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We Do Go There: CCEF on Psychiatric Disorders

August 1, 2011

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The following is a partial transcript of an interview with Dr. Tim Lane and Dr. David Powlison of CCEF regarding the 2011 CCEF National Conference, Psychiatric Disorders: A Compassionate Look at Complex Problems. For more information about CCEF and its conferences, visit the CCEF Conference Page.

Why is CCEF devoting its conference to psychiatric disorders?

Tim Lane (TL): I imagine some people look at the title “Psychiatric Disorders” and say “that’s not for me,” but every single workshop in this conference represents somebody or a group of people who exist in every single church. These people are there, they have complex issues, and we have an opportunity as a church to think more deeply and more carefully about these issues and to become more skilled in the way we offer wise care for others.

David Powlison (DP): Yes, our goal is to offer a better understanding of the really tough problems that people face and a way of engaging the real strugglers more wisely, compassionately and patiently. The back-drop of this is that both the world and the church sell the church short on how we can help people who are broken. It’s as though the Christian message and Christian counsel are good for relatively put together people (kind of glorified hand-holding) but the complex difficulties in life belong to someone else. So, I want to give people a vision and a way to go forward.

DP: One of the distinctives that CCEF brings in its approach to psychiatric disorders is a core commitment that these are people, not labels. There is always a human being in the midst of all the other chaos going on, and the mercy and love and truth of Jesus Christ is always relevant. The mental health establishment basically says “we don’t go there—that’s religion.” Yet, oftentimes the church feels confused and overwhelmed by these extreme problems and we keep our distance. That’s the church’s version of “we don’t go there.” At the center of our vision for this conference is the fact that “we DO go there.”

DP: One other aim is to wrestle with the question: “How do you engage the psychiatric culture that is the air we breathe—issues of medication, diagnostic labels, and the claims made about the effectiveness of  the psychotherapies?” One analogy I find helpful is if that if we were in Saudi Arabia as the church, as Christians, as missionaries, we would really seek to engage and understand Islam, because it sets the language, the worldview, and the practices of the culture.  In our culture, the equivalent is the psychiatric/psychological.  All the significant things in the lives of people living in our culture are framed in language and interventions that come out of those worlds.

TL: I love the way you put that. I like to talk about what you just said in terms of “pastoral apologetics.” In this conference, we are trying to develop a world view which is not simply taking captive the thinking and theoretical aspects of psychiatric disorders, but actually moving to “how does this shape the way we actively care for people?” I am always wrestling with the pastoral component because one of the most important aspects of CCEF’s mission is to “restore counseling to the church.”

Who should attend this conference?

TL: You can already discern in what I am saying that we are appealing to pastoral leadership. This grows out of my own experiences as a pastor, but also from seeing churches really blunder in these areas.  But we certainly want to broaden that to include active lay leaders who are providing counsel to people in the local church, small group leaders, and college ministry and youth workers. We also hope professional clinicians will attend—Christians who are integrating their faith as they help the people that come to them.

TL: Maybe another way of explaining who should attend is to look at the subtitle of this conference “a compassionate look at complex problems.” That’s all of us. I am thinking of my own family. I am thinking of friends I know in church. So again this is highly relevant for anybody. It is not just the formal counselor, although it is certainly relevant for them as well.

DP: Yes, who should come are those who fit either of two criteria. One is an experience that you almost can’t avoid in our culture. Allow me to pose some questions to illustrate: Do you know someone who wears a label? Do you know someone who takes psychoactive medication? Do you know someone who has struggled over many years and those struggles have been slow to resolve or go forward, and maybe even gotten worse? Maybe that person is you? Is there is something in your experience of life where you have run into this problem? The second criteria is the desire to think these things through carefully. This is obviously not a topic that has pat answers. We want to think these things through with the sobriety, care, comprehensiveness and depth that is really worthy of a Christian response to complicated things.

What topics will you cover? Who is speaking?

TL: We have four pre-conferences including one titled: “Where’s your couch? Inside a Psychiatrist’s Office.” We will have six plenary sessions and twenty workshops (the most we have ever had). I’ve got a list of some of the topics we will be covering: psychiatric disorders in children, bipolar disorder, PTSD, OCD, depression, anxiety, the DSM-IV, psychoactive medication, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and hallucinations. (For a complete list, click here.)

DP: One thing that is probably worth noting is that we are going to front-end load the plenary sessions. We want to set a comprehensive and deep understanding of people and their struggles and out of that, by the grace of God, a wonderful wise foundation to build upon. The workshops will then unpack various specific implications.

TL: Yes, that is different this year. We typically do a plenary and then move right into a workshop. Instead, we will have three plenaries to shape this subject and build a foundation before we break for workshops. The intent is to build a worldview, a pastoral apologetic, from the very beginning.

TL: Our speakers include the CCEF faculty, and we have several guest speakers: Stuart Scott, Bob Kellemen, Steve Viars, Sam Williams, Eric Johnson, and John Applegate. I think this line-up will bring nuanced Biblical wisdom to the table as we address these complex matters. (Click here for more information on our speakers.)

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