Tag Archive: Christian Counseling

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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Beware of Christian Counselors

bible has all the answers

Originally published in February 2015. Edited, corrected, and expanded.

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

When counselors believe the Bible is an authoritative text, and the standard for moral and ethical conduct, it’s impossible for them to counsel someone objectively. No matter how much they tell themselves otherwise, sooner or later their religious beliefs will affect the advice they give to their clients. The skunk/smell analogy applies here. You can’t separate a skunk from his smell, and neither can you separate an Evangelical Christian from his or her presuppositions and beliefs.

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 that, based on my religious and moral beliefs, 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. 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. (A current example of this is Evangelical pharmacists who want the right to withhold morning-after drugs from women who might be pregnant.) However, there are some professions where people’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.

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, who regularly counseled people — both in and outside of their churches. In the twenty-five years I pastored churches, I never had one person ask me if I was qualified to be a counselor. If asked, I would have told them I took a one-semester counseling class that was more about debunking secular counseling than in techniques to help people. (The professor was a pastor who had no training in counseling.) I did, however, get an A in the class.

Many pastors don’t think they need specialized training to counsel people. After all, the inspired, inerrant, infallible Bible has the answer to every question and problem. All a pastor needs to do is figure out what the problem is and find the appropriate Bible verse that addresses the issue. Every difficultly is reduced to obedience/disobedience, sin/righteousness, God/Satan, flesh/spirit. These kinds of pastors are very dangerous because they give simplistic answers to complex problems. It is not uncommon to find pastors counseling congregants who have medically diagnosed conditions, but want “God’s help” to overcome their mental illness.

Before seeing a pastor for counseling, a prospective client should ask about his training and qualifications. Even if a pastor has college-level training, the value and extent of that training depends on where he got the training. Many Evangelical colleges have counseling programs that do little more than 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.”

Ponder, for a moment, the aim of nouthetic counseling: “to effect change in the counselee by encouraging greater conformity to the principles of Scripture.” In other words, get right with God, and obey the teachings of the Bible (as interpreted by the pastor/church). Imagine being a woman and seeing a pastor for counseling who just so happens to endorse patriarchal thinking, complementarianism, and quiverfull philosophy.  Women not indoctrinated in such teachings will find themselves at odds with their counselors (pastors) and churches. If a woman has egalitarian beliefs, what should she do? Her trusted advisor’s goal is not to “help” her per se, as much as it is to get her to conform to certain theological beliefs.

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 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 core issues and, in some cases, can lead to more problems, including suicide.

Imagine for a moment, an Evangelical woman going to her pastor for help. He listens to her “confession” and then 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, withstand the devil, etc. 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 provide counseling competently, and their commitment to the Bible keeps them from properly helping people. It’s one thing if people have questions about the Bible or are questioning their faith. Certainly, those people should seek out their pastor’s counsel on spiritual matters. However, many so-called “spiritual” problems are actually mental/physical/emotional problems which pastors dress up in religious garb. An untrained pastor has no business counseling people who have mental/physical/emotional problems.

Sadly, many people think pastors are experts on everything. Little do they know that many pastors aren’t even experts on the Bible, let alone anything else. Many Evangelical colleges have turned their pastor-training programs into business and marketing programs. Actual training in the fundamentals of the ministry and the Bible is often quite limited. Many pastors-in-training will graduate from college without ever having studied 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 counseling classes. Yet, because they have taken these classes, these pastors think they are qualified to be counselors. They may not be counselors, but they did stay at a Holiday Inn, right?  I know several pastors who got counseling degrees from Christian mail-order diploma mills (along with other advanced degrees, including doctorates). (Please see IFB Doctorates: Doctor, Doctor, Doctor, Everyone’s a Doctor) They proudly let everyone know that they have a degree in counseling and are qualified to counsel all comers, yet truth be told, they are as ignorant as backwoods moonshiners.

Over the years, I counseled hundreds of people. Not one time did I tell people 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. (Please see Barbara) I considered psychologists and psychiatrists to be enablers who encouraged people to continue in their sin.

In the late 1980s, 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 that 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 who ended 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. I now know that these women learned for themselves that the Bible was not the answer to their problems.

Most of the people I counseled learned to play the game that long-time Evangelicals are experts at playing; they learn to pretend. The Bible, God, praying, confession, and self-denial, are of little help to them; they can’t seek help outside the church, so they learn to fake having the “victory.” This leads them to live schizophrenic lives. Sadly, the person’s spouse, parent, or children know that their loved one doesn’t have the “victory” because, at home, that person can’t or won’t hide his or her mental health problems. It is one thing to pretend for an hour or two on Sundays, but 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 sin, the flesh, or whatever else the Bible and preachers said was “wrong” with me. 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 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 Evangelicalism 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 scars 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 similar pasts 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.

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.

Are you on Social Media? Follow Bruce on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for reading this post. Please share your thoughts in the comment section. If you are a first-time commenter, please read the commenting policy before wowing readers with your words. All first-time comments are moderated. If you would like to contact Bruce directly, please use the contact form to do so.

Donations are always appreciated. Donations on a monthly basis can be made through Patreon. One-time donations can be made through PayPal.

21 Things You Might Not Know About Evangelical Churches and Pastors

did you know

Most Americans are quite ignorant about the nature of Evangelical churches and their pastors (I use the word “pastor” as a general term that encompasses pastors, elders, missionaries, evangelists, et al.). Here are 21 things you might not know:

  1.  Churches, by default, are tax exempt. Churches do not have to apply for 501(c)(3) status in order to be exempt.
  2. In many states, churches are exempt from paying sales and real estate taxes.
  3. Anyone can start a church. (See How to Start an Independent Baptist Church) A church is a church if it says it is.
  4. In many states, churches can operate Christian schools, day cares, teen group homes, and boarding schools without ANY government licensure or oversight.
  5. In many states, Christian schools are exempt from all laws governing schools. (See How to Start a Non-Charted Christian School in Ohio and The Anatomy of an Unaccredited Christian School)
  6. In many states, churches can start colleges and grant degrees without ANY government licensure or oversight.
  7. Anyone can be a pastor. There are no educational or licensure requirements for becoming a pastor. A man is a pastor because he says he is.
  8. In many states, pastors can counsel people without having any training. In most states, pastors are not required to be licensed to counsel people.
  9. Pastors are permitted to opt out of paying social security tax. This means pastors don’t pay social security tax on their income and housing allowance.
  10. Pastors receive a housing allowance that is income tax-free.
  11. Pastors, in most instances, are treated as employees for income tax purposes and self-employed for social security purposes.
  12. Pastors can drive church-owned vehicles, thereby reducing their taxable income by thousands of dollars.
  13. The more expenditures churches pay on behalf of their pastors, the less income tax the pastors have to pay.
  14. For many pastors, their effective tax rate is quite low. Many pastors pay NO income tax, especially if they have a number of children.
  15. Pastors can incorporate, shielding themselves from liability and lawsuits.
  16. Churches can incorporate, shielding themselves from liability and lawsuits.
  17. Donations of money, personal goods, and property to churches are considered charitable, tax-deductible donations.
  18. Churches are exempt from filing non-profit tax returns.
  19. Churches are not required to do background checks on people who work with children and teenagers.
  20. There is no national database for pastors accused or found guilty of sexual abuse or other criminal behaviors.
  21. Many of the pastors who call themselves Dr. have honorary doctorates or doctorates from diploma mills. (See IFB Doctorates: Doctor, Doctor, Doctor, Everyone’s a Doctor)