Today Dr. Diane Langberg and I will be presenting Spiritual Abuse and Toxic Systems in a 3 hour pre-conference seminar at the 2017 AACC World Conference. Take a look if you like.
Category Archives: teaching counseling
Spiritual Abuse and Toxic Systems: Therapeutic and Congregational Interventions
Filed under Abuse, teaching counseling, trauma, Uncategorized
Why we need a theology of trauma
[Previously published April 2015 at http://www.biblical.edu. The faculty blog no longer exists there thus re-posting here]
We live in a world shaped by violence and trauma. This week that I write 147 Christian Kenyan university students were killed because of their faith. Such horrific forms of violence shock us. But they shouldn’t given that in our own country violence and trauma are everyday occurrences. While some of our local brothers and sisters face actual death, all of our communities are shaped by soul-crushing abuse and family violence. Take the most conservative numbers we have—1:6 males and 1:4 females have experienced sexual assault before age 18—and realize that a large portion of your friends and acquaintances have traumatic experiences.
In a congregation of 100, 20 of your fellow church members are walking around with invisible wounds of sexual violence on their bodies and souls. And that number says nothing about those walking around with other invisible wounds, such as caused by domestic violence, racial prejudice, sexism, bullying and the like. Were we to include these forms of interpersonal violence the number would likely reach 70!
As my friend Boz Tchividjian asks, what would the sermons and conversations look like if 20 of our mythical congregation of 100 had just lost a house in a fire or a child to premature death? Wouldn’t we be working to build a better understanding of God’s activity in the midst of brokenness rather than passing over pain as a mere hiccup of normal life?
Yet, we continue to imagine trauma as some sort of abnormal state.
Ruard Ganzevoort tells us that, “When one looks at issues like these, we must conclude that our western societies are to no less degree defined by violence and trauma, even if everyday life is in many ways much more comfortable” (p. 13). Thus, Ganzevoort continues, we must “take trauma and violence not as the strange exceptions to an otherwise ‘nice’ world” (ibid, emphasis mine). He concludes that while we have a strong theology for sinners, we have a less articulated theology for victims.
What if we were to read the Bible in such a way to build a theology of trauma for victims? What would it look like? I would suggest that Diane Langberg’s maxim sets the stage quite nicely: the cross is where trauma and God meet. Jesus cries out due to the pain of abandonment by the Father. Since we do have a high priest who understands our trauma (Hebrews 4:15), we can read the entire canon from the frame of trauma—from the trauma of the first sin and death to the trauma of the cross to the trauma just prior to the coming new heavens and earth.
Key Themes in a Theology of Trauma
Reading the Bible through the lens of trauma highlights a few key themes beyond the foundation of a God who Himself knows trauma firsthand in the unjust torture and death of Jesus:
Anguish is the norm and leads most frequently to questions
When more than 40% of the Psalms are laments (and that doesn’t count the primary themes of the prophets!) we must recognize that anguish is most appropriate forms of communication to God and with each other. But we are not alone in the feelings of anguish. God expresses it as well. Notice God expresses his anguish over the idolatry of Israel (Eze 6:9) and Jesus expresses his when lamenting over Israel (Luke 13:34) and cries out in questions when abandoned by the Father (by quoting—fulfilling—Psalm 22).
Despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.
Peace happens…in context of chaos
Psalm 23 comes to the lips of many during times of trouble as it expresses peace and rest during times of intense trouble. Shadows of death yet comfort; enemies around yet feasts. Peace happens but rarely outside of chaos and distress. Consider Jeremiah 29:11, frequently quoted to those going through hardship to remind them that God has a plan. He does have one, but recall that the plan was to live in exile among those who see the Israelites as foreigners and second-class citizens!
The kingdom of God in the present does not promise protection of bodies
Try reading Psalm 121 aloud among those who have survived genocide or been raped repeatedly by soldiers. “The Lord will keep you from all harm.” Really? You lost 70 family members? You cannot maintain your bladder continence due to traumatic injury to your bladder? Where was your protection? Our theology of God’s care must take into consideration that He does not eliminate disaster on those he loves. Recall again the trauma wrought on those God chose to be his remnant. They were the ones ripped from families and enslaved by the Babylonians.
God and his people are in the business of trauma prevention, justice, and mercy responses
The kingdom of God is not for those who have pure beliefs. The kingdom of God is for the poor in Spirit, the persecuted, those who provide mercy and those who hunger for justice (Matthew 5). True or pure religion is practiced by those who care for the most vulnerable among us (James 1:27). Jesus himself is the fulfillment of healing as he claims Isaiah 61 as fulfilled in his personhood and mission (Luke 4:18-21). We his people are the hands and feet to carry out that binding up and release from oppression.
Recovery and renewal during and after trauma likely will not eliminate the consequences of violence until the final return of Jesus Christ
Despite our call to heal the broken and free those enslaved, we are given no promise that the consequences of violence are fully removed until the final judgment. Rarely do we expect lost limbs to grow back or traumatic brain injuries to be erased upon recovery from an accident. Yet sometimes we assume that traumatic reactions such as startle responses, flashbacks, or overwhelming panic should evaporate if the person has recovered. A robust theology of trauma recognizes we have no promise of recovery in this life. What we do have is theology of presence. God is with us and will strengthen us guiding us to serve him and participate in his mission to glory.
There is much more to say about a theology of trauma for victims. We can discuss things like theodicy, forgiveness, restorative justice, and reconciliation. But for now, let us be patient with those who are hurting as they represent the norm and not the exception. And may we build a missional theology of trauma, not only for victims, but also for all.
 Ganzeboort, R. Ruard (2008). Teaching that Matters: A Course on Trauma and Theology. Journal of Adult Theological Education, 5:1, 8-19.
Two announcements: A transition and an upcoming trauma healing facilitator training in PHL
Yesterday I posted information about summer courses at BTS. I’m really excited about Heather Drew’s course that explores therapeutic activities beyond talking about our struggles. Do check that out! Today, I’m posting about an upcoming trauma healing facilitator training (initial and advanced equipping) being held here in Philadelphia May 1-4, 2017. More on that in a minute.
But first, a change…
For the last 17 years I have been teaching in and leading Biblical Seminary’s counseling programs (now housed in our Graduate School of Counseling). I know I’m very biased, but I think our programs deliver training that transforms—mature counselors who learn how to listen and walk with others through difficult times. Over the years we have been able to develop licensure and ministry-oriented counseling programs as well as the Global Trauma Recovery Institute. This last certificate program enables participants to enter into cultures and communities and support trauma recovery without causing harm.
I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, due in no small part to supportive administration, excellent students, and fantastic staff who every day make BTS look great! But, after months of thinking and praying, I have decided to step away from the leadership of the program and full-time employment at BTS. Beginning July 1 I will assume the position of Director of Training and Mentoring with the American Bible Society’s Mission: Trauma Healing. I have been partnering with the Bible Society since 2010 as the Co-Chair of the Advisory Council for ABS trauma healing programs. In this new venture I hope to have a closer role in supporting best practices in their train-the-trainer model of addressing trauma around the world.
If you are wondering why a psychologist would want to work as a trainer of lay and pastoral leaders in a Scripture-engagement trauma healing program, read this: 4 Reasons Why I Promote Scripture-Based Trauma Healing. Short answer? We can’t solve the world’s trauma if we don’t change the culture of conversation about trauma and faith. This program can do that.
Want to join me in equipping others?
May 1-4 ABS will run a local training for both initial and advanced equipping sessions designed to teach you how to lead healing groups and/or run equipping sessions to train others to lead healing groups. I will not be doing most of the training but I do hope to put in an appearance. This document will give you a bit of an overview. This one tells you about the role of the facilitator. And if you are already sold on the material and the mental-health informed training program, here’s where you sign up. Can’t attend now? Check thi.americanbible.org for dates of upcoming trainings here and in other parts of the world.
What is not changing about my role at BTS?
As the Thomas V. Taylor Visiting Professor of Counseling & Psychology, I will continue to teach the Global Trauma Recovery Institute’s curriculum with Dr. Diane Langberg. If you are looking for continuing education and specialization in trauma recovery, this mostly online curriculum may be right for you. In addition, I will provide additional support and teaching for BTS as they need it. However, under the leadership of Bonnie Steich, LPC, NCC, ACS, the existing faculty and staff will continue to deliver an exceptional curriculum.
Summer Counseling Institute @ BTS
The BTS Graduate School of Counseling has 2 course offerings this summer: a course on addictions and a course on counseling interventions that move beyond talk therapy. Both are equal to 1 credit or 9 CE credits for professional counselors. The addictions course (Jessica Hansford, LPC, CAADC) will be entirely online and delivered over the course of the month of July. The beyond talk therapy course (Heather Drew, LPC) will be delivered live July 21-22 at our Hatfield campus (with pre and post course work due for those who want graduate credit).
If you want to refresh your counselor knowledge and skills, both courses will give you some new ways to engage counselees.
Link above provides course descriptions. To apply, click here.
Can Mental Health Practitioners Predict Future Violence?
Yesterday, a gunmen killed five and wounded at least eight others at the baggage claim for a Florida airport. Initial news reports allege the shooter had recently experienced psychotic-like symptoms. I am sure that in the coming days we will learn more details about the shooting and about the recent history of the shooter. Among the details there will be plenty of questions. Did anyone know this might happen? Could someone—especially in positions of power (FBI? Mental Health?)—have prevented it by reporting or removing access to guns?
Of course, it is easy to ask these questions and develop opinions after the fact. And yet we need to ask them if there are possibilities to learn from possible mistakes. What follows attempts to give the public a brief but better understanding of risk assessment when mental illness and violence combine. (NOTE: this is not a comment on the above sad situation or those cases where violence is unrelated to mental health.)
A little history of predicting future violence
Violence risk assessment is part of the sub-division of forensic psychology and psychiatry. Expert witnesses are used in court proceedings to report on the existence of mental illness, the probability of imminent dangerous behavior, and the options for most effective/least restrictive treatment required to reduce illness and increase safety.
How do clinicians make these opinions? In the not-too-distant past, expert witnesses usually used their wisdom shaped by years of experience. Much to the chagrin of experts, it turns out that clinical intuition isn’t all that effective. For some professionals, it is little better than chance! (Interested readers can check out Monahan’s 1984 oft-quoted research quoted in this rebuttal article.) Other options include actuarial methods (collecting risk factors just like an insurance company does to determine how much to charge your 18 year old son for car insurance) and test data. Both of these methods seek to eliminate feelings in the decision-making process. Actuarial data can certainly help us. Knowing someone has a history of violence and criminal behavior helps us predict future behavior. Knowing someone has schizophrenia may slightly increase risk of violence, but no more than it would for those who have problems managing impulses. And this would not be a reason to lock someone up (though it may be a reason to limit access to handguns). Assessment tools filled out by the person suspected of violence have a couple of problems with them but the main one is that very few of the most violent have been identified in treatment as possibly benefiting from assessment. And when we do give these assessments, the data rarely is clear—this kind of response means they will be violent, this one means they will not. We’re far better at identifying “faking good” or “faking bad” results than we are in determining whether the results mean future violence.
The best assessment to date requires that we have adequate history, survey of known risk factors, interviews, and test data. But as I said above, if the person suspected has not been in treatment or has done well to present as being merely disturbed but not dangerous, what can be done?
One More Complication
In our current society, we believe deeply that individuals have the right to self-determination. This means they have the right to refuse treatment. This right trumps nearly every other value. It doesn’t matter if the treatment would really help. The person is permitted to refuse. The only exceptions are involuntary commitments to address imminent danger to self or other. And as soon as the danger passes, the treatment can be refused again even if the treatment might avoid a relapse.
Bottom line for Practitioners
We can do better in responding to risk factors that might lead some to violence. We can learn more about these factors. We can equally promote confidentiality and privacy for our most distressed clients and yet be quick to warn others when signs of imminent violence are present. We can ask better questions. We can use non-cognitive approaches to get a better picture of their internal experiences. And yet, we can only work with the information we have. Contrary to popular belief, we are not prophets. In addition, most of our outpatient clients are not even remotely dangerous (in 27 years of clinical work, I have only needed to report two clients for imminent risk to others).
What we can do is assert the need for better and more available treatment options.
Family members are really the frontline of help for most distressed individuals. They are more likely to hear the murmurings that might indicate violence. This requires greater public education about the nature of mental illness and violence risk assessment and the kinds of ways to respond. Church leaders can also be better educated as to what kinds of options are available for those parishioners who are struggling with similar kinds of emotional distress. Let us be willing to lead the way in educating our communities and churches about mental health challenges and healthy responses. If we did a better job surrounding those with severe mental illness (and isolating them less) we would likely have less mental health induced violence.
Over-confidence? Under-confidence? Assessing counselor tendencies
Every counselor desires to be effective, to handle client concerns and problems with competency. We do this work because we long to see others recover quickly and we do not want to get in the way of needed and desired growth. Early career counselors often feel out of their league and so seek out all the help they can get: supervision, books, essays, and peer-consultation. This is the proper way to learn and become better at our craft.
But what happens when we begin to feel competent and confident? Do we stop feeling needy? Stop seeking input? If we do stop pursuing growth and increased competency, skills and capacities will erode. We might think all is well, we’ve got this under control, but in reality we would enter dangerous territory. Imagine wanting to be an Olympic athlete and yet forgoing training.
So, should we want to feel less competent? No. The goal is not to feel ineffective nor to lack confidence in what we do. I would not want a second-guessing surgeon to operate on me. Rather, it is important to maintain regular (not obsessive!) self-examination and invitation to others to give you input and feedback.
For the possibly under-confident counselor:
Where do you feel you need help, are less competent than you would like? What are your common responses to that feeling? Who have you talked to about this problem? Where have you sought help? What continuing education have you completed? While it is good to get help to “know what to do” don’t forget that a large portion of therapeutic success is attributed to who you are in the session. Be sure to focus on your listening, and “bearing-witness” skills. Remember to be a student of the client.
For the possibly over-confident counselor:
Do you still have supervision? If not, why not? Look over your caseload. Who are you working with who you have not reviewed assessment, diagnosis and treatment plans with another (note: peer supervision can be done without revealing confidential or private information)? When was the last time you verbalized your case conceptualizations with a critical eye to the potential myopia that plagues us all? What continuing education have you completed that can revise and improve your skills? While relationship-building skills are the most important, do not stop learning and growing in knowledge and understanding.
It is good to remember that our skills WILL erode without attention, just like muscles with grow flabby without exercise. One such muscle for the Christian counselor is that of prayer. Consider your recent counseling activities and ask how prayer has fit into your work. Is it a perfunctory or an afterthought? Does is change depending on how you feel about your competency? What does it reveal about your therapeutic operating system (e.g., what is the source of power to change?)
Does your counselor have these two important skills?
I love working with counselors-in-training. We get to discuss everything from diagnoses to interventions, ethics to theology, character development to politics. I know I’m biased but along with the population of Lake Wobegon, our students “are all above average.”
That said, there are two extremely difficult counseling skills every student needs to learn–frequently the hard way. To be an effective counselor, you have to be able to conceptualize a person and their presenting problems well (e.g., wrong assessment leads to wrong treatment) and you have to maintain a clinical alliance throughout the course of treatment. Of course, a counselor needs to be of good and mature character. She needs to have a bank of excellent questions to ask, a knowledge of common intervention strategies, and a good ear to hear what the client is trying to express. These things are necessary foundations for the skill of conceptualization and alliance.
When you come to counseling to discuss a challenge in your life you want the counselor to be able to understand and put your situation into proper perspective. You expect them to have some expertise beyond your own–otherwise why go? As you tell your story, it always has missing and disjointed parts. There are dead ends and mysteries that may start out feeling important that in time become less a focus than other issues. Your counselor needs to put the problems you raise into some context. What lens to view the problems should be used?
- Is the conflict between a mother and teen best understood by the lens of enmeshment, Attention-Deficit, autism, sinful pride, depression, anxiety, rebellion or…?
- Is the conflict between a husband and wife best understood as lack of knowledge, demandingness, personality disorder, emotional abuse, etc.
An effective counselor uses multiple lenses to view his counselee and holds those lenses loosely in recognition that first impressions need refinement.
Do you feel heard or pigeon-holed by your therapist? Does your therapist discuss possible ways to look at the problem you have and thus different ways to approach solutions?
Alliance is a hard thing to describe but it encompasses a trust relationship where therapist and client work in concert to explore and resolve a problem. There is agreement on the problem definition and the process of therapy. There are several things that seem to be part of this concept but fall in two key categories: techniques and stance. A good therapist asks great questions that enable a person to feel heard as they tell their story. A good therapist validates the person even if they do not agree with interpretations of the client. A good therapist makes sure that the client knows they are more than the sum total of their problems. Finally, a good therapist checks in with a client to find out how they are experiencing the therapy session and approach. But good questions and feedback are not the full picture of alliance. The therapist needs a stance that reflects being a student of the person; of collaboration over action. It reflects an understanding of pacing and the client’s capacity to process information.
A counselor can understand a problem but if they rush ahead or lag behind in pacing, the alliance will fail. Consider this example. Therapist A meets with a client with a domestic violence victimization problem. It is clear to the therapist that the client needs to move out and that the client is resistant to this idea. The clinician presses the client to leave and challenges her to see her husband as an abuser. While the counselor may be correct, the confrontive and authoritative stance is unlikely to bear much fruit and will either create defensiveness or passivity in sessions. One sure sign of poor alliance is when a therapist is constantly thinking about how to get his or her client to do something.
Meanwhile, Therapist B meets with the same client and explores the ambivalence she has towards her husband and the abuse. Options are discussed, less for movement sake and more for examination of fears and opportunities, hopes and despair. Both therapists have the same sets of good questions, but one is more aware of the pacing of the client and meets her where she is where the other one forces a pace the client is not ready to match. This does not mean a counselor never pushes a client but it does mean they never do that without the understanding and agreement of the client.
Alliance is not a static feature. It grows and shrinks during the course of a relationship. There are ruptures and hopefully repairs. Sometimes a rupture leads to an even stronger alliance if the repair leaves the client feeling cared for and respected. Ruptures are not always caused by the counselor but it is the counselor’s job to notice and to work to resolve.
Do you feel like you are on the same page with your therapist? Do you have evidence (not just fears) that your counselor is frustrated by you? When you have a “miss” in a session, does your therapist acknowledge it and talk about how you are feeling about therapy? If you bring up an rupture, are you listened to?
4 Reasons I Promote Scripture-Based Trauma Healing
[Note: broken link fixed. If anyone is interested in taking this course with me this summer, see here.]
As a psychologist I have had a front row seat to observe the destruction that traumatic experiences have on individuals and families. And as a professor training future counselors I see the necessity of passing on best practices for treating those with symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). New understandings of trauma’s impact on bodies, minds, souls, and relationships appear on the pages of our academic and clinical journals. As a result, I read daily about innovative attempts to hasten trauma recovery for individuals and even whole communities.
With a world filled with trauma, it is clear to me we need an army of psychologists and mental health practitioners. How else could we address problems faced by 60 million displaced peoples in the world at present? How else could we address the scourge of sexual abuse, where worldwide 1:4 women and 1:6 men have experienced sexual violation before they reach the age of 18?
So, given the needs I have just mentioned, why would I spend considerable time and effort to promote a bible-based trauma healing training program? Let me tell you four key reasons I think this program is essential to address the world-wide problem of trauma. [Note, this is NOT a paid advertisement.]
Trauma disrupts faith and identity. The church must be at the center of the response
While many practitioners recognize the physical and psychological symptoms of PTSD, fewer have noticed that trauma disrupts and disables faith and connection to faith practices. Just now the scientific community is beginning to track this problem and acknowledge the role faith plays in the recovery process. Some are brave enough to suggest that failing to utilize faith practices and communities in the recovery process is tantamount to unethical practice! But most mental health practitioners have had zero training and experience engaging faith questions as part of treatment. The field of psychology is waking up from more than 100 years of training practitioners to ignore, even reject, faith as essential to healthy personhood. If faith is essential to most people on the planet then any intervention must engage faith and spiritual practices if it is going to consider the whole person.
Dr. Diane Langberg recently reminded a world gathering of national Bible Society leaders that trauma needs in the world are far too large for any government to handle. The only “organization” in the world situated to respond to at both a micro and a macro level is the Church. But is the church prepared? We need the church willing to understand the nature of trauma and participate in supporting faith and Bible-based healing responses. These responses include practices the church has not always been known for: validating, supporting and comforting victims, speaking up about injustice, inviting individual and corporate lament, re-connecting oppressed people to God. We need the church to be a safe community for victims.
The Healing the Wounds of Trauma (HWT) program fills this void. It offers basic trauma education, illustrates how God responds to traumatized peoples and provides simple yet effective care responses average believers can enact without being professional caregivers.
While I believe we psychologists with specialized skill sets are essential to trauma recovery, much of what we do can be done by every day individuals. I tell my students that most of counseling is not rocket-science. Being present, listening well, building trust, validating, asking good questions, and walking with someone in pain is largely what helps counselees get better. With a little training, the church can be at the forefront of the trauma healing.
But we need an army…of capable trainers who reproduce
There are approximately 2.2 Billion Christians in the world today. If we decided (and I am not suggesting this AT ALL!) to only serve traumatized Christians, we do not have enough capable practitioners to serve those in need. The ONLY way we would be able to serve this population is to train up capable trainers (wise, able to work well with others, understand group dynamics, know when to be quiet, etc.) who are then able to reproduce themselves and make even more trainers who subsequently serve ever increasing populations. This creates a cascade effect—1 trains another who each, in turn, trains others. Conservatively speaking, one training of 35 future trainers could reach up to 15,000 traumatized people in 3 training generations.
To maintain quality, the program must be able to be delivered and passed on in a consistent manner. The HWT program is designed not merely to educate participants regarding trauma symptoms and good care/healing practices but how to pass on such knowledge and skill to others. The facilitator (trainer) handbook provides a wealth of information to ensure that the quality does not erode as the information is passed on.
Experiential learning trumps lectures every time
In the West, we cherish academic lectures as the primary training mode. Lectures enable a speaker to give a large amount of information in a short period of time, with minimal interruption. A good lecture casts vision, identifies problems, and points to effective responses. But a lecture cannot produce skilled practitioners. Any academic mental health program worth attending will require practicums where head knowledge is put into repeated practice.
Consider this scenario. My father is capable of building a house. He sits me down and he spends hours gong over the steps to building an addition to my house. I listen, take notes, and even handle the tools that will be used. Am I prepared now to build the addition? No! If I am to build a proper addition, I will need to do so under his close supervision. In fact, most of the hours of lectures are not necessary at all. What will be more effective is his teaching me as we build together.
The HWT program is all about experiential learning. Participants learn as they experience trauma and trauma healing through story, dialogue, and practice. First applied to self and then in consideration of others. This is in stark contrast to most continuing education programs that amount to little more than monologues and passive audiences. While the monologue may give more information, it is highly unlikely that participants can in turn teach what they heard to others. The HWT program is not designed to deliver large amounts of new academic information. And yet, what participants get via experience and practice will be far more easily passed on when they become the teacher. There will be no army of trainers if we cannot quickly get experience and practice and pass on what we learn in simple everyday language.
Good training hinges on contextualization
If trauma is universal, then it might be thought easy to deliver trauma healing training across cultures. This is not so. If I prepare a lecture or training on trauma in my context (the megalopolis of the Northeastern seaboard of the United States) but deliver it on a different continent, my training may be of minimal value. The reason it is sure to fail is that what I had to offer didn’t fit the context; it didn’t speak to the heart of that audience. Good training must be contextualized so that participants immediately recognize trauma in their settings and that interventions make sense. Imagine if I deliver a talk on good conflict skills to a hierarchical society but emphasize the need to speak in “I” language (I need, I feel, I would like)? Such interventions will rightly be rejected as inappropriate. And if experience holds, whatever else I say will also be rejected.
The HWT program is founded on contextualization. Not only has it been translated into many different heart languages, the central stories and illustrations are also contextualized so that the participants can see themselves in the stories and interventions. At heart of each lesson, participants are asked about their own culture’s take on the particular problem. In dialogue, they compare responses to that of biblical passages highlighting trauma, grief, loss, and pastoral care. Nearly every major training point addresses context and encourages participants to develop creative interventions in keeping with key biblical and psychological foundations.
Is the HWT program all a traumatized person needs? No, it doesn’t assume this. Is the HWT program perfect? Of course not. I continue to make suggestions for improvement and the authors and developers are some of the most flexible I know, always looking for ways to improve the materials and training program. There are many other solid programs out there, but few programs I know have refined the content and delivery systems to be able to scale out across the globe. I’m grateful for the opportunity to serve the Mission: Trauma Healing team at the American Bible Society as co-chair of their advisory council and occasional trainer.
For a more visual exposure to this training, see this downloadable documentary.
Why study professional counseling at a seminary?
Not long ago I was asked about the benefits of learning professional counseling at a seminary. So, here’s my initial response:
Biblical Seminary, where I teach, offers a MA degree in counseling that leads to the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) credential here in Pennsylvania. In fact, the graduates of our Graduate School of Counseling have been licensed as professional counselors in 9 different states (PA, NJ, NY, DE, MD, DC, TX, MI, and GA) since our licensed oriented program began in 2005.
Counseling degree programs take many forms but usually include coursework in basic counseling skills, models of counseling, human development, psychopathology, marriage and family systems, psychological assessment, group and career counseling, research and program design, and finish with practical, hands-on, supervised training at a location providing counseling services. Of course there are lots of other courses you might take such as trauma counseling, play therapy, addictions, counseling and physiology, history of counseling, and any course specifically focused on a particular counseling model or problem (e.g., eating disorders, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, etc.). As a result graduate programs differ from one another most often on the basis of the elective courses they offer. These differences may be the result of faculty research and practice interests.
So, you might think it doesn’t really matter much where you take your MA Counseling courses. Aren’t all counseling programs about the same? While there is some truth to this–Helping Relationships probably teaches the same counseling skills at Biblical or a state funded university–the culture and mission of the school can make a huge difference in the educational experience. Rather than put down other programs, consider these benefits from studying counseling at a seminary.
- Mission matters. Biblical’s mission is to follow Jesus into the world. I suspect most counseling programs want to graduate students who care about others, who see their calling to be one of service (vs. making the most money possible). But who are we serving and who do we represent? And WHY do we serve others? Questions like these are front and center at BTS. Our goal is not just to reduce negative mental health symptoms (as great as that is). Rather, it is to love well just as we have been loved. Notice that our mission is to follow. From our perspective, counseling is first God’s mission. Thus, the power to help others grow and change does not reside in the counselor but in the Spirit. Personally, I find this quite freeing. I have a significant role but I don’t have to be the one manufacturing change.
- Theodicy matters. We live in a fallen world. Diagnosing the cause and symptoms of a problem is good. Knowing what to do about it is even better. And yet, the existential question about who we are, why we suffer, and where God is in our struggle is on the minds of almost everyone who comes to counseling. People come to counseling because they want answers or at least find hope when answers are not available. Seminaries are well-poised to address the deep theological questions and concerns on the hearts and minds of suffering people, not merely to have the right answer to give but to struggle with and learn what hope looks like when the current scene is dark. At Biblical, we talk about building a working theology of suffering, trauma and recovery. Our work with the text of Scripture in counseling classes has little to do with finding proof-texts and everything to do with engaging God with the subject matter of our lives. Existential angst is not a new subject and so seminaries may have better access to philosophical and theological literature (think: Augustine, Gregory the Great, Kierkegaard, etc.) beyond that written by modern mental health providers.
- Character matters. A good counselor develops a solid knowledge base. Competent counselors need to know about problems and effective interventions. Counselors need to know how to read between the lines and to develop trust-filled working relationships. But I would suggest to you that the character of the counselor matters as much as what the counselor knows or can do. Seminary oriented programs provide ample opportunity to focus on developing the character of the counseling student. For example, our program’s first two goals are: live grace-based lives increasingly characterized by wisdom, the fruit of the Spirit, and love for God and community; Demonstrate a commitment to humble, learner-oriented ministry in a world marked by cultural, theological, and philosophical diversity. These goals are first at BTS because without them, the skills of counseling will not be used well. Since the human condition is one marked by blind spots to character flaws, a seminary education encourages students to look a bit deeper into their own character and see what God wants them to see about themselves.
Can you get great counseling education at a university? Absolutely! And yet, a seminary may provide you a unique learning environment to develop great counseling skills as you deepen your relationship to God.
Good trauma telling?
In preparation for the start of our introductory Global Trauma Recovery course here at Biblical I re-read Richard Mollica’s Healing Invisible Wounds book (see previous posts about the book here and here). Mollica reminds us that there is a healing way to tell one’s trauma story…and there are destructive forms of telling the story.
Destructive forms of storytelling?
Trauma victims do need to tell their story. They need to be heard. But some forms of telling do more damage than good. Signs that the telling may not be helpful?
- Puts victim/teller into high emotions (reliving the experience versus telling about it)
- Overwhelms the hearer (who then disconnects thereby leaving the victim feeling more alone)
- Focuses solely on the trauma or trauma symptoms (e.g., the degradation, shame, etc. thus maximizing paralysis and minimizing survival skills, resiliencies, and other important parts of the person’s life)
Facets of healthy trauma telling?
Mollica suggests 4 facets of good story telling
- Factual re-telling of trauma (however not every graphic detail)
- Identifying the cultural significance of the trauma experience
- Gaining existential or spiritual perspective (reframe from larger perspective on self and world)
- Identifying the teller/listener relationship forming
Notice that the storytelling is not just about what happened. It is also about the significance, looking from God’s perspective (on self, other, world, etc.) and identifying new connections, skills, resiliencies, etc.
Mollica gives these questions for counselors, family, and pastors to help guide a better story. I find them very helpful if one accepts the caveat that they are not all asked in one sitting nor would we demand articulate answers from victims:
- What traumatic events have happened?
- How are your body and mind repairing the injuries sustained from those events?
- What have you done in your daily life to help yourself recover?
- What justice do you require from society to support your personal healing?