Today marks the end of the 2007-8 school year for our MA Counseling students. Some have completed their final credits and others are half-way to their diplomas but I’m sure all are glad the school year is over.
Our students here do fieldwork in a variety of settings: churches, christian private practices, nonprofit social services (hospice, pregnancy centers), and secular or state/federal financed mental health facilities. Those who work in secular settings are often faced with questions about their faith from colleagues and supervisors. Are they going to try to get their clients saved? Will they leave their faith at the door? And students struggle to know what to do with helping clients in some ways (new communication skills) but not being able to help them in deeper ways (putting trust in God during difficult times). Just how should Christians working in secular mental health agencies function?
First, I very much believe that Christians should be in all aspects of society if they have any hopes of being salt and light in the world. Far too frequently we sequester ourselves from the world and then wonder why they persist in using caricatures of us.
So, if we are going to be in the world but not of it, how might we do it as counselors in a secular setting? I suggest 3 things to consider as we interact with supervisors/colleagues, clients, and our own self:
1. When dealing with an Agency/Supervisor/Colleague
- Get to know your context and its/their history with Christians and Christianity
- When you hear slams or other suspicious questions be sure to explore the “back story” and validate, if appropriate, the bad experiences with naive or offensive behaviors by Christians
- Discern who you might be able to have a reasonable conversation with regarding the nature of faith and psychology, philosophy of science, ethical care of people (including the exploration of their faith traditions), and the fact that all counseling is evangelistic to some construct of health). In this conversation be sure to using starting points that the other will understand (e.g., ethics, empirical evidence, concerns, etc.) just as St. Paul does at the Areopagus.
- Communicate that you do not see your job as coercing anyone. You are not responsible for our clients behavior, neither are we for their beliefs. When we raise questions about faith it is to provoke their thinking a bit further
2. When dealing with clients
- Be sure to ask early in clinical work about faith traditions, current practices, and experiences. These questions fit with what the AMA suggest as important for healing, as community and spiritual resources are quite powerful in the medical literature
- When given an opening (e.g., questions about God, faith, etc.) pursue gently NOT with statements but questions that may reveal further beliefs, fears, wants, desires, demands, etc.
- Further, ask how they came to believe what they do believe
- Point out inconsistencies in belief/behavior; raise possibilities, pros/cons, potential places for hope that may lead to further discussion of God’s handiwork in their lives; Point out places where they seem to recognize their inability to love enough, tolerate enough (gently of course)
- Be wary of the habit of “telling” others the truth. Many times clients already know the “right” answer. Exhortations may be useful at times but more often than not they cause individuals to become passive–even when they agree with your point.
- Be ready to answer their questions about YOUR faith with honesty (e.g., what does belief in God look and feel like when everything is caving in?). Be sure not to sugarcoat the Christian life. Be ready to talk about your hope in a broken world (not just for eternity but for now)
- And if you do talk about your faith, immediately turn it back to them for them to react, explore, challenge, etc.
3. To ourselves
- Answer the following questions
- Can I work with integrity within this system?
- Is giving a “cup of cold water” (e.g., better communication skills) enough for right now?
- Can I defend what I do say about the Christian faith in my sessions?
- Am I giving the impression that I believe that there are many ways to God?
- Develop a theology of mercy ministry akin to God’s providing rain, sun, and health to the just and unjust alike