The Inescapable Privilege

October 2nd, 2009

Like it or not, counseling goes with the youth-ministry territory. How do we cope?

Counseling has always been part of the job description for youth ministers. Even in the old days, when evangelicals used youth rallies primarily as a means to proselytize the gospel, counseling was an essential part of the youth worker’s job. Following the invitation to come down the aisle and publicly declare faith in Christ, young people were counseled in the back room while their friends waited on the buses that would take them home. In such after-meeting counseling sessions, youth workers helped the teenagers to clarify the decisions they had just made. It’s my belief that a survey would show that most of the young people who made commitments to Christ at such rallies and stayed in the faith did so, not so much as a consequence of a great sermon, but due to the efforts of those who were willing to take the time to give them personal counseling.

Let’s Get Real

The emergence of relational theologies has added to the importance of counseling in youth ministry. These relational theologies suggest that it is through meaningful personal relationships that young people experience the love of Christ. Relational theologians claim that the love of Christ, incarnated in the youth worker and communicated through personal encounters with teenagers, is more likely to result in meaingful salvation experiences than are attempts to lead kids to Christ through mass meetings. Some of the more mystical relational theologians employ the I-Thou model of the Jewish theologian Martin Buber and claim that it is primarily through in-depth relationships that we experience the dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit. Whatever the value of these relational theologies, there is little doubt that they have made counseling a crucial instrument in youth ministry.

Opening Pandora’s Box

Good personal evangelism relates the gospel to the needs of individuals. In talking to their kids about these needs, youth workers will find themselves deeply involved with the social-psychological problems of the teenagers they counsel. Listening to young people in personal counseling situations can open Pandora’s box. Youth workers frequently discover that what they thought would be nothing more than a simple presentation of the Four Spiritual Laws ends up in a discussion of deep-seated social and psychological maladjustments. Often without realizing what they are getting into, youth workers who try to share Christ with teenagers find themselves in sessions that require that they function as much like amateur psychologists as messengers of the word of God. As youth workers become friends with the kids they serve, those young people will more than likely share their deep problems with them.

Can We Not Talk

However youth workers are involved with their teenagers, there is little doubt that what is told to them in personal counseling will be more than they had bargained for. Recent studies have revealed that nearly 15 percent of all children have been sexually molested, and that 20 percent of all teenage females have had to endure rapes. Such trama can lead to severe psychological maladjustments that can surface quickly in the context of loving conversation.

I recall a conversation with a 13-year-old girl after a talk I had given. She told me that she was too sinful to become a Christian. When I asked why she felt that way, she admitted that her father had sexually molested her when she was ten years old. Like most little girls at that age, she had a sexual attraction for her father, and when her father exploited that interest, she “liked how it felt.” From this, she concluded that she must be a bad person. Because she wanted to love her father, she assumed that she was the one who was responsible for what had happened between them. I urged her to see a licensed psychotherapist, but she refused to do so because she did not want to get her father into trouble. She claimed that she only told me what had happened because she trusted me and knew that I would never tell anyone else. Whether or not I wanted to be, I was her only counselor. With whatever limited knowledge and skill I had at my disposal, I was the sole partner in her dark secret. Furthermore, I knew that she would be very unlikely to enter into any kind of a positive relationship with Christ if I could not help her to work through her painful problem. Such situations are common for all of those who work with youth for any extended period of time.

Can You Top This?

When Sigmund Freud initiated psychoanalysis, he seriously wondered whether or not his clients would reveal the deep, dark secrets of their lives to him. He need not have fretted. Much to his surprise, he learned that his clients were desperate to share their private lives. Freud found that people had a need to unburden themselves of the painful psychological baggage they had carried for a lifetime. He said that pent-up stories of private sufferings seemed to ooze from their every pore.1 It was as though they could not restrain themselves once they got started.

It is not different for youth workers. Like it or not, we too are forced to listen to painful descriptions of those things which young people are desperate to reveal. Youth workers who are readily available find themselves inundated with teenagers, anxious to unburden themselves of problems too heavy for them to handle alone. The pressures that come from being an available counselor may be more than the average youth worker can handle.

I know of a young seminary graduate who went to serve as the youth pastor of a large church located in an affluent, mid-western suburb. He was an engaging young man whose empathetic manner gave him instant rapport with his youth group. His youth fellowship group grew rapidly. Teenagers flocked to his church as word spread that this new youth pastor was available to listen to their problems. Soon, almost every available minute in his life was consumed by counseling. Young people were constantly in his office. His home became a teenage hangout where soulful discussions regularly went on into the late hours of the night. Burdened with a messianic complex, this young pastor lacked the will or the desire to turn away anyone who needed help. Regardless of how exhausted he became or how inconvenient the time, he was always ready to counsel his kids. His new wife began to resent that she had to surrender the quality time that she might have had with her husband in order for him to counsel young people. Whenever she begged for time, her husband made her feel guilty for being so selfish as to put her wants above the spiritual needs of those seeking his counsel.

Needless to say, their marriage eventually was ruined. The youth pastor, turned off by the sullenness of his resentful wife, became sexually involved with an 18-year-old girl from his youth group. The lives of several people were ruined because this young pastor could not set limits on his availability. Cases like this are not unusual. Youth workers, especially those who feel driven by some theological imperative to meet the needs of every teenager, are soon burned out and become vulnerable to self-destruction.

The Dependency Syndrome

We must be aware that those who need counseling often can appear to be psychologically unable to survive without constant attention. Often youth workers will find that one or two young people, if permitted to do so, will eat up their entire work week. The dependency syndrome which can develop through counseling is even more dangerous. Too often counseling can psychologically enslave teenagers so that they feel they cannot survive without the constant involvement of their youth worker. This may be ego gratifying for us, but it usually results in very sick relationships. Dependent teenagers often fall in love with their youth workers and can become quite sexually seductive in pursuing an ongoing relationship. Youth workers, particularly those who have inordinate needs for self-importance, have a hard time resisting such adoration. As it was for my ill-fated friend, the results can be disastrous.

Hands Off, Maybe?

Along with the dangers youth workers face due to the pressures inherent to counseling, some therapeutic professionals argue that counseling is too dangerous to be left in the hands of amateurs clothed in the garb of youth workers. These critics claim that youth workers who do not have the insights and the professional skills of trained, certified counselors ought not to be messing in the complex lives of young people. They feel that amateurs can do more harm than good. On the other hand, there are many (myself included) who are not convinced that good counseling is the result of utilizing some complicated, scientific techniques which can be learned only in academia. We could argue that counseling is a gift, like all gifts given to some and not to others.

Max Weber, one of the founding fathers of sociology, calls the giftverstehen.2 Charles Cooley, the famous American social psychologist, called it sympathetic introspection.3 There are those who believe that counseling is an art form rather than a science. And those who subscribe to this school of thought are convinced that the good counselor is one who has a God-given ability to empathetically enter into the subjective consciousness of another person and to perceive reality from the other person’s perspective. We are the ones who are likely to ask whether sociology and psychology are really as scientific as many of their proponents claim them to be.4 While we respect the contributions made toward the healing of persons by the social sciences, we also believe that the ability to gain insight into another person’s psyche is more dependent upon possessing a mystical gift of the Spirit than it is upon having the proper academic training. We could hold that a youth worker with the gift is a better counselor than a professionally-trained psychotherapist without the gift. We believe that the mystique of academia which disparages the amateur is sometimes an uncalled-for example of intellectual arrogance.5

Finding Your Limits

There is truth in both arguments. There are dangers to both counselor and counselee any time one human being seeks to help another at a significant psycho-spiritual level. What we in youth work must do is to understand both our potential, and our limits, as they relate to counseling. We must both seek to gain as much knowledge and help from the professional therapeutic field as we possibly can and learn to ascertain what types of situations and problems are outside the limits of our abilities and need to be referred to trained, licensed professionals.

What might those limits look like? First of all, we amateurs are usually out of our depth when the people that we’re counseling are dangerous to others or to themselves. A working knowledge of the symptoms of suicidal tendencies is essential. We should also strive to be able to recognize the symptoms of sociopaths who pose violent threats to the health and well-being of those around them. Secondly, we need to develop a better understanding of the unique characteristics which establish the differences between psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and psychiatry. A knowledge of who can do what is crucial if we are to make truly helpful referrals. We could mistakenly assume, for example, that the ongoing depression of a particular teenager is due to psychological causes, when, in reality, the depression may be biophysically based. If we know enough to figure out that the latter is the case, a referral could be made to a psychiatrist who would be able to prescribe the necessary medication.

Believe it or not, we don’t need a graduate degree to be able to determine which kind of help is needed, and it’s worth the effort to learn how to do this. We can read some authoritative textbooks on abnormal psychology and attend counseling seminars. There is a place for amateur counselors in youth ministry, but there is no excuse for uninformed amateurs—especially when so many good resources are available.

Thirdly, youth workers should know enough to understand the different models for counseling prescribed by the various counseling disciplines. We should especially get a working handle on the kinds of counseling implied in the particular Christian definitions of the self to which we are committed. If referrals are necessary, we should be able to direct troubled teenagers to professional counselors who have views of personhood that are in harmony with the Christian orientation which we ourselves espouse.

The concept of the nature of the self held by a therapist determines how they will work with and direct their client. There are many horror stories of young people whose lives have been messed up because well-meaning pastors and youth workers have referred them to therapists whose understanding of human nature was at odds with the Christian faith. A youth pastor in Denver once referred a troubled teenage girl to an agnostic psychoanalyst whose personal Freudian perspective on human nature was anti-Christian. In the course of counseling, the analyst suggested to this teenager that source of her problems was an over-developed superego built on her deep religious beliefs. The analyst counseled this girl to reject her biblically based negative judgments about premarital sex. The girl followed his advice—but instead of becoming psychologically healthier, she became sexually promiscuous and, consequently, pathologically depressed. It was several years before this young woman would have anything to do with the church. It was only after she was referred to a Christian counselor who was able to help her work through most of her problems from a Christian perspective was she able to find release from her deep feelings of guilt and to live a relatively happy life.

Doesn’t That Bible Say. . . ?

And conversely, what is our potential as counselors? We can have a vital role with youth who come to us for counseling. If we have a firm grasp of how the Bible relates to personal problems, we can assist troubled kids to discover how God wants them to change. The emphasis on non-directive techniques, so strongly advocated by psychotherapists like Carl Rogers, has generated an unwarranted hesitancy for youth workers to spell out the biblical prescriptions for life’s difficulties.6 Too often, we forget that our first responsibility is to counsel young people according to the Bible.

As a student of the major philosophers and social scientists of modern times, I am amazed at how often the most profound insights of such intellectual giants have been anticipated in the Scriptures.7 Consequently, I am surprised by the fact that so many youth workers counsel as though they are ashamed of the gospel of Christ. They tend to shy away from being direct in their counseling even though directness is often just what their kids want. When young people go to church leaders for counsel, it is partly because they really want to learn what God has to say about their problems. In recent years leading psychologists like William Glasser have reintroduced directive techniques into psychotherapy that affirm to us that in counseling there is room for saying, “Thus saith the Lord!”8 Jay Adams, professor of pastoral counseling at Westminster Theological Seminary, has been trying to communicate that truth to the religious community for decades, but it is only recently that we have begun to understand the importance of his claims.9

What About Us?

Freud believed that those who would be psychoanalysts must themselves go through psychoanalysis. He believed that it is important for those of us who deal with other people’s problems to be persons who understand our own problems. Otherwise, we will end up imposing our own problems on those who come to us for counsel. He further taught that only those who subjectively understand what it is like to be counseled are in a position from which to counsel others effectively.

What Freud prescribed for psychoanalysts is worthwhile advice for all of us. We will be less effective than we could be in our work with young people if we resist the suggestion that we receive counseling regularly. We should not wait until times of crisis before seeking counseling. As we endeavor to help others to work through the barriers to full humanness, we should be willing to work through these barriers in our own lives.

As a young Baptist pastor, I sought counseling with the rector of an Episcopal church. (I had a special problem which he felt was beyond his ability to handle, and so referred me to a Christian psychotherapist.) I sought counseling outside my denomination because I was afraid that giving in-depth knowledge of my flaws and shortcomings to someone in the Baptist church might come back to haunt me and mar my professional career. In truth, my fears were more a product of my own insecurities related to needing counseling at all. I suspect that such insecurities are not peculiar to me. Most people involved in the helping professions are remarkably resistant to seeking help for themselves, and youth ministers are no exception. But whether we seek help within our own denominations or outside them, it is imperative that we are open to seeking the help that we need before we consider ourselves ready to reach out to our young people.

Inescapable Privilege

Counseling is an inescapable part of youth ministry. Those of us who have chosen this vocation must be willing to study to show ourselves approved unto God, becoming youth workers who need not be ashamed: rightly dividing the word of truth, keeping abreast of available training and resources, guarding against the tendency toward a messiah complex, and willing to submit ourselves to counseling. Given the pressing needs of our young people, these steps are necessary; given the tremendous opportunity we have as youth ministers to be an agent of God’s healing Spirit, these steps are more than worth it.

1 See Calvin S. Hall, A Primer of Freudian Psychology (New York: The New American Library, 1955).

2 Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), pp. 220-247.

3 Charles Horton Cooley, Sociological theory and Social Research (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1930), pp. 290ff.

4 See Bernie Zilbergeld, The Shrinking of America (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1983).

5 See Christopher Lusch, Haven in a Heartless World (New York: Basic Books, 1975), chapter 5.

6 Anthony J. Sutch and Miles A. Vich, Reading in Humanistic Psychology (New York: Free Press, 1969).

7 Anthony Campolo, Partly Right (Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1985)

8 William Glasser, Stations of the Mind (New York: Harper & Row, 1981).

9 Jay E. Adams, Competent to Counsel (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970).


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