“I’m thinking about counseling, but I don’t know where to start. What kind of Christian counseling help is available? Who’ll provide what I need?”
When I started my healing journey, seeking a new way to live, I hesitated going to counseling even though I saw it as a valuable option. What I didn’t know, when I finally agreed to therapy, was the variety of methods out there. I had no idea different therapists are trained in different areas or what that meant for me in my state of depression, anxiety, and likely PTSD.
I wanted counsel. Someone to tell me what to do and how to do it. Surely, their wisdom would lead me to a better life. With this expectation in mind, I looked for someone to tell me what was wrong, how to fix it all (how to fix me), and tell me what to do.
That’s not what I found.
Instead, different counselors worked in different ways. They led me through a healing process that fostered personal growth and a deeper relationship with God. The combination made for a powerful journey.
Some taught me things that were helpful. Some validated my pain and met me in it. Most asked a lot of questions. A couple led me through the brain healing process of EMDR.
At first, this frustrated me because I wanted a quick fix. In the end, the work they did equipped me to gain confidence where I sorely lacked it.
What I didn’t know was what I needed. A wisely facilitated process to guide me through healing where the end result was me owning my own life. Not a life dependent on a person smarter than me to tell me what to do next.
What Do You Want from Christian Counseling?
I learned there are many options for pursuing emotional healing and spiritual growth. But navigating them is challenging. For Christians, it can be even more confusing because there are additional avenues to consider. Like church provided counseling, biblical counselors, and various healing ministries.
When people say they want a Christian counselor, they may mean they want someone with a Christian faith. Or, they may look for a counselor who will specifically guide them through faith struggles and life’s challenges.
What people expect when they say they are looking for a Christian counselor varies widely. So does the quality and effectiveness of the help they receive and how it impacts their life of faith.
One method of healing may help for a season, some for the long run, and others may not work at all. Unfortunately, some methods and counselors can cause more damage too. This can be extremely painful and foster setbacks, but I pray it doesn’t keep anyone from pursuing the healing God wants to bring.
What works for some may not work for you. All counseling, and counselors, are not created equal. You get to choose.
Explore Options in Christian Counseling
Because many of us don’t know where to start or what’s available, this article is the first of several designed to help individuals find counseling that’s beneficial for them. I will cover various options available under the realm of Christian counseling. Towards the end of this article you’ll also find numerous links to helpful resources.
Bookmark this page and return to it if you feel overwhelmed. Even though I am only highlighting various types of counseling, there is a lot of information here. And this is the first of several pieces of content.
And don’t give up when healing is hard to do or finding a good counselor is challenging too. There are many great options for healing and I believe God knows what you need. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit is our greatest counselor and He will be with you.
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** Please note, I am not an expert on all forms of counseling. Nor am I a licensed therapist. The information here represents my best understanding of key counseling components which I believe are helpful for Christians to consider. All advice given on this blog should not substitute the work of a professional or the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in guiding your process.
A licensed therapist has had significant, credentialed training, such as a Master’s Program for counseling. They have additionally met the requirements for licensure in the state, which is required for insurance coverage. It includes adherence to ethical standards and continued education annually.
If you’re struggling with addictions, abuse, relationship challenges, depression, anxiety, trauma, or functioning in some area of life, consider a licensed therapist. While not everyone needs this level of therapy for quality living, many can benefit from the level of support and guidance licensed therapists offer.
For those who want to improve their ability to relate to others and have healthy, safe relationships, counseling can be powerful. Working on underlying issues within ourselves helps us live freer and experience more of God’s peace, joy, and freedom. It makes way for healthy connections with God and others.
Don’t wait for crises to hit to benefit from seeing a quality Christian therapist. Quality counseling can foster richer relationships in all areas of life as well as healthier, more abundant living overall.
Note: When researching therapist options, you may notice a series of letters attached to their name. They refer to licensing and training specialties.
Common Therapist Training Terms:
- MA – Master of Arts [may refer to a Counseling Degree]
- LPC – Licensed Professional Counselor
- LMFT – Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist
- SEP – Somatic Experiencing Professional (helpful for healing from trauma, chronic stress, and PTSD) [About SEP]
- EMDR – Certification in a specialized training that helps the brain process trauma [About EMDR] [Jolene’s Video about EMDR & her experience]
- RPT – Registered Play Therapist (for working with children)
- CST – Certified Sex Therapist
- EFT – Emotionally Focused Therapy
- LMSW – Licensed Master Social Worker
- LCSW – Licensed Clinical Social Worker
The word Christian means a lot of different things to people and we can’t assume it covers what we think it does.
Early in my counseling search, I assumed a Christian counselor would say, do, think, and value what I did. They way I expected it. I also thought they would tell me what to do and I could trust anything they say.
Trust with a counselor is very important, but it should be based on being trustworthy. Not assumptions. If you go into counseling with the a pre-determined set of expectations you may feel disappointment. It may seem like the process isn’t trust worthy, even if the counselor actually is.
On the other hand, you may trust someone based on credentials (which is reasonable when starting the process), but they may not end up being trustworthy. training isn’t equal to character and integrity
What Does Being a Christian Mean?
When someone says they’re Christian, we assume a full definition and working worldview of what being a Christian means. We may expect the other person to be similar to us. We tend to assume they value what we value, that their character is modeled after Christ in a specific way, that their lives show evidence of God at work in them, and that they’ll say, do, and believe things we expect.
Just because a counselor is a Christian, it doesn’t mean you’re getting what you expect for Christian counseling. Character isn’t automatically attributed to us when we choose to follow Christ. Just because someone is trained, it doesn’t mean you’ll get support for what you need in your life as a Christian.
I once interviewed a potential counselor who was approved by our insurance. I let him know I was looking for a Christian counselor. He immediately became defensive and told me how Christian he was. His response clearly indicated character that didn’t line up with what I value as a Christian. He didn’t end up being someone I could trust for the help I needed.
You get to ask your potential counselor how they integrate faith in their sessions. As you move forward, your faith will be challenged and you’ll likely benefit from supportive friends, and perhaps a therapist, who can support you in this process.
As a Christian, Christ is with you. You choose to receive and respond. The Holy Spirit is with you to help you choose courageous steps forward and wise steps of caution. Ask God for discernment and perseverance.
Christian Faith in Counseling
A Christian Counselor can mean many things. Typically, the term refers to licensed therapists who are Christians and incorporate faith in the process.
Professional counselors are trained to respect other people’s faiths. They may or may not engage in faith-building components as part of the counseling process.
A Christian counselor operating in ethical guidelines will not tell you what to believe, but they will come alongside your faith journey. They may offer encouragement through scripture, prayer, and guided questions that help you grow in faith. Quality counselors are trusted confidents who foster spiritual growth, emotional health, healing from the past, help for the present, and hope for the future.
Christian counselors may pray with you, may help you uncover unhealthy beliefs (especially those wired in through past experiences and trauma), and they may help you navigate a faith perspective that incorporates a healthier view of God, self, and others.
Hopefully, their faith impacts how they engage with you as a client and how they help you engage with God, self, and others. Compassion and care for a wounded soul, along with practical support for the challenges of a life and faith, are beautiful traits of a quality Christian counselor.
Consider These Reflection Questions When Seeking a Christian Counselor:
- Define what you mean by Christian counseling and what’s important.
- What kind of help are you looking for?
- Do you know what you need? (note, what we need isn’t always the same as what we want and are looking for)
- What’s important to you about the person who’s guiding you?
- Can you get this from the counselor, or will you need additional support through safe friends, a recovery program, and/or a biblical counselor?
- Who makes up your support system? How can they add to the work done in counseling?
- Will this process help me grow as a spiritually and emotionally healthy individual, created in the image of Christ?
- Will this counselor focus on behavior modification or spiritual transformation?
Additional Terms: Some Christian counselors may be associated with the AACC. They may or may not have theological backgrounds as well.
- AACC – American Association of Christian Counselors [An organization that provides education and membership for Christian counselors and lay ministers]
- DDiv – Doctor of Divinity
- DMin – Doctor of Ministry
As the term implies, biblical counseling is heavily reliant on the Bible, using it as a reference point in all situations.
Biblical counseling is often considered Christian counseling, but it’s not necessarily the same thing as therapy by a licensed Christian counselor
Although the terms and concepts may overlap, there is often a distinction made between biblical counselors trained through a biblical counseling center and Christian counselors who may or may not have biblical counseling training, seminary training, or other theology studies in addition to secondary education for counseling and a license.
Some Christian counselors are licensed therapists. Most Biblical counselors are not, unless they’ve received additional training and licensure. One may say they are a Christian counselor, because they are a Christian who counsels others. This is not the same thing as being a licensed therapist.
There is a lot of confusion around these terms. I believe it’s partially due to the way biblical counseling has evolved, the various voices that have shaped the biblical counseling movement, and the variance of beliefs among biblical counselors on topics such as abuse, additions, and mental illness.
Biblical Counseling Positions
Some biblical counselors see biblical counseling as the only answer. They believe all answers are clearly found in scripture and that scripture is the sole source for fixing our emotional and psychological needs.
Unfortunately, some shun any psychological, pharmacological, or physiological aspect to healing the whole person. I find this belief highly alarming as it has caused wounded individuals more wounding. Secondary trauma. I will talk more about this below under Nouthetic counseling.
This is not the case for all biblical counselors. Others are vocal advocates who value the power of God’s Word as well as practical applications beyond trusting, praying, and confessing.
Thankfully, there seems to be a growing movement of biblical counselors who are learning to apply scriptural principles in healthier ways. Especially, when it comes to abuse, addiction, disordered eating, self-harm, trauma, forgiveness, betrayal, codependency, and more.
Biblical counseling training and methodologies:
- BBC – Biblical Counseling Center
- IBC – Institute of Biblical Counseling
- ABC – Association of Biblical Counselors
- CCEF – Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation
- Nouthetic Counseling [WARNING: I DO NOT RECOMMEND NOUTHETIC COUNSELING] see below for more info
Church Counseling / Pastoral Counseling
Church counseling may have the widest array of variances when it comes to the quality, education, and types of help available. If you are struggling with an issue that is significantly disrupting your ability to live well, pastoral counseling may be helpful, but limited.
I highly recommend professional counseling in addition to pastoral/biblical counseling, especially when there is trauma, addiction, abuse, personality disorders, or mental illnesses involved. Unless your church offers licensed therapists on staff, the type of help you get at church may be helpful, but it could be harmful too.
I’ve heard too many cases of added wounds caused by well-meaning individuals who didn’t know their way of helping was damaging.
Unfortunately, many church leaders, pastors, and those who offer counsel within the church, are not trained to identify and help those who suffer from the above circumstances. In the cases of spiritual, psychological, and emotional abuse, I would argue that many victims do not know they are in an abusive relationship. This further complicates the help they can receive from well-meaning, well-intentioned individuals.
Please know, I am not discounting church counseling as a whole. I believe we need more training and counselors within churches. However, the differences in quality among what’s currently available varies dramatically. If you’re dealing with a long-term issue that isn’t getting better and you’re only going to the pastor or someone at church who spends time counseling you, please consider added help through a qualified Christian therapist.
Here a few ways counseling can be helpful and when it can be harmful.
Helpful Biblical/Pastoral/Church Counseling
- Prays for, and with, counselee (depending on the counselee’s level of safety with the counselor)
- Relies on the Holy Spirit to give guidance
- Is compassionately present with counselee as they talk through painful circumstances
- Validates experiences
- Incorporates scriptural truth and exploration in healthy ways (not demanding, condemning, condescending)
- Values the struggle as part of the process of healing, while offering hope in the process
- Guides counselee into a deeper faith, richer spiritual transformation, into the person they were “created and redeemed* to be
- Recognizes where there is deeper work to be done that necessitates a licensed therapist
- Urges deeper work with a trained professional, especially in cases of addictions, abuse, and trauma
- Supports the individual through a personal journey shaped by God and not the counselor’s wishes
- Acknowledges pain and fosters hope without expecting the counselee to conform to their beliefs
- Considers the whole of a person and the unexpected ways God might work in someone’s journey
Harmful Church Counseling
- Tells counselee to pray harder, just have more faith, or try harder to do better
- Uses scripture to scold or condemn
- Shares private information with others on staff without consent
- Puts the focus of counseling on sin and expectations, rather than Christ and experiencing Him
- Denies physical aspects that affect emotional and mental health
- Expects the counselee to repent of sin in order to heal
- Puts blame on victims (this is different than addressing the truth of sinful behaviors in love)
- Makes forgiveness a burden rather than a blessing
- Uses scripture out of context and/or as a means of controlling behavior
- Applies large theological constructs around selected verses of scripture, without context for the whole of scripture
Nouthetic Counseling [NOT recommended]
Nouthetic counseling is a methodology founded by Jay Adams. The term refers to admonishing, warning, and instructing others through God’s Word. This pastoral style of counseling is focused on using the Bible, solely, with a high focus on confronting and correcting individuals. It is the original form of what is often referred to as biblical counseling.
Jay Adams believes all mental/emotional/spiritual issues are related to sin. He does not leave room for any other possibilities. I’m concerned these methods fuel spiritual abuse, narcissistic leadership, and legalism. None of these bring healing and hope to a beloved child of God. While we need to address sin in our lives, this approach hinders individuals from seeking necessary help, beyond talking about scripture.
I’m concerned Nouthetic methods may foster spiritual bondage, not freedom.
The Intricate Connection of Mind – Body – Spirit
We are complex beings with our spirituality interconnected to our physical and physiological states of being. What affects the body, affects the mind and heart. Each one affects the other. Discounting these complexities and focusing on sin has caused excess pain and even secondary-trauma for counselees.
Example, if you’re struggling you’ll need scriptural support for the battle within your spirit. You may need help identifying unhealthy beliefs and healing from unhealed experiences. You may also need care and healing for long-term hurts, chronic stress, life patterns without boundaries, and/or emotional healing.
As your brain processes painful events and trauma, it’s important to have the help of someone who understands brain science and trauma healing. In addition, exercise, diet, and potentially medications will have an impact on your ability to heal. All while your soul needs the life-giving and transformative work that happens between you and God.
As I learn more about Jay Adams and his teaching, I’m more and more alarmed with his teachings. His staunch positions deny God’s design and work through science.
We Need More Than Prayer for Whole Healing
Here are a couple of articles that talk further about our need for more than prayer. I would say this is true for spiritual growth beyond mental ascent of biblical knowledge. Just because we know it in our minds doesn’t mean we know and have experienced God in our hearts where deep change happens.
- We Need More Than Prayer for Whole Healing – by Jolene Underwood
- Addressing Mental Health Goes Beyond Prayer – by Dr. Henry Cloud for Boundaries.me
Why I Am Concerned About Nouthetic Counseling
While I hold a high regard for scripture, and the power it has in our lives, I believe the admonishing methods of Nouthetic counseling are riddled with dangerous concepts. More than I can get into here. For example, if an individual suffers from depression or anxiety, and the focus becomes what they’re getting wrong in their faith or some sin they haven’t repented of, than it can steer the patient towards self-reliance and self-devalue while also denying the way God works through physiological means, setting boundaries, receiving compassion, etc.
With Nouthetic counseling, the focus often becomes performance-based (like confronting someone for not forgiving as a sin when pain first needs validation, or telling them they are just harboring bitterness when abuse and/or evil needs to be confronted). These approaches burden a wounded individual to conform to idealized expectations. Sin-focused confrontations for the sake of conformity are likely to increase depressive symptoms and certainly won’t get to the root issues so one can experience a life of freedom.
In addition, Nouthetic counselors are set up in such a way that questioning them makes you rebellious. They discount and denigrate any method tied to psychology, physiology, psychiatry, and even Christian counseling.
Some biblical counselors use Nouthetic counseling principles. Some do not. You can always ask a potential counselor what their methodologies are.
Spiritual directors may be found in various denominations with a wide-range of faith applications. They are not licensed or regulated by any outside organization. They may or may not have received training from an organization who specializes in a preferred mode of spiritual direction.
This is an area I am less familiar with, so I’ll give you an overview of my best understanding at this time. The biggest thing to keep in mind is that a spiritual director is not trained in therapy methods, healing and dealing with trauma, abuse, and addiction, or identifying underlying possible mental illnesses. Their purpose is to be present with someone who is seeking a deeper understanding of their faith.
A spiritual director may guide an individual through reflective questions as they join them in their spiritual journey. Many individuals have found solace and refuge in the support of a spiritual director. However, just as is the case with Life Breakthrough Coaching (which I’m certified in), working with a spiritual director should not take the place of therapy. Rather, it can be a helpful supplement to enhance the work done in counseling.
Christian Life Coach
Working with a life coach is a powerful option for growing in faith and developing your life. Many Christian life coaches offer significant help and resources for people who are stuck, but there are key differences from formal Christian counseling to be aware of. A Christian life coach may offer counsel (primarily through online means and not during sessions), but they are not licensed therapists. They are trained to help individuals move from where they are to where they want to go. Counselors are trained to deal with underlying issues that impact a person’s ability to move forward.
What I, as a certified Life Breakthrough Coach, find challenging is that what keeps us stuck, the present patterns we deal with, are impacted by past events. While a life coach can help an individual work through unhealthy belief patterns, uncover core values, and guide them into healthier paths for the future, they are not trained to deal with trauma and healing from past wounds. Life coaching may uncover underlying issues that need further help than they are trained to provide.
In a simplistic view, life coaches focus on moving towards the future, and counselors look at the past. I would add that counselors are better equipped to deal with trauma healing, abuse, addictions, personality disorders, and mental illnesses.
Some people will use a counselor prior to, or alongside of, working with a life coach.
While all of these options can address emotional healing and maturity, it requires a psychologist or psychiatrist to test and diagnose certain mental illnesses. A psychologist typically has received doctorate level education.
- PhD – Doctor of Philosophy (refers to doctorate level studies in a variety of disciplines, including psychology, and may include research, teaching, or clinical practice)
- PsyD – Doctor of Psychology (doctorate for clinical psychology and used for clinical practices)
Psychologists are more likely to run diagnostic tests and adhere to clinical methodologies for treatments. They are also inclined to look at behavior, which may be impacted by physiology and emotions or result in physiological, emotional, and spiritual shifts. Cognitive Behavior Therapy is one mode of treatment that may be common among psychologists.
Although my background is in Psychology, I haven’t pursued psychological help for my trauma healing. I considered it at one point, because I wanted a diagnosis for what I was dealing with, but in the end the label wasn’t as important as recognizing a need for healing and pursuing it.
Psychologists may or may not offer counseling support. They can diagnose and treat various mental illnesses, but typically cannot write prescriptions.
While Psychologists have typically received a doctorate, they are not considered medical doctors. Psychiatrists are. They can diagnose mental illnesses and prescribe medications. They are not often engaged in counseling processes that help individuals heal from the past or face the roots of current emotional distress.
A psychiatrist is more likely to prescribe medications and help patients manage them. They may be used in conjunction with a licensed therapist.
Secular counseling is simply counseling without a religious perspective. Licensed therapists should be trained to leave room for a client’s faith, but experiences on this are mixed. Again, you have the right to ask questions and to make changes if your beliefs are not respected.
Some individuals may choose secular counseling because it is the only affordable option they can find, and perhaps the only options in their area that is covered by insurance. If the counselor is trained to meet the specific needs you have, they can be helpful. In some cases, a secular counselor may be the best specialist you can find. If so, I recommend supplementing the work with a biblically based counselor, trusted friends, and or a Christian life coach.
If secular counseling seems to be to the only option, consider:
- Is it truly the only option? Have you checked with other Christian options that may take a reduced fee? Or those who do video conference counseling?
- Do you need specialty help with abuse, addiction, hoarding, personality disorders, or mental illness?
- How will you supplement the therapy support with others who can minister to your soul and support your faith?
- Is the counselor allowing faith, supporting it, or disparaging it, even if in subtle ways?
- How does the counselor view the Bible? Is it offensive, merely inspirational, respected, or highly valuable?
- Who can provide spiritual guidance and support that align with God and His Word?
It’s not always easy to find a therapist in your area, or get out to meet one face to face, depending on your circumstance.
I’ve met a few counselors who do online therapy as an option. If you can’t find a quality counselor near you, here are a few options for phone or video based sessions.
NOTE: I haven’t personally vetted all of these options. Please do your own research and ask questions if one looks like a good fit.
- Susette Magana (LMFT, marriage and family therapy)
- Marriage Recovery Center – David Hawkins & associates
- Leslie Bley Counseling
- Redeemer Counseling Center
- Sunshyne Gray
- Seattle Christian Counseling
- San Diego Christian Counseling
- Carrie O’Toole Ministries – Coaching from a trained, non-licensed provider who specializes in grief and trauma healing
Online Teaching & Healing Resources
- Boundaries.me – monthly membership site with a community and new content added daily by Dr. Henry Cloud (co-author of the Boundaries books and author of Changes That Heal)
- Think Differently Academy – monthly membership site based on the freedom ministry led by Christian counselor, Bob Hamp
- A Cultivated Life Academy – Unleash: Heart & Soul Care Sheets by Jolene Underwood (more training, courses, and tools to come)
Support Groups Led by Therapists
In addition to quality one-to-one counseling, these support groups may be beneficial. Some are free and some are available for a low-monthly fee.
- CONQUER – a monthly membership support group for developing your emotional abuse recovery and developing your core led by Leslie Vernick
- THRIVE – a six-month program for emotional abuse recovery by Marriage Recovery Center
Additional Resources for Choosing Christian Counseling
- How to Find the Perfect Counselor for You – article by Meg Gemelli, LMFT
- 10 Questions to Ask a Biblical Counsellor to Make Sure They Are Safe – Sheila Wray Gregoire
- On Rachael Denhollender, Biblical Counselling, and Healing – Sheila Wray Gregoire
New Life Christian Counseling Network
Pay a fee to get a counselor who meets requirements set by New Life Ministries. Fee covers cost of first appointment. This network has more vetting for professionals than a directory. You may still call the counselor and ask them questions to see if they are a fit for you. If your referral is not a fit, you may request a new referral.
Christian Counseling Directories
NOTE: These are not vetted options. It is a directory which includes self-included information and tags. Christian can mean a number of things. Use directories to help you consider options, then ask questions.
- Focus on the Family Christian Counseling Service & Referrals (may offer one free consultation)
- Focus on the Family Christian Counselors Network
- Christian Counselor Directory
- Therapy Tribe
- Psychology Today – Christian Search Term for Directory
- Christian Care Connect – AACC Referral Network
Helpful Articles on Methods, Trainings, and Licensing:
- What is an LMFT? What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? What’s the Difference between Regular Therapy and Christian Counseling? by Susette Magana
- Counselor vs Therapist vs Psychologist
- Understanding the Impact of Trauma – Chapter 3 of Trauma-Informed Care in Behavioral Services produced by NCBI
- Licensing & Certification Requirements by State (United States)
- A “Bill of Rights” for Biblical Counseling Clients by Sheila Wray Gregoire (proposes a Bill of Rights to be used by biblical counselors in order to provide safety and ethical standards)
- Biblical Counseling & Nouthetic Counseling – Two Sides of One Coin – article by Heath Lambert
The information here represents my best understanding of key counseling components which I believe are helpful for Christians to consider. As I learn more, I may update this post. All advice given on this blog should not substitute the work of a professional or the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in guiding your process.