Sunday, November 22, 2009

I Am Not Therapist

The first motto we adopted for the New Covenant Church of God was “Reaching Out to Hurting People.” That theme proved highly relevant and numerically successful. In a matter of weeks we grew from four to over forty. Everyone was in a Covenant Life Group where we were seeking to discover and fulfill what it truly meant to be the people of God, to “give tangible expression to being the body of Christ.” We started with two groups and soon added another, each led by me. The groups were effective in building a sense of community and in helping people get in touch with their pain but less effective in helping them find healing for deep, longstanding wounds. As pastor and group elder, I threw myself into the task of helping people find the healing provided for them in the atonement. I became a therapist, counseling with a dozen or more people every week. These were not light problems. They included several women trying to find healing from childhood sexual abuse, a young man struggling to come out of homosexuality, others with sexual identity problems, women suffering spousal abuse, dysfunctional families, people getting divorce due to infidelity, families and individuals deeply wounded by pastors and other Christian leaders, etc.

This was rewarding, exhilarating and exhausting. I loved counseling (and still do). I followed a “Rogerian” approach. Carl Rogers developed this method built on the assumption that the individual has the resources within to resolve their inner struggles; they just need a little help. What a person needs is a friend who can help them hear and clarify their own inner processes. The therapist serves as an active listener who reflects back to the client the client’s own words concerning their problem. The counselor attempts to be value neutral, non-directive, and simply help the individual hear their own thoughts. Make no mistake about it, this is hard work. The counselor must listen intensely, trying to accurately interpret the underlying meaning of what is said without adding to it and simultaneously thinking of creative ways to mirror the thoughts back to the client, “What I hear you saying is….” For most people, all they need is a friend to serve as a sounding board.

However, there are wounds and issues that are just too deep for Rogerian therapy. Rogerian therapy works because of the prevenient grace of God at work in all of creation. This preventative grace of God is in every human being arresting the destructive power of sin and serving to preserve and enhance morality, reason, affection, and the capacity for self-improvement. This grace is designed to bring the individual to faith in Christ and knowledge of God; it is not the grace of redemption, regeneration, sanctification, deliverance, or healing. There are some diseases, including some mental and emotional wounds that require intervention. My assumption had been that the Covenant Life Groups and worship services would provide the ministry context for these deeper hurts to find healing. In the context of a caring community, people would risk sharing their inner pain and once it was surfaced it could be addressed through the council and prayers of the group and/or pastoral counseling. What I discovered was (1) some wounds are accompanied by great shame making it too risky to share them even in a small, caring community, and (2) some wounds have festered to the point they have been woven into the psyche of the individual as a spirit of bitterness that takes comfort and vindication in the wound itself.

During those early years of pastoring New Covenant I learned that Rogerian counseling could actually be a stumbling block for discipleship. I can be a little slow to figure some things out, but in his goodness God occasionally gives me a direct word that changes my belief system. One of those words caused me to radically alter my approach to pastoral ministry. For almost two years I had met weekly with a young man who had been saved out of homosexuality but continued to struggle with issues of identity. I became frustrated as I saw him struggle with ungodly desires and fail to make progress in spiritual growth. I was seeking God on his behalf asking why he couldn’t get victory over the underlying hurt that had deeply scarred his self-image. “Father, why can I not get through to him? Why can I not help him find healing and get grounded in Christ?” To my surprise, I heard a non-audible but specific verbal response, “Because I called you to be his pastor and not his therapist.” In an instant I understood my approach to counseling had defined my relationship with him (as with many in our congregation) in a way that prevented me from guiding him into spiritual maturity. I had let it all be about him when it should have been about Christ and Christ’s claim on his life. My role should have been one of nurturing his relationship with Christ by coaching him in spiritual disciplines and calling on him to give an account of his Christian walk. Suddenly, I understood that his healing was tied to his relationship with Christ and it was dependent upon his response to God’s redemptive grace.

At our next meeting I shared with him my desire to focus on his spiritual growth rather than his hurt with his father and the church. I was convinced his real need was to work on his relationship with God. I reminded him that he had already been to some outstanding therapists who were available to help him continue to work on his childhood issues. I wanted to shift our time together to prayer, Bible study and accountability. I will never forget his response, “If you don’t want to talk about the things I want to talk about, I don’t need to talk with you.” A few weeks later he phoned me and opened with “I know you know where I have been going and what I have been doing, if you were any kind of pastor you would have already turned me out of the church.” He refused to get together and talk. I advised him that according to Church of God polity I could not turn him out of the church. I would take his phone call as permission to explain to the church why he should be disfellowshipped. Without hesitation he responded “you do and I’ll sue you. Everything I have ever told you was in confidence.”

I no longer do therapeutic pastoral counseling and I avoid the word “confidentiality” stressing instead the need to keep our conversations holy. I meet with persons once or twice to hear their story and try to discern their need. In most cases a couple of sessions are sufficient to help them map out a strategy. Sometimes they choose an accountability partner or let their Covenant Life Group join them in their struggles. If we agree they need to see a counselor I help them find one appropriate to their situation and I ask to meet with them periodically to monitor their spiritual development in the process. In those sessions I am careful to not discuss their counseling sessions so as to not interfere with their therapy. I want to focus on their relationship with God as they move toward inner healing.