The phone rings at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Pasadena. But the distressed caller doesn't want to talk to the minister. She wants the psychotherapist.
The 300-member congregation joined with Lutheran Social Services a few years ago to hire a professional counselor part time to help church members and the community.
"Obviously, a significant segment of society doesn't want to talk to a minister," says the church pastor, the Rev. John Douglas. "Sometimes if it's a church member, I'm too close to them or it's a more complicated emotional problem requiring a therapist."
Two other county Lutheran churches -- in Linthicum and Arnold -- offer the services of a therapist through Community Counseling Service.
Fourteen Maryland churches participate in the program, started by Lutheran Social Services about 15 years ago.
Appointments are for evenings and weekends at each participating church. Right now, the psychotherapist at Emmanuel sees clients six hours a week.
People pay on a sliding scale, according to need. Fees range from $32 to $65 an hour, considerably less than the average $100 an hour most licensed therapists charge. And no one is turned away; Lutheran Social Services and the local churches try to pick up the tab for needy clients who can't pay.
Cindy Johnson, who coordinates the program, says the service is unique among religious denominations.
Typically, churches offer counseling by the pastor or priest. The Roman Catholic Churches once offered professional family counseling through Associated Catholic Charities, but that service disbanded this past summer, Ms. Johnson notes.
Several Anne Arundel churches participate in The Christian Counseling Center of Annapolis, a non-sectarian professional counseling organization that takes referrals from churches. Churches recommend the center to their members, rather than having therapists come into the church.
A few evangelical churches in Maryland targeting baby-boomers have a psychotherapist on staff.
The service reflects a growing bond between the old enemies of psychology and religion.
Forty years ago, psychology was often viewed with suspicion by the Christian community because of its secular perspective on human behavior. Lutherans were among the first denomination to recognize professional therapists as yet another way for the church to help people, says Mr. Douglas.
"The Lutheran church has always cared about people, building hospitals and so on," says Mr. Douglas. Similarly, providing a clinical psychotherapist offers a way for people to heal emotionally, he says.
And it's cheaper for the church to hire a professional therapist because there's no overhead.
"The space is free, so it keeps the cost low," Mr. Douglas says.
Ms. Johnson says most clients in the program are "low-income people who fall between the cracks. They can't afford the rates charged by many private practitioners."
The counseling program also is unusual within church circles because it is not "Christian," per se.
"We're non-sectarian. The whole idea is to provide quality service at a reasonable price," Ms. Johnson says.
For example, the clinical psychologist who works at Emmanuel is not Christian, and many people who come for therapy are from other Christian denominations or are not religious at all, Mr. Douglas says.
"This is not a way to get people to our church. It's just part of our ministry to try to help everyone we can," he says.