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Tamara Jeffries

Manuscript and Editorial Consulting

Now I See


Spiritual counseling is a gift from God

Posted on 9 June, 2013 at 17:58 Comments comments (38)
What happens when a person who loves God and respects the church finds his self-identity clashing with his religion?

He can "implode and experience depression," according to a source in
Mashaun Simon’s recent piece on The Grio.  The article focuses on gay men and their relationship to the church— addressing the inner conflict that arises when a Black man finds his sexuality at odds with his spirituality. 

But in fact, Simon hits on a number of issues that relate to men and women, gay and straight, when it comes to seeking mental health care in their spiritual home.  For example, the story quotes a young man who went to his pastor for help with his depression: 

“He responded with cheery anecdotes and philosophical musings. He undoubtedly thought his response was helpful but it was typical church-speak…. He never once asked me why I felt the way I did or if I thought about seeing a mental-health professional. I left church that day feeling worse than I did when I came because I reached out for help and I did not get it.”

This happened to a gay man, but that kind of response could have been given to anybody. And it could have been worse. Many church- (and mosque- and  temple-) going people who admit to depression risk judgment and criticism: A child of God isn’t supposed to be depressed. You must not be counting your blessings. Where is your faith? You just need to pray. Needless to say, that approach is not going to lift anyone out of a mental miasma.  

There are full-fledged spiritual counseling centers like the one at T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House, which has trained therapists on staff, but that's rare. I’d guess that, in most cases, ministers do the best they can to offer solace based on experience and spiritual direction, if not actual training in mental-health counseling. In this age when more and more people seem to be suffering, that may not be enough.   

That’s not to knock church-based counsel. In the Black community we have long been taught that, when times are hard, you turn to God, the pastor and prayer. Today, there is solid scholarly research on religion’s role in mental health—much of it citing a positive relationship between a person’s spiritual health and their mental wellness. And the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) makes a good point, too: Because so many thousands of people are without health insurance—and many insurance plans don’t cover psychological services anyway—spiritual counseling can fill a broadening care and treatment gap.  

But it’s gotta be done right.   

Someone who is depressed, suicidal, coping with anxiety or other emotional issues, needs more than “trust-the-Lord” reminders and a warm pat on the back. (Though neither of those can hurt.)  Pastoral counseling has to have enough depth to offer true help and healing. To that end, the AAPC offers a certification for experienced pastoral counselors, and a training program for those who want to be better equipped to offer effective care. Their goal is “to increase the capacity of faith leaders to respond to such needs of their congregants.”    

But where a person’s mental or emotional issue is beyond the experience of the spiritual counselor, that minister needs to have the faith and humility to send the sufferer to someone who can offer more effective care—and consider it a gift of God that such resources are available.  

As for the issue of how our gay brothers and sisters are treated in church counseling, the AAPC has taken a stand. In 2010, the organization issued a commitment to anti-racist, multi-culturally competent care that states that “persons are regarded as having equal worth regardless of identity markers, including but not limited to race, gender, age, sexual orientation, difference in ability, religion, language, and cultural or national origins.”  

I guess that's a start. What do you think?