I wasn’t sure how my perceptions of counseling would change as I stepped into the Lake Pointe Counseling Center and the office of their assistant director, Mr. Brent Theis. It was a cold, snowy morning and my car had barely coughed itself awake. Brent’s office was a warm distraction. We shook hands as I was directed to a small love seat across from his office chair. I looked around. “Not what I expected.” The office was small and lacked the personal touches I had come to expect from counseling spaces. Brent informed me that he shared the office with several other counselors which quieted my inquiring mind. I looked at his notes on the white board and skimmed over the books above his head. I turned my attention to the writing pad on my knees, organized my notes and the interview began.
The hour passed quickly and I found myself again carefully navigating the icy road home. It was then I began reflecting on what Brent and I had talked about, what we had in common, the threads that proved to me the calling that I was embracing.
Brent had worked for Sherwin Williams for many years and was approaching district level management. He knew this meant moving around and the toll it would take on his wife who had experienced major dysfunction in childhood.
My wife was also involved in my decision to pursue counseling, but in a slightly different way. After seven difficult years of marriage we filed for divorce and separated. We were hardly into our separation when we both realized how much we still loved one another and sought counseling. I now look back on the four most rewarding years of our marriage and know that I am called to be part of that helping community that was so vital in our healing.
“Brent, what do you believe characterizes a great counselor?” I was afraid that my fear of the answer to this question would be unveiled in the slight quiver of an upper lip or a quick glance away from the eyes of my subject.
I assumed, like becoming a pastor, a great counselor should be raised in a nice all American home with stable parents and a positive outlook on the world. But I too had experienced dysfunction in childhood. I was only six when my father committed suicide. My mother has suffered from major depression ever since. Following the trauma I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. I self-medicated and almost forfeited my marriage. Like many who experience such levels of dysfunction, I saw my past experiences as weaknesses and hurdles for a want to be pastor/counselor. You can imagine my surprise at Brent’s response to the question. “See yourself first and what you’ve gone through. Don’t develop a savior complex. Have a heart to meet people where they are and above all else, let your personal experiences increase your ability to empathize with the client.” Maybe weaknesses can become strengths after all. Maybe it was precisely because of my experiences God was calling me to the profession instead of despite them.
I was aware of Brent’s work in anger management therapy. I chose to ask about the methods and theories employed during his therapy sessions to help his clients manage anger. Again I found I was surprised. I believed that my education as a counselor would play a vital role in my training. I wasn’t expecting the terminology and theories to be so well understood and used by someone who was so far removed from his graduate studies.
Brent discussed the use of pschoeducation and identifying negative thought patterns. We spoke of identifying triggers and I felt as though I were in therapy. More I was impressed by his depth of knowledge regarding anger management. As the product of a theological education I know that your foundational understanding of the subject is constructed while in training but that foundation reveals itself in only minute ways. With Brent it was different. I recognized his referral back to his training over and over. I heard terms like attachment theory and coping skills. I now understand how vital my educational experience as a counselor will be.
My eyes roamed the edges of the room searching for a clock. Brent took notice and assured me that the weather would allow me all the time I wanted for questions. We sat silently and looked over the list I had emailed him. The sleep machine outside the door purred as the office across the hall was being used for therapy. I dreamed forward to the day I might inhabit a similar space complete with a clock and sleep machine.
After a half hour or so we were descending nearer the questions I had anticipated most. “Brent, what do you see as a current issue facing the profession?” Without hesitation an answer was belched forth. “Pornography and sexual addiction.” I wasn’t sure he understood my question but I kept quiet and gave room for an explanation. I’m glad I did.
“We haven’t seen the Tsunami that will result from pornography as therapists. We are encountering the first generation of adolescents and adults who have grown up with easy access to pornography.” I was already somewhat familiar with the devastation and desensitization caused by pornography and the divorce of sex and intimacy. As he continued my bewilderment of the answer grew into understanding and eventually agreement. I recognized a subject that I could advocate both as a pastor and as a therapist.
The final two questions in my interview with Brent were the most anticipated and their answers have become the most enlightening. I grew up in a home where justice and fairness were strangers. If they had knocked on the door under my mother’s front porch I’m sure she would not have recognized them let alone invited them in for coffee. She is a good mother but has always been influenced by her prejudiced upbringing and the victim mentality that plagued her family.
Even as a teenager I made extra attempts to separate myself from that influence as if to prove her and I were different. Over time I matured and justice and fairness have become an appendage. It’s who I am. So when I decided to become a counselor I wasn’t sure in the interest of fairness to a client how much I should allow my faith to influence my work as a professional helper.
“Brent, as a Christian, do you counsel with ‘non-believers’? If so, how do you remain objective if their belief system doesn’t line up with yours?” I wasn’t sure how a ‘Christian counselor’ would respond. Maybe I came bearing my own stereotypes. It was a non-issue for Brent. “Yes I do. I meet them where they are. Hopefully in therapy the seed is always planted. I will usually ask where they are spiritually and gauge their receptivity. Above all else, I don’t feel a need to ‘save’ them.”
That night was bitter cold. I drove to the store, picked out my favorite desert and made the trek home. I couldn’t help but think about my interview as the road stretched before me in the headlights. “Wow, the timing of that interview was perfect!” Looking back, it changed my perception of what it meant to be a Christian and a counselor. Before I was certain that I would have to consciously turn one off to be effective in the other. But life has prepared me and given me the wisdom to see where they intersect and overlap.
In all, it is my experiences in life that have given me the gift of empathy and sincerity. My faith, my childhood, my afflictions and triumphs, have all equipped me for this profession. Counseling is something to be learned but being a counselor is something you either are or aren’t. Brent’s answers, though informative, proved also empowering. I can advocate and champion the things I’m most passionate about. Counseling and faith do overlap. I will not be an ineffective counselor because I am someone of faith nor because I have a troubled past. I can use these experiences. I am learning the tools necessary, but the calling has always been.