This is the seventh post in a series through the 95 Theses for an Authentically Christian Commitment to Counseling by Heath Lambert. Previous posts are indexed here (bottom of the post).
In this post, I will discuss two related issues: (a) who is the average practitioner of biblical counseling, and (b) how does the lack of clarity as to whom the average practitioner of biblical counseling is impact our ability to assess competence? I will build this discussion around one of Dr. Lambert’s Theses upon which we largely agree.
“Thesis 85. Because many counseling problems occur at the intersection of physical and spiritual issues, counselors must exert humility and avoid unduly dogmatic assumptions about the source of some problems in living.”
This is a valid point. If all counselors, not just biblical counselors, were more humble in our assessments of what was attributed to the body and what was attributed to the soul-mind, counselees would be better served. So my question on this post is not about the content of Dr. Lambert’s Thesis, but about the average biblical counselor’s ability to properly make the kind of assessment for this Thesis to be useful.
So we begin with the question, “Who is the average practitioner of biblical counseling?” Our options include:
- The mature believer who is respected and consulted by his or her fellow church members. By percentage of the movement, this group would comprise the largest piece of the pie chart.
- The person who has completed one of biblical counseling’s certification or certificate programs. By devotion to the movement, this group would, in my assessment, be the largest.
- Pastors and elders who serve as the lead teachers and equippers of biblical counselors at the “A” and “B” levels. These individuals would be the largest percentage of the vocational component of the movement.
- The person who has graduated from one of our seminary biblical counseling degree These would be the individuals who serve in specialized roles in our churches; some version of “Pastor of Counseling.”
- The recognized leaders of our movement who have written books, speak at conferences, and have the most experience. These are the individuals who shape the movement most and set the tone for the movement.
I think we can see that individuals from each of these groups would vary significantly in how well they could make the assessment indicated in Thesis 85. Yes, all of them could, and should, be humble in their assessment; but character (humility) is not a replacement for quality (skills of assessment) when someone is seeking counseling.
So let me take this discussion into a case example. A well-trained pastor—who loves biblical counseling, has published several books, and wanted to start a lay counseling ministry at his church—came to me for consultation. For the purpose of this post, there is no need to name him. It is enough to say he is someone I greatly respect as a pastor and that he would have thoroughly studied most, if not all, the literature our movement has to offer. His goal was to use counseling as an outreach to the underserved in his community.
Below is my recollection of the dialogue (obviously not verbatim) when we came to the point of who would oversee the lay counselors and help them with difficult cases:
Me: Who is going to supervise your lay counselors?
Pastor: The other elders and myself.
Me: Do any of you have any training in counseling?
Pastor: We’re pastors.
Me: Yes, but you’ve said you’re going to be working in a high abuse, addiction, and trauma context. Does anyone on your elder team have experience in these areas? To my knowledge most of the certificate programs in biblical counseling have minimal, if any, training in these areas. [Note: We had already discussed that it was his intent to have the lay counselors go through the ACBC biblical counseling certification program which, of its 30 hours of training, does not devote a unit to directly addressing addiction, abuse, or trauma.]
Pastor: No, but we’ve been shepherding members of our congregation for years. I’m not sure I see your point.
Me: What will you do, for instance, when someone comes to counseling and their explosive anger or chronic anxiety is linked to significant traumas they’ve experienced – seeing a loved one shot, having been raped, or otherwise abused? Because, often in the early stages of counseling trauma, intrusive symptoms such as flashbacks become more pronounced as the conversations of counseling serve as triggering experiences.
Pastor: Yes, but we’re going to refer all that medical stuff to doctors. [I remember this as an exact quote because of how much it astounded me.]
Me: That is my concern. Flashbacks aren’t medical issues.
In this case, the pastor fulfilled the requirement of Thesis 85 – humility. He was willing to acknowledge what he did not know and was willing to refer at that point. But he was not informed enough about the subject of trauma for that humility to take him in a skillful direction. He assumed what he didn’t understand must be medical (more on this below).
What would the results be? In my estimation:
- A victim of rape or abuse coming for help would be re-traumatized by unskillful care that engaged a conversation they were not prepared to adequately guide.
- A lay person, who under the guidance of his or her elders, engages a ministry they are not equipped to do and feels like they failed their counselee, God, and the church.
- A counselee who leaves counseling thinking, at best, that God does not understand his or her life struggle, or, at worst, believes that God is dangerous because counseling made their life worse.
Where did the conversation with the elder go from there? I suggested identifying counselors in their community who were experienced with the areas in which they initially wanted to provide care (i.e., addiction, abuse, trauma) and setting up consultation arrangements, so that when a lay counselor got into a subject area they were ill-prepared for, they could receive guidance.
How was that received? From my impression, not well. The idea that someone outside the church, who was not directly using the Bible, could be beneficial to the lay counseling ministry seemed off-putting. The rest of the questions were skeptical and defensive, wanting to know what “magical knowledge” a secular counselor has that his elders did not and why, if professional counselors really cared about people, they charged fees and were so formal.
For this post, here is the progression I would like to highlight:
- The pastor sincerely wanted to care for people in his community. Wonderful, I sincerely love that.
- The pastor wanted to use the Bible and utilize his church members in doing so. Amen! May God increase his number.
- The pastor, believing the Bible to be sufficient, reduced the categories for assessing someone’s struggle to what he understood. Danger…
- … the result was an inadvertent over-medicalization of counseling issues by a biblical counselor, when we are usually on the other side of this debate. The logic, as far as I could deduce, was: (a) the Bible is sufficient for the non-medical problems in living, (b) a qualification of elders is that they know their Bible well, so (c) if no one on our elder team understands what’s going on, it must be a medical issue.
I wish I could say this is the only conversation like this that I have had with members of the biblical counseling movement. The logic in Point 4 above creates a dangerous either-or mentality – either a problem is volitional or medical. If you look at the section of Dr. Lambert’s 95 Theses where he primarily addresses these matters (Theses 82-87), these are the dominant categories. While suffering’s role in counseling is acknowledged (Thesis 94), very little attention is given to understanding the profound effects that various forms of suffering that come with living in a broken world can have.
What would be some solutions to this problem?
- Biblical counseling certificate and graduate programs should have a portion of their training be given to assessing the role of volitional, environmental, and physiological contributions of a life struggle (admittedly, the link provided is very rudimentary).
- When churches start lay counseling ministries, there should be a willingness to seek consultation from other local counselors who have more experience in areas where their lay counselors have less experience.
- As a movement, we need to be more humble about how effectively we can translate what we believe into our actual practice. There are many things our counseling theory permits that, based on the level of training our average practitioner has, we cannot assume translates at the level of the average biblical counseling conversation.