Alternately titled: Why I Left My Graduate Program at Messiah
Last Friday, I quit grad school.
And it's a remarkably long story. The kind that overwhelms me to tell because surely I'll forget something, or I'll share so much that I'll lose your interest halfway through, or something along those lines. It's not a story that I can't share, though. You don't casually mention you've left a program in which you've invested a great deal of effort, and move on to the next topic without explanation.
So here's me explaining and hoping that I can get away with a one-and-done type of post. (Also, hi mom. I await your phone call.)
It started when I first looked into graduate school. I was fairly certain that I didn't want a biblical counseling degree, because I wanted to be licensed and work in a variety of settings, both Christian and secular. It's not that I didn't see the positive in a biblical counseling degree, I'm just wary of how often a Christian's answer to pain is "pray more" or "have more faith". However, I was positive I didn't want a fully secular psychology degree because things can get wacky on that side of the spectrum. My solution? A general clinical mental health degree from a Christian school with a Christian faculty. My hope was that the Christian faith of my professors would inform their counseling instruction, and I'd be better trained. Sounds good, right? So I thought.
My very first class was a one week intensive on ethics. Nine-ish hours a day. Five days in a row. I made it to Wednesday before I had a life crisis. I called Josh in a panic because I couldn't reconcile how one who adheres to an objective faith could encourage and allow such subjectivity in the lives of clients. I was shocked by the "whatever is true for you, is true for you" mentality in my first counseling course.
Because whatever you believe to be true for you may not actually be True.
Lying on my friends' couch that evening, I wondered what in the world I was doing at Messiah. I know I'm a theologically conservative Christian, and I knew I had chosen a school with a reputation for being more liberal. Regardless, I didn't expect to be smacked in the face with such a large issue in the first week of school. I made a plan to meet with my professor to ask her how she handled the challenge the next day. We talked. It sort of helped. But not really.
I continued my program. But these quiet disagreements between my faith and my coursework continued to pop up. I spoke with more professors and brought up points of contradiction in my discussion posts with my peers. I emailed good friends looking for advice. I kept doing my school work, searching for the pieces of certain theoretical orientations that appeared to offer something worthwhile to our clients.
Rogers' unconditional positive regard.
Ellis' ABC framework.
The humanistic perspective.
I was looking for biblical truth; anything that could live up to the promise of helping someone change. I most connected to the snippets of secular psychology that screamed of general revelation. Unconditional positive regard is simply offering grace to a person who is suffering. The ABC model helps people to see how their beliefs inform their behaviors, which is a stepping stone to understanding the sinful human condition. A humanistic perspective involves empathetic, active listening to a fellow brother. I clung to the parts that I understood and tried to form my own mutli-system orientation from which to counsel. It worked for a while. Until it didn't.
When I moved into more upper level and specific classes, I found myself in, well, trouble. Previously, many of my classes were useful regardless of one's faith beliefs. How to counsel someone in crisis after an event such as a natural disaster. How to perform a suicide assessment. How to address substance abuse. Understanding multi-cultural perspectives. These classes were highly informative and extremely helpful. They were also objective and based on research and evidence of success. Once I found myself creating evaluation summaries, diagnosis reports, and treatment plans, I started experiencing new-to-me anxiety about my school work.
It's an odd feeling when you know the right answer, but the right answer is wrong. And it all goes back to that first class on ethics. The primary goal of a counselor (and the first point in the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics) is to promote the welfare and human dignity of a client. I give that a loud yes! and believe in that goal wholeheartedly. However, what the ACA is trying to say is that a counselor's job is to help a client achieve autonomy. The sign of a client who is thriving and healthy is one who believes and acts as though they exist apart from any external control or influence. Or, to put it yet another way, they self-rule.
Therein lies my problem: I don't believe we're autonomous. I certainly don't believe in self-rule. Self-rule leads to death. And I take that very seriously.
We are created beings. We were made by the One who created everything with clear purpose and design, and holds the sole position of declaring who and how and what and why. We don't exist without influence. Whether or not someone wants to acknowledge this objective reality, we were created with a purpose and bought at a price. And for those who have entered into this gracious and mercy-filled relationship with Christ, we were not only saved from death but we eagerly submit to Christ's lordship in our lives. We are to do as He says. We do not get to make up the rules. We do not get to decide what our truths are for this moment based on these feelings.
So, how can I help a client towards a position that would only wound them more? Furthermore, how can I knowingly encourage someone to live outside of God's love? How do I answer for my own behavior? My counsel?
This realization came hard and it hurt. I've invested so much time, money, work, and sleep into this degree. I've missed events with friends and time with family in order to complete my work. I'm already halfway through and sitting on 30 credits. I played around with numerous ideas to make it work: take supplemental courses from CCEF, pursue a doctoral degree from a faith-based program, choose to work in a Christian environment, and more. No matter my proposed solution, I knew that when I graduated next year with my degree, I would be severely ill-equipped to counsel suffering people in the way I think Jesus, the perfect Counselor, would counsel. To top it off with a really sour cherry, I realized that I was paying to have my mind shaped by folly. I was giving of our resources to be taught to reconsider human behavior, growth, and purpose in light of the world says about who we are to ourselves and others.
Let me be clear that I do not think secular psychology, or even Messiah's program, is all bad. Not at all. I think that because God reveals things about Himself through common grace and general revelation, there are snippets of the gospel in things not explicitly noted as Christian. I think there are brilliant men and women in the psychology world who have tapped into the start of something worthwhile and good. So, I do find merit in the work completed during my time at Messiah. I will be using parts of my coursework when I eventually make my way into counseling. As one friend reminded me, I also now have a proper context for secular psychology and may be in a good position to understand what a client has been through and experienced before they landed in my Christian counseling office. And as another friend reminded me, God wastes nothing. I'll see Him glorified through the last year of my life, even if I can't be totally sure of the how.
Counseling is theology. And it comes from a place of wisdom or a place of foolishness. Unfortunately, I found myself sitting in a seat of foolishness, and I knew that I needed to walk away even though I had completed so much work and spent so much money. It hurt, certainly. But I have a hunch that staying would have hurt more. Offering a bandaid to someone with a nasty, bleeding wound is helpful in the moment. But when the person has a bleeding disorder, you need to address the inside cause, or else you'll be out of bandaids quickly and the person will continue to bleed. This is the problem with addressing outside behaviors and struggles without addressing the condition of the sinful heart. Counselors should offer so much more than just a bandaid; we should be constant mouthpieces of the grace and healing offered through the perfect love of God. This doesn't mean you need to pray more when your fallen body is incapable of producing serotonin and you struggle with depression. It does mean that we can understand the fallenness of our bodies in light of Scripture and approach a treatment plan that aids your body but encourages your spirit.
We are not autonomous. Thus, we are not alone.
Our perfect Counselor is Jesus. He offers us nothing short of perfect love and a future home filled with peace and joy. I couldn't offer fellow sufferers anything less than that. I would rob them of a peace deeper than human understanding, a love that casts out fear, and a promise to bring His good work to completion. How could I do that? Why would I do that? I couldn't and I won't.
So, I left. And it felt weird and good and right.
I've started researching counseling programs at seminaries, and now both my nerdy brain and gospel-filled heart grow excited when I read course descriptions of classes. It'll take me a few more years, and yes, I'm starting from scratch, but I do believe this is the right way and I'm excited.