Self-Reflections of a Soon-to-Be Counselor

Since the time I first became a Christian 23 years ago in a wild charismatic church, I knew that I wanted to be a counselor. I didn’t know what that looked like necessarily at the time, I just knew I wanted to help people overcome their grief and internal struggles. Having come from a difficult childhood (who hasn’t) I wanted to help others who also experienced deep disappointment and trauma in life. As a new Christian I turned my sights to becoming a pastor.

In 1998 I entered college as an undergraduate student in Pastoral Ministry at Oral Roberts University. My experiences during this period made me even more hyped about becoming a pastor and now that I had some experience and a degree I launched out to become one. To my surprise I found that in the churches I attended none were looking for interns, and none could care less that I had a degree in Pastoral Ministry. It didn’t help that I was in the independent charismatic movement, which is dominated by pastors with no affiliation with anything larger than themselves. There was no pool of talent that they drew from other than their own congregations and usually they limited the search to their own families. Pastors seemed to inevitably ordain their own sons for ministry no matter how unqualified they happened to be.

However, many of my own friends and family constantly encouraged me to start my own church. It was tempting. I was at least as qualified as the pastors I knew, I had an immediate group of “disciples” that would join with me, and my wife wasn’t opposed to the idea. But something always kept me from taking the idea too seriously. There was something wrong about just starting your own church; I couldn’t put my finger on it, it just didn’t seem right. I had been a music worship leader for many years, taught and preached on many occasions, had good business acumen, all the zeal, etc., but none of this could erase the hesitation deep within me of starting my own ‘thing.’

And thank God!

I was totally unfit to become a pastor. Looking back from my present vantage point I know this to be true. I am currently in my final semester of studies in a graduate counseling psychology program and, to be honest, the prospects of counseling others is terrifying. It is terrifying in the sense of the responsibility of being a counselor; being the person that someone else trusts with their deepest struggles and angst; being the person charged with caring for the well-being of another individual. Even more terrifying, the idea that the health and future of whole families may rest on the confidence they entrust me with. Wow! Take all that and add the spiritual/eternal dimension of being a pastor.

Forget it!

Anyone who can look at the gravity of such a responsibility and treat it with the unsupported zeal of good intentions is worse than ignorant, worse than fraudulent—he’s a danger and an accident waiting to happen on a colossal scale. This was me.

Ironically, “Eric” is an old Nordic name meaning “Eternal Ruler” or “King.” This is my birth name. I’m not sure if my parents knew this and had exceptionally high expectations of me or if they just liked the way it sounded, but I find it interesting that my Orthodox Christian name “Nilus” (taken from a fifth century saint) means “Nothing.” I went from King to Nothing when I became Orthodox!

And praise God!

King is a worthy title for the pomposity and arrogance of the kind of life I deeply fear, rife with undue expectations, responsibility, and pitfalls waiting at every turn (not to mention assassins; what would a king be without a myriad of assassins waiting to do him in?). Had I ventured to start my own church and kick the door in to my own appointment as a minister of God I would have become a proverb, not a psalm. Saint Nilus wrote of this sort of minister:

“These self-appointed teachers lack personal experience, and do not even listen when other speak to them. Relying solely on their own self-assurance, they order their brethren to wait on them like slaves. They glory in this one thing: to have many disciples… they insinuate themselves into a position of leadership, not for the benefit of their disciples, but to promote their own pleasure.” (The Philokalia, vol. 1)

Orthodox CounselingSo far from being a true spiritual guide for others, I was the one who needed guidance; far from being a physician, I was the one wounded and dying on the battlefield of spiritual chaos. I thought nothing of guiding others, or as Nilus calls it, “leaping into a burning furnace,” provoking the “laughter in those who knew my previous life, and arousing God’s anger by my foolhardiness.” Being a spiritual guide is perhaps the most difficult task one could ever take on. Why would anyone wish this upon themselves? The only reason must be shear ignorance of the true weight of such a calling; or shear enlightenment of the Holy Spirit Who makes one ready for such a life. For the ignorant, all their personal ideas are the result of enlightenment, and I speak from experience.

What prompted this sort of self-reflection you may ask (or not, but you’re reading so I may as well go there)? Many things. For one, I’ve been reading a lot of heavy stuff lately, not the least of which are the homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian. But I think as the end of my formal training in counseling draws to a close I am pressed to take a long, cold stare at myself and ask whether or not I am being honest with this “craft” of caring for the spiritual and mental health of the person on the other side of the counseling table. Let’s just say, I’m glad to have another semester in front of me.

I’ll end with another quote from my patron saint, which has become for me both a warning and an encouragement on my new-found road as a counselor. Thanks for reading!

“To master any art requires time and much instruction… The only art which the uninstructed dare to practice, because they think it the simplest of all, is that of the spiritual way. What is difficult the majority regard as easy; and what Paul says he has not yet apprehended (Phil 3:12), they claim to know through and through, although they do not even know this: that they are totally ignorant…If such people realized clearly how much painful toil is required to guide others on the spiritual way, and if they knew the risks involved, they would certainly abandon the task as beyond their powers. Let no one imagine that to be a spiritual guide is an excuse for ease and self-indulgence, for nothing is so demanding as the charge of souls. Anyone undertaking this task must prepare himself for a severe struggle.”

St. Nilus the Ascetic (cir., 430 AD)

St. Nilus the Ascetic (cir., 430 AD)

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22 thoughts on “Self-Reflections of a Soon-to-Be Counselor

  1. Growing up, whenever I would take a test that would suggest my ideally suited jobs, priest/pastor/minister would consistently land near the top. As a life-long atheist, I always found this ironic. However, it does require a skill set that I have routinely used in various positions.

    I’ve done supporting/counseling roles in various settings and situations throughout my adult working life, both serious and not-so-much. I think you’re keying on an important aspect of such positions: “the responsibility of being a counselor.” It will take awhile for you to define what this means for you. There’s a certain helplessness that can be difficult to move past. However, if it is in your character, you’ll find that the experience of connecting with people in such a manner is quite sustaining.

    I hope your final semester goes well. Trust me, the deep end can be fun. My luck to you.

    -Jeff P.

  2. Congratulations Eric. I wish you humility, gratitude, integrity and constant politeness towards God and your ‘customers’. I imagine it will be a learning process and you will gain much in your giving. God be with you and God bless you.

  3. Oh yes! By the way Eric, we didn’t all have a difficult childhood. I loved mine – full of play, fun, excitement, and learning about pushing to your limits. My parents were good and our good times were not due to money (as there was very little to spare).
    I wouldn’t mind going back to that time, but, alas, we must grow up sometime eh! Our time to help the new-comers, if we can. What an excellent opportunity you’ll have.

  4. Stella, absolutely. A good therapist is good regardless of their religious views. But, I would not begin to compare the work that a minister does with that of a therapist. The minister is concerned with much larger issues than a counselor or psychologist.

  5. I do wonder how many atheists understand or, want to understand, the full implication of ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’. So many of our psychological issues arise from this fundamental issue. I’m not saying it is impossible without God, but I do wonder. (I’ve kept this comment to a minimum so there’s much to be said, I know).

  6. I think so long as the atheist remains philosophically neutral while in session he/she can lead others to love their neighbor as themselves. It’s precisely when the atheist attempts to actually think and behave in congruence with an atheistic worldview that he/she become unhelpful in this sense. When teased out, what exactly does the atheist have to “pin” such concepts of “love” to? There is nothing within the total system of nature that supports “love” as an ontological reality.

  7. Thanks for your interesting reply. I’m not sure if I fully understand though. Perhaps I need to wait for one of your future books!

  8. I don’t want to oversimplify but basically atheists don’t believe we have souls: not souls that continue on after death. They also don’t believe in love or that is to say they believe that love is just another biological effect in our bodies. It is not there because God put it there but because it is a result of chemical responses in our bodies. As regards to atheists being good therapists – yes they can but not if they apply their world views to their patients. Unless the patient is also an atheist.

  9. Stella, I perfectly understand the chemical responses of sexual love, parental love, love of siblings and the vulnerable. But the love that overcomes hatred and fear is an entirely different form of love that is seen by some but apparently, not by others. I have often wanted to talk about this kind of love but have mostly received short change from my atheists friends. As I said earlier, they just do not seem to be interested, or able to admire and desire it. It is as if they have no idea of its beauty.

  10. Absolutely Stella! But it helps to know where the target is, and this is why I wonder how people without it can help those without it, (the blind leading the blind), but mostly people expect less which perhaps is therefore, the right amount at the right time (no judgments).

  11. Hey Crossbow. I recently finished my internship at the Cancer Treatment Center of America and even more recently graduated. You caught me in the job interview stage. 🙂

  12. Sorry, Crossbow. I just spotted this post (not sure how I missed it). I sure have, trouble is one must complete 3000 hours of supervised counseling work before becoming licensed (LCP). Until then it’s not possible to open a private practice, nor would I want to. I’ll need a lot of experience before I’m ready to go-it-alone.

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