By Dr. John Spoede, LPC-S, LCDC, NCC, CSC
This article will be in many ways the story of my own journey of faith and understanding. Looking back, even to some of my early life, I can see how my calling and experiences have led me to this point. I have learned to rely on my faith and the purpose that God developed in me through my previous years of ministry and all of the other opportunities He has provided to me.
Although I became a Christian when I was quite young, my faith and dedication to know God and to serve him has not waned. It was the driving force behind the decisions I made regarding my calling in life and, as a result, my education. I see this faith as the core of everything. This is not a unique view. Some of the most gifted Christian counselors I have worked with have also surrendered their lives to the call of ministry. In my experience, Christian counseling is not just an occupation, but a calling. The Lord wants to use trained professionals to speak truth into the lives of His children or potentially to lead the lost to the true healer, Jesus Christ.
I remember my call to ministry like it was yesterday. I was a youth intern, attending university and on track to graduate as a pre-med student. I attended a youth revival sponsored by my childhood church in my hometown. During the altar call, I felt the presence of the Lord on me, calling me to surrender my med-school plans in exchange for God’s calling on my life. I went to the altar, bowed, and prayed, and wrestled with God. I wrestled with my calling and asked Him for his favor and blessing and that I did not want to surrender unless He was going to go with me and before me and protect my path. I also told God that I needed a clear sign of His anointing on my life and ministry for his kingdom. At that exact moment, I felt an anointing drop on the back of my head. At first, I thought that it was a tear from someone else at the altar (and in all honesty, that is probably the vehicle that God used to communicate with me in that moment), but as I sat in the presence of the Lord, I realized it was His holy anointing on my life and ministry. I can testify to God’s faithfulness more than 20 years later.
I also remember the development of my calling. My first full time job in ministry was at midsized First Baptist Church. I had just completed my undergraduate degree and was praying about which master’s degree to pursue. As I met with students in my youth ministry and with their families, I began to realize that I was not properly equipped to truly help with so many of their needs. At the direction of my senior pastor, I found myself repeatedly referring church members to a professional counselor. In situations where people were dealing with divorce, addiction, suicide or domestic violence, they needed more than someone to read the Bible with them and pray—though that was also essential. They needed a professional counselor. But I became frustrated, knowing that qualified Christian counselors were hard to find and hating to send my church family into a secular world that would not address their deepest spiritual needs. I began to feel called to pursue a Master of Education in Counseling degree. I faced obstacles in reconciling this path with my call to ministry, not least because many ministers and valued mentors could not understand why I was choosing this path rather than the typical Master of Divinity path to ministry. However, these 18 years later, I have been blessed in my life and ministry for being obedient to God’s calling and plan for my life, even though it has not been typical.
I have had the privilege of serving in ministry for over 20 years in positions of Family Ministry Associate, Senior Pastor, and Minister to Families and Youth. I was also honored by being named Pastor Emeritus at a church I served in for 15 years. I have worked for more than 10 years at a Christian counseling center, and I worked for 11 years as a school counselor and teacher. I have also served as the Director for the Center for Research and Doctoral Studies and Assistant Professor at Houston Baptist University since 2015. Needless to say, I can only attribute these and many more experiences to the hand of God in my life and to His many blessings in my life.
My Experience with Christian Counseling
The field of Christian counseling is both old and new. Many would consider prophets of the Old Testament as counselors who enlightened the path of those to whom they delivered the Word of the Lord. On the other hand, I remember a time, in the not so distant past, where the field of counseling and the church were two very separate endeavors. Some believed that the Church was for declaring the Word of the Lord, for evangelism and salvation, baptism, and discipleship. The views held by one of the first churches I worked at—the idea that ministers must refer members to private counseling if their problems involved divorce, drugs, or thoughts of self-harm or suicide ideation because pastors did not deal with these types of issues as part of their ministry—was in no way uncommon.
There were also churches and ministers who believed that counseling was a purely secular and humanist pursuit that had no place in the church or even in the life of any true believer. But I had a philosophical problem with both of these approaches. I believed that Christians needed to be equipped and ready to help people through all of the struggles that life can entail, not only the ones that fit conveniently within our preferred church paradigm. After all, “On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’” (Mark 2:17; all scriptures in the article from the New International Version). I felt, as a Christian, that this calling meant that I must be prepared to meet the needs and be a help to all.
And so, despite these debates within the church, I started my pursuit of a master’s degree in counseling. Nearly 20 years later, I am credentialed in several areas. I am a Licensed Professional Counselor- Supervisor, a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor, a Certified School Counselor, and a National Credentialed Counselor. In my more than a decade of experience, I have found that there are few quality resources for Christian counseling practitioners.
Overview of Christian Counseling in Scripture
Although Christian counseling as a discipline within the church, and even within the mental-health field, is still developing, the ideas behind Christians counseling one another and the gifts that aid us in doing so have long been described in scripture. In fact, the Bible identifies several spiritual gifts that inspire the practice of Christian counseling.
When I consider spiritual gifts, I always think first of one of my favorite Bible passages: “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” (Romans 12:4-6a)
Among the gifts frequently seen in counselors are discernment, mercy, exhortation, words of wisdom, words of knowledge, pastoring, serving, and helping. Discernment, as seen in 1 Corinthians 12:10, allows counselors to distinguish truth amid confusion and error, and it allows them to determine the sources of certain behaviors and to work to align their client’s behavior with things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, or admirable (Philippians 4:8; Min Tools, 2017).
Exhortation is another spiritual gift that can frequently be used by counselors. This gift, as seen in Romans 12:8, allows counselors to come alongside their clients and help them by offering encouragement, wisdom, and comfort. Mercy, as seen in Romans 12:8, allows counselors not only to truly see where their clients are starting from, but see their clients with compassion and love and with hope and faith that they can improve. The gift of mercy is defined as being sensitive toward those who are suffering, feeling genuine sympathy with their misery, speaking words of compassion and caring for the hurting with deeds of love to help alleviate their distress (Min Tools, 2017).
Thinking about the gift of the Holy Spirit, I was especially struck by our duty to use those gifts, as explained in this passage from 1 Corinthians 12:
“Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gift of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.” (1 Corinthian 12:7-11)
Counselors frequently have spiritual gifts, like those listed above and more, such as sharing wisdom and discernment Christian counselors are called to use their gifts for the common good, for the welfare of our clients, and to glorify God. Or, as stated in 1 Peter 4:10, “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” Using the gifts of discernment or exhortation to counsel God’s people and address the needs of someone’s mind, body, spirit is a way to fulfill His calling to serve others and faithfully administer His grace.
It is also important to note that even spirit-given gifts can and should be developed. There are times when God, through the Holy Spirit, increases our gifts for a specific season. I also believe that as we use our spiritual gifts, our own faith is increased, and as our faith increases the expression of our spiritual gifts also increases. These ideas are the foundation of my understanding of Christian counseling as being more than just a profession but being a ministry and calling where spiritual gifts can be utilized and expressed for the glory of God.
Not only does scripture point to gifts and works of the Holy Spirit in leading us to counsel our brothers and sisters—it also indicates what the goal of faithful counseling should be. I always hope to help my clients grow and demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:22-23). This world, and even our own bodies and minds, can undermine our ability to experience these fully in our lives. Counseling can help when a person needs some sort of intervention to help get their life functioning again, and who better to help in the process than another Christian who is also walking the same journey.
Growing Need in Society
But sometimes being a Christian, being someone who loves the Lord, who has studied His word, and who has sought to practice His faith, is still not enough to help people in the midst of crisis. Sometime, Christians must push further still, to educate themselves as part of their worship of God and to learn more about human thought and behavior. However, there are not enough resources for Christian counselors.
In the Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief, Marsden (1996) chronicles the removal of Christianity from top research universities across the nation. At certain times in history, Christian scholarship was generally believed to be leading the field in almost every area, but Christians and Christian-influenced research has increasingly been relegated to the edges of current scholarship. It is my belief that Christian professionals and scholars need support now more than ever in being the salt and light, in being in the world, but not of it. Addressing the real mental health needs of our current society through the lens of Christ’s purpose and call on our lives is vitally important.
More than ever before, our culture is separated from God. That separation shows itself in increased concerns over at-risk behaviors such as drug abuse, violence, eating disorders, teen suicide, and bullying. This is not to mention the increased prevalence of actual diagnosis of mental disorders such as generalized anxiety disorders, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, and many more (American Psychological Association, 2013).
Overview of Christian Counseling Spectrum
In answer to this growing need in our society, Christians have taken their spiritual gifts and calling as followers of Christ to integrate their faith into counseling. However, it is notable that Christians were not the only ones to recognize the role that spirituality plays in mental health. The American Counseling Association has developed the Association for Spirituality, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC), which will be discussed in more detail later.
As a Christian, I also recognize that there are Biblical teachings which clearly state we are more than physical beings. Many times traditional counselors ignore a person’s spiritual health, which is directly related to overall mental health. It can be difficult to effectively treat someone’s mental health issues without also addressing the spiritual component. Even though Christian counselor almost uniformly agree that addressing spiritual concerns is important, they still do not all follow the same model of counseling.
Different types of Christian Counseling
As new fields develop and mature, they commonly experience debate and differing opinions on the proper implementation of the profession. The field of Christian Counseling is no different. Collins (1991a) states that “[t]he field of Christian Counseling is diverse and complicated” (p.3). Because the field of Christian counseling is complicated and diverse, it can be a hard field to understand. In the article, “Four Models of Counseling in Pastoral Ministry,” Dr. Timothy Keller, a pastor and not a counselor, outlines four models of counseling. He also explains the various Christian counseling models in a way that pastors and church leaders, who are not counselors, can begin to understand the field. Furthermore, he identifies which organizations support the model.
The first model discussed by Keller (2010) is the “Level of Explanation Model.” This model basically states that the Bible and psychology address different dimensions of human life. It is the model supported by the Christian Association for Psychological Studies (CAPS, 2017) and Fuller Seminary School of Psychology. The second model discussed by Keller (2010) is the “Integration Model.” This model states that the Bible and psychology both address “human nature, what’s gone wrong with it, and how it can be made right” (Keller, 2010). When the Bible and psychology conflict, the Christian counselor using this model allows for scripture to supersede what psychology states. This model is supported by the Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University in La Mirada, CA; American Association of Christian Counselors, and Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS according to Keller (2010).
The third model is the “Christian Psychology Model” (Keller, 2010). Keller (2010) states the bottom line for this model is that it has a “very strong critique of modern psychology, combined with a certain willingness to use psychological terms and techniques.” This model is supported by Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO.
The fourth and final model presented by Keller (2010) is the Biblical Counseling Model. The Biblical Counseling Model is also referred to as Nouthetic Counseling. In short, this model supports the sufficiency of scripture in the treatment of mental health issues and the healing process. This model generally approaches psychology and the use of psychological treatment with extreme caution. According to Keller (2010), this model is affiliated with the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC, 2017) and the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF, 2017). The National Association of Nouthetic Counselors changed its name in 2013 to the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC, 2017).
While Keller (2010) summarizes the field of Christian counselors in a clear and concise way for pastors, he also eludes to the differences that exist within the field. Many practitioners may identify themselves as “Christian counselors”; however, not everyone means the same thing when they use this term. Due to the wide range of diversity and discrepancies amongst various practitioners, it is hard for many to understand the distinctions that exist within the field.
It is also important to mention, at this point, that counselors in general have become increasingly aware of the importance of faith, religion, and spirituality in relation to therapy and the therapeutic process. In 1964, Drakeford, published a book titled Psychology in Search of a Soul: A Survey Study in the Psychology of Religion. This book is a foundational book in understanding the origins and early application of the psychology of religion.
In more modern times, the American Counseling Association (ACA, 2017) has endorsed the ASERVIC (Association for Spirituality, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling) competencies (2009). These competencies are designed to work in conjunction with the ACA code of ethics and are not Christian in nature. ASERVIC has been designed to allow the client to introduce and set boundaries on the use of religion and spirituality in the counseling session. This association, though secular in nature, further supports the integration of some of the principles discussed to this point, for clients interested in integrating these types of components in their therapeutic treatment.
All of these differing opinions about how to properly and ethically integrate faith, religion and spirituality point to several things. First, the field of Christian counseling is young and developing. Secondly, there is a need to have more outlets for more voices related to Christian counseling.
The development of the Christian counselor is critical to the success of Christian counseling as a whole. In fact, H Norman Wright (1986) wrote,
“The most important element in the counseling process is you! Yes, you, the person doing the counseling. That is not to negate the importance of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, or prayer, or the Word of God. What it does mean is that you, the counselor, either block the effectiveness of these other elements, or you are the vehicle that helps a person appropriate them for his or her life. The personal characteristics, beliefs and behavior of the counseling minister are the most important determinants of the success of counseling. This does not mean that the minister is a model of perfection, Rather, it means that he or she is in the process of growing and changing and incorporating with the Holy Spirit’s assistance those characteristics that produce maturity.” (p. 19).
While, I am not sure I am in complete agreement with the statement above, I do believe that the Lord chooses to work through people to bring about change and encourage hurt people to grow closer to God. Due to counselors being a vessel that the Lord uses, I believe it is important to train and equip them for the ministry they have been given.
John Spoede, PhD, LPC-S, LCDC, NCC, and CSC is an Assistant Professor of Education at Houston Baptist University. Dr. Spoede serves as Director of the Center for Research and Doctoral Studies at HBU. Dr. Spoede is an accomplished scholar who is dedicated to service of his community. Recently Dr. Spoede was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the Texas Counseling Association.
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[Editor’s Note: Christianity, Mind and Mental Health image from Van Gogh’s The Pietà (after Delacroix), 1889, found at Wikipedia Commons.]