As I’ve been reflecting on recent efforts to define Christian counseling, it has struck me that one of the things that may account for the different perspectives is the setting in which proponents of particular views do counseling: some counsel in local churches and view their “helpful conversations” as ministry, others counsel in private offices and view their “helpful conversations” as a vocation.

There are at least two questions this calls us to ask. This post will not deal comprehensively with either, but will attempt to give some initial reflections on important implications for each question.

  1. Is it theologically acceptable to view both ministry-based and vocationally-focused counseling as ethically viable options for Christians?
    • Same question stated differently: Does all counseling that purports to be Christian have to play by the rules and abide by the standards of pastoral ministry?
  2. If the answer to question one is “vocationally-focused counseling is viable” (which will be the take of this post), what are the implications that need to be understood about how vocational counseling differs from pastoral counseling?
    • Sub-question: How can ministry-based counseling and vocationally-focused counseling create a mutually beneficial relationship?

To state the first question in yet another way, “Should we think of counseling like we think of missions – the church is God’s ‘Plan A’ and God has no ‘Plan B’ (HT: David Platt)? Does, or should, counseling belong exclusively to the church?”

My answer would be – a distinctively Christian practice of counseling can be expressed in non-church, vocational settings. I served as a counselor in a parachurch ministry for 8 years and believe this ministry, which could also have been described as paraprofessional, faithfully (not perfectly) exhibited the marks of distinctively Christian counseling.

What is behind this response? I believe that biblical counseling is a robust theory (not just a set of practices) that answers the major questions a holistic psychology must address. As such, it gives the well-trained, well-experienced biblical counselor the conceptual and skill-based tools necessary to counsel effectively when (like any other counselor) the biblical counselor is self-aware of his/her personal limitations.

Note: My preference is to do counseling in a ministry-based setting. Hence when the opportunity to serve in a local church emerged, I was glad and grateful to accept it. But I also believe that the parachurch and professional settings provide some unique advantages for which we should be immensely grateful.

To determine whether what can be done (response to question one) should be done or is permissible to do, we must examine question two; because what is permissible is not always advisable.

So we ask, “What limitations emerge when counseling is done in a vocationally-focused setting rather than a ministry-based setting?”

By and large the answer to this question is determined by answering the question: what do the counselor’s informed consent documents say and how does the counselor advertise his/her services?

The answer to the question “How ‘Christian’ can vocational/licensed counseling be?” is, “As Christian as the counselee consents.” That begs the question, “What lays the ground work for the consent of the counselee?” Answer: the advertising and introductory paperwork of the counselor or counseling center.

This is not a satisfactory answer in a local church or ministry-based setting. A church would not say, “We will be as Christian as our first time guest is comfortable with us being.” While churches want to be welcoming, they should not be compromising in what they teach.

However, when a Christian counselor elects to practice in a vocational setting in order to have missional influence, the counselor chooses to defer certain liberties of putting their beliefs at the forefront of the helping conversation. The vocational counselor chooses to start from where the counselee is, not where the counselee should be starting from.

So…. if we want vocational Christian counselors to (a) openly point people to Christ and (b) rely on Scripture as the guide for their “helpful conversations,” we need to be creating ethical best practice models for promoting counseling services and examples of how to draft informed consent documents to allow for these things.

This allows a potential counselee to say, “I do not want my counseling to be distinctively Christian,” before investing the time, energy, vulnerability, and finances into scheduling/attending a counseling appointment. This is similar to the counselee who is looking for counseling on marital conflict and finds a counselor who specializes in addiction. The counselee is able to see this is not a good fit for their needs (as they understand them) before scheduling an appointment.

This invites another question. What does it require to set the advertising and paperwork policies of a counseling center? It requires that the counselor be the owner or policy setter for the center. A distinctively Christian counselor cannot get upset that a counseling organization (center, hospital, etc.) will not allow their brand to be changed. If we want to set the policy, we have to take the risk and show the skill to create a viable counseling organization.

This means if we want to develop more distinctively Christian counseling options in the vocational setting we need to do some combination of: (a) influencing Christian counselors who have developed their own centers to adopt the kind of policies discussed above – which means we need to be actively creating and refining such policies, (b) developing continuing education units (CEU’s) that address counseling practice and counseling ethics from an evangelical perspective which can be part of licensed counselors ongoing educational requirements, and (c) cultivating a generation of distinctively Christian counselors who have the entrepreneurial skill, in addition to their counseling skills, to launch these kinds of practices.

If we do these things, then a high quality, mutually-beneficial relationships can exist between ministry-based counselors and vocationally-focused counselors (in my opinion). These are the ways that I see the biblical counseling movement, which tends to be predominantly ministry-based, can most effectively influence our vocationally-based counseling neighbors to have a more redemptive influence through their counseling practices.