By day, I am Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.
By night, I am a Church Clarity Advocate, working to score and approve churches. (Okay, I mostly do this during the day as well.)
Upon first glance, the overlap between the two roles is, at best, tenuous. The former requires years of school and training and involves working face-to-face with people in their most tender moments.
The latter role, on the other hand, is on a volunteer-basis – nearly anyone is qualified do this work (and if you’re reading this, that means you!). I don’t interface with many actual people, aside from the community formed among other Church Clarity advocates.
On the surface, there’s little which connects the two vocations. However, the other day, something odd struck me. I was organizing and updating my intake paperwork (as a therapist), and suddenly I was considering “clarity.”
Why is this where my mind wandered? Did I have churches I need to approve in my queue? (Hopefully not.) Had I forgotten to submit a church I wanted scored? (Probably, yes.)
What exactly about my intake paperwork as a therapist made me think of my volunteer work for Church Clarity?
And then it hit me like a whirlwind.
These things, they’re one and the same.
You see, every time a client decides they want to embark on the journey known as “therapy,” I’m ethically and legally obliged as a clinician to guide them through a mountain of paperwork before a single word is uttered about what is actually bringing them into my office that day.
Now, different therapists deal with intake paperwork in different ways, but odds are, if you’ve seen a therapist, you’ve signed something similar to what I offer my clients: a form entitled “Informed Consent & Therapy Contract.” If you haven’t seen a therapist, you’ve probably seen a doctor. There, you may not have been walked through the paperwork, but you still signed something that gave them permission to treat you as a patient: you gave consent.
As a therapist, I think the best practice I can offer my clients is to walk through my paperwork with them, step by step, because oftentimes clients are in moments of crisis, and as a therapist, it’s my responsibility to ensure clients know what I can offer them, and maybe even more importantly, what I cannot (or will not) offer them.
My clients need to know the potential benefits, risks, and limitations of treatment. They need to know the rights and protections afforded to them as clients. They need to know all of this because, otherwise, therapy doesn’t work. If people walk in expecting one thing, and walk out having experienced something totally other, the therapeutic process turns out to be less than therapeutic (and whether directly or indirectly, harmful).
Starting to sound familiar?
Here at Church Clarity, our mantra is simple: clarity is reasonable. Our assertion is whether you’ve attended churches your entire life, or you’re visiting a faith community for the first time, you are entitled to a similar degree of consent that therapists provide their clients. Your ‘provider’ is obligated to disclose what you’re consenting to. What exactly is this church “about?” What is their intention? Why do they exist? What makes them different from the seventeen other churches within a mile of them?
We want to empower others to know what they are getting themselves into.
Local churches, being comprised of and led by people, have an awareness of these questions and their importance, and many congregations make a good faith effort to answer these questions honestly. Most churches are generally willing to engage a conversation about their history, mission, and purpose in their community, and about what makes them different from other churches in the area.
Why, then, is it so hard to talk about what a church’s policies are in regards to the affirmation of LGBTQIA+ people? Why is it so difficult to determine whether a church believes all people are equipped to lead in a church setting, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation? And regardless of what a church believes and practices, why is it so difficult to be clear about these policies?
I want to circle back to our previous discussion of the informed consent process for a moment. Imagine with me, that you’ve decided to see a therapist - let’s even imagine you decided to see me. Imagine you arrived for your first session, nervous but excited, and had a seat in my office, and I let you know we needed to go over some intake paperwork before starting the session.
In this imagined scenario, I’m a little different than I am in real life, though. I hand you a stack of papers, and ask you to sign them as quickly as possible, so we can get on with the session. This might concern you initially. I’m guessing your first response might be, “Okay, but what exactly am I signing?”
I might respond, “Don’t worry about it, it’s all very normal, standard paperwork to start therapy. No surprises in there, just boring, technical legal jargon.”
You might be even more wary by this point. “What if I have questions about what’s in the paperwork?”
You can tell my hypothetical self is becoming visibly agitated at this point. “Why don’t you let me worry about the details, and you just worry about having the best experience possible while you’re here? You should just trust me when I say it’s very standard paperwork you’re signing.”
If we step away from this (very unethical) hypothetical for a moment, it’s clear how problematic an approach like this is. Why won’t the therapist answer the client’s most basic questions? Is he hiding something? Why won’t he take the time to discuss the details of what they’re signing, even if it’s “standard” paperwork?
I can’t imagine a scenario in which I ask someone to be their most vulnerable, open, honest selves with me, without doing the same for them in whatever ways I’m able -- that includes not glossing over a 700+ word consent form. It also means answering their questions directly, and not shying away from any concerns they might have about myself or what it is I do as a therapist.
Why should churches be any different?
We don’t formally “consent” to attend a church by signing any documents, but we do consent to be present, and our presence, at the very least, implies endorsement (even if we don’t see it that way ourselves). Many of us even give money or tithe to churches as well, or bring our friends and family members to these places we believe to be safe. We should know what exactly we are endorsing or consenting to. The Church, even more so than a therapist’s office, should be upfront, honest, and vulnerable, because it asks its members to do the same. And while the Church is not a therapist’s office, in the words of a song I love (and often disagree with): “We are your Church, and we are the hope on earth.”
I had an undergraduate Christian Doctrine professor who was fond of saying, “The truth has nothing to fear.” In his view, if something was truly “true,” someone investigating and interrogating those truth claims shouldn’t threaten us -- quite the opposite, in fact. If we believe we hold truth about the world or the universe, we shouldn’t be afraid of people questioning it; we should welcome and encourage those questions, because if it’s the truth, we’d want others to know it as well. The corollary, of course, is that if we know this truth, and are asked about it, we should want to answer those questions, because that’s part of what truth is - the answer to a question.
If something is true, it will stand, and if it isn’t, it’s not what we were after in the first place. To fear and oppose inquiry never gives truth its chance to be affirmed, strengthened, and revealed. If we avoid these discussions, we will never give ourselves or others the opportunity to change, grow, or reform these truths if and when we determine them to be less true than true.
Or put another way, “All things become visible when they are exposed by the light, for everything that becomes visible is light.” (Ephesians 5:13, NASB)
Here at Church Clarity, we want you to know what you’re getting into when you attend a church. We want you to know you are consenting to something, and we simply want to help shine a light on what that “something” is, so it might be revealed for yourself and others to see. Instead of trusting someone else to tell you what that “something” is, we want you to see it with your own eyes. Anyone who shames or discourages you for these questions is being, at best, disingenuous, and at worst, malicious. Or in therapist-speak: they are rushing you through their intake forms (and you should wonder why).
Clarity is reasonable.
Consent is reasonable.
You cannot experience one without fully practicing the other. And even if you could, would you really want to?