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10 Theological Ideas for Better Counseling

Virginia Todd Holeman

Dr. Virginia Todd Holeman discusses the notion of the theologian-counselor.

Professor of Counseling, Asbury Theological Seminary
July 7, 2014

What comes to mind when you think of theology? Unless you work for a seminary (like I do) or you are wired for philosophical contemplation (which I definitely am not), then the image that you may associate with theology is that of a middle-aged man in a jacket with patches on his elbows, probably smoking a pipe, and thinking esoteric theological thoughts for which you see no practical purpose.

But let me suggest to you an alternative image of a theologian:

Picture a counselor (who is a follower of Jesus) working with a client (who may also be a follower of Jesus).

For a long time, I thought that I (a licensed mental health professional) wasn’t one of them (theologians). I was interested in information that would actually help people—and at one point in time that didn’t include theology. Today I am one who is encouraging other Christian mental health professionals to take their theological foundations seriously.

If I am committed to the integration of Christianity and counseling practices (which I am), then I suggest that this commitment needs to include a solid foundation of theological awareness in addition to a solid foundation of biblical study. Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson point out that everyone is some kind of theologian. If you think about God, about how God interacts with your life, and about how God relates to the pain in the world, then you have theologically oriented thoughts.

6 Steps

Our theology matters in our clinical work with others.

It provides answers to the “big questions” such as: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life anyway? Why do I suffer? What meaning is there in my suffering? These are often the questions that are embedded in many counseling concerns. So when you are working with someone, and your therapeutic conversation drifts into these areas, then theology is potentially on the table.

What about imposing theological biases and beliefs upon a client?

To avoid that ethical pitfall, I suggest becoming more aware of one’s theology is the way to go.

So let me suggest six steps counselors can take to prepare themselves to become a more theologically reflective practitioner.

1. Remember that God’s Holy Spirit surrounds the counseling enterprise.

Counselors cannot top God in God’s desire for humanity’s salvation and healing. Through their words, the Holy Spirit can work in their client’s life to bring that client one step closer to God, albeit initial salvation or further sanctification.

2. Commit to ongoing Christian formation.

As God works in the counselor’s life, she can become a more open recipient to the Spirit’s nudges in her work with clients. The best context for Christian formation is a loving Christian community. Within this context we will also find strength, support, and accountability to keep us away from the edge of compassion fatigue or burnout.

3. Explore explicit theology.

Counselors should begin to recognize the major theological themes that run through the biblical narrative and which may find a voice in the problems that clients bring into their office. For example, most clients come to a counselor because of some kind of suffering. Suffering is one such theological theme or thread that weaves its way throughout Scripture. Other more obvious themes include forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation, faithfulness, justice, and showing love to “enemies.” Whenever counselors walk alongside clients as they struggle to make sense of the tragedies and traumas in their lives, they are quickly swimming in theological waters.

4. Be aware of presuppositions about “redeemability.”

Consider, perhaps with a supervisor or peer consultation group, how these theological commitments may influence their beliefs about their clients and their “redeemability.” For some this will be a new area of growth and exploration.

5. Reflect upon the degree of congruence or continuity between their theology and their therapeutic preferences.

Where tensions exist, how does one navigate these tensions so that the client’s goals are not lost or personal theological commitments compromised?

6. Finally, it’s important to understand the professional ethical guidelines around the integration of spirituality/religion and clinical practice.

Four A’s

To make theological conversation more organic to therapeutic work I have proposed a four-phase process model for theologically reflective counseling in my book, Theology for Better Counseling (Intervarsity Press, 2012. You might think of these phases as prompts to help counselors think theologically while also thinking strategically or clinically about how to help clients.

1. Attending to Theological Echoes

What theological themes are percolating in the background of a client’s story? These echoes are easy to miss because it is doubtful that a client will come in with the desire for theological opinion about the Trinity or any of the other systematic theology categories. A pastor is more likely to get those questions.

Nevertheless, theological echoes are present whenever client concerns overlap with the kind of big questions that shape our being. Here is where an awareness of the theological threads that are woven throughout the biblical narrative comes into play. Multicultural competency includes offering to clients the opportunity to include spiritual and/or religious accommodative conversations and interventions as part of their treatment plan. At the same time, ethical practice requires counselors to work within the client’s value system, and to refrain from imposing the counselor’s values or beliefs upon the client. None of this stops a counselor from listening for those theological echoes that may be present. Whether or not the client wishes to pursue this line of therapeutic inquiry is another matter.

2. Addressing Salient Theological Themes

If clients want to include spiritual and/or religious accommodative conversations and interventions, then how might these be reflected in the client’s treatment goals? Theologically reflective counseling honors the work that the clients have come to do by working directly with the client’s goals concurrent with viewing the client’s goal through theologically-oriented eyes, and by inviting the client to also engage in theologically reflective thinking.

Often the problems that wreak havoc in the client’s life are also the kind of dilemmas that present obstacles to Christian spiritual formation. This is not a license to make mental health counseling a spiritual direction session. On the other hand, it does affirm that counseling can become a “means of grace” in the client’s life. In that respect, I like to think that, as a counselor, I am a specialist in “applied sanctification.”

3. Aligning Areas of Life to Be More Theologically Congruent

When helping clients to work on their clinical goals with appropriate theological awareness, the counselor invites clients into a kind of transformation process. Through working on their clinical goals, clients have an opportunity to realign their lives so that they sync more closely with God’s Kingdom agenda. This may take the shape of concrete behavior changes—a “go and sin no more” change. It may be an adjustment in thinking patterns so that their habitual thought life more closely mirrors Philippians 4:8, for example. Or perhaps they are better able to engage others in ways that reflect God’s love, following John 13:35.

4. Attaining a Deepening Christian Character

Finally, if the client remains in counseling at this point, the counselor may have an opportunity to watch them grow in Christlikeness. Yes, character transformation takes time, and insurance companies do not have this client goal on their radar screen. Nevertheless, growth in Christlikeness is at the heart of theologically reflective counseling.

I hope that this process model of theologically reflective counseling will challenge counselors to dig deeper into their theological roots and encourage counselees to explore the theological underpinnings of their psychological health. You can see that this model does not dictate “which” theological stream (Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran, Wesleyan, etc.) or what therapeutic approach (e.g., cognitive, behavioral, psychodynamic, systemic, etc.) works with the model. It does, however, presume that a counselor is theologically conversant enough to possess competency in this area.

I also hope that this model will provide a way for counselors to make their integration of Christianity and counseling more organic and holistic. It reminds me that God loves each and every client and desires “good” for them (Jeremiah 29:11–13). This model helps me to join God’s agenda, and to view my therapeutic work as “sacred.” When I meet with a client in pain, I am standing on “holy” ground. God wants to meet this person in these moments, and I have the privilege of being the channel through which that may happen.