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From behind pulpit to beside the couch

Psychotherapy is added to a pastor's roles, a mix of analysis and faith.

June 04, 2004|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — On its sprawling campus on the outskirts of town, City Church of Chattanooga offers its members a range of novel programs -- an in-house Christian rock band called Beckon, gym nights for singles and Wee Nation, a weekly religious service-with-sermonette for 2- to 5-year-olds.

For the last year, members of this conservative Pentecostal church have also had this opportunity: Outside the sanctuary, in Mark Carpenter's office, they can be treated for mental illness.

With a box of Kleenex placed next to a carefully angled chair, Carpenter's office looks like any other psychotherapist's. Beside his desk are three editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the guide to modern psychiatry, which he has used to diagnose a steady stream of clients with anxiety disorders, clinical depression and personality disorders.

In some ways, though, his practice is unusual. Most of Carpenter's patients arrange their lives around ideas not found in the DSM-IV -- ideas such as sin and the devil and hell.

Practices like Carpenter's mark the end of a long enmity. In psychiatry's early days, many of its luminaries looked with contempt on religion, blaming its leaders for loading their followers with guilt and fear. Their antipathy was more than matched by Southern pastors, who saw psychologists tempting their parishioners into a fallen culture that no longer recognized the notions of good and evil.

That's changed over the last two decades as evangelical Protestant churches have waded ever further into the field of mental health. Initially, the churches recommended psychologists who identified themselves as Christians. But a growing number of evangelical churches in the South are embarking on experiments like Carpenter's, in which they open their own clinics, staffed by licensed professionals from within their ranks. The American Assn. of Christian Counselors, an organization of evangelical Christian mental health professionals, has grown from 700 members in 1991 to a present roster of 50,000, said Tim Clinton, the organization's president. Half of those are licensed.

As it grows, the evangelical mental health trend promises to make treatment available to a large swath of Americans who have been reluctant to seek it. But there are also tensions, as therapists work to keep their treatment in line with their churches' strict beliefs. If evangelical leaders no longer fear the mental health professions, said one scholar, it is partly because they have control over them.

Psychology is "no longer seen as a wolf in sheep's clothing," says Nancy L. Eiesland, an Emory University sociologist who has studied suburban megachurches. "It's been domesticated."

Carpenter, 42, sits in the calm of an office with framed diplomas on his wall, but he didn't always.

Before he began attending City Church of Chattanooga, he spent nine years managing a McDonald's. As recently as five years ago he was taking classes toward his bachelor's degree and working the night shift at UPS.

His venture into mental health began right here, at City Church, after Pastor Mike Chapman asked him to teach a class on codependency for church members. Carpenter, who had no training, based the curriculum on his own family dynamics.

The pastor was pleased.

*

Mental health turf wars

Over recent years, Chapman had run into difficulty with secular mental health professionals, occasionally clashing so dramatically that it felt like a tug of war over someone's soul. Once, he says, he performed an exorcism on a woman who had been treated without much success by psychiatrists. Another time, he marched into a psychiatric hospital and confronted a clinician over treatment that challenged his church's teachings.

Eventually, Chapman attempted to secure release forms from church members who entered psychiatric treatment, so he could participate in decision-making. It should be perfectly clear to mental health professionals, he said: In the inner lives of worshipers, the church remains the foremost authority.

"My feeling is, you're on our turf now," says Chapman.

An in-house licensed professional would do two things for City Church: First, it would help the pastor avoid those clashes. The second benefit was pragmatic: In the highly competitive atmosphere of Chattanooga megachurches, where new members are drawn away from smaller and more traditional churches, people were beginning to demand such services.

It was Pastor Mike who encouraged Carpenter to attend the Psychological Studies Institute, a newly accredited graduate school based in Atlanta and Chattanooga that specializes in Christian counseling.

For Carpenter, the son and grandson of strict Baptist preachers, graduate school in psychology (he earned a master's in professional counseling) opened up a new world.

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