The 4 Great Challenges of Christian Counseling

Writing in the Journal of Biblical Counseling, an anonymous female counselor describes an experience with Julia, a six-year-old client. Julia experienced a traumatic accident that left her nearly crippled physically and with severe anxiety. Julia’s case followed the counselor home, distracting the counselor from daily life and infiltrating her dreams as she worried about the girl’s future.

It took her weeks of prayer and thought to realize that, while God called her to be a good therapist, she “could not determine how [Julia] would respond to therapy or think that [she] could erase the impacts of this awful accident.” After internalizing that truth, the counselor found fresh ability to show love and care for Julia and for others.

This counselor’s experience is only one example of the difficulties Christian counselors face in their workplaces. Pastors who counsel their parishioners should pay close attention to experiences like that of Julia’s counselor; they will likely bear these same burdens.

To learn more about the greatest difficulties of counseling, I interviewed full-time therapists, pastors whose calling led them into counseling relationships, and professors of counseling who train students to enter this demanding profession. These conversations brought to light four major challenges pastors can expect to face when counseling others and several ways in which they can successfully vault those hurdles.

Challenge 1: Feeling incompetent when people don’t change

The experience of Julia’s counselor is common. Many who provide Christian counseling lament their lack of control over the outcome of their clients’ attitudes or experiences, and often, it leads them to feel helpless, poorly prepared, or even incompetent. But according to Mike Emlet, faculty member at Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation, that feeling places too much control in the hands of the counselor. “You aren’t the change agent,” he says. “Our triune God is.”

A job as demanding as counseling requires perspective, says Elliott Anderson, an ordained pastor and therapist for a quarter-century. “Counseling is a part of my life purpose; it is not the purpose,” he says. “This helps me take an eternal perspective, releasing me from the results and the responsibility to change lives. Only Jesus does that.”

“You aren’t the change agent. Our triune God is.”

That gives Christian counselors and pastors an advantage when the people they counsel don’t make quick progress, according to Heather Davediuk Gingrich, professor of counseling at Denver Seminary.

“Christian counselors do not rely solely on their own intuition, training, and experience. They can internally pray for guidance with respect to what is most helpful for their counselees,” she says. “It is comforting to know that, while I am responsible to get good training and keep up in my field, my client is ultimately in God’s hands.”

Challenge 2: Caring after hours

Julia’s anonymous counselor fell into another trap common for Christian counselors: failing to leave a client’s problems at the office. Detroit-based psychologist and National Biblical Counseling Association president Sabrina Black reminds her colleagues that they have chosen to walk into another’s pain and to sit with them in their suffering.

“Just as you can walk in, you can walk out,” she says. “You don’t have to carry it home. Instead, carry it to Jesus.”

Black says it’s tempting for counselors to bear their client’s burdens and to start suspecting their own spouse and children of the things they encounter in sessions.

“But you can’t live in that framework. That’s their life,” she says. “I counsel couples going through adultery, divorce, and sexual identity issues, but I can’t bring that home and let it live with me. I have to live my life at home today and then deal with their struggles in the office tomorrow. I have to leave their pain at the foot of the cross.”

While licensed psychologists have institutional boundaries that allow them to leave clients’ issues in the office, pastors may have more difficulty drawing those lines. Fletcher Lang, executive pastor at City on a Hill church in Brookline, Massachusetts, says there’s less distance between pastors and their flock—who are often their friends, too.

“As a pastor, I have a responsibility before the Lord to shepherd people,” Lang says. “That’s an unending responsibility.”

According to Fred Gingrich, who teaches counseling at Denver Seminary with his wife, Heather, this nonstop caring can lead to compassion fatigue: “the stress carried by those in the helping professions where the challenge of caring all the time results in negative symptoms for the therapist.”

How can pastors and counselors lighten this burden if it swells into full-fledged compassion fatigue? “Usually this results in taking a time-out from the profession,” Fred Gingrich says. “Whether that is a short sabbatical or a semi-permanent change in careers, the typical self-care strategies of rest, exercise, nutrition, healthy relationships, and spiritual renewal just don’t suffice.”

Challenge 3: Listening to people’s pain

“Psychotherapists regularly encounter in their clients’ lives both moral evil as well as natural evil,” writes David Wang of Biola University in a July 2017 study for the Journal of Psychology and Theology. “The psychotherapist is called to enter into the pain of the other, to sit in the other’s ashes.”

This description rings true to the experience of Heather Gingrich. “My clinical specialty is complex trauma—usually abuse survivors—which involves both delving into the depths of people’s pain, as well as coming face to face with evil as I listen to the horrific things that one human being perpetrates on another,” she says. “If counselors are not grounded in the broader truth of God’s love and care, and the reality that Christ came, died, and rose again precisely because of such human depravity, they can lose perspective and only see the darkness.”

Wang’s study found that Christian therapists are “uniquely vulnerable to spiritual discouragement, including doubts about the truth of Christianity, due to repeated exposure to their Christian clients’ spiritual immaturity as well as the immaturity of other Christians involved in their clients’ lives.” Wang reminds therapists that they only see a portion of their clients’ experiences. Their role places them in close proximity to the darkest elements of people’s lives, often obscuring stories of hope and healing. Counselors shouldn’t assume what they hear from their clients represents the breadth of the Christian experience.

Challenge 4: Self-care and avoiding burnout

Counselors are at high risk of burnout, especially when they don’t set boundaries or create a healthy work-life balance. Researchers found in a 2012 study for Administration and Policy in Mental Health journal that mental health professionals are ironically overlooked when it comes to protecting staff from burnout.

“If counselors are not grounded in the broader truth of God’s love and care … they can lose perspective and only see the darkness.”

Emlet says both internal factors—such as an unstable mental, emotional, or spiritual state—and external factors—like relationship trouble, lack of community, or little outside support—can accelerate burnout.

However, pastors and counselors often struggle to be vulnerable or to seek help when needed. “Clergy perceive themselves to be much healthier than they actually are,” says Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell, research director of the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School. “They don't always recognize that they need help.”

In a 2017 Pastoral Psychologystudy on self-disclosure, researchers found that the distinction between spiritual struggles and mental health problems causes many pastors to believe they do not need outside help. “Spiritual struggles, in a more religious sense, can stem from currently difficult external circumstances that lead the pastor to move into a mode where he or she is functionally operating as though God is not present or able to help—essentially taking control of whatever situation presents itself,” the authors write. “Why would the pastor, who has been convinced in his or her education and experience that he or she already occupies the most spiritually informed vocational role, bring his or her spiritual struggles to someone in a different role?”

Professional counselors aren’t immune to that trend. “Counseling codes of ethics mandate self-report and other-report of impaired therapists,” says Fred Gingrich. “However, students are taught this before they are fully into their careers. By the time they experience impairment, they have lost the knowledge that this is going on in themselves or their colleagues.”

Black encourages pastors and therapists to buck that trend.

“Whether you’re a counselor or a pastor,” she says, “taking care of yourself isn’t selfish. It’s not looking out for ‘number one.’ Look out for yourself or you won’t be able to take care of anyone else.”

Over her 25 years of practice, Black has found that personal life balance is key to maintaining the energy to help others. Whether it’s from a fast-paced lifestyle or from a counselor’s personal life, stress can lead to escapism or a precarious spiritual or emotional position. Built-in rest is important, Black says, whether that’s a “movie day” written into the calendar, a day unplugged from the Internet and phone, or simply time devoted to being still.

Elliott Anderson agrees. As director of the Wellness Center at Judson University in Elgin, Illinois, he oversees counseling and health services at the college. He finds that frequent exercise or nap breaks at work, in addition to hobbies and healthy relationships at home, help him become more effective as a counselor.

“Though they have the training, desire, and education, sometimes counselors struggle because they don’t have the spiritual capacity to carry many, many burdens while maintaining their own spiritual, emotional, and mental clarity and equilibrium,” he says. “If our struggles aren’t because of a lack of giftedness and capacity, then they are usually about poor self-awareness, self-care, and interpersonal relationships.”

Heather Gingrich tells her students to pay attention to the things that give them life and to do those things. “For me that includes musical activities, time outdoors, regular exercise, playing games with friends, and making sure I am not always on the giving end of friendships,” she says. “Our temptation is to let these things slide when we are under stress, but for those in highly stressful jobs and ministries, including counselors, paying attention to our own psychological, spiritual, and physical health is essential.”

Finding strength and joy

“It is hard to shepherd souls. It is hard to combat intricate moral evil. It is hard to help people walk through pain and anguish,” writes David Powlison for the The Journal of Biblical Counseling. “Gregory the Great called it the ‘art of arts’ in his great treatise on pastoral care. He thought the task of guiding souls far more difficult than the tasks performed by a mere medical doctor.”

At the same time, it’s a simple calling. “You are called to do something so simple only a Christian can do it,” writes Powlison. “Hearts may be unsearchable and insane, but the Word of God reveals the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12–13).”

Pastors and therapists bear God’s image in a special way. When they counsel, they reflect the Wonderful Counselor who offers ultimate hope, final redemption, and holistic healing. He has given us his Holy Spirit, who counsels every Christian and therefore helps believers become better counselors to their brothers and sisters.

“I can’t imagine being a counselor without the living, breathing, working Holy Spirit of the Lord,” Anderson says. “It doesn’t make counseling easier, but it sure makes it better.”

Lang says counseling is his favorite part of the pastorate. “In counseling, you get to see the Word of God and the Spirit touching actual human lives. You get to see those lives moving and growing and changing,” he says. “It’s why most of us get into the business.”

Kara Bettis is a Boston-based freelance reporter on the topics of faith, politics, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @karabettis.