taking the words of Jesus seriously


Alasdair Groves is the Director of Counseling and a member of the faculty at Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF) in New England. He has a passion to foster genuine relationships in the local church, especially through counseling and counseling training, and his hope is for a church-based movement toward providing robust, Biblical pastoral care.


Paraphrased, CCEF’s stated mission is to bring “Christ to counseling and counseling to the church.” Can you explain what this means and what it looks like in practice?


Good question. When we talk about bringing Christ to counseling, we mean that to counsel well is to take seriously that the Bible has the deepest, richest framework for all of life. Ultimately, whether we are dealing with schedule stresses or schizophrenia, Jesus is our only hope and the wisdom he gives must ground and direct all the help we give. This doesn’t mean that we never use Google calendars to help the disorganized or that we are against Prozac for someone who’s depressed. But it does mean we will counsel best when our goals and methods of helping people spring directly from Jesus’ goals and methods for helping people: relationship with, worship of and obedience to him.



In practice, bringing counseling to the church means equipping pastors to do rich, insightful, compassionate, and just pastoral care. It means training para-church counselors like me who work hand in hand with churches to care for congregants in the context of the community of Christ’s body rather than in an isolated corner of the congregant’s world. Finally, I think it means developing the best content we can on connecting problems in living to Christian faith. We want to influence the culture, both in the mental health world in general and in the church in particular, toward a higher view of how the Bible meets us in our times of greatest need with powerful, non-simplistic help.



With 1 in 4 Americans suffering from some form of mental illness, it only makes sense that the church would want to be on the forefront of providing mental health services to those in need. Why have so many churches been slow to provide these services, and what is CCEF doing to help those diagnosed with mental illness?



I think that we, the church, have sometimes (though not always!) been slow for three reasons:

Discomfort. People with diagnosed mental illness tend to feel “different” from the “normal” people. Human beings are rarely good at handling relationship with those who seem different. I believe the church aims to be helpful, but it can be confusing and frustrating to minister to someone who responds differently than one is used to, and many times this means not recognizing the depth of help people need.

Refusal to De-humanize. Another reason the church has been hesitant to embrace a therapeutic model for pastoral care is a sense that our culture is off in its response to mental illness. Specifically, our culture tends to only be able to show compassion by removing responsibility. For example, in the 80s the secular therapies tended to show compassion by blaming a person’s behavior on her family of origin. Now genetic or chemical roots of behavior are much more in vogue. Of course, both can have significant influence on us. But as people of grace, we know that compassion is actually at its deepest when it is shown to a sinner who is responsible for some of her problematic actions.



Now, we can go too far here and blame all a person’s problems purely on her own choices, and that’s wrong too. We should hold a 6-year-old, a depressed teen, and a wise 70-year-old pastor to very different standards and applications of loving their neighbor! Yet no relational damage or disorder of the brain removes our human need and calling to love our neighbor.



The church is sometimes accused of making people who are mentally ill feel bad. And sometimes this is a fair and tragic charge. But often the church is actually prophetically counter-cultural when it refuses to de-humanize people by removing responsibility. There is hope if you are part of the problem because you can do something about it.

Over-simplification. Finally, we in the church can fail to provide robust care for people with diagnoses because we swing to the opposite extreme, effectively ignoring a person’s family history, physical weakness, hurts from the church, and so on. Sadly, churches have sometimes assumed that simplistic or pat spiritual answers suffice for people’s problems in living. This ignores the two millennia of rigorous thinking about pastoral care that the church has done, as well as the insights of contemporary psychology. Further, it does not capture the biblical picture of people as embodied souls whose physical maladies, relational betrayals, personal weaknesses and overwhelming emotions matter enormously for how we live out ultimate spiritual loyalties.



So, we’re calling the church to a compassionate and nuanced response to the people among us who feel “different” because of mental illness. But we also try to teach two complimentary ways of loving those who’ve been given diagnostic labels:



Normalize the abnormal. Ok, maybe you as a counselor, pastor or small group leader haven’t been diagnosed with an OCD fear of germs, but you do know what it’s like to be afraid of being sick or to be afraid of a world where dangerous things really do happen. Connecting to this person’s experience will make you more humble, more compassionate and more able to offer encouragement that fits and loving challenge that doesn’t overwhelm.

On the flip side, we want to understand people as individuals. Don’t assume your experience of grief or anger or temptation is the same as someone else’s. Early in my counseling career I worked with a young man who had a very similar story to mine: we both were oldest sons of large, Christian families whose fathers died when we were the same age, both from cancer. But I quickly realized our experiences of grief were radically different. We train our students to know this person, not to generalize from a label or assume they know what someone means by “fear” or “depression, ” etc.



You view your counseling model as different from the traditional “doctor/sick patient” therapy model. What is the difference and the thinking behind that concept shift?



This is one of my favorite parts of what I do. I believe I am not a healthy expert with answers for treating a sick patient with problems fundamentally different from mine. Instead, I am a fellow struggler in need of the same gospel, the same compassion, the same wisdom from God, the same help in temptations, the same encouragement in trials as those I speak with. I ground this perspective in scriptures like 1 Corinthians 10:13 that says that nothing is tempting me that isn’t common to all people, as well as the example of someone like Paul saying he is the chief of sinners (rather than lording his knowledge and apostleship over those he disciples). This humbles me and makes me more empathetic.



I have had many encounters with those who have been told by their pastors and others that they can simply “pray away” the needs that have brought them to counseling. And if prayer doesn’t work, then perhaps these folks are doing something “wrong, ” or are simply meant to suffer. How does CCEF respond to this notion?



This is such a tough question to respond to because, on the one hand, people are sinners who always have places in their lives they can and should be praying about. On the other hand, there are numerous times when sin is not the primary issue that needs to be addressed!



Sometimes simple, compassionate grieving-with, or a steady IV drip of hope and encouragement will be the appropriate form of Christ-like ministry. Discerning when to speak to sin and when to speak to suffering is difficult. My colleague, Ed Welch, has given a helpful rule of thumb though. He says that when listening to people, “We’re interested in the good, the hard and the bad—usually in that order.”



But sometimes what is behind a comment like this is the idea that “if you only had more faith” then your problem would go away. Lots of suffering doesn’t go away when you pray, even when you are crying out to God night and day. Just read the psalms! At the same time, people (myself included) are always going to be tempted to use their sufferings as an excuse for their sins–or at least as an excuse not to deal with their sins right now.



Learning to walk with and help people who are suffering without ignoring their sin and the damage it causes is one of the great challenges and privileges of life in the body of Christ. Our aim is to love each other enough to speak out where we see wrong in those we love and to be confident enough in God’s good purposes that we don’t abandon people who don’t “get better” on our timetable.



Give us a snapshot of where you see “the church” now in terms of counseling, and where you would like to see it in the near future.



I’m excited about the current state of counseling in the church. From where I sit, biblical counseling seems to be spreading like wildfire. As people come in contact with the intensely personal, transforming love of Christ in a way that meets them in their darkest hour, they naturally want to learn how to extend that love to others. CCEF currently has 800 students from over 20 countries enrolled in our classes (600 online) this fall. The vast majority are motivated lay people who want to get better at understanding how the Gospel can transform them and those around them, both in their daily struggles and their deepest trials. And we are just one of many organizations equipping biblical counselors.



Where are we headed? In the next ten to twenty years, I’d love to see:



  • Churches thinking of a shepherding or counseling pastor as a vital priority, or, for smaller churches, equipping their sole pastor and/or assistant pastor through a robust biblical counseling program which few have historically gotten in seminary.


  • Denominations, especially in my own evangelical and Reformed neighborhood, placing a more significant emphasis on preparedness for pastoral care in their ordination process. Good theological, exegetical, and church history knowledge are vital for a pastor—the wise care of souls is equally important.


  • People in the pews feeling more equipped and taking more ownership of how they can help each other in trials. I want to see an ever-increasing atmosphere of collaboration and gathering round troubled and troubling people, both when they are laboring under burdens of suffering and when they are stuck in sins. This happens vastly more than the church gets credit for in the public eye, yet I think we will do this all the more if churches get a vision for equipping key lay leaders to walk along side members of their congregations more wisely.


  • The church has a long way to go in its counseling, which is to say in adopting a rich model of how we can treat our trials as an opportunity to grow together and love each other. But I am deeply encouraged by how far we have come in the last half century. It gives me great hope for the church and for the biblical counseling movement.


About The Author


Jamie Calloway-Hanauer is a writer, editor, and semi-retired attorney currently working on her Master of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and the Religion Newswriters Association, as well as the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Jamie is currently working on her first full-length book, The Telling Ground.

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