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Corban University

March 13, 2020

Training Christians to be Great Counselors: Meet Corban’s Newest Graduate Counseling Faculty

“Our program isn’t just a clinical program—it’s one where we hope to ground people in their faith so they can be professionals and glorify God in their work.”

This is what Dr. Ryan Connor says about Corban’s Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. In a field that’s often seen as highly secular, the way Corban prepares counselors is crucial. Corban’s counseling students must be simultaneously grounded in the Word of God and taught how to approach their career with the utmost professionalism and ethical standards—which in many contexts prevent counselors from imposing or sharing their faith in the counseling room. So how is this accomplished? How are counselors being equipped to make a difference in the world for Jesus Christ?

Dr. Connor is an excellent example of someone who can fully embrace both ministry and clinical counseling, all while holding oneself to high ethical standards.

Dr. Connor initially began his career in full-time ministry after graduating with his bachelor’s in psychology and human development. “When I was younger, especially when I started out in ministry, I didn’t have tremendously good people skills,” he admits. As he contemplated going back to school, he decided to pursue a Master’s in Counseling—not because he wanted to open a practice, but so he could grow in his ability to relate well to others.

“But you can’t just learn about counseling from a book,” he says with a smile. “The more I moved through the graduate program and started having practicum experiences and internships, I knew I was going to have to keep working in the field.”

Since then, Dr. Connor received his Doctor of Ministry in pastoral counseling and has spent most of his career dividing his time between both pastoral ministry and clinical counseling. He has over 15 years of experience in clinical mental health counseling, including the 3000 hours required to become a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC). “I worked in a lot of different agencies and got exposed to a lot of different populations, from a street outreach mental health program, to people on probation & parole and an offenders treatment program, to medical staff in a hospital.”

Through these experiences, Dr. Connor realized he couldn’t leave either ministry or counseling behind. Somehow, he had to figure out how to continue doing both.

When Dr. Connor is acting in his pastoral role, his goal is to “help people align with the Word of God, with God’s will for their life.” He explains that as a pastor, his job is to help people ask questions like, “How can I follow God’s will through this particular problem?” In contrast, when he’s acting in his clinical counseling role, he’s helping someone work through a specific mental health issue. “Perhaps they’re having anxiety or going through a depressive episode, or they have a compulsive disorder, something like that, and you’re helping them work through that mental health issue.”

In one context, he’s responsible to point people specifically to the Word of God; in the other, Scripture is a tool that might be appropriate in some contexts but not others. But in both pastoral and clinical counseling, Dr. Connor does his best to approach people with compassion, empathy, and professionalism, and to help them pursue truth and healing.

Rather than using the term “Christian Counselor,” Dr. Connor prefers to say, “We’re training Christians to be clinical mental health counselors.” Just like a doctor can be a Christian and do a good job treating an illness, and a plumber can be a Christian and do a good job repairing your sink, a counselor can be a Christian and do a good job helping someone work through a mental health issue. “Clinical mental health counselors are part of the healing that’s available, just like a doctor or a nurse or a social worker.”

At the same time, he adds, “Christians doing good therapy are going to bring a sense of purpose to the counseling session that maybe somebody who doesn’t have that faith commitment wouldn’t.” A belief that each client is created in the image of God, that suffering can ultimately work to God’s glory, and that God is at work in each individual’s life can change the underlying purpose—if not the overt methods—of counseling. “Christians aren’t just accountable to the state licensing board or their professional ethical code—they really bring purpose and mission from their faith.”

So how does a Christian do good therapy? What makes a counselor effective?

According to Dr. Connor, good counselors do two things.

First, “you have to have really good basic people skills. You have to be a good listener, with empathy. You have to be able to express authenticity—be real with people. Those skills are essential. If you can just do that, you’re doing really good.”

Dr. Connor remembers times when clients have come in and said, “I went to three counselors, and I just couldn’t connect with any of them.” “That shouldn’t be happening,” he says. If people have been trained to exhibit basic relational skills, their clients should feel comfortable interacting and connecting with them. “Obviously, you’re not going to connect with everybody,” he says, “but we need people out there in the field who have these skills—who don’t just befriend you but really know how to listen, pay attention, and ask good clarifying questions.”

Second, good counselors operate from a clear theoretical basis. “If you want to help people to the point that they don’t need therapy anymore—if that’s your goal—then you’ve got to have a real clear theoretical basis for what you’re doing.”

A theoretical basis provides the roadmap that allows a counselor to connect the dots from one session to the next and help the client move forward. “I use cognitive therapy from a family systems perspective,” Dr. Connor shares. In other words, he helps people focus on how their thoughts affect their emotions and behaviors—not just in the here-and-now, but in the context of their past experiences, including family of origin.

As part of his theoretical approach, Dr. Connor helps clients identify core beliefs that have shaped the way they see the world. For example, one person might have the core belief, “You can’t trust anyone.” This shapes the way they interact in each new environment and relationship, perhaps causing them to interpret another person’s actions in a negative light, when that wasn’t the intention. With a clear theoretical basis, Dr. Connor can follow this thread from one counseling session to the next, helping the client examine their core beliefs and learn how to bring them into better alignment with reality.

“Fundamentally, if you help people pursue truth, at the end of that journey will be Jesus,” Dr. Connor says. Counseling can be a healing ministry that leads people to a place where they are better able to respond to God’s call on their lives.

When asked what makes a student a good fit for Corban’s MA in Counseling program, Dr. Connor says, “We need students who are willing to go through a process of self-reflection, who are introspective enough to see their development as a counselor as a personal growth and development process.” He also adds that there’s a danger in pursuing becoming a counselor for the wrong reasons. People who enter the counseling field because they need to feel like a rescuer or a savior are setting themselves up for a difficult road ahead—and likely a difficult road for their clients. “What we want is people who like people, who like working with people, and who are ethical and responsible.”

When we remember that God is the one true Savior, Healer, and Restorer, it takes the pressure off of the clinical counselor. “Something I learned a long time ago in ministry—that I believe is exceptionally true in counseling—is that God is already at work,” says Dr. Connor. “We don’t have to do it for him. We can trust that he’s working within people’s lives.” Coming alongside someone who is hurting is an honor, to be sure, but a good counselor realizes they don’t have the power to change someone’s life. Only God can do that; the counselor is just one of many instruments He may use along the way.

Learn more about Corban’s Master of Clinical Mental Health Counseling