In the city of Swords, the streets are squeaky clean. But it's the dirt hidden behind closed doors that concerns Linda Wagner.
A short drive north of Dublin, Swords derives its name from the old Irish word for "pure." Like most cities, it has fought hard to build its reputation as a tidy place with likable people. Locals were shocked when a national study once dubbed Swords the dirtiest town in Ireland. Litter vigilante groups formed, fines were dished out, streets were swept, and the people cleared their good name.
Wagner is a counselor and has served there as a TEAM missionary for 30 years. Her passion is unearthing the troubles that lie hidden beneath the pleasant veneer, so they can be put to rights. A pioneer of counseling in Ireland, Wagner has been one of the biggest forces for Christian counseling in a culture where family issues are generally closely guarded.
"When we started counseling, counseling didn't exist here. And there was really a stigma to going for counseling. People had never ever talked to anyone about their emotions and their feelings," Wagner said. "You'd ask them, 'What do you feel?' They had no idea, because no one had ever asked them and they'd never thought about it."
Counseling is a young profession in Ireland. During Wagner's first few years there as a church planter in the early 1980s, most mental health issues were treated by psychiatrists through drugs. She noticed people struggling with issues that kept popping back up, despite treatment.
Wagner wanted to help. So she returned to the United States to earn a masters degree in counseling. When she landed back in Ireland a few years later, Ireland was waiting for her.
"When I got off the plane, they were all like, 'counsel me, counsel me,' " Wagner said. So she hung her shingle as one of just a few private counseling practices in Dublin. Since then, she has helped to found the organization that accredits Christian counselors in Ireland. And through the Bellwether Centre for Counselling and Training, a program Wagner founded with another missionary, she has trained dozens of professional and lay counselors to support the Irish church.
Coming full circle, Wagner now counsels at Charis Community Counselling Service, a low-cost practice that offers accessible counseling to the people of Swords. It's run at Swords Baptist Church — a congregation Wagner helped plant — by a woman she helped train.
"My heart is really for the church," Wagner said. "I don't really care about counseling that much. But I do want to see people grow and know God more deeply. And I do want to see the church be a healthier place that really reaches out to people."
She means people like the leader of a church who recently came to her, depressed and wanting to die. He began to share things he had never shared with anyone, and the more they talked the more hopeful he felt.
"It was encouraging to him," said Wagner, who believes Christians can be trained to recognize men like him and learn how to help them.
“They take you apart”
Not all counselors are created equal.
Marie Ryan was terrified of riding buses. She was seeing a counselor for it, until one day she put her mind to it and just stepped up onto a bus. Great, her counselor said, she didn't need to see her anymore, problem solved.
Ryan's counseling stopped, but her demons did not. She hit the bottle, wrestled with bulimia, and took to cutting herself.
Then she began seeing Joanne Mahon, a co-worker of Wagner. Ryan's sessions with Mahon pushed her so hard she considered throwing herself under a bus. But she kept returning for more, and she loved it.
"With Christian counseling, it was a deeper thing. They take you apart, and the Lord puts you back together," Ryan said. "I was very broken and I didn't realize I was broken."
As much as she loved the counseling, Ryan grew even more intrigued by Mahon. Eventually, she followed Mahon to a Christmas service at her church, then went to an Alpha Course. In 2005, Ryan gave her life to Christ.
There are most likely a lot of Marie Ryans walking the litter-free streets of Swords. Counselors say depression is pervasive in Ireland, which is struggling with some of the highest unemployment in Europe and an economy that was pounded harder than most by the global financial crisis.
Suicides in Ireland have spiked dramatically since its economic meltdown, with the suicide rate among men climbing more than 16 percent from 2007 to 2009, according to government statistics. And though many Irish bristle at the tired stereotype, Ireland outdoes all of Europe when it comes to per-capita alcohol consumption, based on sales tracked by the World Health Organization.
That's why Clem Hegarty, pastor of Swords Baptist Church, thinks it would be good for the community to air a little more of its dirty laundry. His church is leading the way.
"There is no condemnation for strugglers around here," said Hegarty, a man who leaves his ties in the closet and milked cows for a living before entering ministry. "We've been very influenced by people like Linda Wagner over the years to live courageously from our hearts, not legalistically."
Hegarty is one of the community's biggest cheerleaders for Christian counseling. He encourages everyone at Swords Baptist to take a counseling-based "encouragement course" the church offers each year. And it was his idea to start a counseling center that would serve the whole community, said Pat Scott, the center's director.
Launched a little over four years ago, Charis Community Counselling Centre now boasts five counselors and is filling a growing number of rooms in the church's brand-new building, complete with a hidden entrance for patients who want to slip in and out unnoticed.
Scott, originally from South Africa, began working in Ireland as an accountant. She applied to Wagner’s counselor training program and was rejected the first time, but made the cut on her second attempt and eventually went on to become certified by the Irish Association of Christian Counsellors, the accrediting agency Wagner helped launch.
Through the experience, Scott said her own life was transformed as she worked through her personal struggles. She’s not sure Wagner realizes just how deeply the counseling touches people.
“I think they underplay it a lot,” Scott said. “But what they do is absolutely life-changing.”
For Wagner and Hegarty, all the counseling is less about mental health then it is about equipping the church to be a tool that actually improves lives.
“I want people to feel safe,” Wagner said. “The church should be the safest place, and it should be the most accepting place.”
Though it operates in a church building, the Charis Centre works with clients of all faiths. The counselors are not overtly evangelistic, Scott said, but their conversation does often lead to questions about Christ.
"People reach a plateau every now and again in the counseling. And then they might move on, and a few years later they might come back," Scott said. "But they will eventually reach the stage of, 'I can't depend on you and I can't depend on myself, who can I depend on?'"
Of course, Scott and her team are ready with answers.
-Written by Andy Olsen
-Photographed by Robert Johnson
[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, March 2013]Download This Issue of TEAMHorizons