate biblical truths with counseling techniques? How does the counselor utilize Scripture and prayer in the counseling process? What are his/her views on several moral/ethical issues such as:
c. Remarriage after divorce
e. Role of men and women as husbands and wives
f. Role of parental discipline of children
g. Extramarital sexual activities
- Is the counselor’s approach compatible with your spiritual values, theological positions and denominational distinctions?
- Is the counselor available 24-hours a day? What provisions are made during the night, weekend and off-hours?
- How many sessions are typical and expected in this type of case?
- What is the fee structure? Does the counselor accept insurance reimbursement? Is there a sliding scale to determine fees? Is the
counselor part of your managed care network of providers?
Because the selection of a mental health professional is such an important decision and has so many implications for your emotional and physical life, it is appropriate to conduct your own interview as you assess mutual compatibility. Selecting a counselor for a specific need is much like selecting a pair of gloves. There are many types of gloves but all are not good fits. Many gloves may not be suitable for some needs, while they’re perfect for others.