I first met with Janet on a balmy September day in south Louisiana. My husband and I had recently joined a church staff where were welcomed into a thriving community of Christ-followers. We were adjusting to this new community and culture. Janet, about 25 years my senior, was passionate about discipleship and lay counseling. As a social, people-oriented person, I jumped at the opportunity to connect with Janet and glean from her experience.
As we sat on the outdated, plaid couches of the church’s musty youth room, Janet shared her history, her passion for discipling women and her experience in lay counseling. She very quickly moved to her opinions and concerns about clinical counseling, how she felt it differed from her understanding of what counseling should be and the way discipleship should take place in the context of the local church. Fueled by good intentions, she emphatically recommended that I drop out of the clinical counseling program I was enrolled in at a local, well-respected seminary and pursue a biblical counseling certification instead.
As a recent Bible College graduate, I was aware that faithful Christians often hold a wide array of beliefs regarding emotions, mental health, and the role that counseling should — or should not — play in the lives of believers. But this was my first exposure to just how emotional, and confrontational, conversations around counseling and mental health in the local church could become.
I think most Christians would agree that our world is broken and that the effects of sin have affected every area of our lives — physically, emotionally, relationally, financially and sexually. No part of the human experience is beyond sin’s devastating impact. We can also agree that Jesus is God’s answer to the plague of sin, both individually and universally. In Christ, God saves sinners from the tyranny of sin — past, present and future.
God wants the future reality of Christ’s return and our true identity as children of God to free us from the negative effects of sin in our daily lives. But exactly how Jesus’ healing touch is mediated, and whether counseling or mental health resources are part of the process, is still a lively discussion that every believer must navigate for themselves.
Pastors, those to whom the blood-bought flock of God is entrusted here on this earth, are on the front lines of this conversation. For pastors, a theology of mental health, emotional health, trauma, and the church’s role in responding to the mental health crisis in our communities is not simply an intellectual exercise. The flock entrusted to them — the hurting, the traumatized and the grieving — depend on their pastor’s insight and care. Much is at stake.
Pastors, as you navigate this complex landscape, I submit three truths for your consideration.
1. Jesus does the healing
When considering mental health resources, some are concerned that counselors and other mental health professionals are seeking to replace Jesus’ healing power with humanistic methods. While this may be true for some, I and the Christian counselors I am privileged to serve alongside view mental health through the lens of Scripture. Our understanding of the issues of trauma, emotional health and clinical counseling begin with a biblical foundation. Our work flows from the truth that humanity is created in the image of God for a world without sin; the need for mental health resources is a result of the fall.
Therefore healing, genuine lasting healing, must find its source beyond what the fallen world has to offer. The best insights from the fields of psychology and counseling simply help us understand how intricately God has designed us and how deeply sin has wounded us. Counseling interventions help to stabilize us, regulate us, grant us new perspective and even motivate us toward change. But ultimately Jesus redeems; Jesus restores; Jesus delivers us from what ails us. Christian counselors know what only God can do, and accordingly view their counseling practice as a ministry, one whereby we utilize the tools of our trade to usher the hurting into the presence of the Great Physician.
2. Emotional health and spiritual health are deeply intertwined.
As pastor and author Pete Scazzero says, “It is impossible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally immature.”1 God has designed us as complex beings, and part of that complexity includes our emotions. God created our emotions to help us navigate our world and our own inner lives, and they are good. In fact, our emotions are one way we bear the very image of God.
Our emotions function much like gauges on the dash of a car. They let us know when everything is humming along as it should be or when things are off-kilter. Oftentimes, the tricky part is understanding exactly what an emotion is trying to tell us. For example, anxiety may clue me in to several different things. It might reveal the fact that I’m in an unsafe situation, or it might help me see that I’m prideful and self-absorbed. It might indicate that my past trauma is influencing how I view my current relationships, or it might even represent some complex mixture of all the above.
In this example, it’s easy to see how the ability to recognize our emotions and the thoughts that birth them is pivotal to our spiritual lives. If we can’t analyze our emotions, we can’t learn from them the message that God intends for them to communicate to us. The messages communicated to us by our emotions point us to Jesus, inform our discipleship journey, fuel our prayers and allow us to open ourselves up to the healing that Jesus provides.
3. Counselors want to be a support to the shepherding work you are called to in your local body of believers.
During my years as part of a church staff, when church members brought crisis issues into our offices, pastoral staff often asked: Are the needs of this person or family best met by a pastor or a professional counselor? There are many reasons for this question. Depending on the church, pastoral counseling might account for a significant amount of the staff’s time and resources. In addition, the pastors I worked alongside often felt as though some problems brought in by church members were outside the scope of their training, especially when mental health challenges were evident. The answer to the question of whether a pastor or professional counselor is need is often both.
As Christian counselors, our contribution lies in our understanding of psychology, human development, trauma and emotional health. We are trained to bring the best of what the mental health professions have to offer through the lens of our Christian faith and in accordance with Scripture. As a pastor, your contribution lies in your understanding of the needs of your faith family, Scripture, sound doctrine, and the loving community and guidance you and your congregation can provide to hurting individuals and families. You are uniquely equipped and gifted to provide shepherding care for those entrusted to you and your faith family. Together pastoral counseling and clinical counseling are a hand-in-hand partnership that builds up the body of Christ and ushers believers toward Christlikeness.
Both pastors and clinical counselors have a meaningful role to play in the lives of believers. Both seek to mediate the love and care of Christ to the hurting, to contribute to the spiritual and emotional health of Christians, and to use their unique giftings in service to Christ and His Church. So as you navigate the role of mental health resources in the life of the local church, know that in counselors you have willing and eager co-laborers in Christ who are seeking to point others to Jesus for the glory of God and the good of His Church.
About the Author:
Tiffany Raley serves as a Senior Clinical Care Counselor for WinShape Homes, providing Christ-centered, trauma-informed counseling services for foster children and their families. Prior to serving at WinShape, Tiffany has served individuals, children, and families in the private practice setting in addition to serving in church ministry as the Director of Body Life and Body Health. Tiffany’s primary areas of focus in counseling is play therapy, parenting, attachment, and emotional intelligence. Tiffany is passionate about pointing hurting people to the hope found in Christ.
- Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Discipleship (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021), 138.