Ask Richard: A Christian Psychology Student is Dissatisfied with Her Christian College

Note: When a letter writer signs with their first name instead of a pseudonym, I randomly change their first name to add another layer of privacy.

Hi Richard,

I am currently getting my Master’s in Counseling. I am a Christian, but have never gone to a Christian school until now. The degree is broad enough that I would be able to work in either secular or Christian counseling. My license would be simply Licensed Mental Health Counselor and my degree would be Masters of Science in Counseling Psychology.

I am not exclusionary and it is bothering me that I feel like I will only be able to administer to Christians. I’m thinking about stopping and switching to a secular college. While I want God involved in my counseling, I believe that I don’t have to be a “Christian Counselor” for that to happen. I don’t like the narrowness I feel, at the same time I do not know if I will be able to treat the whole person (including the spiritual/soul) without learning from a biblical perspective (even saying that makes me twinge a bit – ugh).

I feel that being surrounded by only Christians in a school setting limits my experience by the narrowness of diversity. I am also not confident in the academic excellence of this school. I’m afraid that because they put God first, that the academics suffers. An example of this is spending the first 30 minutes of class focused on prayer requests. I understand not all of the teachers do this, but this has been my experience thus far.

Mostly, the school (and Christian Counseling in general) emphasizes treating the “whole person”, the spiritual as well as the mental, however I find the teaching to be limited, because it is not taking into account other religions or non-religious people. I am afraid of reaching the sexuality class and having people talk poorly about gay people. I guess what I am saying is I bought their philosophy up front, but as I go through it, the reactions and comments from some of the students, well, to put it simply, they are making me crazy. For instance, if the teacher says something about a person being an atheist, I don’t want to see the person in front of me shaking their head in disapproval. That bothers me. I like the idea of coexisting.

In sum, can I counsel and treat holistically, treating the whole person (including spiritual – not necessarily Christian) as a secular counselor? I just want to do a good job and help people. And I am afraid I would be less able to do so if I label myself as a Christian Counselor. Wouldn’t I automatically be turning away a ton of people? Anyways, I hope the answer is yes, I can be an effective counselor, because I am not impressed with the lack of diversity in the school and the one religion focus (what did I expect, though).

I’m sorry for being so long-winded. It’s a complex issue for me, and I am very confused. I am usually not this confused.
Any thoughts?

Thanks,
Cathy

Dear Cathy,

I commend you for your open-minded and inclusive attitude, and for valuing academic excellence over doctrine. I’m sure you’ll make a first-rate counselor, and you’ll be able to help people with a wide variety of needs. It’s because your heart is in the right place. You care about people, not just Christian people.

From your description, it sounds like you will be much more comfortable and satisfied in a qualified secular college than where you are now. It sounds like you have already made that decision, but perhaps you are hesitant for reasons of attachment. It is clear that you are far too broadminded to fit in so narrow a space as your present school. At a secular school, you’ll be able to study various religions, you’ll meet people with many viewpoints, and you’ll be more prepared to respond to the needs of many different kinds of people.

I’ll go over your questions that you asked at the end of your letter:

Can I counsel and treat holistically, treating the whole person (including spiritual – not necessarily Christian) as a secular counselor?

Yes, you can treat the whole person. As a secular counselor, you let the clients show you through their world. They will first describe to you their presenting problem, and your basic counseling skills will help the two of you to explore that and to shed light on what other challenges are at the root. Sometimes the best response to the problem will be straightforward, and sometimes it will be complex and multi-layered.

When it comes to whatever may be their spiritual lives, they will guide you, rather than you guiding them. Secular counseling means that you address spiritual or religious issues if they are applicable to the changes the clients need to make, rather than as a presumed guiding framework. That way you can be of help to people from all paths, spiritual or not.

I was able to effectively counsel people who came from faiths with which I was familiar, as well as faiths with which I had no experience at all. Some clients were very devout in their various faiths, some where only mildly involved, and some were not religious at all. If it was an important part of their lives, I simply asked them to teach me what role their faith played in their lives in general, what role it played in the challenges which had brought them to want counseling, and what role it might play in their solutions to those challenges.

In every case, my genuine interest and compassion for them came through, and they felt comfortable helping me to understand. It did not matter that I didn’t personally share their beliefs, because I always easily and sincerely accepted their beliefs a part of them. I’d ask if this idea or that idea would be of help to them in their problems. If yes, then I’d ask them to tell me how it would. If not, then we’d just set that aside and go on to find another way to approach their challenges.

My overall principle was to be pragmatic: Whatever works. Find whatever works to help the client become unstuck. Be flexible and adaptable to whatever works to help them grow, and eventually be able to solve their own problems. Work yourself out of a job, client by client.

As I’m sure you know, a secular counselor is not necessarily an atheist counselor. Most people have some religious beliefs, and counselors are the same. As secular professionals, they know how to set their personal religious views aside and to be of help to their clients regardless of any differences in their beliefs. If the client’s beliefs are similar, it is important to be sure to let them take the lead in the exploration of their spiritual lives. If you were to take the lead, then you would be in the role of a pastor, and that would be ministering, not counseling.

Secular counseling works not because a client has found a counselor with matching beliefs, views or experiences. It works because the client has encountered a person who can accurately empathize with them, who is genuine and honest with them, who sincerely respects them as people, accepts them as they are, and simply cares about them. That experience loosens up their own stifled or damaged abilities to empathize, to be genuine and honest, and to be respectful, accepting and caring. They gradually start to apply those skills to themselves and to their relationships. Once they are well practiced at those, then they are on their way, and you begin the process with another client.

Your ability to be empathic, genuine, honest, respectful, accepting and caring may wholly or in part come from your practice as a Christian. Mine comes from just deeply loving my own species. Wherever you get those qualities doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have them.

Wouldn’t I automatically be turning away a ton of people?

Yes. If you were to advertise yourself as a Christian counselor, you would be viewed as a specialist. Only clients who want and expect a very particular approach would come to you. You would have more leeway in religious discussions with them, but you would be limited to one religious view, and you would probably be expected to limit your views of worldly matters to your religion’s views.

Cathy, consider two scenarios that you will probably encounter:

1. A client comes to you saying that her Christian faith has faded away over the last few years, and that she has become an atheist. Her religious family has found out, and they have been appallingly heartless in their rejection and abuse of her. She is really hurting, and is considering faking her believing again just to stop all the harassment. Can you help this client to stop suffering and to explore possible ways to negotiate better relationships with her family, without trying to get her back into the Christian fold? If yes, if her suffering and her integrity are what you focus on, then you’ll be an excellent counselor.

2. A client comes to you saying that he is gay, and he is very conflicted about his Christian beliefs. Do you try to help him to stop being gay, or try to help him stop being conflicted? If the former, go take Human Sexuality I, II, and III all over again. If the latter, you’ll be an excellent counselor.

Cathy, You demonstrate in your letter many of the qualities that good counselors have. I think that your own spiritual life will nurture your secular counseling practice, and your secular practice will in return, nurture your spiritual life. I wish you the best of both.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • liz

    my psychology teacher was just talking about this sort of thing.
    To be a good and affective counselor you have to completely separate your own beliefs from those of your patients.

    What if someone came into your office and told you they were in counseling because they had killed someone and spent 6 years in prison. would you judge that person? or would you still value them as a person despite what they had done?

    you cant expect someone to trust you if you dont even value them as a person. I honestly dont see how anyone can be an affective counselor if they shake their heads at the mere word ‘atheist’.

    I wouldnt label yourself as Christian, because unless you are counselor specifically for a christian organization or a church, it really should have nothing to do with the way you treat the people that come to you looking for help.

  • http://redheadedskeptic.com Laura

    I started my Master’s in Counseling at a Christian college. It was before I became an atheist. I chose the program because it was the only one anywhere near me that offered a dual LMFT and LPC license. I thought the entire time I was there that I would suck it up, learn it their way, then practice the way I wanted. I only lasted a year before I simply couldn’t stand it anymore, but you can definitely practice the way you want. My style of therapy didn’t match any of the ones we learned about, really, but my professors liked it (too bad they didn’t like ME! haha!). Just pick a style that matches as close as you can get for your boards, then practice how you want. Most therapists combine styles anyways.

    While you won’t get any diversity in your school, most people get it in their internships and practicums. Just choose a secular site. Ask therapists there for advice. I really understand exactly what you’re talking about, because I’m pretty sure you’re going to the school I went to, haha. :D One of my friends there once leaned over to me and said, “I think I’m just going to do Christian counseling, because that’s all they’re teaching us, and I don’t know how to do anything else.” She graduated and is working in a secular office, so I know it can work. If you can transfer, go for it. I ended up dropping out completely because transferring would have required me to start completely over from scratch, as the way it works in my state is that the state requires a certain number of hours, but only a few of those hours have to be specific classes. The rest are up to the school.

    Sorry to write a book.

  • JulietEcho

    Excellent advice from Richard, and excellent hypothetical situations to consider.

    I was sent to a Christian counselor by my Christian parents when I was fifteen, in order to treat the early stages of an eating disorder. The counselor focused on a religious framework based on his own religious beliefs, and I did not feel comfortable expressing my doubts. I made no connection with him and completely clammed up.

    I ended up spending six more years in various hospitals and therapy programs to treat what became a serious eating disorder. I can’t help wondering – if my parents had sent me to a secular counselor, would my disorder have been nipped in the bud?

    It sounds like the writer doesn’t want to be a Christian counselor, so it’s important for her to learn how *not* to involve her religious beliefs inappropriately in her counseling. That might be possible to learn at her Christian school and through internships, or it might be safer to transfer.

    As a result of my own experience, I think it’s always unwise and unethical to send minors to Christian counselors. If a child or teenager is doubting their faith, many Christian counselors will end up alienating them, making them feel judged and ultimately being unable to help them. This is both unfair to the patients and extremely dangerous when self-destructive or violent urges are in play.

  • llewelly

    The “treat the whole person” bit originated in the so-called alternative medicine community. It was intended to imply that medicine does not treat the whole person, while “alt” medicine does. There are two problems with it – first, medicine treats all that is sufficiently understood to be treatable, and second, that so-called alternative medicine does not treat anything. Unfortunately – lots of other groups have decided the phrase sells well, and it has spread to many others who do not know its origins, or understand its effects. It’s a disease.

  • llewelly

    And I am afraid I would be less able to do so if I label myself as a Christian Counselor. Wouldn’t I automatically be turning away a ton of people?

    Having had many dreadful experiences with Christian Counselors as a teenager, I would never knowingly be a patient of someone who labeled themselves as a Christian Counselor. Nor would I continue speaking to someone who brought up Christianity during a counseling session with me.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I would think that most Christians would also not want to go to a “Christian Counselor” (which means evangelical counselor). Most of my Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopalian friends would choose a secular counselor any day. My Baptist friends, though, would probably prefer a “Christian counselor”. (Yeah, I know a lot of different kinds of Christians). You might find yourself just counseling Baptists (and other like-minded evangelicals) if you end up becoming a “Christian Counselor”.

    Good luck. Just in asking the questions (here) you are demonstrating that you have the potential to be a really good secular counselor no matter how you are trained.

    By secular, I mean to help the patient find ways that apply to the patient to solve their own problems.

  • Linda

    Richard,

    Thank you for another excellent and thought-provoking post.

    Cathy said,

    I just want to do a good job and help people. And I am afraid I would be less able to do so if I label myself as a Christian Counselor.

    I don’t know if that would necessarily be the case. If all the rational and level-headed people left Christian counseling, who would be left to counsel the teens like those in the two comments:

    I was sent to a Christian counselor by my Christian parents when I was fifteen…

    Having had many dreadful experiences with Christian Counselors as a teenager…

    It is very unfortunate that so many people receive such bad Christian counseling. As adults, they now have a choice, but what about the teens who will receive no counseling at all if not for the Christian counseling? And others who feel the pressure from their church leaders to stay away from secular counseling?

    As far as the scenarios set forth by Richard, I am inclined to think that you will have the same choices as a Christian counselor as well.

    As Richard pointed out, it sounds as though you have already made up your mind, which is completely understandable. But a thought that came to mind is that it would not be a bad idea to learn the mindset and the counseling methods that you do not agree with in order to help those who are bombarded with such nonsense.

    That said, I don’t know if I, myself, could continue in the program if I were in your situation.

  • littlejohn

    What exactly would a “Christian counselor” urge anyone to do, except pray harder?
    Besides, we already have a whole Christian counseling system set up right here. It’s called AA, and it has a massive failure rate, at least 95%, and that’s what they admit.
    “Christian counselor” is an oxymoron.

  • Vas

    “Most people have some religious beliefs…”
    Richard

    While this may be true,please keep in mind millions of people have no religious beliefs whatsoever.

    “Can I counsel and treat holistically, treating the whole person (including spiritual – not necessarily Christian) as a secular counselor?”

    As mentioned above this “holistic” business can be a dicey bit and has it’s roots in “alt” medicine. That being said, the notion has gained favor in traditional western medicine although the definition in this scope is a bit different. As defined in the mainstream it has come to be understood that “holistic” refers to the psychological, physical, and social aspects of a persons disease/disorder. Please understand that this notion of a “spiritual” component is something you bring to the table by way of your religious bias and has no basis in science whatsoever as it is not quantifiable. Spirituality is not a universally accepted notion and not everyone needs or has a “spiritual life”. When Christians speak of spiritual matters the term becomes loaded and has strong implications of the notion of a person’s soul and this is the province of theology not science. If it is your intent to work with a broad clientele you may wish to examine your understanding and definition of the notion of the “spiritual” and decide if you wish to embrace evidence based treatment or alternative treatment in your notion of the term “holistic”. You may find that the field of psychology is a proper setting for alternative definitions as much of psychology is in fact not evidence based but relies heavily on social norms in place of facts. Take for example the DSM and the definition of paraphilia which included homosexuality as a disorder until 1980, this is a good example of a definition relying on a normative rather than evidential standard. Many Christian counselors still consider homosexuality a paraphilic mental disorder based on normative standards, (and in open defiance of the DSM)and attempt to reconcile the “disorder” by relying heavily on the “spiritual” aspects of the person undergoing treatment, despite the evidence that this “treatment” is ineffectual. The same can be said of most parapheilic “mental disorders” even though they are still, (I believe wrongly) part of the DSM. In the end psychology is a diverse field and no single psychologist should expect to be able to work with all people, your task is to decide how broad or narrow your practice will be and how dependent on your Christian world view your practice will be. In any case you would not be doing yourself or your future clients a disservice by broadening your educational base to include non-theocentric approaches to your practice.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    LittleJohn, I’m not sure what they teach in the “Christian college” but in evangelical theology, you are suppose to lift your problems up to God to solve (since God is all powerful). It goes on that we humans are weak and can’t solve things for ourselves without sinning. Evangelical theology also buys a bit into “prosperity gospel” where if you give to the church, you will be rewarded in kind. For example, if you tithe till it hurts, then money might end up falling in your lap due perhaps to some relative leaving you something in a will. If not then God will be “with you” in your time of trouble. It has been designed (or evolved) to perpetuate a sense of dependency which is good for the church.

    Secular counseling has other objectives. To help people help themselves (which is not exactly what the evangelicals preach).
    I hope that “Christian counseling” borrows some ideas from secular counseling and isn’t solely an application of pure evangelical theology.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Good advice, Richard. I also want to add this point:

    …can I counsel and treat holistically, treating the whole person (including spiritual – not necessarily Christian) as a secular counselor

    Honestly — I think that depends.

    You may have clients who don’t believe in spirituality. At all. I don’t. It’s not just God that I don’t believe in. I don’t believe that I have a soul. I believe that consciousness is an entirely material, biological process.

    So however you proceed with your career, I think you’ll need to be honest with yourself — and with your potential clients — about how well you can treat “the whole person” if that person doesn’t believe they have a soul. And I think you’ll need to be honest with yourself about how you’ll handle it if a formerly spiritual client moves away from their spirituality in the course of their work with you.

    I don’t think this is an insurmountable barrier. I think atheist/ materialist counselors can be good counselors with believers, and vice versa. But since this “whole person, including their spirituality” approach seems important to you, regardless of whether you pursue Christian or secular counseling, I think the question of what “the whole person” means to non-believers is going to be an important one for you.

  • Parse

    Lisa,
    The problem with “Christian counseling” is that you go (or are sent there) to receive a specific type of therapy. I can only imagine how JulietEcho’s or llewelly’s parents would react if they find out that their child is getting better by empowering themselves instead of by relying on God to fix their problems for them. “Cathy” would soon find herself out of clients and out of a practice.

  • JulietEcho

    Parse said:

    I can only imagine how JulietEcho’s or llewelly’s parents would react if they find out that their child is getting better by empowering themselves instead of by relying on God to fix their problems for them.

    I’ve never talked to my parents about the Christian counselor they initially sent me to. I don’t know if they’d defend the decision or not, honestly, but I do know that they’re happy I’m recovered now, and they know I’ve been an atheist for about six years.

    I don’t feel it’s necessary to try to convince them that it was a bad decision (although I obvious think it was), because my siblings and I are all adults now, so I’m not worried that they’ll inflict that situation onto another child. I do tell anyone looking for advice about child/teen counseling that they should ALWAYS find a secular counselor with a good specialty fit and reputation – not a pastor or a counselor who meets their religious criteria.

    When the health and life of a minor is concerned, and the parents are making the choice, they should always err on the side of ensuring the best chance for health. In these situations, that means choosing a secular counselor and not someone who carries the unnecessary risk of alienating the kid or preaching to them when they need cognitive therapy.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Notmyname

    Cathy, Last year I was encouraged to seek counseling for some sexual assaults that occurred years ago. I was in a very vulnerable state at that time. When I did undergo the counseling sessions, the therapist never once mentioned god, and if she had, I would have walked out immediately. Sometimes the whole person doesn’t need treatment. My spirituality, or lack of it, was perfectly intact.

    I have not read all the comments, but I believe one person said that you must keep your beliefs separate from the client’s. I agree. Therapy is about the client, and what he or she needs help with. It doesn’t matter what your beliefs are, you can’t have any sort of agenda other than to help your clients.

    In short, be a Christian on your own time. Be a therapist on the client’s time.

  • Linda

    The problem with “Christian counseling” is that you go (or are sent there) to receive a specific type of therapy. I can only imagine how JulietEcho’s or llewelly’s parents would react if they find out that their child is getting better by empowering themselves instead of by relying on God to fix their problems for them. “Cathy” would soon find herself out of clients and out of a practice.

    I think the important part of any form of counseling is the “getting better.” I would like to believe that most parents, Christian or otherwise, would send their children to counseling for the primary purpose of improving their emotional health. Why on earth would they criticize a counselor for making their kids better?

    I do understand your point, however, and do not disagree (sadly). But it will never change unless Christians like Cathy and others who disagree with the system voice their concerns and be heard.

    Secular counselors cannot change Christian counseling. Only Christian counselors themselves can.

  • Jüri

    I’d say that “poor learning conditions” can always be seen as advantage – to learn. What not to do or how not to behave.

  • http://phillycheesecake.etsy.com Evil Seedlet

    I haven’t gone through therapy but I was/am considering it to hep deal with some things in my past.. It’s really hard here in Oklahoma to find a therapist that doesn’t somehow include God however. And I know I would never consider going to one that ever even so much at hinted in healing through God. I think if one wanted to be open to helping as many people as possible, I would stay as far away from labeling myself as a Christian counselor as I could. But I would also make it clear that I was religion friendly as to make sure people knew you could help them with their spiritual side too, if need be.

  • absent sway

    I had a close loved one struggling with depression a few years ago and was looking for help (this is when I was still rather strongly evangelical in my outlook). I considered asking for help or direction from my church and decided against it because I was ultimately too afraid that a Christian counselor would guilt my loved one about not going to church enough, or think that this person just needed more prayer and Bible study. We did so much prayer and Bible study on our own and it clearly was not enough and I feared for my loved one’s life. Even as a Christian, when I feared for someone’s life I looked for secular options.