In Matthew 5:4, Jesus says, “For He (God) makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Sometimes obedient and righteous Christians find themselves in a period where the “storms of life” seem to be raining upon them with stubborn and absolute resolve. These storms of life can be vocational, relational or emotional and they are frequently quite challenging. These challenges can leave one feeling overwhelmed and exhausted and tempted to sing the refrain of the old country song that says, “the storms of life are washing me away.” Most of the time the storms pass. But sometimes they don’t and we need to turn to someone for help.
Where is the Christian to turn when they feel overwhelmed, exhausted and struggle to find answers?
Categories of helpers
The good news is that there are many resources available for storm-soaked pilgrims. The variety of resources can be a blessing, but each one offers a particular kind of help and it is important to know what to expect from each professional resource. Following are descriptions of helping professionals who can oftentimes help Christians get through challenging periods and then some simple guidelines to help us make good choices.
- Psychiatrists — Psychiatrists are medical doctors with extensive specialized training in diseases that impact people emotionally (their feelings) or cognitively (their thinking). Psychiatrists are the best ones to prescribe antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication. Should a Christian suffer from some form of mental illness, having a psychiatrist on their team of caregivers can be quite valuable.
- Psychologists — All psychologists have an earned doctorate in psychology. Psychologists can be excellent therapists and also are very skilled at psychological testing and diagnosis.
- Other mental health professionals — Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC), Licensed Certified Social Workers (LCSW) and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT) are all types of counselors who have at least a master’s degree (and many times more education than that) and who have passed an examination, received supervised post-graduate training and agreed to abide by a clearly defined code of ethics. Typically these helping professionals focus more on wellness and prevention than on disease. Unless these clinicians attended graduate programs at Christian schools, they are not likely to have received specialized training in the relationship between faith and counseling.
- Faith integrative therapists — This category is a fairly new and very interesting category as it includes individuals who are psychiatrists, psychologists, LPCs, LCSWs or LMFTs. There are a growing number of licensed helping professionals from all disciplines who actively seek to integrate their client’s religious faith into the counseling sessions. These clinicians are very comfortable with their own Christian faith and though they do not use the counseling relationship as an opportunity for proselytism, they do actively integrate religious beliefs and practices into their professional application of psychological principles. Several faith-based universities have begun programs in counseling, social work or psychology so the potential for growth among faith integrative counselors is great. The faith integrative counselor will typically seek to draw the best from the field of psychology and the best from the discipline of Christian theology to craft individualized treatment plans that integrate the client’s personal faith into their approach to counseling.
- Pastoral counselors — There are some counselors who have specific training in counseling as a ministry and who focus on counseling as their primary approach to working with others. Many pastors have the skill set and personality to be excellent counselors. Some pastors have the training to be excellent counselors. A few pastors have the time to make an intentional counseling ministry a major part of the way they serve their congregation. At a few large churches, there may be a pastoral staff person whose focus is on counseling church members.
- Biblical counselors or Nouthetic counselors — Some seminary-trained counselors focus on a very specific approach to counseling that is rooted in a Sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”) approach to helping others. Many of these counselors are very skilled and well-trained. However, at this time, there is not a state credentialing authority governing the practices of biblical counselors, so the use of the label can be quite broad, capturing some doctoral level-trained professionals, but also being used by lay counselors who have taken weekend workshops or online courses.
- Lay counselors — Many Christians have been trained in approaches to “bearing one another’s burdens.” Lay counselors and support groups can be very helpful in getting Christians through stormy times. If you are attending a support group or working with a lay counselor and things do not seem to be getting better, then it may be prudent to see a helping professional.
Selecting a counselor
With so many choices, how can a Christian choose a helping professional with confidence? There are very good, average and less-effective counselors in all the categories. Unfortunately you cannot always depend on the credential of the counselor to assure you of the level of excellence of services that will be provided. Here are some tips to help you select the best counselor for you.
- Word of mouth. Ask your pastor or a leader you trust who they recommend. If you know someone who has used a professional helper and you have seen good results in their life, then ask them with whom they worked.
- Be pragmatic. If you have health insurance, it is possible that your insurance might help cover the costs of a psychiatrist, a psychologist or another type of mental health counselor (LPC, LCSW, LMFT). If finances are important to you (and be aware that counseling may take longer than you initially expect), then you may choose to work with someone whose services are covered, completely or in part, by your health insurance. Most pastoral counselors or biblical counselors will not be able to utilize your insurance benefits. Many counseling ministries do offer sliding scales or scholarships for clients. Make sure you clearly understand the financial arrangements before you commit to working with someone.
Ask hard questions
- Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions in the first session. Some Christians feel strongly that they would prefer to work with a Christian helper, while others might want to work with the individual with the most expertise. However, very few devout Christians would want to work with someone who minimizes or dismisses his or her faith.
A good question to ask in the first meeting with any helping professional might go something like this: “My religious faith is very important to me. I would like for my faith to be incorporated into our work together. Are you comfortable with my faith and how would you see it as something we can use to help me move through this challenging time?”
- Work with someone with whom you feel connected and in whom you have confidence. Remember that you have many options in the helping professionals’ world. Find someone that you think will be helpful and whose approach makes sense to you. If you are not sure why they are suggesting a specific assignment, then ask them to explain how it might be helpful. If they refuse to answer, then they may not be the best fit to work with you.
- Choose the approach that fits you best. If it is of utmost importance to you that your counseling be informed primarily or exclusively by Scripture, then you may prefer to work with a seminary-trained biblical counselor. However, if you have concerns that your specific situation might be better resolved with an approach that also takes into consideration brain chemistry or if there is a strong family history of similar challenges, consider seeing a psychiatrist.
If you believe your current challenge is more situational and you would prefer a talking therapy, there are many psychologists and other mental health professionals who integrate faith into their practice of counseling. Many of these view their vocation as a calling.
Though it is generally perceived to be rude or socially uncomfortable to ask someone explicitly about their religious faith, it is OK to ask a helping professional about their view of faith and their own personal faith. If they seem offended or uncomfortable with the question, then that might be an indication that it would not be a good fit.
- If your counselor seems to be always talking about themselves or their struggles and victories, then you may want to carefully evaluate if that is helpful for you. Helping professionals may occasionally disclose their own challenges and victories, but the relationship should not be centered on the helper.
- If you honestly do not understand what the helping professional is talking about, then be assertive and respectfully ask him or her to clarify what they are saying. If they seem offended by this request or cannot seem to explain to you what they are talking about, then you may be better served by someone else.
- The best counseling relationships are characterized by what is called the “working alliance” or “therapeutic alliance.” You will likely get better results when you feel as if this relationship is a partnership to which you contribute. Always keep in mind that your counselor should have expertise, but he or she should respect that you are the greatest expert there is about your circumstances. If you feel patronized or dismissed by the counselor, then you could likely find a better fit.
Keep track of progress
- Use common sense. If you choose to work with someone to help get through a specific challenge, then pay close attention to the progress you are making. If you do not feel like you are benefitting from the suggestions of your counselor, then do not feel obligated to continue doing something that does not seem to be working.
- Be realistic. It is highly unusual for one counseling session to bring total healing, but if after five sessions you are not seeing progress, then consider exploring other options.
Pathways Professional Counseling, a ministry of Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes & Family Ministries, offers counseling services for a wide variety of presenting issues.
The counseling ministry is more than 20 years old and has offices in 41 locations across the state.
Pathways counselors use an integrated counseling approach in which they utilize evidence-based interventions delivered from a biblical worldview. Pathways is the state’s largest provider of professional counseling from a Christian perspective. Pathways also has referrals for psychiatrists and psychologists in the state when needed.
Editor’s Note — Rod Marshall is president and CEO of Alabama Baptist Children’s Homes & Family Ministries and has worked in the mental health field for more than 25 years. He is a licensed professional counselor.