Note: When a letter writer signs with their first name instead of a pseudonym, I randomly change their first name to add another layer of privacy.
I am currently getting my Master’s in Counseling. I am a Christian, but have never gone to a Christian school until now. The degree is broad enough that I would be able to work in either secular or Christian counseling. My license would be simply Licensed Mental Health Counselor and my degree would be Masters of Science in Counseling Psychology.
I am not exclusionary and it is bothering me that I feel like I will only be able to administer to Christians. I’m thinking about stopping and switching to a secular college. While I want God involved in my counseling, I believe that I don’t have to be a “Christian Counselor” for that to happen. I don’t like the narrowness I feel, at the same time I do not know if I will be able to treat the whole person (including the spiritual/soul) without learning from a biblical perspective (even saying that makes me twinge a bit – ugh).
I feel that being surrounded by only Christians in a school setting limits my experience by the narrowness of diversity. I am also not confident in the academic excellence of this school. I’m afraid that because they put God first, that the academics suffers. An example of this is spending the first 30 minutes of class focused on prayer requests. I understand not all of the teachers do this, but this has been my experience thus far.
Mostly, the school (and Christian Counseling in general) emphasizes treating the “whole person”, the spiritual as well as the mental, however I find the teaching to be limited, because it is not taking into account other religions or non-religious people. I am afraid of reaching the sexuality class and having people talk poorly about gay people. I guess what I am saying is I bought their philosophy up front, but as I go through it, the reactions and comments from some of the students, well, to put it simply, they are making me crazy. For instance, if the teacher says something about a person being an atheist, I don’t want to see the person in front of me shaking their head in disapproval. That bothers me. I like the idea of coexisting.
In sum, can I counsel and treat holistically, treating the whole person (including spiritual – not necessarily Christian) as a secular counselor? I just want to do a good job and help people. And I am afraid I would be less able to do so if I label myself as a Christian Counselor. Wouldn’t I automatically be turning away a ton of people? Anyways, I hope the answer is yes, I can be an effective counselor, because I am not impressed with the lack of diversity in the school and the one religion focus (what did I expect, though).
I’m sorry for being so long-winded. It’s a complex issue for me, and I am very confused. I am usually not this confused.
I commend you for your open-minded and inclusive attitude, and for valuing academic excellence over doctrine. I’m sure you’ll make a first-rate counselor, and you’ll be able to help people with a wide variety of needs. It’s because your heart is in the right place. You care about people, not just Christian people.
From your description, it sounds like you will be much more comfortable and satisfied in a qualified secular college than where you are now. It sounds like you have already made that decision, but perhaps you are hesitant for reasons of attachment. It is clear that you are far too broadminded to fit in so narrow a space as your present school. At a secular school, you’ll be able to study various religions, you’ll meet people with many viewpoints, and you’ll be more prepared to respond to the needs of many different kinds of people.
I’ll go over your questions that you asked at the end of your letter:
Can I counsel and treat holistically, treating the whole person (including spiritual – not necessarily Christian) as a secular counselor?
Yes, you can treat the whole person. As a secular counselor, you let the clients show you through their world. They will first describe to you their presenting problem, and your basic counseling skills will help the two of you to explore that and to shed light on what other challenges are at the root. Sometimes the best response to the problem will be straightforward, and sometimes it will be complex and multi-layered.
When it comes to whatever may be their spiritual lives, they will guide you, rather than you guiding them. Secular counseling means that you address spiritual or religious issues if they are applicable to the changes the clients need to make, rather than as a presumed guiding framework. That way you can be of help to people from all paths, spiritual or not.
I was able to effectively counsel people who came from faiths with which I was familiar, as well as faiths with which I had no experience at all. Some clients were very devout in their various faiths, some where only mildly involved, and some were not religious at all. If it was an important part of their lives, I simply asked them to teach me what role their faith played in their lives in general, what role it played in the challenges which had brought them to want counseling, and what role it might play in their solutions to those challenges.
In every case, my genuine interest and compassion for them came through, and they felt comfortable helping me to understand. It did not matter that I didn’t personally share their beliefs, because I always easily and sincerely accepted their beliefs a part of them. I’d ask if this idea or that idea would be of help to them in their problems. If yes, then I’d ask them to tell me how it would. If not, then we’d just set that aside and go on to find another way to approach their challenges.
My overall principle was to be pragmatic: Whatever works. Find whatever works to help the client become unstuck. Be flexible and adaptable to whatever works to help them grow, and eventually be able to solve their own problems. Work yourself out of a job, client by client.
As I’m sure you know, a secular counselor is not necessarily an atheist counselor. Most people have some religious beliefs, and counselors are the same. As secular professionals, they know how to set their personal religious views aside and to be of help to their clients regardless of any differences in their beliefs. If the client’s beliefs are similar, it is important to be sure to let them take the lead in the exploration of their spiritual lives. If you were to take the lead, then you would be in the role of a pastor, and that would be ministering, not counseling.
Secular counseling works not because a client has found a counselor with matching beliefs, views or experiences. It works because the client has encountered a person who can accurately empathize with them, who is genuine and honest with them, who sincerely respects them as people, accepts them as they are, and simply cares about them. That experience loosens up their own stifled or damaged abilities to empathize, to be genuine and honest, and to be respectful, accepting and caring. They gradually start to apply those skills to themselves and to their relationships. Once they are well practiced at those, then they are on their way, and you begin the process with another client.
Your ability to be empathic, genuine, honest, respectful, accepting and caring may wholly or in part come from your practice as a Christian. Mine comes from just deeply loving my own species. Wherever you get those qualities doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have them.
Wouldn’t I automatically be turning away a ton of people?
Yes. If you were to advertise yourself as a Christian counselor, you would be viewed as a specialist. Only clients who want and expect a very particular approach would come to you. You would have more leeway in religious discussions with them, but you would be limited to one religious view, and you would probably be expected to limit your views of worldly matters to your religion’s views.
Cathy, consider two scenarios that you will probably encounter:
1. A client comes to you saying that her Christian faith has faded away over the last few years, and that she has become an atheist. Her religious family has found out, and they have been appallingly heartless in their rejection and abuse of her. She is really hurting, and is considering faking her believing again just to stop all the harassment. Can you help this client to stop suffering and to explore possible ways to negotiate better relationships with her family, without trying to get her back into the Christian fold? If yes, if her suffering and her integrity are what you focus on, then you’ll be an excellent counselor.
2. A client comes to you saying that he is gay, and he is very conflicted about his Christian beliefs. Do you try to help him to stop being gay, or try to help him stop being conflicted? If the former, go take Human Sexuality I, II, and III all over again. If the latter, you’ll be an excellent counselor.
Cathy, You demonstrate in your letter many of the qualities that good counselors have. I think that your own spiritual life will nurture your secular counseling practice, and your secular practice will in return, nurture your spiritual life. I wish you the best of both.