Wright, N. (2004) ‘Reach High – Christian Professionalism in Counselling’, Contact, Number 144, pp31-39.
[An earlier version of this article was first published in the Christian Counsellor, Issue 19, October-December 2003]
In spite of some scepticism about how well Christian faith can be married up with professional culture, there are dimensions of professionalism that are consistent with Biblical values. Christian professionalism can enhance our work with hurting people and the wider counselling profession – if we hold onto our distinctive beliefs, aims and values. This article will explore the meaning of Christian professionalism in a counselling context and describe its characteristics and practice implications using a ‘six-pillar’ model.
The ancient cry of “You’re a witch!” has been replaced today by the terrible cry of “You’re not professional!”. The consequences are not so serious but the sense of horror at being branded non-professional (for which hear ‘un-professional’) would be, nevertheless, devastating for folk employed in the counselling field today. If the accuser is able to prove his or her case, you can very definitely expect to return home with a P45 in your back pocket.
Fortunately, the term professional is used so widely and ambiguously that it has almost lost any sense of meaning. This makes defending oneself relatively easy. “I am a professional – we just disagree about what that means”: a convenient escape clause in a post-modern culture where all truth is subjective except, of course, the truth that all truth is subjective. This argument may even get you past the church leadership team where to advocate professionalism is often regarded as having sold your mind to secularism and your heart to the devil.
What I want to do in this article is to clear up some of the confusion and mixed-messages around professionalism and attempt to describe an approach that could make a genuine contribution to our Christian counselling ministry with hurting people. I don’t want to say exclusively, “This is professional” but rather that there are certain hallmarks of professionalism that are very definitely worthy of Christian attention. There are 5 key points that I’ll aim to demonstrate:
The phone rang just as I was sitting down to lunch and it was Naomi asking if I would come in as trouble-shooter for an action learning group[i] of Christian counsellors from different churches/agencies in inner-city areas[ii]. The group was struggling and, from what Naomi described, at the point of falling apart. My chips were getting cold and it was very tempting to say something like, “Tough one that. Hope you manage to sort it out” but, in spite of myself, I had this sense of curiosity to go and check it out.
I’m glad that I did. I started by arranging to meet with the group to review what they had done to date. When I put forward an innocent question about what they had found helpful, the room descended into stony silence and I’m sure I saw a hint of frost appear momentarily on one or two of the windows. On further exploration, it became apparent that the group was sharply polarised between (a) those who were prepared to commit only if it provided immediate benefit for them personally and (b) those who believed that members should be committed first and foremost to development of the group as a whole. The sense of mutual frustration and irritation between these parties could be felt almost tangibly.
I found this polarisation intriguing, not just because of its impact on the group but because I suspect it also mirrors deeply the tension between implicit (a) individual-consumer and (b) community-contributor ideologies in society today. Furthermore, I found myself feeling that there was something about the attitude of the latter sub-group that struck a profound chord with Biblical values and the heart of what it means to be professional.
It was, in fact, a very similar encounter that had first led me to think through the model that I will now describe below. I’ve coined the phrase ‘six pillars’ to describe it. Feel free to adapt it and/or add some additional dimensions of your own.
Question: what are the characteristics of a Christian professional counsellor that are distinct from, say, natural talent, technical competence, personal experience and even spiritual gifting alone? I propose the following:
1. Active membership of an independent, national/international body (e.g. BACP/ACC) that is committed to
establishing, maintaining and developing good practice in counselling. Active commitment to representing,
upholding and outworking the values and standards of the counselling profession, insofar as they coincide
with Biblical values, in the role and place of work in which the counsellor is employed.
2. Active membership of an independent, national/international body (e.g. BACP/ACC) that is committed to
establishing, maintaining and developing good practice in counselling.
3. Active commitment to representing, upholding and outworking the values and standards of the counselling
profession, insofar as they coincide with Biblical values, in the role and place of work in which the counsellor
4. Active commitment to the development of knowledge, capability and good practice within the counselling
profession by contributing ideas, expertise and learning to others engaged in counselling on the basis of
5. Active commitment to working under supervision with openness, integrity and transparency.
6. Active commitment to prayer, fellowship and on-going learning and development in order to continually
enhance relationship with God, professional knowledge, capabilities and value to others.
Pillar 1 - Studying
I presented this model to the group at our second meeting. Claire, sitting opposite me with arms folded tightly, was clearly unimpressed. She had been involved in church-based counselling for 8 years and was very annoyed by the first ‘pillar’. “So what you’re implying is that people who’ve been to college are superior to those who haven’t?”. Before I had time to respond, Simon sent off a second volley in support: “We don’t see Jesus advocating a 2-tier elitist system of ministry that gives preference to the educated middle classes, do we?”
“No, and…er…no”, was my weak reply with voice all of a sudden bordering on pitch-break. Gathering my composure as best I could, I went on to explain that the reason why I believe studies are important is that they provide “invaluable opportunity to grow in external awareness and our ability to critique and apply alternative models and approaches”. Blank looks, sideways glances and some bemused half-smiles. “OK – they force us to check out whether there might be some better ways of really making a difference in the lives of hurting people.” Ah – lights coming on now.
Naomi chipped in after a few awkward moments. “I guess the prospect of being considered not professional, if we haven’t studied in the way you say, could leave us feeling like second-class counsellors. What if we’ve never had the chance to study or aren’t academically-inclined? That doesn’t mean we’re bad counsellors, does it?” “Not at all”, I replied. This was certainly the heart of the matter as far as Naomi was concerned. Claire spoke up again. “Taking Naomi’s point, if we were to follow through on what you are saying, what kind of options could exist for people like us?”
In general, I suggest the following:
If you haven’t studied in the counselling field or theology, you could sign up to a part-time course or explore possibilities for distance learning. Most colleges are sympathetic and supportive of students who haven’t studied formally in this way.
There are quite a few courses around today that combine professional counselling with Christian theology. Examples include those offered by London School of Theology (www.lst.ac.uk). A list of such courses can be obtained from the Association of Christian Counsellors (ACC) directly (www.acc-uk.org).
If you’re serious about a formal career in counselling in the UK, it’s worth studying for a professional qualification endorsed by the British Association of Counselling & Psychotherapy (BACP). A list of accredited courses can be obtained from the BACP directly (www.bacp.co.uk).
If you’re involved in part-time counselling or as a volunteer, it could be worth checking out what courses (e.g. part-time certificates) are offered by your local college since these are often low-cost and can provide considerable degrees of flexibility.
Pillar 2 – Joining
As we moved onto the second pillar, a fairly heated discussion started in the group about whether Christians should join a secular body or, perhaps, a Christian equivalent that can represent the distinctive agendas and interests of Christians engaged in counselling ministry. Naomi was concerned that secular bodies are not, generally, sympathetic to Christian beliefs and commented that she would rather pay her subscription fees to a body that shared her sense of Christian mission.
Jonathan responded quite harshly that this was a, “typical withdrawal into an evangelical-type ghetto mentality”. In an attempt to calm the waters, I intervened with my own view that if we are clear about our own fundamental beliefs and values and prepared to hold to them firmly, I think we are generally safe to explore different ideas and approaches and, where appropriate, to advocate our own distinctive views. It comes down to making a decision that you feel comfortable with.
I would offer the following advice:
As a general principle, if you aren’t already a member of a professional institute, consider joining one that represents the counselling field, is open to your beliefs and provides useful services (journals, magazines, newsletters, networks etc).
Have a look at the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy (www.bac.co.uk) and Association of Christian Counsellors (www.acc-uk.org) websites as helpful starting points.
Pillar 3 - Representing
The third pillar proved somewhat less controversial. At first, members of the group seemed to agree that what was, at heart, distinctive about their work was not their professional values or standards (which, they believed, were broadly consistent with those held by secular colleagues) but rather the motivation behind their work with people. “We work with hurting people, especially those who are marginalised, because we believe God cares passionately about them.”
There’s no question that motivation is very important. I also challenged the group, however, to think whether there might be additional Biblical distinctives that should influence their work. I would argue that, ultimately, all presenting problems have a spiritual element or component to them, and Christian counselling is distinctive in that it offers the opportunity to explicitly incorporate this dimension into the counselling process.
We then moved on to look at how Biblical dimensions should be reflected in Christian professional counselling values and practice, especially since ‘values’ is simply a form of shorthand for ‘the things we value most’. The group identified two different but interlinked types of professional standards that could result from an outworking of their Christian values.
Firstly, ethical standards. An example of an ethical standard could be: ‘Respect every person as created in the image of God.’ Secondly, practice standards. An example of a practice standard could be: ‘Encourage individual creative expression.’
The BACP and ACC can provide details of their own practice standards and I encourage counsellors to have a look at these standards and critique them, testing each one against Biblical teaching and deciding, where appropriate, on a Christian standpoint.
Pillar 4 - Contributing
Moving onto the fourth pillar, Sophie, a relatively new member of the group, looked distinctly uncomfortable. It turned out that she had trained until fairly recently on a secular course where she found her Christian beliefs frequently challenged and ridiculed. The thought of trying to present a Biblical perspective with any degree of credibility within the wider counselling arena left her feeling pretty despondent.
This scenario highlights a common problem for Christian workers – a lack of professional confidence. After a moment, Claire asked quietly, as if questioning herself, “Do I really have anything at all to contribute to the wider counselling profession that others wouldn’t have thought of already?” I responded without hesitation with an emphatic, “Yes”. Because our own knowledge seems obvious to us, we can easily assume that it will be obvious to others too.
I believe that Christian counselling presents a unique perspective within the wider secular field. As a general point of principle, if you find yourself being challenged by those who don’t share your views, remember that a considerable amount of counselling work with people is carried out by Christians. That gives us a professional right to speak up, a Biblical responsibility to speak out and a genuine contribution to offer the counselling profession.
If you’re not sure how to contribute to your wider profession, contact the ACC or BACP for ideas. Practitioner-orientated journals (e.g. Contact, ACC Accord, BACP CPJ) often welcome articles and taking part in an active network is an excellent way to meet and support other professionals in your field.
Simon stepped into the discussion with another angle. “Let’s assume for a moment that our views were acceptable. I can agree that it would be great if we could make a difference by sharing our own experience with other counsellors but the fact is that I can hardly find time to do everything that is already expected of me at work. How are we supposed to find time to do all this other stuff as well?”
Good point. One of the biggest problems that counsellors find with the idea of contributing learning to the profession really is this vexing question of time. This is particularly acute for people who do part-time counselling on top of full-time employment or in addition to holding other kinds of responsibility. In practice, the vast majority of church counsellors fall within this category.
As a general principle, I think that some degree of contact with other counsellors is likely to have a net positive effect, even though it does cost time, energy and sometimes money. I also believe quite strongly that space to be involved in this kind of activity should be written into job descriptions and positively timetabled into work schedules to avoid becoming sidelined by other more immediate time pressures. Contact with other counsellors does not have to be overly time-consuming and could in fact take the form of fairly simple means, for example:
Get to know one or two other counsellors in your locality.
Join a counselling forum if one exists in your area.
Visit one or two other counselling projects.
Use an action learning group or professional development group as a place for developing each other.
Attend counselling seminars, conferences and/or other events.
Join internet-based counselling-orientated discussion groups.
Share ideas with other counsellors by email.
Communicate with colleagues through newsletters and journals.
The benefits of such contact are wide-ranging and can include:
Moral and practical peer support.
Positive sharing of ideas, experiences and expertise.
Exposure to new and contrasting perspectives.
Positive sharing of other resources (contacts, facilities etc).
Coordination of counselling initiatives locally.
Potential for influencing the wider counselling arena.
Pillar 5 – Accounting
News headlines exposing sexual abuse by a prominent Christian therapist still flash before my eyes when I think about the fifth pillar. Apart from developmental value, supervision can provide critical safeguards for counsellor and clients alike by helping to ensure professional and spiritual accountability. All members of the group commented, encouragingly, that they received ‘supervision’ from line-managers, ministers or management committees, but it became evident quickly that the quality of supervision received was extremely variable.
Sophie observed astutely that, “The people who supervise us are rarely counselling professionals. We tend to be supervised by people who are well-meaning and gifted in their own fields of work but sometimes lack the confidence or insight they need to really understand and challenge us in our field.” Jonathan agreed. “We tend to get asked lots of questions about things that are pretty trivial but then left to our own devices when it comes to our real work with people.”
This experience is far from unique. Counsellors are often employed as specialists to do work on behalf of their church/agency with the implicit subtext of, “Now you’re here, we don’t have to think about that.”
I suggest that counsellors can, nevertheless, take steps to enhance their own spiritual and professional accountability via a number of routes including:
Help consciously to educate those who manage you, explaining the need for supervision from a
qualified counselling practitioner.
Meet regularly with a mature Christian with whom you can be really honest.
Present case studies to peers/one-another for critical feedback.
Write short articles and request critical comment from readers.
Lead peer seminars and allow time for hard questions.
One thing these suggestions have in common is the need for the counsellor to make a determined commitment to transparency and accountability. This commitment carries its own personal cost but it really does fade into relative insignificance when compared with the potential damage if things go wrong.
Pillar 6 - Developing
The final pillar is really a call to keep moving forward in terms of spiritual, personal and professional development. It’s very easy to rely on learning from the past: “I trained as a counsellor 10 years ago so I’m fine, thanks”, without keeping our learning up-to-date and/or continually coming before God in heartfelt prayer for fresh insight, wisdom and revelation.
The danger is, of course, that we can lose our cutting-edge and become very jaded without even realising it. Our motivation suffers, as does the quality of our work with people. The challenge I present to counsellors-in-practice is, therefore, in the form of the following questions:
What are you going to do to safeguard your prayer life?
What are you going to do to stay close to your Biblical values?
What are you going to do to establish contact with other professionals?
What are you going to do to contribute to others’ learning?
What are you going to do to ensure appropriate accountability?
What are you going to do to support your own development?
As a final comment, I also offer the following advice:
If you really do find yourself struggling to stay up-to-date within your profession, consider as a minimum subscribing to a journal through your library, finding a mentor, joining an action learning group (as above) with other Christian professionals and/or look out for short 1-day courses. Even the very smallest steps take you further than no steps at all. A subscription to Contact is a good starting point.
Naomi thanked me on behalf of the wider group and they decided to use their next meeting to produce personal action plans based on the questions posed above. The last thing I heard was that they are still meeting together with a far deeper sense of Christian unity, professional identity and purpose.
[i]A group where practitioners meet together to problem-solve issues arising in their work.
[ii]The characters and group described in this case study are fictitious but based on questions, concerns and issues raised by actual clients.