Out of the Shadows: Getting Help Inside and Outside the Church


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Lonely' photo (c) 2011, Riefka Aulia - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

This is the seventh  post of our weeklong series, Into the Light: A Series on Abuse and the Church, which features the stories of abuse survivors, along with insights from professional counselors, legal experts, and church leaders about how to better prepare Christians to prevent and respond to abuse.  Through the course of the series, we will be discussing child abuse, spiritual abuse, sexual violence and abuse, and domestic violence. Check out the previous posts here

This afternoon’s post focuses once again on treatment, and it comes to us from Laura Worley. Laura is a licensed clinical social worker and licensed chemical dependency counselor.   She provides counseling services to individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues, and provides clinical services to the drug court, DWI court, and family recovery court programs.  She has worked extensively in inpatient psychiatric, community mental health, and criminal justice settings.  Laura lives in Lubbock, Texas and enjoys spending time with her family and friends, running, reading, writing, laughing, snacking, and collecting Swatch watches from the 80's.

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“If she had a stronger prayer life, she wouldn’t be depressed.”

“If he only realized how much he has to be grateful for, he would not need medication to make him feel better.”

“If he really cared about his children, he would stop drinking.”

“Doesn’t she know that people who commit suicide go to hell?”

“She should just get over the past and move on.”

“These types of things are best dealt with inside the church, without involving secular professionals.”

Over the course of my 16-year career as a clinical social worker and substance abuse counselor, I have heard these statements, and ones like them, numerous times.  They are often made by well-intentioned individuals and not intended to cause hurt to already-hurting people.  They are also, at times, made by my fellow members of the Body of Christ, who do not realize that while their words hold the power to bring healing to others, they also hold the power to wound. 

And when we, as the Body of Christ, allow our actions to be led by misguided beliefs, we not only miss out on the opportunity to bring healing to a hurting world, but we can become inadvertent accomplices in causing further pain to suffering people.

The good news is that when we, as the Church, cultivate a culture of compassion, mercy, and honesty, we have the opportunity to witness the transformation of lives in the name of our Savior.  I am blessed to be a part of a local church community that pursues Christ wholeheartedly and seeks to reach out to the lost, hopeless, and hurting, while equipping believers to become stronger followers of Christ.  In doing so, there are many occasions in which my church, like other churches seeking to serve those who are hurting, works together with local counselors and other agencies to bring healing to people. 

As a counselor and a Christian, I know that deep healing comes from Christ. While most churches provide opportunities for individuals to receive pastoral counseling services when assistance is needed in dealing day-to-day struggles, there are times when the issues involved are such that the training and background possessed by pastors and church leaders just aren’t sufficient to meet the needs of certain individuals, and referrals to professional counseling or outside agencies are needed. I am thankful to be a part of a church where these referrals are gladly provided, and where hurting people are loved and supported while they seek out professional counseling and other needed services. 

Just as church leaders would refer individuals suffering from high blood pressure, migraines, or other medical problems to a physician, individuals who are suffering from acute mental health symptoms, clinical depression, addiction, or trauma/abuse issues can be best treated, and be provided the best opportunity for healing, when referred to an individual with the training and expertise to address these issues.

In many ways, the Church as a whole has come a long way in its acceptance of mental health and addiction issues as no-fault struggles facing Christians and non-Christians alike.  There was a time, not so long ago, when those suffering from depression were seen as “not having enough faith” or “not praying hard enough.”  Believers suffering from depression were, at one time, often discouraged from taking medication and seeking counseling.  And while the spiritual aspects of depression should be taken into consideration in many cases, most churches now accept that depression has numerous causes, many of which are medical/biochemical in nature.  For the most part, peple who take medication for depression do not face the stigma within the church that they once did, and most churches have made great strides in their willingness to refer individuals for medication and professional intervention when depression and other mental health issues arise. 

The same holds true for addiction issues. Most pastors and church leaders now realize that addiction is not merely “sinful behavior,” and that individuals who are truly addicted are not able to just stop their substance use or addictive behaviors simply by having more faith/willpower. 

As someone who provides assessment and counseling services to individuals who have experienced trauma and abuse, I am especially grateful when I see churches provide biblical support and love to these individuals, while also referring them for needed services from outside agencies and counseling professionals.

People who have been victims of abuse experience a tremendous amount of shame, and often struggle for many years with self-blame.  They often face depression, turn to unhealthy behaviors, use drugs and alcohol, and engage in unhealthy relationships.  They often make a life for themselves “in the shadows,” because this is where their abuse occurred. 

The shame and guilt can often be compounded when the abuse occurred in a church setting or was perpetrated by a church leader.  And as much as those of us who are members of the Body of Christ would like to pretend that these types of abuses do not occur, they do. They have occurred over the years in various church settings, and they still occur today.  And as the Body of Christ, we are called to respond. 

The Church is called to be the light of the world.  Healing does not occur in darkness; it does not occur “in the shadows.”

Victims of abuse MUST be encouraged to report this abuse to authorities, and to seek appropriate professional help.  When this does not occur, these hurting individuals are unintentionally re-victimized by being pushed back into the shadows. 

In addition, perpetrators of abuse generally do not stop committing acts of abuse without help.  Just as well-meaning individuals who “cover” for an alcoholic’s absences from work unintentionally enable the alcoholic’s addiction and often delay the seeking of help by the alcoholic, individuals who “cover” for an abuser often delay the abuser’s seeking help and unintentionally allow either the abuse to continue or others to be victimized. 

Bringing abuse into the light – by encouraging and assisting with reporting abuse to appropriate authorities, referring victims and perpetrators for professional help, and facilitating a culture of openness and honesty in the church – is the most effective way to bring healing to all involved.  This culture of openness and honesty is healthy – both for individual believers and for the Church as a whole – and healthiness honors God.  Our mission to be light to a hurting world begins with our being light to those within our church walls.

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In addition to this excellent post from Laura, I hope you will jump over to Zack Hoag’s blog, where he raises some good questions about Sovereign Grace Ministries and the Counseling Cliff. Here’s an excerpt:

“I have personal experience with this style of counseling at a church I served in 7 years ago. It was one of the primary reasons my wife and I finally decided to move on. One of the mainstays of this style is an antagonism toward “secular” counseling or “modern” psychology, leading church movements like SGM and Mars Hill Church in Seattle, for instance, to require members to only receive counseling from their pastors. And, sometimes, to seek that counsel from elders even in place of alerting the police.
Another mainstay is the emphasis on sin as the root of all emotional/psychological pain/difficulty. Medication for depression, for instance, is routinely frowned upon if not forbidden; and issues of abuse are oversimplified as sinners being sinners. In CJ’s famous words, we are all doing “better than we deserve,” and God’s holiness is such that abusers and the abused alike are equally deserving of an eternity of suffering in hell. Thus, God’s grace given to such undeserving people demands that victims must “forgive” abusers and get over their pain by simply submitting to the gospel and repenting – and, in the case of this lawsuit, this may even lead to “reconciling” children with abusers in person without involving authorities at all….
Evangelical seminaries may offer counseling courses and degrees, but there needs to be a strong distinction in the church between spiritual advisement/discipleship and professional, clinical counseling. And that distinction needs to be made abundantly clear by church leadership. The pastor’s and leader’s job is to provide spiritual guidance and discipleship for faith and life, as well as administration for community, worship, and mission – but NOT to diagnose and treat serious issues of emotional/psychological pain (not to mention become sex therapists or professional marriage fixers).”  Read more. 

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I am interested to know if you have ever been discouraged from seeking professional counseling outside of your church?  Or has your church been supportive of those whose journey to healing may require professional assistance?

How do pastors balance their call to be spiritual guides with the responsibility to ensure their fellow Christians get the best help possible? What are some best practices here?

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