By Jerry Duggan
While attending Rice University, Elbert Darden felt strong in his Protestant faith convictions and felt drawn to counseling.
“I wanted to do something that made a real impact in people’s lives but allowed me to keep my faith at the forefront,” he said.
After majoring in psychology and religion, he decided to attend Columbia Theological Seminary, where he received a Master of Divinity degree and was subsequently ordained.
“At that time, I felt called to a ministry that was more explicitly pastoral, but, in time, discovered that ‘professional Christianity’ was not really what I was called to do,” he said.
He left a position as a pastor with a vague sense of what would come next, but no clear pathway to get there. Eventually he was accepted to the doctoral program in Counseling Psychology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
During his time there, Darden continued to discern a path, but an internship at a college counseling center introduced him to a new domain.
“I suppose I knew that college counseling centers existed, having gone to college myself, but it was not somewhere I had ever even considered working,” he explained. “I fell in love with all of the opportunities working at a college provided.”
Upon completing the doctoral program, he was hired at Rockhurst University, first serving the counseling center as an outreach coordinator before being promoted to assistant director and now director.
He had no previous exposure to the Jesuits, but he was impressed by the spiritual climate on campus.
“I have found Jesuits to be very open minded in their approach to faith, and I very much appreciated that as an ‘outsider,’” he said.
Much of Darden’s days are filled with administrative tasks such as meetings, but he most enjoys his direct contact with students.
“Ultimately, I am here because I want to provide counseling to our students,” he said. “There is no substitute for that personal contact.”
He strives to be open and accommodate students’ needs, destigmatizing any mental health challenges they may be having while also incorporating faith into his work when students have expressed a clear desire to do so.
“As a licensed psychologist, my practice is not rooted in faith per se – that would create ethical issues,” he said. “But, many of our students come in here and explicitly state that they wish to discuss their difficulties through the lens of their strong, personal faith in God. When that is the case, I am happy to assist them with that.”
A more “secular” route Darden takes is to encourage students to take things a day at a time.
“I will ask students to walk me through their day and tell me what day it is, and they will often say the day of the week,” he said. “I explain to them that, no, today is ‘today,’ and they should focus on all that today brings and worry about the future when it comes.”
Many students also report feeling a sense of perfectionism; Darden’s response is to say he has never known a happy perfectionist.
“Expecting yourself to be perfect inevitably leads to failure, because, by definition, we are all human and therefore not perfect,” he said. “It is not possible for a human being to be perfect.”
For those students who express an interest in discussing their problems through the lens of faith, Darden compares their standards for themselves to those that God has for them.
“I ask these students if they believe God knows everything about them – even the things they are most ashamed of, and they always say yes,” he said. “Then I ask them if they believe God still loves them in spite of this knowledge, and they again say yes. Yet, somehow, they feel that they cannot love themselves. Finally, I ask them how they can possibly hold themselves to a higher standard than God does, to which they usually have no answer.”
Darden’s tactics are not to “catch” students in a contradiction – they are designed to help them go a little bit easier on themselves, and maybe even come to love themselves as they are.
“We are all human – God is the only perfect being,” Darden said. “I’m here to help students on their good days and their bad and realize that we are all worthy of love and compassion because God loves them.”