Grace Fellowship relies on literal words of Bible to counsel its members

Modern psychology takes a backseat
Grace Fellowship relies on literal words of Bible to counsel its members
Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 11, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-11 07:00:09-05

FLORENCE, Ky. -- The folks at Grace Fellowship Church have an unusually high regard for the Bible, which they habitually refer to as the Word of God.

In the words of Jason Dinn, the church's pastor of soul care, they believe that "God's Word is the answer to all life's non-organic issues."

So it's not a surprise that the church has a strong program of counseling its members using the Bible -- and rejecting much of modern thinking about what makes human beings tick.

Its Grace Counseling Center is the only such center in the Tri-State region certified by the Indianapolis-based Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.

The association, which says it's the largest biblical counseling organization in the world, also has a lofty view of the Bible, saying its authors were inspired by God to write the exact words he wanted written.

Grace Fellowship has been involved in biblical counseling since 1996, when senior pastor Brad Bigney was counseling people in his living room, Dunn said.

Since then, the church has grown to 1,600 to 1,800 attendees on weekends, Dunn said. About half of them belong to one of 53 small groups that meet weekly in homes throughout the area.

The church has also trained hundreds in biblical counseling methods as well as providing free counseling to hundreds of church members. The counseling center takes on about 12 new counselees every month.

About 90 percent of the church staff is certified as counselors, and these staffers do about 40 percent of the counseling, said Bob Greenwood, a certified counselor who is the church's biblical counseling pastor. The rest is done by church members who are certified by the association.

You don't need a degree in psychology to be certified in biblical counseling. In fact, you don't need any degree at all to get the most basic form of certification through the association.

That certification involves a 30-hour training course in biblical counseling, exams in theology and counseling, and at least 50 hours of supervised counseling. There are fees involved, but the church provides scholarships for those who can't afford them, Dinn said. It takes the average person at least 24 months to complete all phases of the process, he said.

The No. 1 issue counselors deal with is marital problems, Greenwood said. The No. 2 issue is pornography, which he said is taboo for Christians because of Christ's admonition that any man who looks at a woman with lust in his heart has committed adultery.

In a typical counseling session, the counselee writes down the problem as he or she sees it, and the counselor finds scriptures appropriate for the problem. The counselee might have homework to do before the next session -- scripture verses to memorize, for example, or a date night for married couples having difficulty.

The counselee might require a couple of weeks of counseling or several months, depending on how well he or she does the homework.

The root cause of most problems the counselors treat is pride, Greenwood said, or insisting on one's own will rather than God's will.

When he counsels, Dinn likes to draw a tree rooted in the human heart. When the heart's not right with God, he said, the tree produces bad fruit -- things like envy, lust and other sins.

Those would also include same-sex attractions, Dinn said. The church doesn't do reparative therapy designed to change a same-sex attraction to an opposite-sex attraction, he said, but it does consider same-sex attraction a manifestation of sexual brokenness.

Jason Dinn, soul care pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Florence, draws an illustration he often uses in counseling sessions at the church.

At Grace Fellowship, Greenwood said, counselors recognize that physical problems can also lead to spiritual problems, so they never counsel anyone to stop taking medication for depression, for example, without consulting a doctor.

That has apparently been a problem with association-certified counselors in other places.

In 2013, Heath Lambert became the executive director of the association's predecessor, the National Association of Nouthetic Counselors (NANC). He posted on its website an apology to anyone who'd been burned by a NANC-certified counselor.

Lambert, who also teaches at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, wrote that he'd heard stories of counselors who advised counselees to stop taking prescription medicine, that using psychiatric medicine was a sin and that simply being depressed was a sin.

Statements like those were horrifying to him, he wrote, and he wouldn't try to defend them. But he added that most stories he hears about the association's counselors are wonderful.

That same year, in order to communicate its mission more clearly, NANC changed its name to the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors.

Other counselors use the Bible in their practice, but they also use the insights of modern psychiatry.

For example, there's the Kenwood-based Professional Pastoral-Counseling Institute. "About half my clients still chose to talk in religious language, and the other half don't, and I say I'm bilingual," clinical and training director Dick Donnenwirth said.

He said the institute has 18 mental health professionals -- all of them licensed by professional boards in Columbus -- who integrate faith-based and social sciences approaches.

What separates the institute's counselors from most Christian counselors, he said, is that Christian counselors, particularly very conservative ones, are interested more in giving advice.

The institute's counselors are more about working with a client to help him or her discover resources within themselves and within the community, he said.

Most of the institute's counselors have undergone psychotherapy themselves.

"The most effective healers are those who have gone through the healing process itself," Donnenwirth said.