Seminary education pushing past the pulpit

Counselling congregations through personal problems is a big part of any pastor's job. But while the care one might receive from a church leader or clergyperson might be helpful at times, on some occasions a minister's training may not be the right tool for the job.

"Most of the training that pastors get would be short-term and it would be event-based," says Paul Scuse, a professional counsellor and part-time professor at Tyndale Seminary in Toronto. He says pastors can often serve as the preparation workers in what he, and other Christian counsellors, does in his practice.

"They are very good at doing what we might call triage work, dealing with the urgent crisis situations," he says.

But how exactly does Christian counselling differ from the work of pastors, who often are tasked with providing spiritual care to members of their congregations? For Scuse, the distinction lies in the counsellor's ability to devote time to tackling some of the deeper emotional issues that often can't be resolved by pastoral visits, often due to a lack of time on the pastor's part.

"[The client] might be looking at recovery from sexual abuse…the abuse may have gone on for years and years, it may have been a family member…and so that would be much more long-term and in-depth work.

"Sometimes there is more pain and more healing and more recovery that happens in the deeper work."

In addition to providing a greater availability, many people view the counsellor as a more anonymous source of advice and assistance, something that many clientele find valuable.

"A lot of times people will say 'I'd like to talk to someone who has no say in my life,'" says Rob MacDonald, part of the counselling program at the Calgary extension campus of Providence Theological Seminary, in Otterburne, Manitoba.

He says for pastors, "A lot of times, there's isn't that anonymity…they have greater access, but sometimes people want to distance themselves a little bit more and they find counselling helpful for that."
Scuse agrees.

"The complexity of the relationships becomes problematic. Some people really like going to someone that they know and so they want to go to their pastor, [but] there's a downside…because it actually, typically works better when we only see a counsellor for counselling."

At the same time, MacDonald acknowledges that a professional counsellor may not be the best resource in certain situations, such as the immediate aftermath of a family tragedy.

"When your child is in a car accident, you don't need a counsellor, you need your pastor."

Though counselling programs are becoming more prominent at Christian seminaries, along with the availability of professional Christian counsellors, MacDonald adds that churchgoers should not be too quick to seek counselling for things for which pastoral care is better suited to address.

"Grief is not depression. People that are grieving don't need counsellors, they need support."

As a former minister, MacDonald has offered counsel on both a pastoral and professional level. While seminaries have traditionally focused on training students for ministry, counselling programs have become much more prominent at seminaries in recent years, something that Scuse says is perhaps indicative of a shift in church culture.

"I think there was a phase that we went through whereby it was believed, if you're having problems in your life, that's an indication that your spiritual walk isn't good enough…people would get judged because they were having issues, so they would hide the issues…until one day it just blows up.

"Thankfully," he adds, "the Church is much more acknowledging, these days, that even Christian people have issues and that to acknowledge those issues does not mean that you're an unfulfilled Christian, or it does not mean that you're not walking right with the Lord—it just means that we have some areas where we still need to grow and develop."

For Josi Peters, a counsellor at Recovery of Hope Counselling Services in Steinbach, Manitoba, receiving her counselling certification at a Christian institute like Providence has been a big part of shaping her role as a professional.

"It taught me to rely on and trust the action of the Holy Spirit to guide the work I do with people," says Peters, who currently writes the "Good Counsel" column for ChristianWeek. She adds, "It gave me another language, in addition to the clinical language of counselling, to help me connect empathically with clients.

"We are all, Christian or not, created in the image of God. The more I know God, through all the means of revelation, and other people and seek to understand them, the more understanding I can be when people have problems."

For counsellors like MacDonald and Scuse, who work for non-Christian practices, the role of professional counsellor also provides faith-minded professionals like themselves an opportunity to present the gospel, either explicitly when appropriately, or simply through their work and character.

"I spend a lot of time in prayer for my people that come in here, whether they're Christians or not, and a believe, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the Holy Spirit is working in their lives," says MacDonald.

It's for that reason that Scuse believes that seminaries are on the right track through the education provided by their counselling programs.

"The seminaries are saying, 'We want to be missional and out there in the world, influencing other people for Christ," he says.

"We will see, in the counselling office, people that at that particular moment and time would never set foot inside the Church but we can still be a Christ-like figure to them."

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About the author

Rob Horsley is the former Managing Editor of ChristianWeek.