Is counselling a required skill for pastors? What’s the difference between faith-based and secular counselling? Avis Ng, Counseling Dean of the Bible College of Malaysia, shares her thoughts on the counselling landscape, the emerging needs and action steps to be taken today.
Hi, Avis! Thanks for your time. Could you share a brief overview of counselling and its development in Malaysia?
Avis: When we think of the words ‘counselling/psychotherapy’ or ‘psychology’, it is essentially the scientific study of the human soul or psyche.
Tracing back to the 1950s after WWII, the field of counselling took off in America and society started to become more aware of the need to address mental health issues amplified by the war.
According to the American Counseling Association, counselling is “a professional relationship that empowers diverse individuals, families, and groups to accomplish mental health, wellness, education, and career goals.”
In Malaysia, counselling generally has a negative connotation of being disciplined or negatively viewed for individuals struggling with mental health issues. Counselling is viewed as ‘for the weak’’ and those who are ‘crazy’.
Little do we know that this negative view of counselling has robbed society of seeking the help and healing they need most. Counselling is where people receive empowerment, encouragement, comfort and hope to face their everyday struggles of life at any age. As much as we attend to our physical wounds and complications, psychological wounds are equally vital to our survival and health.
Hence, please reach out when you or your loved ones are facing challenges such as parenting, sexuality, postpartum depression, end-of-life journey, trauma or PTSD. No struggle is too small to be heard.
What is the Biblical view of counselling?
Avis: The Scripture that spearheaded my counselling career was Isaiah 61:1-3. Believers are called to preach the good news, heal the broken-hearted, and comfort those who mourn. It is no surprise that many classmates during my undergraduate studies were of the Christian faith.
There are various Scriptures in the Bible speaking about seeking wise counsel from trustworthy people and the Holy Spirit.
Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counsellors, there is safety.Proverbs 11:14
This verse clearly says that seeking out wise advice from different trustworthy sources is important. Most of the time, people feel ashamed for sharing their struggles and the more they isolate themselves, the bigger the problem grows.
Some Christians say that since we have the Holy Spirit and Jesus as the Wonderful Counselor we do not need human counsel. It is a dangerous and false belief that has brought great harm to wounded and struggling Christians that I have spoken to.
We must also consider how to encourage each other to show love and to do good things.Hebrews 10:24
Another Biblical aspect of counselling is to build up, empower and encourage one another. As the body of Christ, we ought to counsel one another by bringing comfort when needed, confronting with love, and encouraging and building each other up to do good works for God’s kingdom.
Not leaving out our wise helper, the Holy Spirit from John 16:13 states that when the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into the full truth. He won’t speak on his own. He will speak what he hears and will tell you about things to come.
The Holy Spirit is our biggest ally, and as a Christian counsellor, yielding to the Holy Spirit’s guidance as to when to speak, what to ask and when to intervene is a skill we can learn and practice.
Could you share examples of counselling in the Bible and how that is relevant to us today?
Avis: There are numerous Scriptures in the Bible that teach us how to approach the rejected, shamed and broken-hearted. One of my favourite stories taken from John 4:1-42 — Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor, initiated a personal conversation with the Samaritan woman. He went against gender, religious and background differences to speak to the woman who was beaten down by her sin and shame. Jesus knew that she was rejected and in deep thirst, forgetting His own thirst, He reached out to her not to condemn but graciously offer her eternal life. Isn’t Jesus amazing?!
Jesus was utilising active listening skills in drawing out her story, helping her understand her true desires and how to connect with God’s love that will never run dry.
How many times have we judged too quickly, criticized or even gossiped about someone’s downfall, be it addictions, affairs or other mental health issues? May we learn from Christ, who first sought to connect, understand, and then offer healing and restoration.
Another Biblical example that uses counselling skills such as confrontation can be found in 2 Samuel 12, where Nathan confronted King David over his envy that turned the King into a murderous madman.
How are BCM’s ministerial counselling programs different from secular programs?
Avis: The key difference between a secular counselling program and BCM ministerial counselling program is the integration of foundational biblical principles and the psychology of human problems and solutions.
We believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God, His word is the truth and we base our teachings on this basic truth about who we are.
In addition to that, the field of counselling and psychology has greatly contributed to the intervention of mental health issues that we face today. For example: Can a spiritually strong person suffer from depression? How can we minister and help survivors of sexual abuse heal? All these tough mental health challenges require experts who are trained in this area to find healing.
Let’s also talk about what are the similarities of our counselling program in comparison with a secular program.
We offer quality education standards as our modules taught are on par with the local modules covered. There is also vigorous supervision and students will undergo practicum sessions to apply and practise counselling skills outside of the classroom under supervision. Finally, our lecturers are licensed counsellors and qualified teachers from Christian backgrounds with a host of clinical experience.
Currently, most of our students are from the Klang Valley, but thanks to technology and the flexibility of online classes we also have students joining us from Perak, Johor and even Australia. The BCM counselling faculty has been around for more than 10 years, with close to 100 graduates in the past five years.
In your experience, does counselling play a big part in pastoral care? Who needs to be trained in counselling?
Avis: We can’t conduct pastoral care without counselling skills. Similarly, Jesus used many counselling skills such as attending to the human story, and comforting and confronting people He came across.
We too can be equipped with these skills especially in ministering to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Having said that, it is essential to distinguish between the role of trained counsellors and pastoral care ministers.
Trained counsellors are taught intervention tools to deal with mental health issues such as trauma, suicidality, personality disorders, depression and anxiety which is beyond a pastor’s expertise. Pastoral care ministers on the other hand act as frontliners, trusted shepherds whom people approach when a crisis hits.
It is crucial that pastors and leaders know when and who to refer their cases to when specialized care and intervention are called for.
To be effective pastoral care ministers I would recommend that pastors, cell group leaders, and youth and children’s ministry leaders equip themselves with basic training in ministerial counselling. At BCM we offer both the Diploma and Advanced Diploma in Ministerial Counseling which equips students with the know-how to deal with mental health issues.
For those who are called to serve in the counseling ministry, I would advise you to check out our Masters of Ministerial Counseling study program.
As Christ’s ambassadors, our call is to restore and heal, not to harm or cause further damage to another precious soul. By equipping oneself with these counselling skills, you are able to help those who are suffering mentally and lead them back to the path of life.
How can the Malaysian Church be better equipped to serve its members in counselling? Which areas are in great need?
This is a crucial time in history for churches to partner up with trained Christian counsellors, to address significant mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, suicidality, trauma, marriage and family conflicts.
One of the first steps for churches is to begin acknowledging the importance of both emotional and spiritual health. As Christians, we are called to be Christlike, but the process of sanctification also involves addressing and healing the wounded parts of us.
Hence promoting mental health through church seminars or workshops aims to build awareness and the importance of being responsible for our own mental health.
Secondly, it is encouraged that Pastors and church leaders pave the way in modelling vulnerability among their members. Pastors are also humans and they experience a lot of stress, and when they talk about their own life experiences or how they deal with people who struggle, it normalizes the stigma around mental health and the myths of being a perfect human.
Thirdly, if resources are available, I would encourage the local church to set up a counseling ministry. They can either appoint their own members to get trained, or partner up with trained Christian counsellors.
The counselling studies program at Bible College Malaysia offers the Masters of Ministerial Counseling which equips and prepares students to lead the counseling ministry in the church. For more information on our counselling programs, please visit www.bcm.org.my