How Christian Lay Counseling Can Exacerbate Abuse

CC image courtesy of Flickr, Robert.

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Sarah Henderson’s blog Feminist in Spite of Them. It was originally published on her blog on October 25, 2015.

There is a common occurrence within counseling in fundamentalist churches, in which a lay person, often someone with some experience or some qualifications, but not truly qualified, opens a client-therapist relationship with a fellow church member. Depending on the community, it could be a member of another church, who comes highly recommended by other church community members.

In the case of families with undisclosed or unacknowledged abuse, this situation can be highly damaging. A situation like this occurred within my own family on several separate occasions, with several different people who attempted to perform as lay counselors to my parents.

In the first situation, the lay counselor, a woman whose education was in nursing, and whose experience was working with teenage mothers, attempted to work with my father as a lay counselor. This was after I had moved out, at 17, which bizarrely, after many years of involvement with that church, was the first sign the church noticed that there was a problem in my home. When the church began to acknowledge that there was a problem, they recommended that my father see her for counseling. She tried to work with him by setting some proposed limits on his abusive behaviour. To my knowledge she never reported his abuse, although she was aware of it. She didn’t experience much success with him, and when he eventually left the family home (he was convicted of three counts of child abuse in a plea bargain) and was no longer open to seeing her, she moved on to act as a counselor to my mother. My mother was also abusive (although not to the same degree as my father) and neglectful, and this woman was aware of this but to my knowledge did not report it.

I can state that she was aware of my mother’s abuse and neglect because I had knowledge of her attempts to help my mother change her behaviour.

She made repeated attempts to help my mother by helping her clean up the house, which was extremely unhygienic. This was a highly unsuccessful venture. The house would simply become extremely unhygienic again, shockingly quickly. My father had maintained a high degree of control over the day to day running of the house, and without him there, my mother was not forced to keep the house clean and was not motivated to do it, on her own, or for the sake of her children who were living there. When trying to help my mother keep the house clean did not work, and trying to teach her to keep the house clean did not work, this woman turned to the children. I was not living at the house for most of this, but after my father was no longer living there I spent time there frequently (eventually I returned to live in the house for another year). During this time this woman also became friends with my mother, and it always remained unclear what part of her involvement was due to the friendship and what part was considered lay counseling.

She started out by requiring the children who remained in the home to clean the house with her. When this had no lasting impact on the state of the house, things became more tense. She had originally tried to help my mother mend her abusive and neglectful behaviour, but the tension in the house continued to increase. My siblings and I had placed the blame for all the abuse and neglect at my father’s feet, in court, since he was the more abusive parent. However, this came with the expectation that when given a chance, my mother would be a better parent. This didn’t work out, as she continued to spiral out of control. While I have empathy for her position as a fellow victim as well as an abuser, she continued to spiral for several years, at the expense of the quality of life of my siblings.

My siblings and I became frustrated with her inability to take over responsibility for the running of her home. She couldn’t coordinate comings and goings, budgeting, meal planning, household hygiene and food safety, and she wasn’t able to parent her children.

The lay counselor attempted to change tack again and be a family counselor for the whole family. However, she had gotten to know my mother quite well, and for whatever reason, was convinced that my mother was being re-victimized by her children. At that point the 9 children ranged in age from 20 to 5. Other people from my mother’s church got involved in the lay counseling as well, and the original lay counselor became less involved. My siblings and I, not months after sitting in court telling our story of abuse, were told by the church and the religious lay counselors they brought into our lives, that our mother would be a better mother, if only we were better children.

The older children were accused of usurping the parent role, for parenting the younger children when my mother failed to do so.

Our offence lay in helping them get through their daily lives, insisting on a certain level of behaviour, routine, and hygiene. These people enabled my mother to continue a highly dependent lifestyle, simply substituting church community figures to submit to, instead of my father. As these people remained in denial of the abuse and neglect that occurred, their input into our lives was heavily centred on how to make my mother’s life better, sprinkled with advice regarding continuing to respect our father. My mother depended on the lay counselors for advice and financial assistance and parenting, to minutiae. My siblings and I repeatedly requested that the church and lay counselors become less involved but that was treated as a disrespectful and ludicrous suggestion. It also seemed to us that the lack of success caused emotional distress to those involved, and that their efforts became more about experiencing the gratification of achieving some recognizable success, than it was about actually helping anyone involved.

There was another woman, also loosely affiliated with the church, became involved in the lay counseling in a scenario that was almost a perfect replica of the situation I just outlined, except that she was never involved with my father, and she was a counseling student with a Christian distance education program, and claimed that my mother was her senior project, apparently filling out reports on her work with my mother. They also claimed a friendship, and that situation also evolved into her coming into the home and claiming that my mother would have been a better mother if my siblings were better children. She took part in trying to clean the house, but again to my knowledge, never reported the abuse and neglect she observed there.

In the third situation, a pastor of a church that was loosely affiliated with our church, worked as a counselor. My understanding is that unlike the first lay counselors in this post, he had some education and some standards for his work, including confining his counseling to his church office rather than entering the home. It started out quite similarly to the first situation, with the counselor coming highly recommended. He also heavily relied on religious materials and ideology in his work, which was to be expected. He also experienced no success in counseling my father, and also had a failed attempt to do to marriage counseling with both my parents. To the best of my knowledge, he was also made fully aware of the abuse and never reported it. In my parents’ marriage counseling, as described to me by my mother, he did emphasize that my father should treat my mother better, but he was always oriented towards full reconciliation as the goal, rather than on changed attitudes and behaviours as the goal in a situation where there was significant abuse and neglect.

When this counselor experienced complete failure in facilitating reconciliation, he moved on to trying to counsel some of my siblings. However, he actually brought my parents’ files with him to those counseling sessions and relied on them to inform of him of the presenting issues for my siblings, rather than allowing them to present their concerns to him directly. His counseling sessions with my siblings were prematurely broken off as well, and my siblings expressed dissatisfaction with their sessions with him. All of these failures were openly understood by our church to be based in some moral deficit on the part of my family members, which only added to the othering that my family faced at the hands of the church.

I have referenced the Canadian Association of Social Workers “Guidelines for Ethical Practice”, to explain the problems that happened in those three scenarios. I chose a social work code of ethics because that is my educational background, and also because even though those three lay counselors were not responsible to any association in their role as lay counselors, I feel that is still reasonable to look to a code of ethical behaviour when discussing their actions in a position of power, that affected my minor aged siblings.

On page 8 of the PDF in the above link, 1.6.1 states that those who are aware of child abuse and/or neglect, need to report this to the proper authorities. There is no evidence that any of those lay counselors ever made a child protection report, and certainly none of them claim to do have done so. Items 2.1.1, 2.3.1, and 2.3.3 outline the responsibility of a social worker to look out for the well-being of vulnerable persons, in this case my siblings, and to take care in situations involving clients who are related to each other, and when personal friendships are involved.

As I outlined above, there were personal relationships between my mother and the lay counselors who later moved on to try to counsel my siblings without their consent, with the counseling largely revolving around asking my siblings to be better children if they wished to be better taken care of. Having a child go to therapy with a counselor who is so enmeshed with the parents places the child at a distinct disadvantage. For example in these cases, any words against the parents were directly reported back to my mother, for her to deal with as she wished. Also, after several months of involvement and awareness of the abuse at play, there was no hope from my siblings that these people would report the abuse and neglect, so these counseling sessions were really just scolding sessions where the lay counselor informed my siblings of their shortcomings.

This is not to be a generalized statement against lay counseling, and surely some lay counselors must be able to provide counseling among family members without this kind of harm being done. But the lack of protection for children in such situations is deplorable and should be shocking. When lay counselors are recommended to families in distress, they should be held to some kind of standard and care should be taken not to harm children in the process – which shouldn’t even need to be said! but clearly it needs to be.

There is no escape or protection for a homeschooled, isolated child who is put in contact with an incompetent lay counselor, with the full knowledge and agreement of the church.

7 comments

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    The lay counselor attempted to change tack again and be a family counselor for the whole family. However, she had gotten to know my mother quite well, and for whatever reason, was convinced that my mother was being re-victimized by her children.

    Sounds like Lay Counselor bonded/enmeshed with Mother and ended up taking her side, Us against Them.
    “You and Me against The World…”

  • Ugh !! What is wrong with Western Christians ? Why the drive to protect the abusers ONLY ? Again and again, including Assembly of God, Foursquare, Calvary Chapels, Victory Outreach….NO interest in rescuing or removal/protecting the kids, just indulgence for abusers !! Like the CHILDREN are automatically considered criminals as position and roles go, therefore undeserving of any bona fide help. I now understand WHY pastors pretend they didn’t hear you when you say there was an incident of child/baby abuse going on right there in church in front of everyone ! I finally had to stop going to church so I wouldn’t have to see these things anymore.

  • When churches teach lay counselling, the minimum they should do is to teach to report abuse. In my youth (I was 20, most of my team mates was 18-19) I did a project on which we did volunteer youth work, in which children and teens sometimes confided in us.

    The first thing they taught us about lay counselling was: Physical and sexual abuse is above your pay grade – here is who you should report it to. And it should be reported. I believe that was a sensible approach.

  • So sorry for what you suffered further in the name of “help from the church”. I was not homeschooled, but my mother was/is abusive…she is in the same situation with a “lay counselor” at her church, who is also her friend….of course she doesn’t tell her friend the truth about anything….what counselor wouldn’t question why all your kids don’t want to have contact with you anymore (except that it’s the devil that’s dividing the family)??? That would be a red flag for a counselor to probe farther. God has also “told” my mother that she did nothing wrong (ever)….I don’t know what God she prays to….So glad you got out of a hideous situation.

  • My heart goes out to you, particularly given our experiences with Christian counseling by both laymen and clergy. The counselee is caught between the culture of impunity in church circles which fail to distinguish between sin and crime, and the heavy-handed intrusive State, which seems to have a militant misunderstanding of religious rights.

    Unfortunately, there is no evidence that professional counselors perform any better than laymen; indeed, there is evidence to the contrary. Training and certification do not equate with common sense or decency. The assertion that secular counseling is superior to the Christian sort is also but an assertion begging for proof; I discussed these and other points in my own blog articles on counseling. Everything seems to come down to the integrity and common sense of the counselor.

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