Last Practicum Monday: Christian counselors in a secular world

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


Filed under christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, church and culture, counseling, counseling and the law, counseling science, counseling skills, Evangelicals, philosophy of science, Psychology, teaching counseling

3 responses to “Last Practicum Monday: Christian counselors in a secular world

  1. Scott Knapp, MS

    I think this is fabulous advice, and right on the money! When I moved to Philly to get my grad degree in biblical counseling, I intended a) to devote my efforts to unrestricted biblically-oriented counseling services, and b) never return to either Ohio or the secular therapy field ever again. None of those three intentions have come to fruition, and in fact the opposite has been my lot. I work as a therapist for a private not-for-profit organization, which takes public funds and theoretically is pretty much secularized. There are severe limits placed upon where I can venture with regard to spiritual matters, as far as my agency, and public placing agencies, are concerned…and every agency seems to have varying limits depending upon the attitudes of those at the top. I don’t have a lot of seasoned answers regarding how best to navigate these waters, but I’ve concluded one thing for myself. As a matter of integrity, when I agreed to come work for my secular employer, I agreed to work by their rules and limitations; I didn’t come into their employ with a hidden agenda to be a covert missionary in my therapeutic work, and I don’t think a commitment to avoid doing that interferes with Christ’s command to be as sly as a fox and innocent as a lamb. I don’t cloak my devotion to Christ, but I do limit the scope of my helping efforts, precisely because I trust that God is big enough to give me a job in the ministry field where I can fully devote myself to conscious, Bible-centered counseling, any time He chooses to take me out of the secular field. And when I do leave the secular field, I think I’ll have made a much more favorable impression as a Christian, than I would had my covert operation been discovered and denounced. That’s where my thinking on this matter is going these days.

  2. More than 20 years ago when I was relatively new to the counseling field, I was employed as a clinician by a large EAP in upstate New York, Cornell University being our largest contracting organization. I was the only evangelical Christian in an agency of more than 30 non-Christian professional counselors, in a small, ultra-liberal, highly educated city. Talking openly about my faith was a challenge, whether with clients or among my associates. However, I succeeded to win their respect and to make a contribution to people-helping, largely because I followed the same line of suggestions that you make, and I reframed my work as “pre-evangelistic” counseling. That is, by helping people to learn better relationship skills, I was helping to prepare them for a more successful relationship with God, should they ever have one. By helping clients learn about themselves, including their weaknesses and failures, I was preparing them for facing the biblical truth that they are sinners in need of a Savior. By affirming the good and positive in people, I was helping them to learn about how they are made in God’s image, even though I could not always tell them that. By teaching them self-reflective, self-expressive, and feelings-managment skills, I was helping them to develop resources that they could use to successfully walk with and serve God some day, should they become His children. In order for me to reframe my work in this way, I needed to understand and humbly accept the implications of 1 Cor. 3:5-9: “The Lord has assigned to each his task.” I could not be all things to all people–an important lesson for any young counselor, regardless of his or her worldview. What I could be is a loving light that shines through whatever cracks appear in the basket under which the secular employer has placed me (Lk. 11:33-36).

  3. D Stevenson

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

    Currently studying in a secular university with practicum in a secular setting beginning this fall and after graduation, who knows, this is a question I have been asking.

    I am thrilled to have found this blog and these posts.

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