Faith and family. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, you can not have one without the other. Except, of course, people can and do, even people of faith who see family as an expression of spiritual truths. Although Christian marriages dissolve at about the same rate as all marriages, cultural forces within churches encourage struggling couples to strive with one another and exhaust every resource—including counseling—before pursuing legal separation. For this reason, marriage and family therapy is an attractive calling for young Christians who wish to serve God and others. At the same time, strong families are sought by diverse faiths and therapy training is offered within and without the Christian setting.
The Biblical Counseling Movement
In the late 1960s, as standard psychologists and psychiatrists were steering away from spiritual matters in an effort to establish mental health professions as predominantly scientific, many Christians became dissatisfied with this direction and began seeking alternatives. Several evangelical pioneers began writing and speaking on a psychotherapy that conforms to scriptural guidelines and a movement was born. Out of this birth grew organizations like the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, the Association of Biblical Counselors and the Institute for Nouthetic Studies. Following suit, Christian colleges and universities incorporated the ideas published by these groups into their counseling and therapy programs.
Beginnings of MFT
While the Bible-based movement flourished, secular institutions continued to teach and research on marriage and family therapy (MFT). Sensing public impatience with traditional psychotherapy, practitioners and scholars carved out a specialty that focused primarily on domestic relations. Unlike the stereotypical psychological client, spending years in open-ended therapy, couples in distress could now address their problems in a professional setting that would:
- Be finite in duration
- Center on problem-solving
- Set realistic goals for participants
- Show the clients positive results
More procedural than content-based, these hallmarks of MFT appear in both secular and religious contexts.
The Secular Model
Even the most ardent Christian acknowledges that marriage and family were institutions that preceded the coming of Christ. It stands to reason that non-Christians have interest in preserving marriages and families intact. To that end, a non-religious model of therapy aims to strengthen domestic relationships without reference to metaphysical or spiritual assumptions. Ongoing research includes topics like cultural influences on households; assessments of the results of interventions; the effectiveness of community-based therapy; and how racial and ethnic diversity among therapists affects treatment. Subjects of this sort are regularly studied at secular and public universities.
A Variety of Options
An abundance of graduate programs in MFT are found in both the secular and Christian realms. Not to be forgotten are Jewish universities and those religious schools of a non-Christian persuasion. Many programs are accredited by professional associations though this may not be necessary for those pursuing certification in the field. In addition, practitioners can possess a master’s degree, doctorate or post-doctoral certification. While educational and experience requirements may differ by state, no jurisdiction—at any time—imposes a religious criterion.