Behavioral Science and Pastoral Care: Finding Wholeness at the Intersection

Psychology is good for diagnosing severe mental disorders, but we shouldn’t use its secular philosophy to counsel people. That’s what we have the Word of God and the gospel for.” I sat stunned as Mike, a senior pastor, said this to me with a straight face. I know this pastor was well-intentioned—and I fully support using Scripture to counsel people—but his comment demonstrates a hostility towards the field of psychology that has potentially disastrous effects. Psychology, a field of science that studies human cognition and behavior, has generated numerous insights into how human beings act, think, and behave. For pastors and other ministry professionals to ignore, dismiss, or under-appreciate psychology and other behavioral sciences is to be unfaithful stewards of God’s world and God’s people.

For example, consider Rebecca’s story. (Important note: All the stories in this article are real, but the names have been changed.) Rebecca battled an eating disorder for most of her adult life. After finding a new life in Jesus, and a new home in a local church, she sought help from the church’s staff biblical counselor. She was in counseling for a couple of years, and tried several different strategies. When her biblical counselor saw Rebecca was not achieving the established goals, she became exasperated with Rebecca. So she referred Rebecca to a professional psychologist. Rebecca told me she felt very much like she was being sent to “get fixed” and was only welcome to come back to the church once all her problems were solved. While this may not be the norm, I have seen it happen quite often. And, even if churches don’t outright dismiss the value of licensed behavioral health professionals, we can treat them as a last resort for “difficult” church members. This is a failure to appreciate the contribution of science to our understanding of human cognition and behavior.

Over the last decade of pastoral ministry, I’ve seen the value of behavioral health professionals and Christian ministry professionals working alongside each other. Seminaries don’t (and it can be argued that they shouldn’t) equip pastors to be mental health professionals. This is a good thing; pastors should recognize and embrace their limits. While the training and function of ministry professionals and behavioral health professionals is different, their contributions to the well-being of people are both important. The central role of pastoral care in the life of a believer should not diminish the value of the contributions made by behavioral health professionals.  Moreover, we don’t need to reject one to accept the other. The two can work together. As we will see below, they often do with good results.

Appreciate the Role of Behavioral Sciences

One common mistake that Christians make, when thinking about issues like this, is to assume that biblical wisdom and scientific insight are completely disconnected—the Bible talks of faith and spirituality, while science talks of the natural world. The behavioral health sciences actually help us see the weaknesses in that model. Through the behavioral health sciences (especially psychology, sociology, and anthropology) we have learned much concerning the connections between human thought, emotion, and behavior. According to Joaquin Fuster, Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCLA, our behavior is affected by neural networks representing memory or knowledge acquired by prior experience. Thus, our actions are informed, every step of the way, by updating or correcting prior assumptions about the world.1 In other words, how we perceive the way we have been treated in the past affects how we feel and act toward ourselves and other people in the present. Since our thoughts, beliefs, and emotions are all intimately connected, when Scripture commands us to do things like “renew our mind” (Romans 12:2) and “take every thought captive” (2 Cor 10:5) we need to see science as the ally of faith in this effort. Scripture and science are aligned; how we think affects how we act. When we change the way we think, we can change the way we act.

Because the body and the mind are intricately connected; each affects the other.2 A person’s emotional pain can have physical manifestations, or symptoms that are called “psychosomatic.” One of the most common examples is anxiety. Someone who is worried about certain events or outcomes can have nausea, shaking, sweats, and shortness of breath. Their mental state has an effect on their body. In addition, the body, mind, and soul are also intricately connected. Our faith can affect both our mental and physical states. One popular study found a clear correlation between time spent in church and lowered blood pressure.3 Another study published in 2009 in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry found that religious beliefs and practices were linked to reduction in anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts.4 In other words, obedience to Scripture has more than only spiritual benefit, it bears mental and physical fruit as well.

Richard’s story is an example of science and Scripture successfully working together. Richard lived for years with undiagnosed bipolar disorder. Everyday his family lived with the effects of his unpredictable mood swings. With the highs came risky and destructive financial behavior, and with the lows came physical and emotional absence and apathy. After an annual checkup with his family physician, his doctor prescribed medication and referred him to a therapist. His therapist used cognitive-behavioral therapy to transform destructive thought patterns and help Richard maintain mental and emotional equilibrium.

Although Richard was beginning to see noticeable improvement after a couple months, his family was still struggling with the aftermath of living with a father and husband marked by unpredictable mood swings. His family was hurt, angry, and confused. That’s when the family pastor began meeting with them. He walked them through what forgiveness and love look like from a biblical perspective. He also connected them to a small group in their church to receive special care. It was a long road, but now Richard and his family have a thriving relationship thanks to both behavioral sciences and Christian ministry.

Intersecting Behavioral Science and Christianity

As Christians, but especially as pastors, we shouldn’t wait until “we don’t know what else to do” to turn to a behavioral health professional. Behavioral health professionals are not last resorts for helping people. Our care for people ought to begin with a proactive relationship with the behavioral health community. The behavioral health sciences have a role to play along with the church and pastors in caring for church members.

Katie benefited greatly from her church working cooperatively with a behavioral health professional.  Katie battled depression for years. She met with a pastor and was referred to a biblical counselor for help. After talking for several weeks, the biblical counselor reviewed with Katie the Bible’s theology of joy. Her recommendation for Katie was to 1) trust Jesus more, 2) change some daily practices (prayer/Bible reading), and 3) get more involved in her church (serve in nursery, homeless ministry, etc.). So, Katie went to work.

None of these recommendations are bad. In fact, they helped Katie quite a bit. She began experiencing joy as she discovered a deeper relationship with God through reading the Bible and praying. She experienced a meaningful connection to other people by serving in a homeless ministry. It helped her gain a helpful perspective and appreciation of her own life. The recommendations of the Christian counselor were good, but they were still lacking. Despite the increase of joy, she was still depressed. Sensing this, Katie’s Christian counselor also suggested that Katie meet simultaneously with a licensed therapist.

Katie’s therapist helped her address her depression. First, the therapist recommended that Katie get a physical from her doctor to rule out physical causes. Next, the therapist helped Katie identify certain thought patterns that were directly affecting her emotions. She worked to uncover the source of these emotions, as well as how they were affecting the dynamics of her social relationships. Thirdly, the therapist equipped Katie with some tools to correct her thought patterns, and developed a strategy for improving the dynamics of her social relationship. After 6-8 weeks, Katie’s depression began to noticeably improve. Because of the tandem relationship between the Christian counselor and the licensed therapist, Katie was now well on her way to living a life free of depression and full of joy.

Sometimes behavioral health professionals are also Christians who integrate faith and science well.  When this happens, the behavioral sciences help the Church understand people and how they think and behave. It also provides insight into how to help humans change their thinking and behavior. By utilizing the tools of both the behavioral sciences and pastoral care, Richard and Katie were able to receive the help and care they needed. Success stories like these are possible, and can occur more frequently, when we wisely integrate science and faith in all areas of life and ministry. Integrating behavioral science with Christian faith is a key practical area where a robust, biblical understanding of the relationship between the two can be applied to help real people live better and healthier lives, physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Dear BioLogos reader ...

In the escalating vitriol in our culture, “science” and “faith” have found each other on opposite sides of a polarized divide. Truth and community are under attack.

If there is one thing the pandemic has shown us, it is what science can and cannot do. Scientists and doctors have done amazing things during the pandemic—identified the virus, treated the disease, and developed safe vaccines that work.

But in these polarized times, science can’t reduce anger, forgive sins, build mutual respect, or fill us with compassion for others.

Science alone can’t give us hope. Faith can. Join BioLogos today in reaching a world desperate for hope. Your tax-deductible donation will be the difference between someone encountering misinformation, or a thoughtful, truthful, and hopeful Christian perspective that shows faith and science working hand in hand.

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Mario A. Russo
About the Author

Mario A. Russo

Mario A. Russo is the Director of the Dortmund Center for Science and Faith. He earned a Doctor of Ministry from Erskine College and Seminary, a Master of Arts Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary, and an Interdisciplinary Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and Psychology from the University of South Carolina. He has written and spoken on various platforms about issues related to science and faith for over 15 years. He lives in Dortmund, Germany along with his wife and 2 children.