The Need for Field-based Counselor Training in Evangelical Missions

by Dennis Bowen

While Christian counseling has grown in North America, this is not the case in other parts of the world. Bowen discusses field-based training for nationals in Christian counseling today.

In the early 1990s my wife and I were hoping to serve with a mission agency in a role which supported the development of Christian counseling and family ministry. We looked at various possibilities and contacted more than a few mission agencies. None of the agencies we contacted were involved in training nationals in counseling. Our goal of developing field-based counselor training (FBCT) was unusual. The great majority of professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists, and masters-level counselors) involved in missions were in member care, focusing on the needs of missionaries. Our vision was to train nationals as professional, pastoral, and lay counselors.

In the West, we have seen Christian counseling grow over the past few decades. This growth period has been supported by textbooks, journals, conferences, and training programs. Professional, pastoral, and lay counselors serve in many churches and communities. This kind of environment has supported and made possible the preparation of pastoral/Christian counselors to serve the church and society.

In regions outside of North America and Europe this supportive environment is either absent or just emerging. While interest in Christian and pastoral counseling (the term counseling throughout will refer to pastoral and Christian counseling) exists outside the West, there have not been many organized efforts by the evangelical community to coordinate and advance quality counselor training initiatives for the Majority World.

Five important needs have not yet been adequately addressed in field-based counselor training: (1) the need for an orientation toward, and commitment to, field-based training of nationals who will teach counseling in their countries; (2) the need to increase the availability of a wide range of textbooks for training and for use by counselors in their national language; (3) the need for publications and research focused on field-based counselor training; (4) the need to provide trained and experienced supervisors to mentor future counselors during their training and their initial years in practice; and (5) the need for networking, including conferences and other events, to promote communication, understanding, and learning of FBCT.

The idea for this article began after we had spent seven years in Russia with an evangelical mission agency involved in the training and supervision of students studying counseling in undergraduate, graduate, and church settings. While encouraging initial steps have taken place in Christian counselor training in many countries, insufficient resources, cross-cultural communication issues, organizational limitations, and other problems have greatly limited the establishing of field-based Christian counselor training in other countries.

In this article I will discuss the state of field-based training of nationals in Christian counseling today. The purpose is to identify problems and issues and offer responses in order to equip the Church for this important ministry around the world.

Currently, mental disorders account for fifty percent of disabilities worldwide, and this percentage is expected to increase (WHO 1999). This inevitably will contribute to serious problems for local and global development. The World Health Organization also finds that “forty-one percent [of countries] have no mental health policy, twenty-eight percent have no separate budget for mental health, and forty-one percent do not have treatment facilities for severe mental disorders in primary health care” (WHO, 2001). These deficits show that there is an open door for the Church to step in and offer concrete help.

Is there a desire or a need for “Christian psychology”-oriented counselor training in the Majority World? Most leaders in these countries would say yes. Most trainers in these regions have received invitations to teach in other locations. In a listing of mental health resources for mission agencies and personnel, Kelly O’Donnell listed 125 organizations, thirty-one of which are located in the Majority World (1997, 325). Of these, only two were identified as having some form of on-field training in counseling for nationals.

Likely, the best option for training promising Majority World students is not to bring these students to the West, but for teachers to go to the field to teach, supervise, and mentor trainees. In theory, it is desirable for some students to receive a Western education. However, students who move to the West for studies frequently do not return, and they likely will not receive the mentoring which will translate into their home culture. Further, training trainers is likely to be the most effective means of equipping national church movements for indigenous pastoral/Christian counseling (Ellens, McMinn, 2000, 61). A counselor from their own culture can “do the contextualization” far more effectively than even the most sensitive and experienced foreigner.

The ideal situation would be for all teachers to be members of that particular culture. However, Western influences and teachers would be acceptable for the initial twenty to thirty years (Holovaty 2000, 7). Beth Grant believes in a merging of the best characteristics from sending and host cultures in order to accomplish a contextualized educational result: “In the twenty-first century world of broadly-shared cultural influences, an informed and creative integration of the best and most appropriate of Western and indigenous methods may be most effective to prepare Christian leaders” (2004, 189).

There are some on-field training programs in various developing countries. Some programs are affiliated with theological seminaries, Bible colleges, or are freestanding. Since moving to Russia, I have taught in two graduate level and four undergraduate training programs in the former Soviet Union. Other on-field counselor training programs operate in Kenya, Singapore, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. Similar courses, teachers, and programs are working in other locations.

Training in the twenty-first century will require new structures and adaptations for the Church and missions. In education, on-field institutions frequently are in great need of resources, including the right books and competent teachers (Gingrich 2002, 13). Further critical components of the counselor training process include: practicum training, supervision during practicum, internship, and guidance in the early career phases. The term “supervision” can have a broad range of meanings (Steere 1989, 21); however, for pastoral counselor training it would include activities such as: teaching, lectures, case conferences, support, monitoring, modeling, and live observation.

To evaluate some of these needs, and to develop a clearer picture of how to respond meaningfully, a survey was sent out to gather observations and opinions from mission educators and leaders having direct knowledge of counselor training issues. The broad needs listed above relating to field-based counselor training were the focus of this research. All questions were limited to conditions in non-Western educational settings. (Questions regarding the networking component of FBCT were not a part of the survey.)

Surveys went out via email, and announcements were posted on missions education internet forums and bulletin boards. Individuals living in fourteen different countries and representing ten different nationalities responded. Questions were related to the mission leaders’ and teachers’ perceived levels of support and encouragement from various sources, media, and organizations. “Support” here is not limited to financial support. Below are several of the questions posed to the individuals:

Question 1: Evaluate the level of support and encouragement demonstrated by any Christian organization (in any location) in support of FBCT in your country. The responses to this question indicated that respondents perceived a low level of support from Christian organizations. They listed Christian higher education institutions as the ones leading the way, while churches, missions, and other groups are less involved and supportive. But why is there a tepid response from the Church about counselor training needs in the Majority World? Is counselor training not on the radar screen among mission leaders? Or, is there a lack of awareness among the evangelical missions community regarding the desire of Majority World churches and leaders to have training in counseling? Perhaps the evangelical missions community is uncertain about introducing psychology into mission-sponsored preparation of church and ministry leaders.

Question 2: Tell us how periodicals impact your support. Responses suggested that periodicals are not the highest priority among educators. This is an area where the mission community has not provided leadership or established priorities for action. One Asian seminary teacher said, “There are magazine articles on how to deal with different problems like depression, but none that help the training of Christian or pastoral counselors.”

Question 3: Talk about the availability of books which deal with FBCT. There was not a high level of satisfaction related to the availability of books. This response is in line with my observations while serving in Russia and Ukraine. Publishers have translated, published, and distributed a fair number of books in Eurasia on topics such as: the Church, theology, preaching, evangelism, and Christian living. Although there are a few titles about counseling, there are almost no textbooks specifically intended for the training of counselors. Overall, there is little or no organized effort by the mission or the theological education community for the translation and publishing of books dealing with FBCT.

4. Which people, organizations, or other helps have encouraged you and your efforts in FBCT? Thirty-five percent of respondents could not think of any. However, some respondents said that local counselors were helpful in this regard. Unfortunately, there is little “coming alongside” for help and encouragement for FBCT. Where there is this kind of support and encouragement, it often arises from the local context.

5. In general, what would be of most help for you or your institution in Christian counselor training? Two people wrote that people coming to live and teach in their country would be helpful. Two more shared that they desired more contextualization of materials. Other responses included: the need for standardization in training, the need for networking and discussion opportunities, the need for more materials in the local language, the desire for partnerships, and the desire for lay counselor training.

These findings raise many questions.

Periodicals. There is insufficient support and encouragement of FBCT via periodicals. How might the Church and the mission community address this need? Ideally, a Christian education, missions, or psychology journal could start a section on FBCT. Until then, those with an interest in this area could investigate using the internet (including an email exchange, an email newsletter, a moderated conference, a website, or a blog) for discussion.

And for whom would such a communication forum be targeted? Initially, a single worldwide forum may be advisable. A welcome development in connecting distant individuals and organizations has been the American Association of Christian Counselors’ move to begin holding international networking meetings at its large semiannual conferences. Eventually and ideally, such an electronic forum would be on a regional scale in the Majority World. This would allow those in nearby and similar cultures to communicate and explore various interests. Mission community individuals and organizations could participate as co-laborers in such a ministry.

Textbooks. Related to periodicals is the question of textbooks. How would it be possible to promote and stimulate a sensible selection of titles to be translated and published into other languages? Currently, translation and distribution of literature related to counseling and counselor training is very uneven. Titles that make it to print and are available for distribution generally do not address the most fundamental needs for even an entry-level education in this sphere. Literature addressing advanced topics is almost nonexistent. Additionally, how might it be possible to stimulate indigenous authors to write contextualized and high quality texts? And how would all this be funded? From the broader perspective, how can we stimulate the evangelical mission community to invest attention and thought into the subject of FBCT? This might begin with an open mission community-wide discussion of vision, costs, and benefits of such an undertaking.

On-field teaching and supervision. Another important question is how to find appropriate and trained individuals to perform on-field teaching and supervision. It will not be an easy task to find individuals willing to relocate to another country. Finding people to teach at this level, on the field, in any subject area, is complicated. This kind of recruitment will be in the hands of the Lord of the harvest (Matt. 9:37-38).

Ultimately, sending qualified trainers to the Majority World appears to be the best option for training counselors on the field. It is a difficult, expensive, complicated, and inadvisable effort to bring students to Europe or North America. If a qualified instructor can move to, or travel to teach in, various institutions and extension programs, this would not take students out of their host cultures. These nationals can then teach others for the purpose of equipping the Church for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12-13). Other options include: part-time, distance, extension, non-traditional, and web-based training.

Example 1. Establishing any new initiative in a mission context is never easy. Differing understandings of needs in the local contexts have resulted in many projects that have not lasted. One illustration involves the story of a training program in Eurasia. A national obtained a Western education in Christian counseling, and after returning home a demand grew for the training of more Christian counselors. A training program was begun. But in the end, only one class of students completed the program. This was due to many factors: poor cross-cultural communication, poor administration and management, and a lack of practical experience in the home culture.

Additionally, the teacher was attempting too many tasks at once. Many people involved in cross-cultural ministry are familiar with the concept of “building the road while you are walking on it.” This project sought to simultaneously: develop a counselor training program, manage the students who were enrolled, locate and coordinate qualified faculty, and create an organization that would administer the entire undertaking. The few overworked nationals, and those who came alongside them, could not make this happen all at once.

Example 2. Analogous to this, in a somewhat different educational sphere, was a small Bible college. An evangelical mission partnered with a local evangelical church to start the college. It was directed by educators who had worked successfully at that level in the past and had spent the necessary time becoming language proficient and acculturated. From the beginning, national staff were trained and mentored in teaching and managing the organization.

Over a period of years the missionaries gradually turned over more of their teaching and administrative responsibilities. Eventually, a national was installed as director and the entire educational institution was run by nationals. Outside support and guidance continued only as needed and requested. Gradual steps of mentoring leaders and staff and contextualizing the program occurred over a period of years. Finally, the educational program was turned over to local control. This illustrates one example of a program that will continue into the future.

Example 3. Lay ministries can also be successful. We developed a 30-hour, 2-week “Introduction to Pastoral Counseling” class, which we have been teaching in local churches and in extension modules. In one remote area, with small newly-planted churches, there was a student who continually looked out the window. Because he was a school dropout and a former gang member, we had no expectation that his participation in class would bear any fruit. Years later, we discovered that that student had indeed paid attention. He returned home and taught his wife everything he remembered from the class. She then taught the material to three other women in their church. One of these women became acquainted with a neighbor who was a prostitute. That neighbor was considering suicide. With only a minimal level of training, counseling began. Eventually, the neighbor decided she wanted to live, and began studying the Bible with the women.

Lay ministry that is already “packaged” provides another resource with great potential. Christian 12-step ministries reach a segment of the population who would never consider coming to church. The twelve steps, founded on scripture, are available on the internet and are already translated into many languages. This lay ministry has been used by local churches around the world.

Counselor training, like any form of theological education, involves multiple tasks. Training will need to prepare lay, pastoral, and professional counselors. And not only does counselor training need those who can deliver the educational content, but also needs those who can keep programs afloat and moving forward. A structure must be created to allow this to get underway and keep moving toward sustainability.

Mark McMinn and Vitaly Voytenko call for an investment on the part of Western Christian mental health professionals in the training of students in Majority World countries (2003, 303). To achieve this, they suggest mentoring students preparing for counseling roles, encouraging international students to write theses and dissertations about their countries, partnering with training programs in other countries, and offering services such as online consultation and supervision.

The mission community, especially those involved in theological education, could make a similar investment. Mission educators would have roles in planning, teaching, support, coordination, administration, and networking. Christian counselor training is essential for the Church. New church movements need to promote individual and congregational spiritual health, while ministering to the physical, emotional, and social needs of those around them. The work of people helping will have significant and constructive effects on those living anywhere in the world. The work of a counseling ministry will demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ in a tangible way, and will result in healthier individuals, families, churches, and communities.

Ellens, Brent, Mark McMinn, Linda Lake, Matthew Hardy, and Elizabeth Hayen. 2000. “A Preliminary Assessment of Mental Health Needs Faced by Religious Leaders in Eastern Europe.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 28: 54-63.

Gingrich, Fred. 2002. “Pastoral Counseling in the Philippines: A Perspective from the West.” American Journal of Pastoral Counseling 5(1/2): 5-55.

Grant, Beth. 2004. “Theological Education in the Twenty-first Century: Re-evaluating Some Basic Assumptions.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 40(2):184-189.

Holovaty, Nicholas. 2000. “An Ideal Theological Education: The Vision of Moscow’s Protestant Leaders.” East-West Church and Ministry Report 8: 6-7.

McMinn, Mark and Vitaly Voytenko. 2003. “Investing the Wealth: Intentional Strategies for Psychology Training in Developing Countries.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 35(3):302-305.

O’Donnell, Kelly. 1997. “Member Care on the Field.” In Too Valuable to Lose. Ed. William Taylor. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 325-338.

Steere, David. 1989. The Supervision of Pastoral Care. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press.

World Health Organization. 1999. “Newly Defined Burden of Mental Problems, Fact Sheet N° 217.” Accessed January 2, 2001 from

World Health Organization. 2001. “Project Atlas, Mapping Mental Health Resources around the World.” Accessed June 24, 2004 from


Dennis Bowen is director of the Vos’ozhdenie Center and serves with ReachGlobal/EFCA in Kiev, Ukraine.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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