Chapter 35: The Churches and Family Counseling Around the World by Matti Joensuu

Community Mental Health: The Role of Church and Temple
by Howard J. Clinebell, Jr., (Ed.)

Chapter 35: The Churches and Family Counseling Around the World by Matti Joensuu

It is not necessary here to stress the important role played by relationships in the family; these affect the mental health of every member of the family unit, and especially that of the children and adolescents in their development into adulthood.

When reading the Old and New Testament, one finds that right from the start, both in Judaism and early Christianity, family relationships were considered extremely important, and this is also seen in the work of the churches throughout the centuries. But looking at church history from this aspect, we also find things which have not caused a mentally healthy development. There have been -- and still exist -- rigid religious movements with such strict rules that they provoke neuroses in human development. We also have examples of how missionaries have taken along with them the Western family pattern, identifying it with Christianity, and treating people living in polygamous societies mainly with church discipline. However, without a doubt, we can affirm that much wisdom about healthy family life, based on the experience of generations, has been taught by the churches.

A new development in the work of the churches started with the emphasis on family counseling. Some pioneering efforts were made before the first World War. Professor David Mace has been the most well-known and creative person in this field. After World War II, in the forties and early fifties, some churches in Europe set up specialized family counseling services, especially in England, Finland, Germany, and Switzerland. Now such services exist in many countries, and they have developed according to various patterns.

In England there is the National Marriage Guidance Council, a secular organization, in which the church and church workers are playing an important role; this means that the work is in fact on an ecumenical basis. In England there is also a parallel Roman Catholic Advisory Council. Both of these organizations use lay workers to do marriage guidance. The basic idea is that there are many people who are mentally mature and have genuine personal gifts which can be used in helping people who have difficulties in their family life. The decisive thing is to find the right kind of persons to work as volunteers. The Marriage Guidance Council in England has developed a thorough system of selection of candidates for this kind of work. The selecting process lasts several days, and includes personal interviews, psychological tests, and observations of how the candidates behave in group situations. The volunteers accepted for the work receive continuous training for two years from professional people. They usually work under the continuing supervision of professional family counselors, and a number of psychiatrists, psychologists, and lawyers are available as consultants.

This same pattern has been developed in Australia and New Zealand. To give some examples, there are at present 117 local family counseling centers functioning in Great Britain, conducting 61,000 interviews a year. In Australia in 1967, 41 marriage guidance centers were functioning; they conducted 33,000 interviews.

Quite a different pattern has developed in Germany, where the churches sponsor family counseling services staffed mainly by physicians and psychologists. At present there are 60 family counseling centers run by the Protestant churches, and 37 of them include child-guidance clinics. The Roman Catholic Church in Germany has 80 counseling centers; it has a plan to recruit a great number of volunteers to serve in this field.

In Finland, the family counseling work was started by clergymen, but from the beginning was in cooperation with psychiatrists and lawyers. All the workers are professional people. Approximately one half of them are clergymen and the others psychologists or social workers. All of them undergo at least one year’s clinical training in family counseling before becoming accredited counselors. Each center also has a consultant psychiatrist and lawyer. There are 10 family counseling centers in Finland, with full-time workers (total population, 4,700,000) In 1966 approximately 12,000 interviews were conducted in these clinics.

The churches which have been active in family counseling have produced family education programs on a large scale; often these are based on clinical experience obtained in the counseling centers, thus relating to real problems in the lives of people. Clinicians are continuously being used on radio and television, in journals and newspapers, as resource people dealing with family problems.

The World Council of Churches, in Geneva, has a special secretariat dealing with family questions. This secretariat has concentrated on helping the churches in the developing countries in the field of family counseling and family education. As industrialization spreads to these countries the structures of society undergo rapid change, and the pattern of the extended family system breaks up, causing much greater confusion in family life than occurred in societies in the West, where industrialization developed over a much longer period.

During the last few years, the World Council of Churches has gained wide experience in leadership-training seminars of four weeks’ duration, usually called Basic Training Seminars. The program of these seminars has been directed by qualified persons able to win support and cooperation from the religious and secular leaders of the region concerned. The Caribbean area is an outstanding example of this kind of program. In 1964, Professor and Mrs. David Mace conducted the first seminar in Antigua Island. Since then there have been three seminars of four weeks in this region every year.

These four-week seminars constitute a kind of "demonstration," at which participants can experience what kind of contribution modern family counseling and family education can make. It is very often a strong and positive personal experience for the participants. It is a process in which the local persons, together with the foreign experts, try to understand what the real problems in their region are. The experts probably have less insight but more objective understanding. During the four weeks they try to develop in the seminar participants as much understanding as possible, based on scientific knowledge.

These seminars seem to cause a rethinking process in the societies concerned and bring about pioneering actions -- especially in the field of family education. It is necessary to emphasize that these seminars do not produce experts, but some of the participants at these Basic Training Seminars decide to continue and obtain further supervised training afterwards.

A similar process has begun in Africa, where, by the end of 1968, four regional Basic Training Seminars had taken place. A plan has been evolved whereby four further regional seminars per year will be held during the next five years. In 1969, a seminar of the same kind will be held in the South Pacific, which again will probably be followed by a long-term plan.

But the Basic Training Seminars are not the only means of action adopted. It is planned to find at least a few well-chosen persons from the regions concerned for training as experts in family life. This training entails proper clinical training in counseling. At present, three persons from the Caribbean area and two from Africa are undergoing clinical training in the United States. When these people go back to their home region in the near future, the aim is for them to begin working full-time and, little by little, they will train other persons in the necessary counseling skills. My personal conviction is that these people must have a chance to create a clinical setting and work personally with individual cases, although, in a pioneering situation they must, in addition, do educational work and act as organizers.

One very difficult problem in international Work is the lack of deep understanding of cultural differences. Family life in Africa or Asia is very different from what it is in the West. If Western specialists, however well trained and clever they may be, go to the other continents and give family education, there is a big danger that they may advocate Western ideas, with all their mistakes. Their teaching is not well received, because it is not relevant and helpful in quite different circumstances. It is true that when societies become industralized and the ties of the extended family break down, there are certain common problems everywhere. The personal relationship of husband and wife plays an increasingly important role in all cultures. At this point the understanding and contribution of Western experts are relevant everywhere. But, in spite of that, there are many differences which it really takes years for a Westerner to learn to know and understand.

If, however, we have a counseling center with skilled personnel of the same culture, the possibilities are much more favorable. The counselor does not teach; he investigates, together with his clients, and tries to understand what the problems really are. The counseling center is like a laboratory, in which people are learning intensively year after year and gaining a deeper understanding of the problems of the people and their family life in that particular culture. The counseling center can also train new counselors and influence the attitude of the whole clergy and others dealing with the people, so that an ordinary pastor in the congregation is better able to understand the problems of the people and to help them. It is possible to observe this kind of development already in some countries.

There are many problems to solve when we are sending persons for clinical training overseas, in a cultural situation different from the one they come from and to which they should return. But in many cases this is the only possibility. However, there are some training centers functioning in developing countries. Three years ago, the Rev. Albert Dalton, an Episcopal minister from the United States, fully qualified as a chaplain supervisor, began to work at an Episcopal hospital in Manila, Philippines, giving one year’s clinical training to the local pastors. In 1966 in Singapore, Dr. Gunnar Theilman, also from the United States, created the Churches’ Counselling Centre, which has already been very influential for short-term training. Now it is giving long-term clinical training to local persons. At Ibadan, Nigeria, negotiations are proceeding to build up a clinical training system in family counseling in relation with the University of Ibadan. It also seems possible that in the near future such training may begin in French-speaking West Africa. In some years’ time, it appears possible that there will also be a center able to give clinical training in Tanzania, East Africa. Thus, the policy of the World Council of Churches is to try to help the churches in developing countries to acquire their own experts as soon as possible and become independent of foreign experts. I am sure that, after some years, these people will have a deep understanding which will prove of value to the West.

It is impossible to describe the vast and many-sided family educational work that the churches are carrying on around the world. Many denominations have their own experts preparing programs and helping the local congregations in family education. A rather new and widespread lay movement is the Christian Family Movement of the Roman Catholic Church, a group movement which has recently become increasingly ecumenical, including members from other churches. It has rapidly spread to all the continents.

It seems that the churches everywhere are now eager to start special services in the field of family counseling and family education. I would like to emphasize that the most important thing in starting such work is to have at least one well-trained person to lead the work. Many are interested in the use of volunteers and lay people. But it will be successful only if the volunteers are led and supervised by well-trained professional people. Training may cost money, but experiments made without thorough consideration of what has already been learned are much too costly in human terms.

In this short article, I have not referred at all to developments in North America. But I would like to mention that many qualified experts from America have given significant help in various kinds of training programs all around the world. The small secretariat of the World Council of Churches can do something only in cooperation with skilled people around the world, who kindly offer their time, energy, and financial help to this worldwide task.

Most of the specialized functions in the field of family counseling and family education have been organized on an ecumenical basis, especially in the developing countries. Experience has shown that it is relevant and natural for the churches to work together in this field. Whatever the doctrinal differences of the churches may be, the need to help people and families is a common concern. Practical experience in this work also builds up a common basis and increases mutual understanding. Even in some regions where there does not yet exist an official ecumenical body, the churches work together effectively in this field, and this naturally increases ecumenical cooperation as a whole. The Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches increasingly are working together on family problems. It has been recognized on both sides that in the near future common arrangements will be necessary, especially in the regional training programs. But cooperation does not exist just between the churches; in every place where there are developed counseling services, these work in close contact with the social, medical, and mental health agencies of the district concerned.


For additional reading

Report on the All-Africa Seminar on the Christian Home and Family Life. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1963.

Sex, Love and Marriage in the Caribbean. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1965.

For the Family, Report of a World Consultation, St. Cergue, Switzerland, 1967. Geneva, World Council of Churches, 1968.