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Questions: Should People Trust Christian Counselors with Degrees from Secular Schools?

i have a question

I put out the call to readers, asking them for questions they would like me to answer. If you have a question, please leave it here or email me.  All questions will be answered in the order they are received.

Troy asked:

In a local village forum on Facebook, a local Christian counselor spammed his services. I started a bit of a controversy by linking your warning about Christian counseling. I’m not against such religious counseling, but I do think people need to be warned that they aren’t licensed by the state. This guy retorts that he has a masters from a dual accredited school and offers anecdotes of high success rate with some that have tried secular counseling previously. It isn’t really mentioned in your own blog post, but I’d be interested to see your opinion on it, in particular about the dual accreditation.

Troy asked me this question on Facebook, but I thought it would make an excellent question for me to answer publicly. Before reading this post, you might want to read the post Troy mentions, Beware of Christian Counselors. In that post, I give an in-depth look at how utterly unqualified many Evangelical pastors are to provide counseling services. Thanks to the separation of church and state, the federal government and many state governments take a hands-off approach to what happens at houses of worship. Here in Ohio, pastors are free to provide counseling services to anyone who asks for them. In the early 1980s, I was the assistant pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Buckeye Lake, Ohio. I was in my twenties at the time. One young adult — who attended the church from time to time — would frequently stop by my office to talk to me. On numerous occasions, he told me that he was thinking about killing himself. Red light, warning sign, right? This man told me that the only thing holding him back from ending his life was not knowing whether suicide was the unpardonable sin. He was afraid that if he killed himself, God would send him to Hell. This went on for weeks until one day I told him, why don’t you kill yourself and find out? Even now, as I read these words, I am horrified. It matters not whether the man was serious about ending his life or just wanted me to listen to him talk. If the man had actually killed himself, I know that I would have been culpable in his death — but protected by the clergy-congregant seal. Having battled depression and suicidal thoughts much of my adult life, I can only imagine how I might have responded if a pastor told me, why don’t you kill yourself and find out? This is one of those times where the only thing I can say is that I was a stupid young man who allowed my busyness and impatience to affect my relationship with a congregant. The young man, by the way, never “bothered” me again.

Many Christian colleges and universities are accredited. However, it is important to ask who, exactly, is the accrediting body. More than a few Christian colleges are accredited by groups that were established for the express purpose of giving Evangelical institutions cover when being questioned about accreditation. The best way to determine if an institution’s accreditation is of any value is to find out if they accept Pell Grants or VA Education Benefits. If they don’t, it is likely that their “accreditation” is little more than wallpaper covering a hole in a wall.  Looks nice, but structurally there are likely to be problems.

Let me be clear, I am not anti-Christian education. Evangelicals are, for the most part, anti-culture. They have spent the past hundred years building a subculture that caters to the wants, needs, and whim Evangelical Christians. I call this subculture the Christian Ghetto. What Evangelicals do is take what the secular world offers and slap the word Christian in front of it: Christian bookstore, Christian music, Christian coffee shop, Christian TV, Christian radio, etc. Sometimes, the word Christian is omitted, and icons are used instead: a cross or the ichthus (fish) symbol. The icons are meant to say to people, “Hey, I am a member of the Jesus club, spend your money here!” As an atheist, when I see such signs, I immediately look elsewhere. Even as a Christian, I frequented businesses based on the quality of their work, and not whether we shared a common faith.

People who live in areas where Evangelicalism has a strong presence can find it difficult or impossible to find a counselor who is not a Christian or doesn’t use “Biblical” methods with clients. One of my sons is a former drug addict. For several years, he drove to Toledo to attend group therapy. The program director was a state-licensed social worker who also happened to be an Evangelical Christian. Most of her techniques were standard operating procedure. However, on more than a few occasions, the woman would tell the group that if they truly wanted deliverance from their addictions, then JESUS was the answer. She would then invite the group to visit her church, where the — wink-wink — “real” answers could be found.

And therein is the problem when you have Evangelical counselors who have state licensure but also have devout religious backgrounds. Rare are Evangelical counselors who can compartmentalize their religious beliefs. I don’t fault them for being unable to do so. Christianity for Evangelicals is more than clothes you wear on Sundays; it’s a worldview, a way of life. Evangelical counselors can no more separate themselves from their beliefs than skunks can separate themselves from their smell.

If Evangelicals want Christian counselors to talk to, that’s fine. That said, pastors and counselors should be required to tell counselees the extent of their training and licensure. And this goes for Evangelicals who are licensed social workers. Such people can’t work in secular settings unless they are willing to build a wall between their religious beliefs and accepted counseling practices. Unfortunately, many Evangelical social workers feel led by God to reach those in need with the gospel and teachings of the Bible. Evangelical social workers know they can’t outwardly and publicly share their faith, so they, instead, look for low-key, behind-the-scenes opportunities to put in a good word in for Jesus. For example, an Evangelical social worker with the welfare department might have a client whose pregnant and already has five young children. The woman asks the social worker what services and programs are available to her. A conscientious social worker would tell the overburdened woman about ALL her options — including abortion. The Evangelical social worker, however, is anti-abortion, so she refers the woman to the local pro-life crisis pregnancy center.

There are countless ways a counselor’s Evangelical beliefs can get in the way of competently helping a client. In the above-mentioned scenario, the social worker committed malpractice and should be fired and have her license revoked. As for the counselor mentioned by Troy, I would want to know where he received his training and licensure. As far as his religious approach to counseling being superior and producing “better” results than secular counseling, I would want more than anecdotal stories to prove his claims. For Christians, Jesus ALWAYS produces superior results, so I suspect that this man likely doesn’t have empirical evidence to back up his claims. He just knows it to be true!

About Bruce Gerencser

Bruce Gerencser, 62, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 41 years. He and his wife have six grown children and twelve grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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  1. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    In the city where I live, there is an extremely well-regarded Catholic university. It isn’t top tier, but up there. The business, law, and engineering schools are all very good. Not surprisingly, it is run by Jesuits. When science conflicts with the Bible, these guys pray seriously, find an excuse, and go with the science. The school has secular accreditation.

    I know about it because I was once a computer engineer, and took several classes toward an MS Engineering degree. Most classes were held at 7 am or 6:30 and 8:30 pm, to serve a working student body. I had some great teachers, but in the end I couldn’t handle some of the more esoteric math and dropped out. Jesus or the Holy Spirit were never mentioned. ( I later got an MS in geology, which is much more fun and uses simpler math unless you’re a geophysicist., but from a state school. This university is pricey.)

    I know undergrads must take religion classes, but they can choose to study things like World Religions if they choose. Students are not presumed to be Catholic. This is a kind of religious school that doesn’t bother me.

  2. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    “on more than a few occasions, the woman would tell the group that if they truly wanted deliverance from their addictions, then JESUS was the answer. She would then invite the group to visit her church, where the — wink-wink — “real” answers could be found.”
    And this is finally the problem, believers spilling their Jesus-poison over clients, saying it isn’t poison at all and is finally the answer. Even where Christianity is warm and fuzzy, even with addictions therapists and family counsellors, the descent into Christian advice is highly toxic. Nevertheless, the substitution of one toxic substance for another might be ‘life-saving’ and countless drunks credit their Christian enlightenment with sobriety. I don’t reject trading-up in addictions at all but it is a dangerous business. I wonder if there is any research in following addicts who feel they were saved by Jesus and then beat their booze or drugs? What is the recidivism rate, I wonder. Is it comparable to other ‘treatments’?
    Where I live in B.C. Canada, the indigenous people speak of the ancestors as the low-lying clouds over the tops of the hills in the valley region. They are there to watch over us and inform our lives. To me it is hocus-pocus but not necessarily harmful because it exists as a mataphor for memory and connection, for loving bonds that are passed down among us through the generations. It does not insist that one prostrate oneself and admit one is a piece of fallen dung etc. so that the love can be had. Evangelical Christianity is another drug in our culture. But it is an accepted one and offered with tax-free status!

  3. Avatar
    Carol Dworkowski

    “However, it is important to ask who, exactly, is the accrediting body”

    This is excellent advice.

    Unfortunately, American Evangelicalism has, in many, perhaps most, cases become more of a cult than a legitimate religious tradition. Perhaps that is why so many Evangelicals have no problem supporting Republicans whose party has become a personality cult even though Trump has consistently demonstrated the polar opposite of Christlike qualities by his speech and actions.

    This website may be a resource for researching the ethics policy of accrediting bodies:

  4. Avatar

    Bruce, regarding your question, “where he received his training and licensure”:

    The man in question got his masters at Faith Baptist Theological Seminary. According to their website on the issue of accreditation:

    “Faith Baptist Bible College and Theological Seminary has both regional and national accreditation. In fact, Faith is one of only a few Bible colleges achieving both kinds of accreditation. We are accredited regionally by the Higher Learning Commission and nationally by the Association for Biblical Higher Education.”

    Here’s was the Christian counselor’s response to me:

    “I let anyone who is interested know that and it is part of my intake form. The majority of people interested in biblical counseling are not interested in secular counseling I think the website does a good job of explaining more details.”

    My answer to him: (Counselor’s name redacted) Despite having credentials from a non-accredited Biblical university I do not consider a Christian counselor a bona fide professional.

    His answer: “How about a Master’s Degree from accredited seminary? I thought a professional is anyone who gets paid for services? Sadly, I have counseled several people who have gone to “professional counseling” and did not get help with their problems and then after getting biblical counseling, there needs are addressed and met within anywhere from 3-10 sessions.”

    In addition besides people questioning an atheist’s (Bruce) “biased” advice on Christian counseling, there was this from one of the moderators of the Facebook group.

    (Moderator’s comment): To be clear it isn’t just religious based counseling that doesn’t need a license. The term counselor or counseling doesn’t fall into a licensed category.

    (Counselor’s response): “this is the definition of counsel: Advice; opinion, or instruction, given upon request or otherwise, for directing the judgment or conduct of another; opinion given upon deliberation or consultation. Everyone is a counselor, the Bible is book full of counsel, so, I totally agree that you don’t need a license to counsel someone. We give advice to our children, at work, etc.”

    (My response) This is incorrect, though there are several exceptions including clergy (as mentioned), certain volunteers, etc.
    mcl-368-1978-15-181 (Citation for the Michigan law on counseling)

  5. Avatar

    I am a Christian, Evangelical background. When I was going through my divorce I went to a Christian counselor through the PCA if memory serves me correctly. My ex husband was an extremely legalistic professed Christian and a very abusive man. I was very alarmed when the counselor said that it was being Biblically submissive to allow my ex to control money as a way of punishing me. I disagreed with him and told him that what my ex was doing was pure abuse. I think all counselors should be very upfront about their credentials and their philosophy. The gentleman counselor in question was very helpful and encouraging to me about the daunting task of becoming a single mother. You get bad and good in secular and Biblical counseling.

  6. Avatar
    Sarah Leitner

    I am a state licensed counselor in South Carolina. I am a Christian. The lady who did the wink wink should lose her license. Those of us who follow state ethics codes and national standard codes (Such as American Counseling Association) would choke at that lady. Boundaries are a major issue if client attends same church

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Bruce Gerencser