Unpacking Christian Counseling: A Conversation with AACC president Tim Clinton

Tim Clinton is president of the American Association of Christian Counselors, as well as professor of counseling and pastoral care and executive director of the Center for Counseling and Family Studies at Liberty University. He is licensed in Virginia as both a professional counselor (LPC) and marriage and family therapist (LMFT). He now spends a large part of his time working with Christian leaders and professional athletes.

We asked Clinton to respond to questions on a range of issues related to Christian counseling.

What is the American Association of Christian Counselors, and how can people find a trained Christian counselor through your registry?

With nearly 50,000 members, the AACC is the largest and most diverse Christian counseling membership and training association in the world. The AACC is committed to assisting Christian counselors and the entire community of care, including licensed professionals, pastors, and lay church members with little or no formal training. It is our desire to equip clinical, pastoral and lay caregivers with biblical truth and psychosocial insights that minister to hurting persons and help them move toward personal wholeness, interpersonal competence, mental stability and spiritual maturity.

We are committed to helping the church equip God’s people to love and care for one another. We recognize Christian counseling as a unique form of Christian discipleship, assisting the church in helping its members grow to maturity in Christ and experience abundant life. We believe that the role of the helping ministry in the church must be supported by three strong cords: the pastor, the lay helper, and the professional. It is these three roles that the AACC is dedicated to serve, following the directive of Ephesians 4:11-13.

The Christian Care Network on our website is a national referral network of state licensed, certified, and/or properly credentialed Christian counselors offering care that is distinctively Christian and clinically excellent. Each member of CCN is a current member in good standing with the AACC, and is credentialed through one of the AACC’s boards. CCN is a great resource for pastoral and ministry staff to refer parishioners with confidence. For more information, visit www.aacc.net/resources/find-a-counselor.

What kind of education, training and credentials should a person expect to see in a qualified counselor?

The counseling and caregiving field, which I often refer to as the “Continuum of Care,” includes a wide range of mental health clinicians and ministry leaders, ranging from licensed psychologists, professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, social workers, pastoral counselors, chaplains, coaches and lay counselors.

When seeking out counseling, it is important to consider an individual’s educational training, professional experience, and areas of expertise. I always encourage people to take time to interview a potential counselor — either on the phone or in person. Make sure to ask about the practitioner’s background, education, advanced training, licensure, certifications, and their commitment to biblical truth in the counseling process.

To ensure that every client is protected and receives the best possible care, AACC is developing a Client Bill of Rights for Counseling and Mental Health Services. This will be posted on our website as a resource to those seeking counseling-related services.

Christian counseling 1What place does the Bible have in the counseling relationship?

The Bible is God’s gift to us in all matters that pertain to life and godliness (1 Peter 1:3). “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). I personally believe that Scripture serves as the anchor for Christian counseling. This means far more than just sprinkling a few Bible verses throughout, and begins with viewing life, problems, and the change process through a biblical lens and worldview.

Thus, what makes counseling Christian includes understanding man as fallen, sin as the root of our brokenness, the gospel as our ultimate and only hope, and redemption as the process of God healing, growing, and setting us free through his truth. The Bible has much to say about relationships, suffering, handling conflicts, finding meaning in life, making decisions, and so forth. While Scripture may not speak directly to every issue brought into counseling, biblical principles can be applied to gain a new perspective. I love what Paul says in Colossians 1:28: Our real mission in the helping process is “to present everyone mature in Christ.”

George Barna says we are living in the time of the most rapid change in history. Albert Mohler has noted that the secularization of America has taken place rapidly. With the massive shifts in our culture away from biblical truth and morality, how has this impacted individuals, especially people of faith?

While our culture is becoming increasingly more secular, three out of every four Americans still believe in God. If Barna’s research is any indication, people have more questions about spirituality than ever. Refusing to be satisfied with a “Sunday faith,” many men and women in today’s generations are wrestling with what really matters in life. I believe the church has a unique opportunity to meet people at their point of need, welcoming those with questions and doubts and showing them how amazingly relevant God’s Word is, and becomes, in their everyday life.

Many people want their faith addressed as part of the counseling process. What’s even more interesting is that the mental-health professions are beginning to address the spiritual aspects of a client’s life in the treatment process. Historically, there’s been a real faith gap between those seeking counseling services and those who offer them, but this is rapidly changing as more and more counselors become educated about the positive influence of faith on mental and physical health. Counselor training programs and professional organizations are encouraging a sensitivity to and understanding of spirituality and faith in the counseling office. As a result, while there seems to be a lack of biblical literacy, today’s culture is pregnant with opportunity for those who know biblical truth and are committed to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and to helping people through life’s difficulties.

Almost all pastors do some counseling. Are there things a pastor can do to become better equipped in his role as a counselor?

Know your people. Jesus met people at their point of need, as should we. It’s important to listen to your parishioners and stay current on the issues they are wrestling with. Otherwise, your position as an authority figure will separate you to the point where you may be only vaguely aware of the challenges facing today’s families and not really know what’s going on in your own church community.

Stay current. Seek out ongoing continuing education and professional training, and encourage your ministry staff to do so as well. With the current healthcare changes underway, more people will likely turn to church-based counseling and care. This opens the door, I believe, to greater ministry than ever before, but the church must be trained and equipped to respond with excellence and competence that stems from a holistic understanding of mental, emotional, relational and spiritual problems.

Network with local professionals. Christian leaders should never work alone but instead be networked with various professionals to help mobilize everything that is necessary to help a person move toward maturity in Christ. This is what we mean by collaborative care. Through the years, we’ve learned that there are so many factors that influence various disorders. Responsible intervention looks to well-trained experts and the church community for help.

Be resourceful. Use every aspect of the Body of Christ when it comes to caring for people. This may involve medical professionals, nutritionists, mental health clinicians, crisis responders, coaches, and more. Don’t try to do it on your own. Instead, empower the Body of Christ to serve together, each in their unique area of gifting and training. It’s an exciting day when we think about mobilizing the church to care.

Stay accountable. Every day we hear of Christian leaders who fall prey to sexual misconduct, temptations, and more. Stress and burnout are off the charts. Isolation is always a breeding ground for disaster, so make sure to build a solid community around yourself. Authentic friendship and collegial relationships are critical in order to thrive spiritually and resist Satan’s attacks.

Christian counseling 2Can you give pastors and church staff members some advice on when to refer a person to a professional counselor?

A pastor is at the heart of discipleship, encouragement and spiritual ministry. But never forget the cardinal rule of care: If a person is stuck or digressing, it’s no longer just a duty, but also a joy, to place this individual in the care of others who have more specialized training in offering skill, insight and wisdom for their current needs. This is particularly the case when an individual is facing a major life issue, such as an addiction, persistent depression, bipolar disorder, gridlocked marital problems, an eating disorder, or a severe mental disorder. The number one ethic of counseling is to do no harm. From a Christian perspective, we take that even further to always seek to do good and bless those who come into our care.

It’s important to develop a professional referral network by interviewing local leaders who are sensitive to your mission and ministry. Additionally, take time to understand your strengths and limitations in helping others. Never operate outside of your scope of practice. Each part of the Body of Christ has different roles, and this is certainly true when it comes to the Continuum of Care. Know where your area of focus and specialty is when it comes to soul care, and don’t hesitate to refer — whether for a physical, medication evaluation, or for professional counseling services.

What are some of the most common problems that Christians struggle with today?

Pornography — With instant Internet access almost anywhere, pornography is a significant problem within the church. Many men and women fall prey to this false intimacy in a misguided attempt to meet their God-given need for intimacy in relationships.

Emotional disorders — The pace, the pain and the pressure of modern-day life can be overwhelming. Sometimes Christians can be the worst about self-care and setting boundaries, instead overloading ourselves in the name of serving God. It’s no surprise, then, that depression, stress and anxiety are rampant.

Relationship issues — Whether conflict with a spouse, family member, coworker or friend, relationship challenges are a reality in our fallen world. However, for many people, disagreements spin out of control and often lead to distance, domestic violence, and/or sexual, emotional or spiritual abuse.

Are there resources that could help people going through some difficult times? Are there good helps and tools that people could use if they are unable to meet with a counselor?

The good news is that over the last 20 to 30 years, we have been flooded with resources to help people in distress. However, not all of them offer a balanced understanding of clinical insights and biblical truth. Learning to think theologically about life and life issues becomes important in selecting resources that are the best fit for specific clients. At the AACC, we work hard to develop individual and small group resources by leading professionals, including “Stay Married for Life,” “Women in Depression,” The Busy Epidemic,” “Spiritual Disciplines,” “Forgiveness,” “Life After Divorce,” “Attachments,” “The Genesis 2:24 Project,” “Marriage Mentoring,” “Parenting Today’s Kids,” and more. In addition, our Courageous Living series offers more than 40 DVDs on a variety of topics for clients to use. More information is available on our website at www.aacc.net/courses.

What is your opinion of using medication as part of the therapeutic process? How can a person tell if they need drugs or talk therapy only?

I agree with Christian psychiatrist Dr. Frank Minirth that medications have their place and value, and with the recent advances in medicine, they are able to be much more prescriptive and targeted than ever. For example, differing medications are now used to treat different types of depression.

However, I would also suggest that the one thing medicine cannot give you is hope. That’s why we’ve learned in the research that when medication is indicated for treating emotional disorders, it’s most often coupled with some type of counseling or psychotherapy. The right medication can often help a person reach a stable level of functioning so he or she can better engage in the counseling process and move toward freedom — emotionally, physically, relationally and spiritually.

While there are certainly people in today’s society who take medication and may not need it, there are also many individuals suffering from biological imbalances who need medication but do not take it. Sadly, this is often due to bias within the church. In reality, when there is a biological problem — whether it is diabetes, high blood pressure, or a brain imbalance — pastors and ministry leaders should always encourage parishioners to seek out evaluation by a trained medical professional. God works in multiple ways to bring healing and hope.

What can couples do to prepare themselves for marriage?

Run for your life! With the current divorce statistics, that certainly sounds like an appropriate answer. But seriously, research now shows that premarital counseling makes a huge difference in building trust, authenticity and open communication within marriage. I would encourage every couple to pursue premarital counseling in order to begin taking an honest, comprehensive look at each person’s expectations across all domains — values, social life, faith, sex, friendship, kids, parenting, job/career, recreation, and so on. In addition, premarital counseling can help a couple begin to develop a unique vision for their relationship and future family, as well as helping each individual gain self-awareness of his or her own weaknesses and needed growth areas, rather than pointing the finger.

In addition, I always encourage premarital clients to surround themselves with married couples they admire and want to learn from. Find a mentor or coach who can walk with you through engagement as well as the early years of your marriage. And, certainly, begin early in your dating relationship to establish a strong spiritual foundation. Christian community and mentoring are essential to learn how to do marriage well, especially in today’s world where so many negative forces can threaten a relationship.