November 7th, 2023

Pastoral “Counseling”

Hey, check out our super functional government! We have a new speaker of the house! He’s an evangelical fundamentalist who believes his book of magic spells is the bestest book of magic spells and uses it as a basis for governance. Totally functional. But this isn’t a politics blog! Let’s talk about his wife, a self-described (because she absolutely is not licensed) christian pastoral counselor. Like all fundamentalist evangelicals, she holds homophobic, transphobic, racist, misogynistic, patriarchal views, and if that didn’t make this painfully obvious already, she’s bad at science. So, let’s take a look at pastoral counseling in general, and her specific weird brand of it? Because even by christian fundie standards, she’s odd.

So, first off, what’s up with pastoral counseling? Jer, weren’t you a christian counselor early in your career!?!? Nope, and this is why making these distinctions is important. I am a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, which means that I have gone through vigorous state mandated training at approved institutions and passed a standardized test to show expertise in the area of psychotherapy. I additionally have a postgraduate degree, certifying that I have completed additional training at an accredited training institute, and passed all of their testing to prove I paid attention in school and have the baseline skills and knowledge to be a couples therapist. “Standardized” and “accredited” are important words here, because they mean that groups from outside of my educational institutions have reviewed and approved of the classes I took and the learning I was required to do in pursuit of my various degrees. This external certification meets the standards set by the state in order to get a state license to practice mental health at the professional level. Pastoral counseling does none of this. There is no governing body, and certainly no state or national level accreditation certifying that getting training in one place or from one school is equivalent to the learning at another. If a church wants to say that their pastors are trained because they read the book of Ephesians, they can! And trust me, they do, but it doesn’t mean anything without that external process certifying that the training meets any sort of standard. Having training, being certified, only means as much as the place doing the certifying, which is why getting accreditation matters for higher education, and it is why christian schools don’t get accredited, they either don’t want the oversight or they know they won’t meet the rigorous standards. And in my time as a christian, I did therapy with plenty of people who had done “pastoral counseling” at their church and their pastor had no formal training in mental health, like, not even an undergrad class or two. Just a regular ol’ pastor thinking their understanding of their chosen scripture meant they could give advice, or even mental health diagnosis. 

Now, I’ve built many Lego cars with my children, so technically it isn’t a lie to say I have lots of training with cars. That does not mean you should have me replace your brakes. I don’t actually know anything about real cars. And pastors don’t know anything about mental health, the scriptures I’m familiar with have nothing to say on the topic, and anyone trying to read that into their own personal interpretation is making stuff up. State licensed professionals are held to certain standards even beyond their education. We are required to get a set number of continuing education credits each year (from accredited training, not like watching TikTok), and we have oversight from our licensing board that can take away our license if we are not following the standards of ethical care. Accountability is not something that exists for pastoral counseling because there is no board to take complaints to! If your pastor does a poor job with counseling, bad news, your pastor is the only person to take it up with! There may be a board of volunteers, but accountability usually looks like a gentle talking to, or maybe praying together. Nothing of actual substance, and certainly not anything that will lead to lasting change. So, yes, early in my career I worked at a christian counseling practice, but I was a licensed therapist doing psychotherapy professionally, I was not doing pastoral counseling. It isn’t even really a square/rectangle situation, if someone isn’t licensed by their state, they aren’t a therapist. Some state licensed therapists do advertise that they do spiritual counseling, which means they practice from a specific religious worldview, but their license is what gives them credibility, not that religious worldview. 

So what’s up with Kelly Johnson, the newly elected Speaker of the House’s wife? Well, from what I can tell, she wasn’t ever actually a psychotherapist. Thanks to the internet archive, I checked out her website that was recently scrubbed from the internet. Not licensed at the state level, only certified through religious groups. Does this mean she had no training? Not at all, it just means there is no way to certify what she is actually trained in. Thankfully, she somehow was not concerned about sharing! She practiced what is known as temperament counseling, which isn’t a real thing in any sort of evidence based practice that professionals engage in. Temperament counseling is based off old Greek (and likely pagan, what an ironic twist!) understanding of medicine. It is incorrectly attributed to Hippocrates (it predates him), perhaps because people will recall the Hippocratic oath and think that this lends some credibility to a thoroughly debunked unscientific approach. Seriously, this quackery is insane, so I’m going to write my longest blog ever because I just have to share it all. The four humors (it’s a quirky translation, could more idiomatically be “juices”) were blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. And like, batshit already, right? Like, a modern person, in 2023, thinking this is any sort of basis for personality or development? Nonsense. This morphed over time, the four humors mixed to create temperaments, phlegmatic, choleric, melancholic, and sanguine. Again, based on bad science that was disproven in the 1800s when we learned about germs. This stuff has been wrong for 200 years. And of course, off-shoots then existed, that the different humors correlated to the seasons, or earth, fire, wind, and water (Captain Planet!) or other pagan and decidedly not christian ideas. The fifth one in this made up form of “counseling” is supine, in case you were curious. Oh, and fun tidbit, this was all conjured up by Richard and Phyllis Arno, who aren’t therapists, and went out of their way to very specifically make a way for pastors to bypass getting any certified training! So they totally aren’t at all motivated to sell their snake oil, right, except by making boatloads of money. And they cite famed not-a-therapist Tim LaHaye, who wrote fiction about the rapture. Always great to have fiction writers doing your science, just ask L Ron Hubbard. And that’s really it, this is on par with scientology. A totally made up, not at all legitimate, self-help scam using pseudoscience to fit a predetermined world view. This system rejects personality, because they need temperament to be something you are born with, just like sin! So, using their belief system as the only guide, they crafted a fictitious science to rob people of their money by convincing them they can interpret their astrology signs. Oh, woops, I meant temperament, not astrology. So, now we have astrology mixed with scientology, with a fun sprinkling of Myers-Briggs oversimplification. And just to connect all the dots here, when you don’t believe in science, and think the earth is only 6,000 years old, fossils are a trick from the devil, and a magic apple caused all of human suffering, it isn’t such craziness to believe this nonsense. You already are primed to believe nonsense. If your ritual consuming of crackers on the weekend grants you immortal powers from a dead, resurrected, and now undying god, you left reality and critical thinking way behind. So, Hippocrates’ scientific knowledge is about where a christian fundamentalist is at. Which leads back to the main point, pastoral counseling is NOT REAL THERAPY. No real accountability either, which is how abuse happens and is covered up in high control groups. So, yeah, Mike Johnson is a bigot (Friendly Atheist has a fantastic summary of that), and his wife is a fraudulent “counselor,” and they hate gays but also can’t trust themselves to stay married without weird extra rules and a special covenant (that, spoiler alert, doesn’t do anything good, and actually promotes female suicide, so, more fun!). These people seem nice! What nice religious zealots. A couple assassinations attempts from the presidency. Just, really, really great. *Sigh* Please share my blog? Or check back next week for more uplifting, mental health material.