To Young Leaders and Christian Counselors – Part One

June 10, 2014


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Allow me to start a conversation.

After three decades of pastoral work, my counseling ministry has covered a wide range of life-issues. It would be impossible to adequately prepare a young leader for the many issues encountered in ministry today. The landscape of society is very complicated — primarily due to the breakdown of the family over the last four decades.

Something must be done to protect new leaders from too much trial and error in ministry. Those who aspire to leadership are usually driven by strong desires to help others. But when they are unprepared to handle issues, they risk hurting those under their care. And some efforts to help can actually bring disrepute to pastoral ministry and to the gospel itself.

A new pastor must expect to be approached with a wide range of problems — many beyond the scope of his preparation. Those entering ministry must be postured with enough humility to admit when they do not have answers to complex problems. But when they enter with the belief that the Bible is enough for all of our problems, they sometimes feel a need to offer solutions where they have inadequate understandings of the problems.

New leaders must realize that simplistically naïve or reductionistic answers to complicated matters can hurt and mislead people. Some leaders wrongly feel obligated to have the answers to every problem they encounter. The temptation they feel is to reduce all of life’s problems to spiritual issues needing spiritual solutions. And this can be even more destructive when the leaders’ ego is inflated with a spiritualized sense of authority about the Bible being all we need to solve all our problems. 

The scene often looks like this:

I (the new pastor) feel overwhelmed by the complicated issues in people’s lives. Yet I must appear to know enough to preserve my respect as the leader. So since I know the Bible, I appeal to my place of confidence and security. I know I can speak authoritatively (or, so I think) about the Bible, so I reduce every problem to a spiritual issue and try to solve all matters with Scripture.

This approach to ministry is misguided and sometimes very self-serving. It also reflects an inadequate understanding of the Bible itself. It’s based on superficial theology (esp. anthropology and hamartiology) and typically involves use of Scripture isolated from the full theological context. This approach is guilty of the same error of those who reduce human needs to social and physical solutions but discount the spiritual. When this happens it unnecessarily alienates the “professional” counseling community from pastoral ministry.

Please do not misunderstand. I am committed to the Scriptures when rightly and fully applied in context. God speaks powerfully to the matters of this life both directly and in principle throughout Scripture. Wrongful uses of the Bible are my concern and what we must guard against.

In hopes of protecting young leaders, we must invite them to learn more about potential sources behind behavior. If we can lead future pastors and counselors to more mature conclusions about sources, we can protect them from doing more damage than good. We can also protect them from wrongfully judging others in ways that lead to superficial solutions.

With this goal in mind, I am beginning a series of posts to start a wider conversation. 

Sources behind behavior

 I’ve had a long and deeply personal interest in sources behind behavior. It’s an area of research that has occupied consistent space in my studies for many years. I am not pretending to be an authority on the matter, but I do believe I have some important insights to offer. And I always welcome healthy discussion and correction. Opinions on sources behind human behavior have been significantly debated and too often motivations involved have been suspect. 

Over the last several decades, the question of why we do the things we do has experienced a kind of social revolution. The two most prominent waves of thought trace human behavior to nurture and nature. Until recently, the dominant narrative has been focused on nurture. Breakthroughs in science and medicine, however, have shifted mainstream opinion toward nature as the explanation for behavior. Allow me to offer a simple overview of these two sources.

1. Nurture

This source is concerned primarily with the effects of social context on personal behavior. The effects of your parents and other significant adults or life-altering circumstances explain most of your current thoughts, attitudes, emotions and behaviors. You are the product of your social context. Focus in this narrative looks at how you were hurt or helped by others. Were you deprived of nurture as a child? The things done to you or withheld from you, explain you. For many years, this has been the dominant assumption behind most psychotherapy. Words like “wounded,” ”dysfunctional” and “co-dependent” became stock vocabulary for psychiatrist. The nurture assumption also defined the primary objectives for helping wounded people. A primary emphasis focused on rebuilding self-esteem through therapy. Over time therapeutic psychology highly influenced public education so that teachers had to add self-esteem building to their role in the classroom. For a number of years, the person who saw a psychiatrist bore a social stigma for needing a “shrink.” But it didn’t take long for it to become fashionable to go to therapy and to have a personal therapist/psychiatrist. In social and behavioral sciences, therapeutic psychology occupied an authoritative seat until the recent emergence of bio-psycholgy and pharmacotherapy.                                                                    

2. Nature

Advancements in science (particularly in genetics and neuroscience) have recently given way to new conclusions about human behavior. Certain scientific discoveries have led researchers to conclude that set physical conditions in one’s genes and brain chemistry offer the most objective explanations for emotions and behaviors. This gave rise to the field of biopsychiatry. It also moved the markers for diagnosis and cure toward the work of medical professionals. The new leader in solving many problems has become a merge between bio-psychiatry and pharmacotherapy. The big business of pharmacology and the field of biopsychology partner in helping people solve their problems. Without denying the effects of social context, bio-psychiatry appears to offer hard scientific conclusions as the new reigning narrative for the sources and cures to human behavior. Since the sources to behavior originate in your body and brain, medical prescriptions offer the most objective solutions.

Neuro-chemical deficiencies are now used to explain a host of personal problems. Perhaps the primary popular example of the influence of bio-psychiatry is the exponential increase in depression and anxiety diagnoses and the prescription of medications for them. Treatment of depression in outpatient services increased by 300% toward the end of the 20th century. Antidepressant medications have become the largest selling prescription drugs in America. During the 1990s, spending increased to the point of exceeding 7 billion dollars annually by the year 2000. Estimates now indicate that major depression afflicts 10% of Americans. A disconcerting by-product has been an inability to distinguish biologically based depressive disorder from normal sadness.

Unnecessary reactions

Sadly, there has been a tendency among some Christian counselors to be postured with a kind of knee-jerk suspicion toward medicinal aids. Even among a few Christian counselors whom I respect, I sometimes find this tendency. I also find what I call a “hat-tipping” acknowledgement of the possibility of bits of truth in the nurture and nature paradigms. Some of this comes as a reaction to a negative posture often found in secular psychiatry and bio-psychiatry toward spiritual dimensions of personhood. But we must not allow misguided assumptions (no matter how condescending) to cause knee-jerk reactions among Christian counselors. Nor should we be carelessly dismissive of all of the research and findings in these fields.


I must conclude this post (it’s already too long) but I will tip my hand toward my next movement. I believe that Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being holistically honest in dealing with human problems. Our theology protects us from simplistic reductions because we know that God has made us physical, psychological, social and spiritual beings. Each of these dimensions of life must be considered when understanding human behavior. And we know (from Scripture and empirical evidence) that the most corrupting and alienating force in the world (sin) has profoundly affected each dimension. We also know that any one of these dimensions can profoundly affect the others.

Conversation started,

Steve Cornell