On why many Evangelical pastors fear counseling

Friday has become the best day of my week. I’m finally self-employed again, which means I can schedule a half-day of work followed by a half-day of reflection over cigars and Guinness whenever I want. I look forward to it like a 7-year-old looks forward to Disneyland, only I don’t wind up screaming and crying halfway through it because my feet hurt and I’m jacked up on sugar.

It’s great because I get to do two things that I’m most passionate about outside of faith and family: I get to counsel and then reflect—a practical, embodied experience (counseling) followed by abstract reflection carried to its highest degree via Nicaraguan stogies.

Yesterday I was happily joined by a good friend of many years who shares my appreciation for the latter. We’ve never spent time together when excellent discussions did not ensue, and this time was no exception. Usually we bounce around from topic-to-topic hitting history, philosophy, theology, psychology, pretty much anything with an “ology” at the end. We are nerds to the max who recently introduced cigars into the mix hoping to lower our nerd meter by a few dials. And on this day, we happened onto a discussion on counseling in the Evangelical Church.

We are both ex-Evangelicals, both were in the movement for decades, both had our share of joy and jading over the years, experiencing the full range of leadership from amazing pastors to the extreme clinical narcissistic pastors, we even abandoned Evangelicalism around the same period of time.

It seems to be common knowledge that Evangelical pastors are often against professional counseling, Christian or otherwise. Many pastors will take it upon themselves to offer various forms of counseling for their congregants (one church I briefly attended offered this only to tithing members) but steer their congregants clear of any outside counseling.

As my friend and I pushed into the topic we covered all of the usual explanations, such as: they fear their congregants being influenced by secular ideology; they distrust any form of psychotherapy not derived strictly from Biblical teaching; they distrust other Christian organizations or therapists because they might have a different theological spin on things; etc.

After kicking these ideas around for a bit, it dawned on me that maybe they are fearful of counseling because counseling serves to challenge their own repressed emotional issues. Maybe it has little to do with care for their flock and much more to do with their care to maintain a state of internal dislocation—a ‘safe place’ from their own inner mayhem.

Many of the pastors I grew up with were phenomenal preachers precisely because they had developed a knack for remaining oblivious to their own emotional suffering. They could preach that all Christians should experience an endless march of victory, that right-believing faith (and tithing) should eliminate all potential disaster and tragedy, illness and destitution, and they could preach such things with a straight face, exciting their congregations into bursts of inspiration, because they had thoroughly distanced themselves intellectually from their own suffering.

We identified several pastors who shared this conviction that faith is a shield from suffering, and without exception each of them had this ‘emotion-avoidance’ way about them. Each were narcissistic masters of abstraction, disembodied minds—what Kierkegaard would call “phantoms of pure reason”—whose emotional lives were unidimensional. They were men who used faith as a magic forcefield against the scariest of all enemies—their own emotions.

For these pastors, counseling is a worrisome reminder that there is more to their own lives—that they themselves have many personal dragons haunting the halls of their souls, dragons who gain power when they are given any attention whatsoever; like a medusa who turns a man to stone when he looks her in the face. So long as they can remain fixated on the Bible as their only authority (which of course, when played out, means little more than that their own bias remains their authority) then they can ward off any and all challenges to their ego (challenges that all good therapy is bound to produce), and with the ego in charge they are safe from emotional vulnerability.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to be careful when pursuing counseling. And actually, all of the reasons we initially ‘kicked around’ were solid reasons. But when a pastor shows a blanket angst for counseling in general my advice is to be suspicious that he is avoiding his own stuff.

For the reader who holds this suspicion for his or her own pastor, my sincere advice to you is that you need to be careful. The likelihood that you will suffer some form of emotional abuse by such a pastor in the future is very likely. My friend and I could (and did) wax on for quite some time about our personal experiences on this account.

Thanks for reading.

12 thoughts on “On why many Evangelical pastors fear counseling

  1. I would advise anyone to be wary of counsellors, and I am a counsellor. And I would advise them to be wary of their own emotions. Emotions are the most deceptive and convincing of things. Anger, annoyance, pride, jealousy/envy, indignation, irritation,… etc, all feel themselves to be in the right, whether they are or not. Prison sentences, marriage break ups and other regrets result for many who followed emotions that felt right at the time. And the counselling industry, particularly the gov funded sector, is infested with emotion worshipers who target people in crisis to recruit into their religion.

  2. Crossbow, I disagree. I think the greater harm comes from those who refuse to feel what is true about their situation. Those who avoid the suffering of their existence compensate psychologically with things like depression, anxiety, and every neurotic distraction under the sun. One shouldn’t trust their emotions to ‘lead’ them, but they should trust that when they feel hurt, abandoned, alone, etc., that they truly are feeling those things and not ward them off with watching YouTube or Facebooking, etc.

  3. I don’t think we disagree. I am not referring to any sort of denial or long term refusal to acknowledge our emotions. Naturally, being observant of our emotional condition, just as being observant of our physical and mental condition, is necessary for self governance, along with understanding and good judgement.

    Of course, short term suppression of emotion is essential to live a disciplined life. If we didn’t go to work when we didn’t feel like it, and if we told others how we felt all the time, and displayed every emotion that we felt, then we would soon become dysfunctional individuals. We certainly could not work as counsellors.

    My point is that emotions/feelings do not make good decisions; they do not make good guides. Reason and conscience do, though, and those two together comprise our better judgement.

  4. Thank you for sharing this Eric. One doesn’t see this topic discussed very much and I would have a tendency to agree with you that some Pastors are ill equipped to help others with counseling due to issues they themselves are or are not dealing with. I’ve seen God do amazing things over my life that defy logic so I still have hope in prayer and believe that God is able. There are also some excellent Pastors to be found that can and do honestly help others deal with perplexing issues and for those I am also thankful. Grace and blessings my friend.

  5. Crossbow, I see your point and we probably do not disagree. Maybe it’s a matter of emphasis. I rarely counsel people to be wary of their own emotions because I find that the good majority of them already know that they cannot be trusted as guides to reality. Teenagers and children are probably more susceptible to this and I see very few clients under 18 anymore.

  6. Bruce, absolutely. I found the best and the worst during my experience in Evangelicalism. I found Jesus in Evangelicalism. Though I’m an Orthodox Christian now and believe it is the one true Church, I cannot doubt that God works wherever He wants to. He found me in a wild charismatic church in Mesa, Arizona and changed my life forever in a moments time. God bless you my friend, thanks for joining me for the ride on this blog.

  7. Yes, there is no disagreement, just emphasis as you say, a difference of perspective on overlapping views.
    I have been around a bit, worked in forensics/crime with incarcerated sex offenders and all other offenders, and with violent men and women, male and female acute and chronic psych, drug and alcohol, youth, ptsd, terminal illness, grief and loss, men’s self-governance, pastoral, … …. (Life has moved me on a lot, and when it hasn’t I have got itchy feet and moved on of my own freewill and accord.) Every field has revealed its own particular lessons about the human condition. Though a common thread is that most people are in personal strife from following their emotions/feelings rather than exercising their better judgement. Nowadays I am working with the elderly. Much the same picture there, except that with age the personalities become more caricatured and the problematic attitudes more rigidly set. But I am finding ways to overcome that, providing of course, that the client at least partially wants to overcome it. I find life and the human condition so vewy intewesting.

    • I’ve read that 80-percent of human decisions are based on biased emotions.

      “Decisions are largely emotional, not logical: the neuroscience behind decision making”

      The concluding paragraph of this piece:

      There’s a detailed and systematic way to go about building vision the right way. But in general, if you can get the other party to reveal their problems, pain, and unmet objectives, then you can build a vision for them of their problem, with you and your proposal as the solution. They won’t make their decision because it is logical. They’ll make their decision because you have helped them feel that it’s to their advantage to do so.”

      https://bigthink.com/experts-corner/decisions-are-emotional-not-logical-the-neuroscience-behind-decision-making

  8. It’s sad that our churches, are becoming more televangelist. Its sad but true, our churches are filled with hurting people in leadership. This leads to hurting people in the pews. Or even worse, empty pews.
    A great book on Christian Counseling is Scriptural Counseling: A God-Centered Method by Oliver McMahon.
    This is a must-have for any Pastor or Pastoral Counselor. It offers a clear understanding of counseling services. It shows that the foundation for counseling is rooted in the Bible. The author shows a great method for positioning Christ at the center of the counseling process and keeping Him at the center.

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