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Professional Counselors Discuss Their Work (Video)

Video / Produced by TOW Project

In this video, New Testament scholar Sean McDonough argues that the profession of counseling has its roots in the Bible, specifically Mark 5:1-17. Starting at minute 4:03 professional counselors share how the Christian faith changes their approach to their work. This video is part of Jesus And Your Job, a video series on how Christians in different industries view their work. To find out more about this series and how you can use it as a small group study, go to the Jesus And Your Job homepage.

A Biblical Basis for Jobs in Counseling

Counseling is a topic close to my own heart. Right after graduation from college I worked in a psychiatric hospital for two years as a lowly mental health worker. From the extreme examples of mental illness to the more mundane, people need guidance for handling the complexity of life. We need wisdom for understanding the myriad issues that beset us day to day. One of the most valuable things counselors can do is just to be that voice of reason, to be an isle of sane advice in a world which is speaking with so many unhelpful voices.

They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.” So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.

- Mark 5:1-17

While we don’t typically meet with a scene quite as dramatic as that of the Gerasene demoniac, seasoned counselors will sadly recognize a lot of familiar traits here in those who are profoundly disturbed. The infatuation with death – in this case a literal immersion amongst the tombs, the self-harm – so tormented that he’s beginning to take it out on himself, these are part of the landscape of mental health. And the isolation from society – they’re trying to physically restrain the guy to protect him and themselves, but he’s got this rage and torment within him that makes him break those bonds and rush out into the wilderness. All illness is isolating, but mental illness is profoundly isolating. You don’t feel like you belong, so you throw yourself out. People would rather not deal with you – they don’t want you around messing up their well-ordered lives. This idea of social exclusion is profoundly present in the story. This is not simply a story from a long time ago when strange things happened. This is sadly still clinically demonstrable in the worst case scenarios of mental health.

It’s evident from any encounter with people who are troubled, whether they’re mildly or profoundly troubled, that we need wisdom to help these people, and we need the power of God. Just as in physical healing, we’re encouraged by displays of miraculous power, even though that doesn’t always happen, to look to the ultimate restoration. There are no guarantees that if you follow the right formula everything’s going to be fine. Nonetheless, counselors can go about their job knowing that Jesus is there to provide the wisdom they need day to day, and Jesus is also there to provide the power for profound healing even and especially in those cases where we just don’t know what to do.

John’s story:

I started my adult life as a special education teacher. One of the jobs I got at the time was working with emotionally disturbed teenagers. I was the teacher helping them when they were out of school in residential treatment, or helping them reintegrate back into school, or getting their GED. I found that I had a much greater heart for the counseling end of the job than I did for the teaching end of the job. I also discovered that teaching is incredible hard work and I don’t want to work that hard. So I ended up going back to school and getting my masters in social work. I’m a clinical social worker, and I have been doing counseling ever since, both in hospitals, clinics, prisons, and for the past 20 years in private practice.

I work with a lot of folks that have addiction issues, like alcoholism, and I do a lot of marriage counseling. But the part that I think is most important in my story is the heart that I feel for how we treat mental illness – how we think about it. When I was working with those kids all those years ago, I saw people who would look at them with disgust and frustration, as if they were trying to be that way. If you have a kid who gets cancer, everybody will surround you and support you. There will be fund drives and pledges and walks. But if you have a kid with addiction or mental illness, it’s like you’re all alone. People start thinking, “Well, I think it’s the parent’s fault.” The shame and the isolation of mental health is something that breaks my heart all the time.

For those of you who would think about things like the demonic possession, I would encourage you to read Susannah Cahalan’s book Brain On Fire to think about the things that can happen to us physically. I’m not saying there isn’t such thing as demonic possession - I actually think there is. But at the same time as there are so many broken things in this world that can make our hearts sick and our bodies sick, there are many things that make our brains sick too.

I also think that the greatest healing in counseling has to do with relationship. When I read the stories of Jesus, what I always see is the way he related to people. At times he was so direct and blunt driving home a point, and at other times filled with such incredible compassion. Studies of people who are in the hospital say that people who have a lot of family and friends visit, and people who are seen as having deep faith tend to have shorter hospital stays. Because there’s something about community and relationship that is actually very physically healing to us. It is one of the best things that I think God gave us. We’re not built to be isolated. And people who need the most in terms of relationship, those people with addiction and mental health issues, those are the people we don’t want to spend time with.

In counseling I can’t specifically bring up issues of faith, although I’m not surprised how often issues of faith come up in the conversations. I’ve had non-Christian people within the first or second session say to me, “Do you go to church?” Things like that happen all the time in the office. I’m always being invited into the conversation. I’ve watched a lot of people who I think I would have considered to be nominal Christians return to church in their time in therapy over some other issue.

Yuka’s story:

I’m a vocational rehabilitation counselor, working for the state. My job is to help people with any type of disabilities - physical, mental, cognitive - to become more employable and more independent. I have done this job for 14 years and I still love it.

I was born with a visual impairment in Japan. In Japan it’s hard to live with disabilities, but God gave me wonderful parents who are atypical in Japan. Usually if your family member has a disability it’s considered a shame, but my parents were so encouraging, they let me believe I could do anything in my life.

I always wanted to help people who were in my same situation believe that they can be more independent. I went to college in Japan, majored in sociology, and mostly did social work. It wasn’t right. So I got a masters degree in psychology and it still didn’t feel right. During my master’s program I realized there’s such a thing as rehabilitation counseling in America. So I said, “I’m going.” That’s how I got here, and after I finished my masters degree I’m now practicing what I was educated for.

My faith: I pray for my clients. I have a caseload of 200 with an age range between 16 to 70s – as long as they want to work, we help them. As a state worker, I can’t obviously pray, but I discretely pray for my clients. I believe in the power of prayer like that.

People come see me with despair. Life is hard in general, but more so if you have disabilities. The clients I have really reflect society. I can’t even tell you the hurt they already experience. But then how much can I do? I only have like 30 minutes or one hour to see them, then I have to send them back to this nasty world. I try to think of the empowerment and encouragement that Jesus would give to them. Some clients come crying, and I always have a box of tissues that I sometimes have to use, but then when they leave their back is not hunched anymore. They smile.

It's like at the end of a church service when we have the benediction: Go out and spread the word. I feel like that’s what we have to do to encourage our clients. I trust that my faith helps me to send out my clients with a little bit of encouragement and empowerment.

Reed’s story:

I work as a mental health counselor at a college counseling center. I ended up in counseling in a roundabout way. When I started college I was really most interested in the idea of change, and how change happens. I was a politics major all four years, but it was during that time that I realized I was probably more suited for being involved in change at microcosmic personal level than I was at the macro systemic level. I then went into social work afterwards.

I had a brief job working with adults with developmental disabilities, and then I went into residential care working at a program for two years with kids who were on a CHINS petition – a Child In Need of Services. For various reasons they weren’t able to live in their homes, and so we provided the right amount of support and education and counselling.

When I moved I continued in residential care, in a program for juvenile criminal sex offenders. These were kids who were 12 to 18 years old who had been adjudicated, and were in our program because they had completed a portion of their sentence and were deemed safe to be residing in the community living in a residential supportive therapeutic community. We provided the education and continued counseling, and that’s when I decided after 4 years there to get serious about counselling. I got my degree in counseling, and I’ve been at the college since 1999.

My faith obviously incorporates into the work that I do, but it’s in a kind of a crafted way. As it refers to counseling, I’ve always used this image of a farmer. I don’t have any farming background whatsoever, but I think about seasons of life. We all have seasons of life. In my work at the college I’m seeing students ages 18 to 22. A lot of times this is the first time they’ve ever done anything related to counseling, but for many it’s just a continuation of counseling. I don’t know what season of life they’re in. For many people I am sort of tilling the soil and removing the rocks, and I know that somebody else after me through the work of the Holy Spirit is going to continue that progress the person is making. Sometimes I’m the person who’s just planting seeds. And other times I maintain things with water and sunshine, and probably a certain amount of manure as well. At other times I get to be with people in their times of harvest, and it’s a real blessing to be a part of that. But more than anything it’s just a privilege to be alongside people when they’re wanting to make a change. That’s a real divine privilege. I guess most of the time I think of that image of farming as something akin to what Jesus does. He meets people in their place of need, where they need to be met, and helps them in moving forward. That growth is often slow, it doesn’t always take place right away. Sometimes it does, but a lot of times it doesn’t.

That’s on a theoretical level. On a practical level, one of my daily prayers as I drive into work is: “Not my words Lord, yours. Speak through me.”

Sue’s story:

I’m a licensed marriage and family therapist. How I got into this field is a long story, but I’ll make it as short as I possibly can. I was not raised in a Christian home. I came to the Lord about 30 years ago during a period of time where there was a good bit of mental illness in our family, mine included. I had been suffering for 20 years from an anxiety disorder called agoraphobia. I would have panic attacks if I went into a place where there were too many people. I couldn’t drive on highways. If I came to church I had to sit in the back row and be ready to slip out the door as soon as I’d get a panic attack. I certainly could never ever in my wildest dreams address a group of people as I’m doing this morning.

I entered an organization that helped me see that God was not the punitive fearsome God of my youth. He wasn’t a God that I needed to fear, not in awe and respect but truly fear. This organization taught me that he was a loving God and that he wanted to help me. All I needed to do is believe in him and believe in his love for me, and then ask for his help. So I began asking.

At the time I was a travel agent. It was a fun job for a while, until people started blaming me because the sun didn’t shine on their vacation. But as I moved into my faith and I became deeper into it, I thought, “Lord, I don’t feel like I’m really honoring you in this field. I want to do some kind of work or profession where I can serve you better.” I prayed that prayer for a couple of years. And I feel, whether he really spoke to me or whether it was his spirit, I just felt his pushing me toward this counseling profession. I called a wonderful Christian counselor who had counseled me years before, and she said, “Did you ever think of going to the seminary?” I thought, “The seminary? Are you kidding? The Lord’s not calling me to be a minister - he’s just calling me to be a counselor.” She said, “No, they have a wonderful masters program in counseling where they integrate theology with psychology.” My heart just jumped out of my chest.

I called the admissions office and this kindly lady told me that I had already missed the admissions date for that year. I said, “Well, you know I’m 54 years old. And I don’t know how long this process is going to take. I was kind of hoping I could start it a little sooner.” She said, “Let me talk to Dr. Pendleton.” The next day I met with Dr. Pendleton and I was in.

The first class the professor said, “I’m going to go around the room and ask each one of you what you hope to gain from this class.” Since I had no idea what this class was about, I had no idea what I should say. When it came my turn I thought “Okay Lord I’m just going to be honest.” I said, “Well frankly what I am hoping and praying for is just mercy. I haven’t been in school in 37, years and I don’t know if my brain still works.” He assured me that it probably did, and it did because 3 years later I graduated at the age of 57, and I have been counseling for 17 years.

When I came into this profession I was really weighted down by the responsibility of it. The fear of maybe leading someone astray or not giving them the help that they needed. It meant a lot of prayer on my part. I just can’t tell you how often I am listening to someone in my office and I’m praying to the Lord at the same time, “Lord please, show me what I need to respond. Give me the wisdom. Because right now I’m sitting here thinking I don’t know what to do, and I don’t know where to go with it, but I know I want to help them and I understand the huge responsibility that this is. Should I never, father, lead someone in the wrong direction.”

With that in mind, I think of the Holy Spirit who is the great counselor. I appeal to the Holy Spirit, “Please live in me, be in me, speak through me.”

Because I’m a marriage and family therapist, I have a tendency to have more than one client in the office at one time. I find it is so much easier to deal with people who are Christians. If people already know I’m a Christian we can begin at that level. But when secular people come in, and I have a lot of those clients as well, I have to start with the intake and ask them: “Where do you get your strength when you’re going through difficult times?” “Have you ever had a faith?” I get them talking about it, and sometimes that will open the door for me to be able to speak on that level. The state will take my license away if I try to proselytize about Christ. So it is a great help to be sitting with a Christian couple – I know that at least they’re coming from the same foundation. They’re standing on the same rock, and we can appeal to that when we’re doing this work. But when I’m dealing with secular people and I have two people sitting in front of me very angry at each other deciding whether they’re going to divorce or not, and they say to me, “I’m making the rules, this is my assumption of the way I think things should be” and the other person says that in the reverse, it’s very difficult to deal with people like that. You have to bring them back to: “Do you understand that you really aren’t in control? Do you understand that marriage is a balance?” So dealing with Christian people is much easier than dealing with people who have no faith at all.

I know I’m not doing this alone. I absolutely do not have the wisdom that I can answer anyone’s problem that comes through my door. I have to depend on God. And I have to depend on his Holy Spirit to lead and guide me.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Read Mark 5:1-17. Is this story a good model for thinking about mental health today? Why or why not?
  2. Yuka and Sue felt moved to become counselors because of their own personal experiences. Think of someone who has either helped or inspired you. How did they influence your career path?
  3. Is the way that a counselor depends on God different from the way someone in the non-healing professions depends on God?
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