- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
It’s easy to miss.
The entrance to the Pastoral Counseling Center of St. Mary’s is located on the far left side of Church of the Ascension looking from Great Mills Road. A tiny waiting area and two rooms where counselors meet with clients are found behind that side door. The center also shares a third meeting room with the church in the church’s lower level.
For the past three decades, the pastoral counseling center has been helping area residents get through unexpected crises, deal with addiction problems in their families, get along better with their spouse and a whole spectrum of other counseling issues. In addition, for the past four or five years, the center’s counselors sometimes meet with clients at space provided by two United Methodist churches in Lusby — St. Paul and Olivet.
“I frequently refer to us as the best-kept secret in St. Mary’s,” said Betty Joanne Scott, executive director and one of the counselors at the center of St. Mary’s.
She talked about the center’s ongoing work on Monday afternoon as she met with the center’s two other full-time counselors during their weekly meeting. The room where they meet is lined with couches and comfortable chairs and stocked with a variety of stuffed animals for younger clients and is used primarily by Arthur Scott, Betty Joanne’s husband and also a full-time counselor at the center. Veronica Gonzalez is the third counselor.
The center was established as an outreach ministry by Church of the Ascension in 1983 as a separate nonprofit. The idea is to provide professional, clinical counseling from a Christian perspective at an affordable rate. Typically, clients come in for 50- to 60-minute sessions. Cost is on a sliding scale based on income; however, no one is turned away due to inability to pay.
The center has plenty of business, averaging 3,100 hours of client session for each of the past two years, said Arthur, who also serves as treasurer for the center’s board.
But Betty Joanne and the others noted that many don’t even know that the center is available as a resource.
“We’re here!” Gonzalez said, laughing, when asked what they feel people in the community don’t know about the center.
“We’re nonprofit,” Betty Joanne added. “And that they don’t have to deal with faith [when clients meet with us]. We are going to meet them where they are.”
They explained that unless a client wants to talk about their faith or the spiritual aspect of their situation, the counselor doesn’t go there. “We’re not going to be preaching to them,” Betty Joanne said.
“Part of what we’re trained to do as counselors is not project our [own world view] on our clients,” Gonzalez said. Part of being licensed by the state is that they can’t impose their own values on the client, she explained.
Many of the center’s clients are referred to the center by a pastor. The policy of some churches is that if a pastor can’t help a person with their problem in a certain number of sessions, perhaps three to five, then they need to see a licensed counselor, like those at the pastoral counseling center.
The counselors noted a few changes in people’s problems during the years. For instance, Arthur noted that when he first started training 25 years ago, experts universally proclaimed finances as the biggest source of marital conflict. He said that now people in his business are seeing communication problems as a growing issue, perhaps as the result of the virtual world created by social media and other technology.
“Almost always now they’re saying I’m having communication problems. That’s what couples are telling us,” he said.
In addition, the counselors said that serious mental health issues are being identified in children much earlier now. It used to be that a person had to be at least 19 or 20 before anyone would diagnose them with bipolar disorder. “Now, they’re doing it at 7,” Betty Joanne said.
But then, plenty of the problems that people struggle with have remained the same. For instance, dealing with rebellious teenagers continues to be a ubiquitous struggle, they said.
Betty Joanne said she dreams of the center someday being a freestanding facility in a beautiful natural location that allows enough space to add a variety of therapies to the center’s work, like art and music therapy. “I’d like us to see all kinds of counselors working together,” she said.
She said the center can use donations to help offset the cost of helping clients who are unable to pay for the service and they would also like to hear from community members who would be willing to serve on the center’s board or maybe assist in the front office.
Helping clients triumph over a problem or get through a crisis can be challenging, especially in the nonprofit environment with limited space and working with three counselors and some help from a graduate student working toward her own licensure. But there are also plenty of rewards in the work, the Scotts and Gonzalez said.
“It’s fun to see the change,” Gonzalez said.