Saturday, April 26, 2014

Unprofessional Christian Counseling: Helpful or Harmful?

Christian Counseling- by unlicensed persons

Can people with mental illness find help from counselors without professional training at a church or a Christian ministry? 

Certainly, there is a need for help. Rick and Kay Warren  recently wrote about the need for churches to do more for people with mental illness. They quote the National Alliance on Mental Illness statistic that 60 million Americans experience a mental health condition each year. But what can churches and Christian ministries do?

I’ve been reading a book titled Evidenced-Based Practices for Christian Counseling and Psychotherapy. It’s an edited volume with chapters by many leaders in Christian counseling and psychotherapy. One chapter (3) by Siang-Yang Tan of Fuller Theological Seminary takes a look at “Lay Christian counseling for General Psychological Problems.”

What is lay counseling?
The definition is a problem because we need to define both counseling and the attributes of the person providing the counseling. Here’s Tan’s definition of lay counselors from page 40: “those who lack the formal training, experience, or credentials to be professional psychotherapists, but who are nevertheless involved in helping people cope with personal problems…”

What evidence supports the value of lay counseling?
Some years ago, Tan found some positive results from research on the benefits of lay counseling. As he admits, most studies did not include an important ingredient in research-- a valid control or comparison group. Some studies offered evidence that lay counselors improved in target skills. But the key question is: How well do clients fare after being seen by a lay Christian counselor? There is one controlled outcome study. Those in the treatment group improved significantly on four outcomes: Target complaints, symptoms, spiritual well-being, and a global rating of psychological adjustment. And importantly, the clients maintained these gains at a one-month follow-up (Toh & Tan, 1997 in Tan, 2013).

What should organizations do?
At this time, the evidence is scanty but Dr. Tan appears hopeful that future research will support the value of lay counseling. In fact, near the end of the chapter he offers 10 guidelines for setting up a Christian counseling center. Guideline number three advises organizers to “Carefully select, train and supervise the lay counselors.” So it seems, at least in Tan's approach, lay counselors are not just ordinary church workers but people who have some personal attributes, relevant knowledge, counseling skills, and some level of supervision.


What is Christian counseling?
A few approaches are common among those who purport to provide Christian counseling. One general approach is to rely heavily on the Bible and can be called biblical counseling. Professional counselors have difficulty with this restrictive sense of Christian counseling because the Bible does not cover all aspects of human functioning. Another problem is what constitutes Christian in the phrase Christian Counseling? With over 2-billion Christians in the world, the variety of Christian beliefs is considerable. In reality, most of the articles I have read about Christian counseling focus on what may be called American Protestant Evangelical Christianity. It’s probably time for American Christians to broaden their perspective. Maybe some have. So, please add some comments and links if you know of broader perspectives. Here’s one link to a Catholic perspective.

Reasonable Expectations.
Drawing on my own experience, I found a lot of Christians expected prayer and scripture to be a part of the counseling process. Christians also expect counselors to share their moral and social values. I think it reasonable for Christian lay counselors to learn to listen, show support, and lead prepared programs on topics such as relationship skills, forgiveness, and marriage enrichment activities. But I think it is up to the counselor and organization to be clear about expectations.

Truth in advertising.
If a church or ministry offers Christian counseling services, how can the public know if the counseling services are provided by someone with a few hours of workshop training and experience vs. a Professional Counselor with some 60-university hours of education plus thousands of hours of supervision vs. a Psychologist with some 120 hours of coursework plus thousands of hours of supervision? As a matter of integrity, clients should know the credentials of people providing services. Other providers of Christian counseling or psychotherapy include Social Workers, Psychiatrists, Chaplains, Pastoral Counselors, Marriage and Family Therapists, and Psychiatric Nurses.

How much training is needed?
If education, supervision, and experience are important in the assessment and treatment of mental illness, how much of each is necessary? At this point lay counseling is an unregulated movement. People are going to help people. And churches and ministries can play an important part in the helping process. Tan’s chapter offers some good ideas—a starting place to build knowledge and skills.

Good and evil.
Helping can be a good thing. People often feel better just telling their story or confessing their sins. (Hint- protestants should consider the value of confession—a part of Catholic tradition). But counseling can also cause harm. The harm can be due to failure to recognize the need to refer a client for more intensive services. And the harm can come from violating appropriate boundaries between a counselor and a client. There's much more to this topic, which is one reason the licensed professions have ethical guidelines and encourage professionals to take annual risk management workshops. So, let the client and ministries beware.

Related posts


Tan, S. (2013). Lay counseling for general psychological problems. In E. Worthington Jr., E. L. Johnson, J. N. Hook, & J. D. Aten (eds.). Evidence-based practices for Christian counseling and psychotherapy. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic/ CAPS books.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Easter Beliefs Life Death & Spirituality

EASTER FAITH:  What do people believe?

According to a recent Harris Poll, 65% of Americans believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

Surveys of religious beliefs are common in the USA. I take a look at some findings related to the Easter story.

The story is from the Gospels, which can be found in the New Testament section of Bibles. Easter events begin with MaundyThursday or Good Friday (Some protestant groups skip Maundy Thursday). Jesus celebrated the Jewish Passover with his followers. He was betrayed and accused of wrongdoing. He was sentenced to die by crucifixion and buried. On Easter Sunday, his followers found his tomb empty, encountered Jesus in different situations, and spread the word of the resurrection. The Gospel of Luke reports the events beginning in Chapter 22.

A recent Harris Poll (16 December 2013) has some findings relevant to the Easter story. The survey of 2,250 adults was conducted between 13 and 18 November, 2013.

Belief in God is at 82% [54% reported they were absolutely certain there is a God.]

Belief that all or most of the New Testament is the Word of God 49%.

Belief in miracles 72%.

Belief in heaven 68%.

Belief that Jesus is God or the Son of God 68%.

Belief in the resurrection of Jesus 65%.

Does age make a difference? Yes it does. About half of young adults believe in the resurrection of Jesus compared to nearly 3/4 of older adults. Millenials are different from older Americans.

Belief in the survival of the soul after death 64%.

Belief in the devil 58%.

Belief in hell 58%

How many Americans are religious?
19% very religious
40% somewhat religious
23% not at all religious

Will Jesus return to earth?
Following the resurrection, Jesus met with his followers then ascended into heaven. Those present heard a voice saying Jesus will return. In 2013, Pew researchers asked Christians if they believed Jesus would return in the next 40 years. Just under half thought he definitely or probably would come back within 40 years.

See the Harris Poll for additional details including comparisons between 2013 and previous polls. There are other interesting questions and more refined analyses.

I found the Harris Poll Link down on some visits so here is a link to the UPI report about the same poll. And here is  the Reuters summary.
See the PewForum for many survey results. The Return of Christ Survey is from 26 March 2013

Palm Sunday and Leadership Research
Death and Terror Management Theory

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Are spiritual leaders like political leaders?

Psychology of Leadership, Spirituality,
and a Palm Sunday Journey

As Christians celebrate the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, I take a look at perceptions of leadership then and now.

You can find the Gospel story in Matthew 21: 1-11. After procuring a donkey, Jesus rode into Jerusalem. A crowd placed their clothes and newly cut tree branches (possibly palm branches) on the road. These actions, and the words shouted by the people, link Jesus to the beloved warrior king David. And the Hosanna exclamation embodied both praise and hopes of salvation. But the writer knows what happens next and quotes an old prophet (Zechariah 9:9) who described the king as gentle. This king was not the warrior on a charging horse.

Then as now, people have expectations of their leaders. Established leaders are wary, if not paranoid, of potential challengers and would be assassins. Humility and gentleness are not on the short list of successful leadership traits. Not then and not now. I’ll come back to the Palm Sunday story shortly but first a look at the science of leadership.


Psychological research has looked at leadership traits in great depth. There’s a lot of folklore that’s hard to overcome. One consistent finding is a personality trait called the need for power. Psychological scientist David Winter has studied presidential power. The need for power is the best predictor of presidential success. I work around a lot of people who constantly complain about the current U.S. president. Their party is out of power. They want a leader who will get that power back. And some frequently spread stories and reports they hope will diminish the power of the president. People out of power want power. And successful leaders are driven by an inner need for power.


Many have observed the psychopathic traits of successful leaders. The evil men of history are well known. But psychological scientists have found some support for a dual process model. One dimension is adaptive and the other is not. Paul Babiak and Robert Hare wrote about psychopaths in the business community as “snakes in suits.” Perhaps Jesus saw the same thing when he addressed local leaders as a “brood of vipers" (Matthew 12:34). These charming leaders present well in job interviews and once on staff, they deploy their skills at manipulating others. A three-stage pattern unfolds: assess, manipulate, abandon. Nowadays you’re less likely to lose your head but if you lose your livelihood, life can be pretty miserable. 

I wouldn't get too worried over snakes in your organization. The percentage of psychopaths is low. But it probably helps to have a psychologist or other similarly trained professional on your interview team. And some knowledge of these hidden psychopathic traits could save board members a lot of trouble when hiring pastors and CEOs for Churches and Christian organizations. Of course, any organization will suffer if they hire folks with these sinister traits but Christian communities seem more vulnerable than others.


One way to identify what people want in a leader is to look at who they choose and who they reject. Every four years Americans vote for a president. Scott Lilienfeld and several colleagues studied the traits of U. S. Presidents. And they found evidence that one dimension of psychopathy, Fearless Dominance, was fairly strong amongst these successful leaders. 

You can recognize people high on Fearless Dominance by such traits as boldness, social dominance, charm, physical fearlessness, and low anxiety. These leaders are persuasive and communicate well. They manage crises, relate to other powerful leaders, control agendas, and take risks. In case you are wondering about the other dimension, it is Impulsive Antisociality, which is linked to those presidents who tolerate unethical behavior, present with negative character traits, and were associated with impeachment resolutions. These leaders break too many rules and fail to control their impulses.

People respect bold, dominant leaders. People respect power. People want fearless leaders. People want a savior from financial struggles, high work loads, debt, and oppression. And people want leaders who will kill the enemy and restore their company, tribe, religion, or nation to dominance ("it's rightful place"). Shrewd leaders know this. Perhaps you've seen people manufacture causes and crises to justify harmful acts, raise money, or rally troops toward a leader's goal. Going to war and killing enemies is a powerful way for leaders to show most people they are great leaders.


When you are oppressed you look for someone to deliver you. You want a strong leader to show the way. Someone to save you. Someone to set you free. The Jews had a history of liberators—Moses and David come to mind. And now comes a gentle king. And a few days later, Pilate realized Jesus was not seeking personal power. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he said (John 18: 28-38).

People still focus on different characteristics when they look at Jesus. Some focus on his boldness and outspoken attacks so they too attack others. They recall Jesus with a whip and his attack on money handlers at the Temple.

But many Christians attack social leaders and policies rather than the leaders of their own religion as Jesus did. Some would rather cover up the wrongdoing of their Christian leaders than expose it. Others Christians cling to old traditions that cause harm rather than produce freedom. Wouldn't bold leaders following Jesus' example attack the sin in their own religious tribes? Perhaps they are fearful of getting kicked out of their religious tribe-- losing a job and all the perks. It's pretty risky to expose wrongdoing. It seems like betrayal. If not literally killed you will lose your job, family, friends-- your life-- if you go too far in challenging the religious leaders of your tribe.

Some Christians focus on Jesus kindness, compassion, love, and forgiveness. They see Jesus helping outcasts- you know the people who are sick and disabled. People who can't help you get ahead in life. People who have anger problems and get into trouble for their sexual behavior. But those who see Jesus love may ignore some of those sayings that seem harsh and rejecting. According to the biblical text, the celebrations of Palm Sunday did not last long.


You can learn about power in the Easter story. The Jewish leaders had religious power bound up with a measure of social and political power. They could influence crowds. But they did not have ultimate power. The power over death was retained by the Romans. Jesus appeared bold and without anxiety when responding to the Roman leader. He was leading people in a different fight. He was not intimidated by death. He had spiritual power.

In some countries, those with political power have strong ties to a religion-- especially when a religion is dominant. Sometimes religious leaders vie for power with the political leaders. In Russia, Putin allied himself with the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill. In the UK, Queen Elizabeth is the head of the Church of England and part of her title is "Defender of the Faith." In the US, presidents were mostly associated with Christian protestant traditions until the Catholic, John F. Kennedy, was elected--people forget about the strong Anti-Catholic prejudice in the 1960s. Americans fretted about Kennedy's ties to the Pope. In recent years, American Christians have been active in social and political causes. The leaders have changed- some died, some were discredited.

Religious leaders have authority within their faith group. But this type of authority varies with the structure of their religious group and the tradition behind the position. But numbers matter too. Most of the world's Christians are Catholic. Their pope has a huge audience. But the church lost moral authority in the priest scandal. Pope Francis frequently deals with the ongoing effects of those destructive acts. 

Religious leaders often address moral issues. If they have a media presence- a measure of social power- they draw some attention. People scrutinize their morals. The power of religious leaders to influence others depends on their personal morality. And the morality of leaders within their faith tradition is important too.

Have you seen a servant-leader? I don't see a lot of religious leaders demonstrating power based on common notions of humility and gentleness. However, Pope Francis has garnered some attention for his focus on the poor and needy and his avoidance of the trappings of papal riches. US TV network, CBS, recently took a look at his change efforts. I hope he leads the faithful well.


About death and terror management theory -  When Children Die
Christians speaking out against World Vision - World Vision Morality Righteous Minds
Remembering a leader, Nelson Mandela

More Psychology of Religion News and Stories

Like Psychology of Religion on Facebook


Babiak, P., & Hare, R. D. ( 2006). Snakes in suits: When psychopaths go to work. New York, NY: ReganBooks. Link to the book page.

Lilienfeld, S. O., Waldman, I. D., Landfield, K., Watts, A. L., Rubenzer, S., & Faschingbauer, T. R. (2012). Fearless dominance and the U.S. presidency: Implications of psychopathic personality traits for successful and unsuccessful political leadership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(3), 489-505. doi:10.1037/a0029392

Winter, D. G. ( 2005). Things I've learned about personality by studying leaders at a distance. Journal of Personality, 73, 557– 584. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00321.x

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Why clergy lose their faith


People convert to faith and people lose faith. But what happens when clergy lose their faith?

Last year I posted an article about conversions, deconversions, and transformations. In December, Philosopher Daniel Dennett and Clinical Social Worker, Linda LaScola reported the results of their qualitative study of 35 clergy and seminary students who lost their faith. The title of the book, Caught in the Pulpit, captures the dilemma.

Who did they study?

All of the participants were Caucasian Americans.  Most were clergy with pulpit ministries (27) but some were in seminary (5 students, 3 professors). There were Jewish Rabbis but the rest were Catholic or Protestant Christian clergy. There were men (30) and women (5) from theologically conservative and liberal denominations.

The authors use the word literal to refer to fundamentalist groups. By literal they mean religious groups that view the Biblical text as inerrant. They offer examples of literals: Pentecostals, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists. Liberals rely on metaphor, symbolism, and poetry when interpreting Scripture. Examples of liberals include Unitarians and Episcopalians.

How did they conduct their study?
They conducted 90 interviews of 35 volunteer participants. The initial list of participants came from people who contacted the authors and colleagues over several years. The interviews yielded 120 hours of recorded results, which were analyzed by the authors. Because many were employed, they used fictitious names.

What did they find?
I selected several of their findings. You can find more in the book or by viewing Linda LaScola's interview on YouTube
The participants were all "very good people" who struggled with their faith.
They entered ministry because they wanted to help people.
Their doubts created inner distress. Many began to doubt their faith during seminary.
Their search for truth led them to give up on various beliefs. “It shook them,” Linda reported.
Many would like to continue their ministry but struggle with sincerity.
Linda reported four themes that characterized their seminary experience:
1. Some were fascinated with the new knowledge.
2. Some struggled with doubts but thought they would stick it out
3. Some reported the seeds of doubt began in seminary.
4. Some did not analyze what they learned. Instead, they focused on their studies.
Many reported their joy at the freedom to understand the world better.
Many acknowledged their losses in terms of faith and concerns about relationships with friends and family.

Some liberal clergy who are still in the pulpit interpret the Bible and the creeds in a metaphorical manner. They might focus on moral teachings.

It is harder for fundamentalist clergy who may feel more desperate to “get out.”
Fundamentalists were more prone to depression, including suicidal depression. They disguise their beliefs by talking about what the Bible says.

What are the limitations of the study?
Well it’s pretty hard to tell what percentage of clergy share these experiences. The authors don’t deny this difficulty. So, at best, we have an idea that some religious leaders struggled with doubts that led them to either deconvert or find ways to maintain employment despite uncomfortable feelings.

How might these results fit with other studies?
It is hard to know how these results fit with other research because there are few published studies on this subject.

Recent survey research suggests a growing trend toward people identifying as less religious than in the past. But it is hard to know if this is a change in the percentage of people who have given up faith or a change in how many people are more willing to admit that they have no faith. See Pew Forum.

Also, we do not know how many of the nones (people who do not identify with faith) are agnostic, atheistic, or just not identifying with traditional religions.

Streib and Klein asked some research questions in their 2013 summary of "Atheists, Agnostics, and Apostates." “Are the shifts to atheism, agnosticism, and apostasy associated with an increase or a decrease in psychological well-being? How do these religious positions affect physical health? Do they lead to differences in preferences in the ways of coping with major life stressors?” (From the abstract).

More Thoughts
The authors realize people vary in terms of their literal-liberal dimension. I would prefer a more refined distinction based on what beliefs they endorsed at some point in their spiritual journey.

Although there is a role for qualitative research, it would still be nice to know a little more about the mental health status. How many of the sample struggled with what type of stress and depression? How many sought counsel for spiritual or other conditions?

I like the intratextual model of religious fundamentalism put forth by experienced psychology of religion scientists. In this study, the authors seem to describe differences for clergy who were from fundamentalist vs. liberal traditions. I think the intratextual model could help identify some of the differences within the small sample.

It would be nice to know what factors might predict deconversion and if there are common pathways for people with certain characteristics.


Religious fundamentalism

Religious conversions

Link to a YouTube interview with Linda LaScola.

Dennett, D. C. & LaScola, L. (2013). Caught in the pulpit: Leaving belief behind (Kindle Edition). 

Streib, H., & Klein, C. (2013). Atheists, agnostics, and apostates. In K. I. Pargament, J. J. Exline, J. W. Jones (Eds.) , APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality (Vol 1): Context, theory, and research (pp. 713-728). Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association. doi:10.1037/14045-040

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Noah ' s curse rained on many

Noah’s Curse

In a previous post I left readers with a challenge to explore Noah’s curse so I thought I would follow-up on that-- especially since the Noah movie has been a splash hit.

Here’s the text (Genesis 9:21-25; NASB ):

21 He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness. 24 When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. 25 So he said,
“Cursed be Canaan;A servant of servants. He shall be to his brothers.”

Now why would Noah curse his grandson because his dad, Ham, just saw his father naked? Who would do such a thing? Well we probably don’t know the answer. But that does not stop people from creating meaning from these words. And those meanings have had powerful repercussions throughout human history.

Cursed as slaves
The most damaging idea was a belief that a race of humans descended from Canaan were to be slaves forever. And the crazy idea that the curse was evident by skin color. And many American Christians believed African Americans were cursed to be slaves. This is not just an ancient tale in some history book! I haven’t heard people say this for a long time. But my parents and I heard this after coming to the USA. Of course it makes no sense. But folk beliefs and prejudices often make no sense. But they can cause harm. See more from N Y Times.

Naked and ashamed …or was it more than that?
So what’s so bad about Ham seeing his father naked? God only knows. In the previous post I cited Teresa Hornsby. She reminds us that the Leviticus law commanding people not to “expose the nakedness of your father” made use of a euphemism. Exposing nakedness refers to sexual intercourse.

Notice the first rule about incest in Leviticus 18: 7. It prohibits a child from having sex with his father or mother. As Carmichael notes, the usual problem in society is a problem of a parent sexually abusing his child rather than a child sexually abusing his father or mother. Carmichael suggests the order of the rules has to do with how the laws came into existence—rules that addressed the significant problems in Israel’s history.
“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness.”

Scholars wonder if the sin was one of incest. It may not have been a sexual assault involving Noah but a relationship between Ham and Noah’s wife. Again, this is speculation.

Ancient texts like the Bible are difficult to translate.
The Bible stories are thousands of years old and written in an ancient language for an ancient culture.
Stories about sexuality pose a special problem of meaning.
People who search for life applications from Bible stories can be dangerous if they believe God is justifying genocide, slavery, or any other destructive or oppressive act.
Surely humility is important when making life and death decisions based on the Noah story.

Related Links
WHY I DO NOT LIKE NOAH (by Howard N. Kenyon)

Carmichael, Calum (1995) Incest in the Bible. Chicago-Kent Law Review, 71, (1) Article 6. Retrieved from