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Counseling in a Church Setting

“My name is Sally[1] and I need some help. Things are just falling apart and I’m not sure what to do.” A phone call similar to this one comes into my office at least once a month if not more. I am a marriage and family therapist and a Seventh-day Adventist pastor.
When an individual comes to me for help, that person often has a different expectation than what they would have of a regular therapist or counselor. I am talking about the God factor. The individual in need looks to me for help, sometimes believing that I have a special link with God and can therefore speak on his behalf. When dealing with individuals and families in crisis, there are opportunities for me to encourage change and to point out different ways of dealing with conflict. Being the person they come to puts me (the “helper”) in a position of power—an awesome and somewhat frightening responsibility.
People don’t always come to me with theological or philosophical issues. They come with ordinary life problems: marriages that are failing or breaking up completely, children who are not blossoming or who do not pay respect or who stay out late, problems with parents and siblings. It might sound quite simple, but the majority of what I do is called listening. I listen and track not only what is being said, but more importantly, I listen to what is not being said. I try to find the important details that have been omitted from the story, most of the time on purpose. My job is to “hear” what is being left out and then to go in pursuit of those omissions.
The question begs asking, then: “Where is the place for spirituality when the person visiting with me is not necessarily coming with a “spiritual” (theological) issue? I’ve had to think about how spirituality and counseling relate to each other in my counseling work, and I’ve realized that it varies according to the situation. At times a direct reference to God and his involvement in human life is very helpful, if not essential. But I can also say the opposite. There are times when it is not helpful—when it can in fact be harmful. Having God’s voice on your side can be a power trip. After all, who can argue with God? Some of my clients feel and believe that God has deserted them, and when I listen to their stories it is hard to argue differently. The amount of pain and hurt some people have lived through is astounding and I find myself wondering, “How have they done it? How have they survived?”
For that reason I don’t always pray with my clients. People who come for help are often in a very vulnerable state and I want to be respectful of that. I want to be someone they can trust, somebody they can feel safe with. I do not want my voice to be mistaken for God’s voice unless I am totally certain and convicted that God has a special message for a particular person that he wants me to share. It is just too easy for us to use God’s power to emphasize our own ideas.
Back in the late eighties while I was a chaplain at Loma Linda Medical Center, I was on call at least one night a week. It was serious business there, and sometimes my pager would go off multiple times before the morning.
One day, early in the morning, I was called to the maternity unit where a young mother had just given birth to twin boys. They were early and very tiny—too tiny to live. The room was dimly lit and the mother was holding her children, one in each arm, looking into their faces. She told me that the boys were now in heaven, that God needed them there more than she needed them here. At that moment I chose to agree with her because I knew that meeting her in her grief was more important than correcting her theology.
In my training as a marriage and family therapist confidentiality was very much emphasized. Legally there are all sorts of rules about what I can and cannot share and with whom. Sometimes church members are surprised that my husband doesn’t know the issues they have discussed with me, but he shouldn’t know them. Only when a client tells me specifically that I can share something with my husband, only then I might. The same is true for prayer requests that come from church members or clients. I believe that prayer requests are a shared sacred trust between my client and me. Only when my client gives me permission to share his or her request with my husband and/or my colleagues, only at that point do I feel free to do so. I have noticed that prayer request time can turn into “holy gossip.” Just because something is a prayer request does not necessarily mean that it is a public prayer request. Pastors and pastoral counselors have a responsibility to treat their church members and clients who are in crisis with respect and dignity.
I greatly enjoy what I do. I treasure the time I get to spend with people who trust me to hear their struggles, joys, pains and hurts. Listening to them and being a part of their healing is a great and very special privilege.
[1] Sally is a pseudonym
Marit Case immigrated to California from the Netherlands in the late eighties and currently serves on the pastoral staff of the Carmichael Adventist Church. She lives with her husband Steve and cats Misty and Bibi.

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