11/10/2014 06:01 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

What Christians Need to Know

Many years ago I went to see a pastor in the depth of my despair. As my life bottomed out, I needed help freeing myself from the pain and shame of years of childhood abuse. I tried to explain I had been sexually abused as a little girl. The pastor's first question was, "was there penetration?" Then, I tried to explain the flashbacks and was told, "the devil is talking to you."

This, my friends, is exhibit A in the "not at all helpful" category.

I don't believe Christian ministry leaders and pastors intend to injure others. Regardless of intent, damage often occurs. The hearts and souls they hope to nurture and influence become collateral damage in the name of pastoral counseling. Hearts and souls are wounded. Not for lack of a minister's desire to help, but for lack of knowledge. I see the aftermath in my office every day.

If a woman stumbles into her church having just been stabbed in the chest, the staff would be remiss if they didn't obtain proper medical assistance.

As simple as it seems, this is not often what happens when it comes to psychological or emotional needs. A man explains to his pastor, with great trepidation, that as much as he desires to stop, he can't quit calling prostitutes when he travels. He despises his behavior and knows he's going to lose his family.

With our current understanding of the nature and connection of trauma and addiction, there's a good chance this man has had a "psychological stabbing" somewhere in his past. He deserves proper care no less than the woman who was stabbed in the chest, even if his wound shows up differently.

In my experience, and the experience of many of my clients, church (and para-church) leadership wants to see this uniquely as a spiritual issue. Or, if they are able to see it in a broader bio-psycho-social context, it's still okay to try to shame this man into behaving properly. Yes, his behavior is damaging. Yes, he desires something different for himself. The difference is, we would never ask a pastor to set a broken bone. This man deserves to work with someone who can set the bone.

In the church, you break your leg and you'll likely receive compassion and appropriate care. You have a deeply broken heart that presents in some less than socially acceptable way, and there's a pretty good chance you'll be asked about your time in prayer and if you have accountability partners.

There is nothing innately wrong with either of these suggestions. They can be essential in the process of spiritual recovery when life has been lived outside of one's value system. However, it's essential that the church treat those with psychological issues with no less respect or dignity than those with physical illness.

  • Broken leg: "Who is your doctor? When is the procedure? We'll be praying for you. Can we bring your family dinner?"
  • Clinical depression: "Are you trusting God? Is your counselor a Christian? We don't believe in meds."

I see hearts broken, mental illness exacerbated and shame heaped on to those who have sought assistance in the church. I greatly respect those in ministry who spend their time nurturing the hearts and souls of those in their care. Those who speak into the lives of those seeking assistance, be it head pastors, women's ministry leaders or small group leaders.

I am, however, extremely concerned about the re-traumatizing of shattered hearts that goes on in the name of God.

Please hear me, I understand the importance of pastoral counseling. When it is the prudent and appropriate thing for my Christian clients, I don't hesitate to refer clients to Christian spiritual counseling. I'm just asking the church to do the same. Please consider your knowledge base regarding the intricacies of trauma, addiction, and mental health before spiritually diagnosing a broken heart.

My concerns do not make mental health counseling at odds with pastoral counseling. It adds legitimacy to pastoral counseling by ensuring those seeking it are receiving proper intervention, prevention, and counseling, be it psychological, emotional or spiritual. I'm not asking for pastoral counselors to be mental health counselors, I'm asking that we all seek to know the difference.