Faith-based therapy: What's the primary role?

Faith Based Therapy

This post will give you some things to think about if you are considering Christian marriage counseling, Mormon marriage counseling, Adventist marriage counseling, or any other faith-based marriage counselor.

It is quite common for people of faith to want to go to someone of their same faith when they are looking for marriage counseling. If they are Christian they might be looking for Christian marriage counseling, for example. This makes sense for a lot of reasons:

  • you won’t have to spend any time explaining your beliefs and practices to your therapist

  • your therapist will understand the importance of your faith

  • your therapist might be familiar with resources (books, talks/sermons, scripture, etc) from your faith tradition to help you with your problems

  • you can trust that your therapist won’t offer suggestions in conflict with your faith

  • you can trust your therapist won’t try to talk you out of your faith

Understanding the primary role

There are many religious leaders who offer relationship advice and support. Some of them are also trained and licensed mental health professionals. Whether you are the people asking for help or the person giving it, it is important to be clear about what the primary role of the helper is. Are you seeing a pastor who is also a therapist or are you seeing a therapist who is also a pastor?

The distinction might seem small, but I believe it is an important one. A therapist and a religious leader might take different approaches to problem solving, they might have different visions of what success will look like for the couples they help, and they might have different ideas about the role they play in those couples’ lives.

Be clear with yourself about what you’re looking for

I’ve seen many people in my office who tell me they went to a religious leader or religious therapist before seeing me and weren’t satisfied. I don’t think that these religious leaders or marriage counselors did anything wrong. The common theme seems to be that they weren’t clear with each other about the primary role of the helping person. The individuals and couples I’m thinking of were looking for mental health help and got spiritual guidance instead.

I’m not here to tell you which direction is right for you but to have you think about what type of help you are looking for. If you are clear about whether you are seeking spiritual guidance from your pastor about a marriage problem or seeking marriage counseling from a licensed therapist who is also of your same faith, you will be able to get what you need more quickly and be satisfied with your experience.

Example: Prayer and Rituals of Connection

Let’s say we have a couple who is feeling disconnected and distant from each other. What advice do they get when they go looking for help?

The religious leader with no specialized training suggests the couple pray together and promises that this will bring them closer together.

The religious leader who is also a marriage counselor suggests the couple pray together. S/he explains that happy couples have regular times set aside where the connect with each other, de-stress, and provide support to one another.

The marriage counselor who is also religious explains about rituals of connection. S/he talks about many ways the couple could do this, and suggests that prayer together might be one of them.

The marriage counselor with no religious understanding explains about rituals of connection. The couple is on their own to come up with the idea that something from their faith might help them.

Admittedly, the example above is over-simplified. I hope, however, that it will help to illustrate how approaches to the same problem, even with a very similar solution, might look different depending on the primary role of the person you’ve gone to for help. They all may help the couple (or not, if prayer isn’t something that serves the purpose of a ritual of connection for this couple), but their approaches are different. There isn’t one best way. The best way for you is the approach that matches what you are looking for, the person who clicks with you individually and you as a couple.

What type of therapist am I?

I am most like the marriage counselor who is also religious in the example above. I'm not a leader or representative of any faith. I do work with a lot of religious people and with people who have chosen to leave religion. I explain ideas from an evidence-based clinical perspective and then help you find solutions that are in harmony with your values.

A note about ethics

As your therapist (and seeing how I’m not a religious leader, if you choose to work with me, I’d be your therapist) it would be unethical for me to try to talk you out of your faith or into a faith you don’t want to be in. As your therapist, it would be unethical for me to turn your counseling sessions into an opportunity to preach or proselytize. It would also be irresponsible for me to completely ignore your faith and the role it plays in your life. We can talk about your faith, your questions, your struggles. I will support you in finding or creating practical solutions that work for you, your marriage, and your values.

If you’re not sure whether you want a faith-based counselor, share this article with your spouse and use it as a conversation starter.