Dr. Andrew Wichterman is an assistant professor in Colorado Christian University’s Master of Arts in Counseling program, offered through the College of Adult and Graduate Studies. Read his bio below.
Question: “How can you be a Christian counselor in a secular setting?”
The question here is not how a counselor conducts Christian counseling but how a Christian conducts counseling in a secular setting without betraying one’s own values. This is an especially difficult question to answer considering societal positions on social issues that are in direct contradiction to Biblical claims and growing hostility toward Christian values. Further complicating any answer is a counselor’s responsibility to avoid imposing “personal” values on clients (The American Counseling Association, 2014).
One of the fathers of Christian counseling, Gary Collins (2007), claimed Christian counselors have many of the same goals as that of secular counselors but go further in attempting to “stimulate spiritual growth in counselees; to encourage confession of sin and the experience of divine forgiveness; to model Christian standards, attitudes, values, and lifestyles; to present the gospel message …” (pp. 17-18).
At Colorado Christian University, we train students to be highly qualified with the additional abilities to implement strategies that stimulate spiritual growth and understanding (see the end of this blog for more information). This is what makes Christian counselors different from secular counselors.
Maintaining Integrity in a Secular Setting
Initially the task of maintaining integrity seems impossible for a Christian whose loyalty lies with Christ, but there are ways to navigate these waters without violating the rights of the client and the commands of God. There are many ways that Christian counselors seek to integrate Christianity and Psychology (i. e. Ethical Integration, Levels-of-Explanation, Christian Psychology, and Integration approach), but on a broader level and in my experience, there are two main ways that a Christian counselor approaches integration in a secular setting.
The first is Explicit, where a counselor is working with a Christian client who desires to participate in Christian counseling. Here, prayer, scripture, and discussions of God may be used in session. The second is Implicit and can regularly occur in a public setting. The counselor does not lose who they are in Christ. They believe someone has external value simply based on being created by a loving, just, and compassionate God. The client should feel the difference in how the Christian counselor approaches them when compared to a non-Christian counselor.
A deeper question here is when conducting counseling with implicit integration how does one properly work with a client of opposing viewpoints and maintain integrity? Afterall, conducting value free counseling is impossible as encouraging the absence of counselor values is a value in itself. Nearly all counselors have some areas of struggle when working with those who have different values and beliefs. Even still Christians have great examples of Christ’s interactions with the hurting and broken where He forgave and exhorted his counterpart to make changes in their lives. Let us consider then what examples the gospels give in regards to our discussion.
The Example of Christ
Jesus knew the Pharisees were upset that He was making disciples and that his Disciples were baptizing followers (vs. 2). Because the time of his death had not yet arrived, he went away to Galilee (vs. 3). On his way, Jesus stopped in Samaria (vs. 4-5). Around noon, the Disciples went to buy food (vs. 8) while Jesus rested by Jacob’s well (Hart, 2014). Hart labeled this journey as divine obligation where “Jesus violated social, cultural, and religious conventions to demonstrate Gods’ love for an outcast people” (p.1617), as like most Jews of that time, He could have gone around Samaria. Jesus, already in violation of societal expectations, sits as the woman approaches to draw water at an unusual hour. Customarily, women drew water in the evening so this was seen as an attempt to avoid others, because even in her culture, she was considered immoral (she had five husbands and was having an affair) (Hart, 2014). Jesus asked the woman for a drink (vs. 9), and she responded with amazement that Jesus would speak to her (Hart, 2014). Jesus then offered her “living water” (Johnson, 1999), a sign that he was the Messiah (vs. 13-14). He was also able to dig deeply into her life (vs. 16-18), offer forgiveness (vs. 39-41), and extoll her to make personal changes (vs. 22-26).
Jesus was in the temple when the Pharisees brought to him a woman caught in adultery (vs. 3). They did not bring the man though the Law required the stoning of both men and women in adulterous situations (Leviticus 20:10 & Deuteronomy 22:22). Hart (2014) claimed this showed the Pharisees malicious intent and disregard for the Law. The Pharisees asked Jesus, “Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such [adulterous] women. So what do you say” (vs. 5)? Hart (2014) wrote, “If Jesus called for her stoning as an adulteress, this would put Him in defiance of the Roman government’s sole authority to try capital cases and carry out executions. If He chose to free her, He would be disobeying the Mosaic Law” (pp. 1630-1631). When asked, Jesus bent down and wrote in the sand (vs. 6). What he wrote in the sand coupled with the statement “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (vs. 7) convicted those in the crowd and they walked away. Jesus offers no condemnation but extolls her to “go and sin no more” (vs. 11).
In both of these examples, Jesus is ministering in a society that is hostile to everything He teaches and to His very existence. Both the woman caught in adultery and the Samaritan woman represented brokenness and hurt. They made mistakes, committed sins, were affected by their respective societies, and were entrenched in their pain. Jesus authentically empathized with them, understood their pain, did not condemn them, but extolled them to make changes. Any changes were made not because of anything within themselves but because of their relationship with Him. We know that we are not Christ (though we are in Him), but we know that if we believe in the person of Christ, receive the Holy Spirit, and enter in the process sanctification, we can become more and more like Him every day (1 Corinthians 6:11).
The answer to our question is simple: A Christian counselor generally does not practice in a secular setting. However, a counselor who is Christian can practice in a secular setting by utilizing implicit integration and by exhibiting the characteristics of Christ. The Christian may run into situations where the values of an organization or client are in opposition to their own. It is the job of the counselor who is a Christian to then do their best to maintain professionalism as outlined in the ACA Code of Ethics (American Counseling Association, 2014) and ultimately to follow the example of Christ by listening and learning about their client, valuing their personhood, acknowledging their free will, and offering clients love that only one who is indwelled with the Holy Spirit can give.
In 2016, Colorado Christian University’s (CCU) Master of Arts in Counseling program (MAC) surveyed all site supervisors who had CCU MAC student counselor interns between August ’16 and May ’17. Of those that responded, (n=50, with a response rate of 59%), 86% reported that CCU MAC students provided non-discriminatory clinical practices better than their average student counselor intern (the remaining 14% reported MAC students as being average). 76% said they MAC students had greater levels of ethical awareness (the remaining 24% said they were average), and 82% said that MAC students were more clinical prepared (the remaining 18% reported average).
Dr. Andrew Wichterman is an Assistant Professor in Colorado Christian University’s Master of Arts in Counseling program. Dr. Wichterman specialties were developed while working in Community Mental Health where he served children, adolescents and their families for over eight years in home-based and outpatient settings through Community Mental Health. His research interests include nontraditional adolescent treatment modalities and the impact of different aspects of religion, spirituality, and theology on wellness.
Dr. Wichterman and his wife Melissa have been married for seven years. They have three young children (two girls and a boy) and they live in Battle Creek, Michigan.
American Counseling Association. (2014). ACA Code of Ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author.
Collins, G. R. (2007). Christian counseling: A Comprehensive Guide. 3rd ed. Nashville, TN:
Thomas & Nelson.
Hart, J. (2014). John. In M. Rydelnik & M. Vanlaningham (Eds.). The Moody Bible Commentary: A One-Volume Commentary on the Whole Bible by the Faculty of Moody Bible Institute. pp. 1605 – 1664). Chicago, Il: Moody Publishers.
Johnson, L. T. (1999). The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Revised edition.
Minneapolis, Mn: Fortress Press.