Beware of Christian Counselors

christian counseling

In communities where Christianity dominates the culture, it is often hard to find a counselor/psychologist that is not a Christian. It stands to reason, that in a predominantly Christian culture most counselors would be a Christian. This is not a problem if the counselor is able to compartmentalize their religious beliefs, but many counselors who are a Christian can’t or won’t do this.

When a counselor believes the Bible is an authoritative text and the standard for moral and ethical conduct, it is impossible for them to counsel a person objectively. No matter how much they tell themselves otherwise, sooner or later their religious beliefs will affect the advice they give a person.

Back when I was still an Evangelical pastor, I started taking classes to become a licensed social worker. It wasn’t long before my Bible-based beliefs were conflicting with what I was being taught in class. I asked the dean of the department:

Suppose I am a licensed social worker and I am working for the Department of Human Services.  The client is pregnant and is thinking about getting an abortion. Since I am a Christian and I think abortion is morally wrong, would I be able to counsel the woman according to my pro-life beliefs?

The department head made it very clear, based on my religious and moral beliefs, that I would have a hard time working in a secular/state environment. She suggested that I might be able to work for a private, religious service provider, but my religious beliefs would likely preclude me from working in a secular setting.

Of course, this offended me. I thought that I should be able to push my religious beliefs on others, but I now see that the department head gave me sound advice. Evangelical Christians often demand they be permitted to work any job in any profession and not be forced to compartmentalize their beliefs. But, there are some professions where a person’s religious beliefs would preclude them from working in that field because their beliefs would not allow them to provide a client or a customer certain services or goods. (like in a pharmacy)

Many pastors provide counseling services. Here in Ohio, a pastor is not required to have ANY training before counseling someone. The fact that the counseling is done through the church exempts the pastor from any governmental oversight. I knew several pastors who were high school dropouts, with no theological or counseling training, that regularly counseled people. In the twenty-five years I pastored churches, I never had one person ask me if I was qualified to be a counselor.

Many pastors don’t think they need specialized training to counsel people. After all, the Bible has the answer to every question and problem. All the pastor needs to do is figure out what the problem is and find the appropriate Bible verse that addresses the problem. Every problem is reduced to obedience/disobedience, sin/righteousness, God/Satan, flesh/spirit. These kind of pastors are very dangerous because they give simplistic answers for complex problems.

Before seeing a pastor for counseling, a person should ask about their training and qualifications. Even if a pastor has college-level training, the value and extent of that training depends on where they got the training. Many Evangelical colleges have counseling programs that are little more than programs that teach pastors how to proof-text any problem. Many Evangelical colleges teach some form of nouthetic counseling:

Nouthetic counseling (Greek: noutheteo, to admonish) is a form of pastoral counseling that holds that counseling should be based solely upon the Bible and focused upon sin. It repudiates mainstream psychology and psychiatry as humanistic, radically secular and fundamentally opposed to Christianity. Its viewpoint was originally articulated by Jay E. Adams, in Competent to Counsel (1970) and further books, and has led to the formation of a number of organizations and seminary courses promoting it. The viewpoint is opposed to those seeking to synthesize Christianity with secular psychological thought, but has failed to win them over to a purely Biblical approach. Since 1993, the movement has renamed itself Biblical counseling to emphasize its central emphasis on the Bible. The Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology and Counseling states that “The aim of Nouthetic Counseling is to effect change in the counselee by encouraging greater conformity to the principles of Scripture.”

Some Evangelical pastors go so far as to say that mental illness is the result of demonic oppression or possession. Again, the Bible becomes the solution to whatever problem a person may be having. Whether the person’s problem is due to sin or a demon, God and the Bible are always the cure for whatever ails the person. This approach rarely addresses the core issues and, in some cases, can lead to more problems and even suicide.

Imagine for a moment, an Evangelical woman going to her pastor for help. He listens to her “confession” and then he prescribes whatever Bible verse is appropriate. The woman profusely thanks the pastor and leaves his office determined to put the Word of God into practice. Perhaps this works for a day, a week, or a month, but, sooner or later, the problem returns. She goes back to the pastor and he reminds her of what the Bible says. He tells her that she needs to repent, walk in the spirit, be filled with the spirit, put on the whole armor of God, or withstand the devil. The message is clear. If you are still having a problem it is YOUR FAULT!

I know some pastors will be offended by what I am about to say next, but I need to be clear: Most Evangelical  pastors are unqualified to counsel people.  They lack the necessary training to competently counsel people and their commitment to the Bible keeps them from being able to help people. It’s one thing if a person has a question about the Bible or is questioning their faith. Certainly, they should seek out their pastor’s counsel on spiritual matters. However, many so-called “spiritual” problems are mental/physical/emotional problems dressed up in religious garb. An untrained pastor has no business counseling people who have mental/physical/emotional problems.

Sadly, many people think that pastors are experts on everything. Little do they know that many pastors aren’t even an expert on the Bible let alone anything else. Many Evangelical colleges have turned their pastor-training program into a business and marketing program. Actual training in the fundamentals of the ministry and the Bible are often quite limited. Many pastors-in-training will graduate from college without ever studying most of the books of the Bible. (and OT or NT survey classes don’t count) Many Evangelical pastors-in-training only take one or two of counseling classes. Yet, because the pastor has taken a counseling class, he thinks he is qualified to be a counselor. He may not be a counselor but he did stay at a Holiday Inn. Smile I know several pastors who got counseling degrees from Christian mail order diploma mills. They proudly let everyone know that they have a degree in counseling and are qualified to counsel all comers.

Over the years, I counseled hundreds of people. Not one time did I tell a person that they needed to see a medical professional or a psychologist.  I firmly believed the Bible had all the answers. My judgment was further clouded by the fact that my mother was mentally ill, was on all kinds of drugs, was treated by psychiatrists, and attempted suicide numerous times before eventually killing herself at age 54. I considered psychologists and psychiatrists to be enablers who encouraged people to continue in their sin.

In the late 1980’s, I was visiting with a fellow pastor in his office when a severely agitated young man came into the office. The man was either high on drugs or mentally disturbed. I thought my pastor friend would try to calm the man down and offer him some Biblical counsel. Instead, he told the man that he needed medical help. My pastor friend took him to the hospital in Zanesville and dropped him off. I was shocked he did this. When I questioned him, he told me that he was unqualified to help the man. He was the first pastor I ever heard say such a thing. I now know he was right.

I did have two members end up seeking treatment at a stress center. I had tried to help them, and when I couldn’t they had sense enough to seek out competent help. Both of these women stopped going to church after they got out of the stress center. At the time, I saw this as an example of what happens when you go to the “world” for help.

Most of the people I counseled learned to play the game that long-time Evangelicals are expert at playing; they learn to pretend. The Bible, God, praying, confession, and self-denial, are little help to them; they can’t seek help outside the church, so they learn to fake having the “victory.”  This leads to living a schizophrenic life. Sadly, the person’s spouse, parent, or children know that their loved one doesn’t have the “victory” because, at home, they can’t or won’t hide their mental health problems. It is one thing to pretend for an hour or two on Sunday; rarely can a person pretend every hour of every day.

I spent most of my adult life playing the pretend game. I struggled with depression, perfectionism, and OCPD, and while I could hide it while at church, it was impossible to hide it at home. My wife and children suffered because I couldn’t get the “victory” over my sin, the flesh, or whatever else the Bible and preachers said I needed to get the “victory” over. I lived this way until 2010 when I finally decided that I needed to see a counselor. Next to marrying Polly, it was the single most important decision I ever made.

The psychologist I see has not “cured” me, but he does help me deal with the depression and the mental and emotional struggles I have as a result of being chronically ill and in constant pain. I consider him to be a lifesaver. He has helped me to embrace my life as it is and he has also helped me come to terms with my religious past. I know that I can talk to him about anything. He listens, and then tries to constructively help me. Sometimes, he listens and says nothing. He knows that sometimes the help I need is just having someone to talk to. He doesn’t view me as a problem that needs fixing and he allows me the space to be my authentic self. If I have learned one thing in counseling, it is who Bruce Gerencser really is. Before this could happen, layer after layer of religious belief and thinking had to be peeled away. At the heart of my difficulties was religion and the Bible and they had to be confronted head on.  Even now, as an atheist, my religious past and the beliefs I once held affect how I think and reason. I now realize that the scar of my religious past will always be there. The longer I live without religion and the Bible, the easier it becomes, but these things can, when I least expect it, come to the forefront and cause emotional and mental problems.

I know that some readers of this blog have a similar past and are all too familiar with pastoral counseling and how the Bible is not the answer for whatever ails a person. If you are able to do so, please share your thoughts in the comment section. I know that others will be helped by you sharing your story.

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20 Comments

  1. Steve

    UGGHHHH, how I loathe Christian “therapists”. They are quite useless & even dangerous, imho. I remember one telling me one time, who had a Master’s degree: “I just did the worlds colleges so I could get the credentials; I only use the Bible for my therapy sessions. The world is evil!” *Groan*

    Reply
  2. Erin

    The thing that really concerns me, in reflection on my days of believing in biblical counseling (specifically marriage counseling), is domestic violence. Granted, most evangelical counselors don’t verbally sanction domestic violence. But, sound biblical counseling all but sanctions it. A woman should submit, a husband should rule, etc. etc.

    With the exception of actual psychical harm, biblical marriage counseling sounds an awful lot like it sanctions most of what’s on the Power and Control Wheel that domestic violence advocates use to help survivors recognize abuse.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I think there are a li of trapped women in Evangelical churches, especially in the far right extreme of Evangelicalism. Who do they turn to when they need help? Either they suffer silently or they go to the pastor for “help.”

      Reply
  3. ratamacue0

    Victoria did an excellent post on this recently:

    Biblical Counseling — Exposing the Darkness Disguised As Light

    Reply
  4. Ami

    My first thought, on reading the title of this post was “Beware of ANYONE who advertises their services or products and has ‘Christian’ on the label.”

    My dad thought he was qualified to counsel people with his mail-order pastor plaque and years of working with children. He was smart enough (eventually) to admit being out of his league when a violent and mentally unstable alcoholic attached herself to my parents like a barnacle. It was pretty bizarre.

    Reply
  5. Susannah Anderson

    A couple in my family had a marriage problem: the husband was having an affair. They went to the church’s counsellor, the pastor’s wife. The husband was treated to one session of, basically, “Don’t do that,” and “Get a mentor.” The wife had to go back for expensive weekly sessions, and was given, for homework, a long list of Bible verses to memorize. “Wives, obey your husbands;” that sort of verses.

    Everything quieted down for a couple of years, and then – surprise, surprise! – the husband was discovered to be involved in another affair, his third.

    Reply
  6. formerHACgirl

    I loathe Christian counseling with a passion. I’ve rarely seen it work any good.
    When I was 19, I was in an abusive relationship at the behest of my parents. We practiced courtship and I didn’t want to shame them by leaving him without permission, which was denied. I got raped, which led to a pregnancy, which finally gave me the sense to get out. I decided to keep the baby, but later miscarried. I was pretty emotionally raw by that point.
    My parents required me to go to Christian counseling with the pastor’s wife. If I didn’t, they would disown me and cut off my contact with my siblings. I didn’t want to go, but I couldn’t take another loss. I don’t remember much of what was said, but there is one thing the pastors wife told me that has stayed with me for more than a decade.
    She said, “You are a perfect example of what could have been, but never will be.”
    Those words have haunted me all this time, blinking in flashing neon over every failure or setback of my adult life. She later tried to encourage me that maybe my life could serve as a warning and prevent others from being put on a shelf.
    I completely understand why this form of counseling is viewed as harmful by many. Only shear German stubbornness to see her proven wrong provented my suicide at that point, and for several years after.
    Bruce, thank you for posting on this. It is needed.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Thank you for sharing your story.

      Reply
    2. AJ

      You are AMAZING!
      Turn her comment around: “You are a perfect example of what could have been, but never will be.” You are the perfect example of a survivor who will NEVER be a victim. You are the perfect example of a woman who was raped resulting in pregnancy, but will NEVER be forced to marry the man who raped her. You are the perfect example of a victim of crazy church counseling, who will they were not able to destroy.
      You are an inspiration to anyone who reads this.

      Reply
  7. Troy

    Bruce, in all the time you counseled people did you ever counsel someone who was having trouble believing? I’m curious what would have been the remedy for that?
    I actually agree that clergy should be able to counsel without licensing and government interference, though they should have to disclose that they don’t have a secular license before they begin. It is yet another case of medieval Christianity riding modern coattails.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Yes, I did, but I always attributed the doubts to sin, rebellion in the person’s life. People right with God didn’t doubt, or so I thought. 🙂

      Reply
  8. Angiep

    I was VERY surprised to learn that my pastor’s wife would counsel women at her home. I always assumed the pastor had some type of training, but I was sure his wife did not. Now I realize that probably neither of them had any training. I must admit that seeing this type of discrepancy made it much easier to eventually abandon my religious beliefs.

    Reply
  9. Stephanie

    Pastors of any stripe or denomination are nowhere near close to being qualified to provide counseling. I’m in school for obtaining my degree in counseling now. During my work for my Master’s in Counseling, I have to have 2000 hours of supervised sessions with clients BEFORE I can even take the licensing exam (this is for North Carolina; idk about licensing requirements in other states).

    Aside from the legal & educational requirements for counselors, I also have an emotional objection to pastors providing counseling. My husband & I had our beautiful baby girl Alyssa in November 2013. Four & a half months later she died.

    My life didn’t begin until she was born, & those 4.5 months were the happiest of my life. During the aftermath, full of grief & tears & the fog that comes with it, my mother suggested my husband & I start seeing her pastor for counseling. We went to see him a few times, and it became apparent that he (the pastor) was not going do anything but throw Bible verses at us. He also encouraged us to pray together (I won’t even get into how useless that was). The most telling moment of his ineptitude for counseling was when I had been having a particularly hard time dealing with the grief. He said in a round-about way (paraphrased of course) that my husband needed to be able to deal with his grief his way, but I was being too emotional about it. How dare he! To tell a grieving mother, mourning the loss of her firstborn, that she’s taking it too much to heart! That she needs to take hold of the “promise” of 1 Peter 5:7 “Cast all your cares on Him, for He careth for you”!

    Needless to say, that was the last time we went to him for counseling. Since then, I’ve deconverted & call myself an atheist. (How I deconverted during this time would add more than some might be willing to read, but I am willing to follow-up for any who are curious). The strangest thing happened when I did: the false hope of seeing Alyssa again in the afterlife and the longing for her that came hand-in-hand went away. I’ve been more at peace with her death since then, & I believe this has to do with the fact that I’m not lying to myself anymore about where she is or isn’t, nor am I accepting the good-intentioned, unwitting lies of those who still believe. Don’t get me wrong: I will always long for her, miss her, want to hold her again. That is a part of me now. But the full acceptance of reality on its own terms has provided a peace no religion’s platitudes & feel-good sayings ever could.

    Reply
    1. Michael Mock

      I’m so sorry. That’s the most horrible thing I can imagine. And then to have some idiot try to tell you that you shouldn’t be grieving…

      Reply
      1. Stephanie

        Michael,
        Yes, it is the most horrible thing that has ever happened or will happen to me. I just hope that if we try to have another child that it doesn’t happen again.

        As for the pastor, I swear my mind flat-lined when the implication of his words hit me. I was speechless & absolutely floored. & hurt to the core. What a douchebag.

        Anyway, thank you very much for your condolences (sp?). If you have children of your own, NEVER take them for granted.

        Reply
    2. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Stephanie,

      Thank you for sharing a bit of your story. Polly and I talked about your comment yesterday. We both concluded that many pastors don’t counsel to help but to get the person being counseled to think “right” thoughts. The goal is right thinking rather than helping someone who is grieving or has some other need.

      Keep sharing your story. It DOES help.

      Bruce

      Reply
  10. matt

    You are just projecting your own failures and misunderstandings about being a Christian onto every Christian. You pastored wrong, you counseled your congregants wrong, and you never understood or believed a word of scripture.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Dear Matthew Bell,

      Somehow, your comment made it past my spam/blocking filter. Let me fix that now. People who attack sexual assault victims lose their right to comment on this blog.

      Bruce

      Reply
  11. Brian

    Matt, Let me tell you that anybody who would state what you just stated belongs in the evangelical movement! You are alive to harm yourself and others and what really irks you about atheists is that they don’t fall for the same woo-woo; in fact they laugh at the ludicrous nature of your belief. You have not one clue about that because your woo-woo is not about knowing truly as a human being but about putting a halt to humanity, hating yourself, judging and calling names. I truly trust that I was never a part of your sick little club when I identified as a follower of Christ.

    Reply
  12. Carrie Nolan

    I just found your site. Love this article and as a former christian, this hit home.

    Reply

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