The words “counseling” and “therapy” get thrown around a lot, by a lot of different people, particularly in faith contexts. Large and well-known seminaries have “Biblical Counseling” degree programs; pastors and ministers and church staff offer “counseling,” often around marriage, parenting, addiction, or just plain mentoring.
This is all well and good- the roles and duties of faith leaders have always included the realm of “soul care”- as long as the boundaries are clear of what faith-based counseling is and is not equipped and qualified to do.
To be clear, seeking marriage advice from one’s pastor, friends, parents, or mentors is a very natural thing to do. But a pastor, unless they are specifically trained and licensed in marriage and family therapy (and most are not) is no more qualified to help sort out deep issues in a marriage than anyone else is. Having the word “pastor” in front of a name, or even a Ph.D. after a name, does not qualify somone as a mental health professional. Therapy is both a skill and a qualification, and just as there are better lawyers and worse lawyers (and disbarred lawyers), better doctors and worse doctors (and revoked medical licenses), there can be better therapists and worse therapists- but you certainly wouldn’t seek law advice from someone who had never passed the bar, or medical advice from someone who had not graduated from medical school. Similarly, your pastor’s expertise is most likely not in the realm of mental health, and for serious issues of depression, anxiety, addiction, or mental illness, you need to consult a professional therapist, not a theologian.
This should seem obvious, but there are plenty of pastors and churches that intentionally blur this line. This is poor practice at best, and spiritually abusive at worst. Some seminaries intentionally call programs “Biblical Counseling,” and graduate people with credentials from their institutions as “Biblical Counselors” that are nothing close to being a licensed therapist. Such programs often insist on some version of “the Bible contains all the answers needed to address mental health issues,” and some even reject modern psychological science and research as viable methods and tools for addressing mental health.
Vigilance is required. Some seminaries, like my own alma mater, do in fact have degree programs that qualify graduates to practice as state licensed therapists. Some churches do the beautiful work of having licensed marriage and family therapists on staff to provide free or low cost services to their congregants. And yes, some pastors are in fact licensed and qualified to do mental health care, though this is certainly the distinct minority.
For some issues, this gap between perception and reality can be relatively harmless. But with others, the result can be downright devastating. When a congregation member believes that they are attending a session with a qualified mental health professional that just happens to be a Christian and works with people of faith (and there are many such professionals in the world), but instead ends up in a session with a minister (such as myself) whose entire mental health credentials are a single undergraduate psychology class or Intro to Counseling class in seminary- or worse, someone who believes themselves to be a qualified professional because they have a “Biblical Counseling” degree from an accredited institution- it is the mental health equivalent of asking a pastor what to do about a mysterious lump found on one’s body.
A responsible church leader would immediately refer the medical need to a medical professional qualified to answer such questions. A responsible church leader should immediately refer someone with mental health needs to a mental health professional. Unfortunately, this often does not happen, which is how we end up with stories upon stories of gay teenagers sent to “conversion therapy” (which is not therapy), battered wives advised to forgive and stay with abusive husbands, people with mental illness being told to read the Bible more, people with depression and anxiety being advised to avoid medication and “repent of sin” instead, and pastors trying to cast demons out of children with autism.
Yes, these are the extreme cases, but they happen every day, and they are perpetuated by the blurring of lines and language around “counseling” and “therapy,” which is often a very intentional blurring on the part of seminaries, churches, and faith leaders.
Do your homework with your mental health, just like you would with your physical health. By all means, allow your trusted faith leaders to guide you and help you with soul care. But be very, very clear as to what that means, and what they are and are not qualified to do and diagnose.
PsychologyToday.com is one free and easily accessible resource that carries listings by location of licensed mental health professionals, including faith-based counselors who are Christians. Everyone needs a therapist. Even more than that, everyone needs friends and a community around them, which includes pastors and church leaders. But we need to be crystal clear on which is which, and have the wisdom and humility to know when to seek and refer to true professional help.