Am I a Christian Counselor?

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I sometimes get asked whether I’m a Christian Counselor. There’s no short answer to that.

If I were a Christian Counselor, and I’m not saying I am, for that would be a short answer, I wouldn’t market myself as such. I wouldn’t think that would be the right thing to do. Being a Christian is supposed to be a confession, not a branding strategy.

I understand a prospective client who was Christian might want to see a counselor who respects her beliefs, won’t mock her for a profession of faith, and understands what she’s saying when she talks about sanctification. Similarly, a non-Christian client wouldn’t want me to proselytize him. He’d need me to respect his beliefs or his belief that he doesn’t have any beliefs. He wouldn’t want me to use theological terms that sound judgmental.

It ought to be enough just to say I’m a counselor for you to know that I would try to understand your point of view. Every counselor worthy of the title should be able to meet you non-judgmentally where you’re at. No ethical counselor would mock you for your beliefs or lack thereof.

I could tell you my mother was Catholic and my father a not-very-enthusiastic Congregationalist, but you still wouldn’t know if I was a Cristian counselor. When they went to a priest and asked if he would perform their wedding, they agreed to raise me Catholic. They did the minimum to be able to say they kept their promise; therefore, I became a not-very-enthusiastic Catholic. If I said I was a Cristian counselor, but was not-very-enthusiastic, you might feel deceived. Being a Christian should be a personal choice, not something your parents elect so they can have a church wedding.

Later, far from home, I discovered a wonderfully supportive Methodist Church and began to be more enthusiastic as a Methodist. I already wrote about how this experience set me on the path to becoming a counselor. But, none of this history answers the question. Saying I once was a Christian doesn’t tell you whether I still am.

It would also be useless to tell you I often attend church. Church attendance is not the same as being a Christian. For that matter, I often attend a Reform Jewish synagogue. That doesn’t make me Jewish, either. For that matter, I could be a Christian, but not your kind of Christian. I could be on the wrong side of a doctrinal dispute and be more a pariah than if I wasn’t a Christian at all. The whole thing is confusing as all get out.

I’m tempted to pull the move many counselors pull, say it’s not about me, it’s about you, and not answer the question. Some of our teachers told us we should be blank slates, so as not to influence clients from being anyone but who they are. I think that if a client wanted to talk to a blank slate, she’d talk to a wall. Or a computer. There are probably already many apps that would threaten to automate counseling if people really wanted to talk to a non-human. People are OK with their counselor having some peculiarities, even some they don’t share, as long as these peculiarities don’t get in the way of counseling.

Therefore, I will answer the question of whether I am a Christian Counselor, but it won’t be a short answer, I warn you. Nor will it be entirely clear. It will require my telling a story.

Years ago, I worked in a program where people with severe mental illnesses came to spend the day. We were always looking for things to do with them, so I came up with the idea of having a spirituality group where people could talk about spiritual issues. At first my idea of a spirituality was a therapist’s take on spirituality: caring for one another, some meditation, and a massive dose of half-baked New-Age ideas. It didn’t take long before I learned the group members did not have a therapist’s idea of spirituality. Theirs had to do with church.

I learned they did not feel welcome in church, being people with severe mental illness, and they missed it. They wanted to have a church where they could belong. I was nervous about starting a church; we were federally, and state funded, and a medical facility. But even though we couldn’t call it church, we could do a lot of the things a church does.

I recruited a volunteer from a local divinity school to help me and we started meeting once a week. We sang songs chosen by the clients, read scripture, and discussed amongst ourselves what we thought it meant. We went around the circle and asked if anyone had prayer requests, and we prayed.

The group was very popular. No one had to attend if it wasn’t their cup of tea; but some never missed it. I think it did some good. As a form of group therapy, some people shared more there than they ever would anywhere else. In a place where everyone would respect their opinions, even the most religiously delusional moderated their crazy talk. If you saw me then, you would say I was a Christian counselor, although I never claimed to be. Is this who I still am?

Things are different, now. I don’t work in that program. The people I work with seldom have severe mental illnesses. No one would be shut out of church for that reason. They’re alienated for other reasons: they have a different religion, they’re not sure what to believe, or they find the people in churches don’t speak a language they understand. If I told these people I was a Christian counselor, it would be irrelevant. For them, Christianity is an old thing that doesn’t have anything to do with them.

Then there’s a whole ‘nother group of people I see who’ve been hurt by churches; they’re Gay, they asked too many questions, or they tested the limits, they are refuges from a toxic Christianity. For them, I’d be afraid to give the wrong impression if I called myself a Christian Counselor. Christian calls to mind politics for them, not a compassionate God. It evokes a flag-waving, self-righteous bigotry, not a norm-defying love of humankind. Christianity’s been so corrupted; it just doesn’t mean what it’s supposed to mean.

If I were to make a confession of faith, this is what I’d say: I believe in That-Which-Sets-Us-Free. If you believe Christ sets us free, then go ahead and call me a Christian counselor. In that case, we can agree that’s what the Christianity was all about before the crusades, papal indulgences, inquisitions, centuries of religious wars, colonial conquests, the Scopes trial, pedophile priests, and the Moral Majority took over.

To me, the life, death, and teachings of Jesus illustrate That-Which-Sets-Us-Free. If it illustrates that for you, then you see what I see. But it’s not clear for everyone. There’s too much fog in the way. I’m so eager to clear the way, you could even call me an evangelist for That-Which-Sets-Us-Free, but the word evangelist has also been ruined.

Jesus, Paul, John the Baptist, and all the disciples understood that in their time, the old forms were spoiled, just as the forms they created are now. These forms need to be cracked open so That-Which-Sets-Us-Free can get back in. My chief concern as a counselor is to help you find That-Which-Sets-You-Free, whatever you want to call it, however it can get in. That’s the kind of a counselor I am.

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