When I was in graduate school getting my doctorate in Counseling Psychology, I remember feeling a tension between my career goal (i.e., becoming a psychologist) and my Christian faith. Sometimes it seemed like I was part of two communities that were constantly in conflict with one another. My psychology community was wary about my identity as a Christian, and my church community was wary about my identity as a psychologist.
It took some time, but over the years I became more comfortable integrating my identities as Christian and psychologist. Both are important to me, and I’m okay with that. But because there has been so much conflict and misunderstanding between psychology and religion, I feel like it’s part of my mission to help build bridges between these two communities.
Over the past few years, my team has been doing some research on how to help integrate psychology and church ministry. Both psychology and church ministry share some common goals (e.g., alleviation of human suffering, psychological and spiritual maturity), but they have largely worked independently from one another. How can we help psychologists and pastors work together?
In one of our most recent projects, we asked church leaders what they thought about psychology, and also to discuss the barriers that stopped pastors from integrating psychology into their church ministry. Based on that research, we came up with three key tips to help psychology and church ministry work together.
Tip #1: A Shared Worldview is Important
One theme that emerged in the research was that one’s worldview impacts attitudes toward integrating psychology into church ministry. Theologically conservative pastors are more cautious about psychology than theologically liberal pastors. Pastors who viewed the Bible as the sole source of truth are more cautious about science in general (and psychology specifically). This makes sense, as psychology is historically a more liberal field of study. Some pastors are fearful that integrating psychology into church ministry might introduce ideas that aren’t aligned with the core mission and values of their churches.
The take-home message for me is that we need psychologists across the political spectrum who can work with church leaders. For more conservative pastors especially, psychologists might have to work harder to explicitly show how various topics or research findings from psychology are consistent with the Bible or the core values of the church. They may have to anticipate potential value conflicts and be willing to critique aspects of psychological theory, demonstrating a commitment to and respect for the importance of Scripture and Christian tradition. More theologically conservative psychologists might have an especially important role to play, because their worldview aligns more closely with the worldview of more conservative religious leaders.
Tip #2: Church Leaders Have Time and Training Limitations
A second theme that came up in the research is that church leaders have limitations in regard to time and training. It’s probably not a surprise that pastors are crunched for time. They are balancing a variety of duties and tasks each week, so they often don’t have time to think about psychology in their work.
Sometimes as psychologists, we expect church leaders to cross fields and read our work. This is probably unrealistic. After all, how often do we cross fields and read the work of others? For example, I have read some theology books, but I certainly cannot maintain a level of expertise. Pastors need resources that are easily accessible. It would help if we created resources that are short, easy to read and understand, and apply directly to some of the core issues facing pastors.
There’s also the issue of training. One pastor said he doesn’t feel comfortable focusing on psychology in his work because he doesn’t have much psychological training. He does have expertise and training on reading and interpreting the Bible, so he mostly sticks to that. He said it felt similar to how he would feel about speaking authoritatively about other fields (e.g., physics) from the pulpit—he just doesn’t have the training.
This finding made me think more about the importance of collaboration between pastors and psychologists. There probably are at least a handful of psychologists or counselors in many churches. How can they work together with church leaders to provide care to congregants that is psychologically sound?
Tip #3: Trust is Foundational
Good relationships are built on a foundation of trust. Trust takes time and consistency to develop. Part of the reason why it’s difficult for church leaders and psychologists to work together is that the foundation of trust often hasn’t been built up yet. Before trying to work together on a major project or have a difficult dialogue, it’s important to just get to know one another. Spend time together, share meals together, and begin to build a solid relationship. Once that personal relationship is in place, a successful working relationship is more likely to develop.
What do you think about the integration of psychology and church ministry? Do you see these two fields as able to work together, or mostly separate? How do you think we could work more closely together moving forward?