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What's a christian therapist? ... And am I one? (part 1)

Updated: Jul 6, 2022

This blog treads on ground I usually try to avoid. The question, ‘What’s a christian therapist or counsellor?’ I find hard to answer. At least simply. Even harder, ‘Are you a christian therapist?’

The reason is that I can often feel, when I talk about Christianity and therapy, as if the languages of each are divided by some great chasm of misunderstanding. Like they talk past each other much of the time. And, perhaps, as if they only really make sense in their own language (often, amongst native speakers). In different contexts or when we try to interpret one into the other, misunderstandings (often purposeful for it’s easier to dismiss a straw word), judgements and confusions seem to proliferate. It’s frustrating.

Perhaps out of that frustration, I write this. Perhaps it’s doomed to be misunderstood. But it will, at least, be my language. My attempt to be bi-lingual and, perhaps, beckon readers into some place between the two.

So here it is: a christian therapist is a christian who is a therapist.

Simple. But it seems to fly in the face of what we expect. So what do I mean?

No escape

A christian therapist is a description about the person of the therapist much more than the type of work that they do. Similarly, christian therapy is the therapy done by a christian who is a therapist. And by the term, christian, I only mean someone who in their own experience of identity, relates themselves to a christian tradition.

Now, you might argue, surely you can be a christian and that not be brought into your work. But you’re deceiving yourself if you think any part of a person won’t be brought into their work. It will be there, somewhere, between the therapist and the client.

To put it another way, the person of the therapist is always a vital part of therapy. Out of the person emerges the work that they do and relations they form. This might be obvious. It is definitely a core idea of many non-christian therapies. It is also, arguably, precisely christian; Christianity seems to hold personhood and relationality as fundamental features of reality, grounded by the nature of a trinitarian God.

So, a therapist's christianity will come into their work. This makes their work christian.

No essence

A second argument might be, but haven't you now lost some essence of what Christian therapy is? If a christian therapist is about the person of the therapist, then we are left with millions if not billions of potential answers to the question we began with. Each christian therapist will be their own person, with their own story, personality, values, faith and beliefs - and ways in which this all shows up in their work and relationships. Yes, some of these will overlap. Many will not.

My response is that I'm not sure I want to propose any such essence. We could try to find such an essence by searching for or proposing - perhaps from biblical authority, tradition or research - some overlapping set of beliefs, faith, values, story or ways of working that all the multiplicity shares. The implication of this is that, if a therapist does not share these, then they are not a christian therapist, or at least not a good one. This treads too far on the ground of presumption and prejudgement. Who am I to say what another christian therapist would or should be in their otherness and their own personhood? Some readers may want to say, ‘Well that sounds quite christian to me.’ Yes, we have loved to wield the sledge-hammer of divine authority and tradition. Yes, we have been quick to distinguish who is in or out. No, that is not my christianity.

The real questions we need to answer

And that’s the point. What’s the therapist’s christianity? What’s their faith? What’s their tradition and lineage regarding the sacred? What’s their relationship with that tradition now? And how does all that influence, impinge on, motivate, nourish, sabotage and ground their work, or, more accurately, how they approach and relate to someone who comes to them with struggles in living?

Most, if not all, of these questions will be going on for people looking for a christian therapist or who aren’t looking for one but have found out that their therapist is christian. Are they the kind of christian I am? Will they understand, try to convert, be able to receive all the parts of me or simply judge? Will they be open to prayer, theology or the Bible in sessions, impose it, or be praying behind my back? Will they get how important - or unimportant - this is to me and be open to exploring this? What’s their agenda?

And they are the questions I suggest therapists who relate themselves in some way to any religious, spiritual or cultural tradition, should be asking themselves, anticipating in their clients and openly exploring with them as, or even before, they arise. They are, in short, perfectly sensible questions for clients to ask.

In future blogs, I will try to describe some of what I’ve come to know about all this for myself and my work. This doesn’t seem like an easy task. The same fears of misinterpretation arise. But I’m also pretty convinced that if I’m going to be honest - with myself, my clients and any who read this - I need to find my language for the space between my faith and my work.

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