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Counseling Unconditionally

Tennessee’s New Counseling Law & Jesus
Originally written and posted by Executive Director Chris O’Rear at his blog, Just Thinkin’ Out Loud.

As has been reported in so many places this week, Governor Bill Haslam signed into law a Bill that willprotect psychotherapists from legal repercussions if they refuse service to any person based on their own strongly held principles. This bill was supposedly necessary because some Counseling professional organizations have re-written their codes of ethics to say that a counselor cannot refuse treatment to a client solely because of religious beliefs. (Oddly, the final version of this bill allowed for any “sincerely held principle” and not just religious belief – a distinction is potentially more concerning to me.)

I am going to admit that I have had some mixed feelings about this bill. As a Pastoral Counselor who is a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, my own code of ethics says that I will not discriminate in providing assistance to any person on the basis of “race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, health status, age, disabilities or national origin…However, it also says that if I am unable or “unwilling for appropriate reasons, to provide professional help or continue a professional relationship, every reasonable effort is made to arrange for continuation of treatment with another professional.” In my mind, “an appropriate reason” might be that I am not trained to deal with a particular issue, but it might mean that a therapist cannot overcome strong personal feelings (positive or negative) for a client and can no longer provide objective care. I would think that if I am convinced that it will affect my own faith walk to sit and provide care to a person who lives a life I don’t agree with, then perhaps I would want to refer them to another person. It would seem like good care. While this is how this bill is presented, I do not believe there are larger issues here.

Some have argued that this puts a person in crisis at risk of abandonment. (This Bill actually has a clause to say that you cannot refuse treatment to a person in crisis.) Others have argued, myself included, that this law will hurt those in rural areas in particular because in many such places, there are fewer resources to which a person can be referred and there may be not be adequate help available.  Others have argued well about how the members of the LGBTQ community (among other groups) are already bullied and rejected and for a trusted therapist to reject the client once certain things may be revealed in session would be re-traumatizing. Others have argued against this law on the basis of solid professional practice. However, as I have reflected on this, I have come to a different reflection on this law that is grounded in my experience of being a Pastoral Counselor who seeks to embody the love of God for each person.

Each time I agree to sit with a client, I am invited to share in the depth of that client’s story. If I am doing my job well, the relationship deepens as more is revealed about the person in front of me. Part of the healing for that person involves them feeling heard and understood as they share the twists and turns of hurts and struggles by someone who does not rush to make judgement, but allows the story to unfold. As the story unfolds, we realize the vast number of experiences, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and relationships that make up the person in front of us. Hopefully we began to understand the human being in front us from inside the context of his or her own experience. The ideal therapist maintains sufficient objectivity to help the person with us begin to find a new narrative. This objective “being with” is not writing the new narrative – not telling a person what to do – but sitting with them and offering reflection and questions that allow the person to find new meaning.

However, if I we reduce another person to one aspect of their personhood, that is prejudice. If we make a decision to reject a person based on that one thing, that is discrimination. Those who support the new law in Tennessee seem to be seeking a legal protection for doing this very thing on the basis of their religion. It is for me, however, my religion that compels me to be the therapist I am. I seek to be the kind of therapist that I am because I have experienced the love of God in a relationship like the one I described earlier. When I look at the life of Jesus, I see a man who time and again, looked at a person and did not see the labels and categories that other people used to judge and divide, but saw the person inside the person – the person beyond the label. Good therapy – secular or religious – should seek to embody this reality. We should not be seeking ways to legally reject people, but Godly ways to understand, love, and connect.

For 31 years, the staff of Insight Counseling Centers(Formerly the Pastoral Counseling Centers of Tennessee) has sought to meet each client where they are, to provide a sacred and caring space that allows for open self-reflection, and to help the person develop into who they understand God to be calling them to be. We seek to understand our clients’ story from their inside out and to hold that story with respect and care. We have always sought to embody “Counseling Unconditionally” that mirrors our understanding of God’s love for us. We will continue to do this. You are welcome here.

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