Beware Christian counselling!

christian-counselingI have been reading recently some interesting material on the subject of counselling people who have been through a traumatic experience. It picks up the ideas of Judith Herman who wrote a classic book in 1992, Trauma and Recovery. This sets out the principles on helping people to recover from trauma. The word ‘trauma’ would apply to any damaging experience from seeing terrible events in war to having your self-determination completely stripped away through membership of a extreme religious group. The first thing that a traumatised person needs is to find in the counsellor a place of safety where they can tell their story. It needs to be a place where the client can be assured that they are being offered real understanding and empathy. This kind of attunement with a sufferer is something that will require considerable experience as well as training on the part of the therapist. The sort of thing that can go wrong for any inexperienced listener is that he or she would be unable to listen to the events of the past without himself becoming themselves emotionally over-aroused. Emotion in itself is not inappropriate but it must never, on the side of the therapist, be so strong that it upsets his ability to calm the client down. The technical jargon puts it this way, that the therapist must regulate their own affect. The therapist must hear the story and be able respond to it with empathy but also with a level of detachment. Otherwise the client may easily go back into the shell of their undigested pain.

The ability to hear the extremely painful memories of another person without rejecting, disbelieving or in some way switching off, takes skill and training. This will require, on the part of the therapist, that the thinking part of their brain is working properly in tandem with the feeling, experiencing side of the brain. In short they need to have good left brain/right brain integration. Without such integration on the part of the therapist, the client may feel, either an over-intellectualised approach to their problem or the opposite, an over-emotional sympathy that does not allow them to have new insight into the issues of the past. Either way they still remain trapped and isolated in their pain and the terror of their memories. Proper connection with another human being, in this case the therapist, is the first stage of the journey through which the traumatised individual is brought back into connection with the wider human race. A gradual facing up to the past, experiencing it in a safe environment, is an essential stage of the journey towards healing and integration. One of the terrible things about trauma is that the one who experienced it may not at first be able to give it any kind of verbal expression. The part of the brain that has been traumatised does not have words and concepts. Part of the task of the therapist is to help the client to find symbols and later actual words to describe his or her experience. In this way they can relate to it in a new way, using the tools of intellect and reasoning rather than simply experiencing it as a traumatic event. The article I was reading picked up on the way that psychotherapy has as its aim the reintegration of parts of the brain that may have ceased to synchronise. These may have been sundered apart, either by one traumatic event or through years of subtle undermining of the personality by some cultic exposure. There is a lot more to be said about this and we have to leave it as a topic for another time. I would however just mention here the way that many cults undermine the parent-child relationship so that the instinctive need to protect children by parents is undermined has been undermined by cult teaching. The cult leader has constantly taught that the only true ‘father’ is himself

I give this summary of what is generally regarded as good practice in psychotherapy. It is offered in the context of helping clients get through the trauma of a terrible event like violence, rape or seeing something that causes flashbacks and nightmares. In contrast I want to quote some words from a ‘Christian therapist’ which was offered as a comment on Nigel’s Peniel blog. The Langlois report clearly indicated that many of the ‘victims’ from Peniel were suffering from a degree of post-traumatic stress which has resulted in a need for years of counselling.

She/he writes ‘It seems to me that unless this is sorted out in prayer then any one can jump on the band wagon and say they suffered at the hands of MR…..I have worked in the area of abuse, sexual, physical and emotional, but NEVER have I came across a group of victims who want to be reminded constantly about their abuse, and NEVER have I spoken to any who would take money as compensation…..This should all be `put to bed` so the abused can start to heal with the love and mercy of God….Leave Trinity/Peniel to sort out their own problems and find a decent Church to attend on a Sunday….that’s just my opinion based on years of experience both as a counsellor and Christian….

These words are possibly typical of the dangerous attitudes of some so-called Christian counsellors. They show how there is a serious mismatch between responsible therapy and what seems like ignorant nonsense. Christian forgiveness and prayer seem to be the only tools of therapy on offer in some forms of Christian-inspired training. It is not surprising that the majority of survivors at Peniel are steering clear of the therapy being offered to them by the church when they are faced with this kind of dangerous nonsense. This therapist who has worked, as she/he puts it, for years with the victims of trauma seems to have completely avoided good therapeutic practice by refusing to allow a victim or survivor to face up to the trauma of the past within an empathetic setting. Instead of the listening skills and empathy that are required for this kind of work, this particular therapist seems to have offered what she considers to be the Christian response, forgive the past and get on with your life. The secular model which Christian counselling so often turns its back on suggests the complete opposite – a slow painful facing up to the past with the support of an empathic therapist. According to the responsible mainstream literature, the part of the brain that experiences trauma, the limbic system, has trapped certain events so that they continue to trouble and plague the sufferer. These events need to be released and brought to the surface. That is the task of responsible therapy. ‘Putting to bed’ the events of the past is a far more complicated affair than this counsellor seems capable of imagining.

There are many other issues I have with so-called Christian counselling and some of these have been discussed before in this blog. In summary I object to the comment of the Christian counsellor above because he or she responds to the hard work of listening and empathising with clients by offering them mere platitudes and ‘holy’ language. The love and mercy of God will have a far better chance of working when a counsellor himself is freed from bringing unhelpful dogmatic beliefs into the counselling room. Forgiveness does not in fact solve everything. Christian love surely recognizes that much more is involved in the recovery from trauma. For myself I would entrust myself only to secular counsellors – never to people think that dogma and Bible quoting somehow sorts out every problem. The survivors of Peniel and indeed survivors of any traumatic experience deserve the best. Sadly what they are being offered is something that will probably totally fail them and they may end up far worse than before.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

17 thoughts on “Beware Christian counselling!

  1. Oh, yes. Quite right. Simply put, the very simple, basic stuff that clergy get seems to suggest that you should never let the victim talk about it at all. Well, everyone needs to talk. Where do they get this hard-hearted attitude from?

  2. In my experience Christian counselling can be more dangerous than secular.
    Venerable people will try anything to alleviate their confusion and depression, (I Did!)
    It is here that the testimony of victims can be informative.

    My concern is that there are so many people developing personality disorders, because of demonstrative noise pushy leaders and fellowships, that people will try anything!

  3. I completely agree, i have seen first hand that when confiding in a Christian counselor that there is almost an immediate process whereby the counselor starts looking at the person to see what ‘unresolved issue’ or past sin needs to be dealt with in regards to session. One of the ridiculous things they all claim is the idea that ‘expectation’ is the problem, that if the wife has a marital issue it is because SHE is expectant of things from her husband and one needs to admit and repent from the sin of expectancy. The idea that a wife would expect her husband to love, listen and care for her is against what God calls according to this counseling technique. The whole point of being a counselor is the ability to meet a need of the client to express their feelings, listened to wholeheartedly and help carry the burden by allowing the person to vent feelings in a safe environment. Christian counseling does not work, however I do believe that counselors that happen to be Christian are the best ones in the business because they have a clear understanding of the issues that happen in the world and also have the heart of Christ to listen.

    1. Thank you and I think it’s important the distinction you make between “Christian counsellors” and counsellors who happen to be Christian. My lovely cousin is one of these latter and I can’t believe she is anything other than wonderful to work with.

  4. Thank you Sally for your comments. From the fact that I am a clergyman formed within a liberal upbringing, I don’t have any experience of being ‘counselled’ in this cultural setting. I just have the horror stories of others and the tomes of Jay Adams and his ilk. I sometimes feel that the theological position of some ‘Christian’ counsellors is so off-beam from the centre, that the ‘forgive and forget’ brigade should come out and openly declare that they disagree with our professional bodies which set standards in this country and no doubt in the States. Instead of telling everyone that ‘Christian’ counselling has distinct heterodox ideas, they try to claim claim respectability by using the words psychotherapy and counselling to describe their work. I need to repeat the point that this ‘dangerous’ side of counselling only applies to some people operating in this tradition. But the only safe thing to do is to insist that any counsellor has qualifications recognised by BACP..

    1. Clergy seem to go on some crap courses, Stephen. As you say, they often fly in the face of what is accepted as true in the secular world.

  5. Thanks Sally,

    I am not at all optimistic about this. I myself will never trust a ‘Christian counsellor’ again; the sheer weight of human carnage out there that have been through this system is sickening.

    The whole concept involved with God being involved in such a thing is to my mind grotesque. Most of the problem is caused by evangelical fantasies about what God id ‘Supposed’ to do, and the shallow explanations as to why he does not.

  6. Anybody try talking to the comforter- the Holy Spirit? Or is He not real to us anymore?
    We are not orphans neither did Jesus leave us comfortless. What? go to human beings when we have The comforter to comfort us? Or do we simply don’t know what the bible says?

    Those of you who think I am being insensitive don’t know what I have been through and Gods comfort that came through prayer and the bible.

    1. I’ve had lots of comfort from God the Holy Spirit, and I’m sure others have, too. You’re quite right. But it would be wrong to cut ourselves off from our churches. So we hope for just normal Christian love. Although it is supposed to mirror God’s love, of course, it doesn’t seem too big an ask. Human beings need other human beings. It is not wrong to seek a “hug”. And it is wrong of the church to push people away when they ask for help. And then you have to consider other potential victims. How do you put a stop to it if you simply retreat into reading the Bible and going it alone?

      1. There are many people who believe the exhortations of Gods word to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn.

        Even Paul was encouraged by the arrival of Timothy. God has many people to love you in church and around you.

        Sometimes however we like Elijah take the attitude that we are the only ones who haven’t Bowed the knee to Baal while the reality was that there were many more who dint.

        Let the Holy Spirit lead you to the right people. They are everywhere as God has put them around you. You need eyes to see. Let God open your eyes.

        1. Of course there are times when one feels that you are the only one suffering, and of course that isn’t likely to be true. And of course, there are other people who can be nice and helpful. But it has to be said that many people’s experience of abuse is that almost no-one helps. For a variety of reasons. They may be afraid of being the next, they may feel there is nothing they can do. If it is a cleric you are talking to, they may (quite wrongly) believe that sticking up for their fellow cleric when they are accused is their proper duty. But whatever the reason, it is a very common experience that victims of abuse find themselves alone. Please don’t rubbish that. People who have been abused need support, not criticism.

  7. My dear friend, when my family turned against me for being a Christian and even got violent, I learnt you must have support From God first. Unless of course the Lord Jesus is not real to you.
    Is He not called the God of all comfort in the bible?
    Looking to man will just entangle you into deeper hurts. You must wrestle with God like Jacob in prayer and reading the comforting words of the Lord Jesus Christ in the bible. Blessed are they who mour for they shall be comforted.

    You are never alone, for He promised never to leave you nor forsake you.
    He is there with you right now. Learn to talk to the Lord Jesus Christ.

    Then you will be a comfort yourself to others for you will comfort people with the same comfort God gave you. That’s how you put a stop to it.

    2 Corinthians 1:3-5
    Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ.

    1. That is true, Jaspreet. I think I also mean that God does not if you like let us off. We are still his hands and feet here on earth, and we need to act as he would have us do.

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