Focus on Faith: Head of counseling center says life is a journey of learning

With three master’s degrees and a Ph.D. on his resume, you might think that David Olsen was done loo

With three master’s degrees and a Ph.D. on his resume, you might think that David Olsen was done looking for all the right answers. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“I’ve always been a questioning person, and if I had a lot of money behind me, I’d probably go back to school again,” said Olsen, director of the Samaritan Counseling Center of the Capital Region in Scotia. “I’ve always loved learning. I love that challenge, I love being stretched. I’ll never stop asking questions.”

Now 59, Olsen celebrated his 25th year as director of the Samaritan Counseling Center last fall. A native of Verona, N.J., it was Olsen who started up the local program in 1985 after Ellis Hospital chaplain Gordon Johnston got a group of local clergy interested in the possibility of supporting a faith-based counseling center in the Schenectady area.

“When we first started, it was me in the basement of the education wing of the Second Reformed Church on Union Street,” remembered Olsen. “Then we hired a second person part-time, then an office manager. Now we have a staff of about 20 and it keeps growing.”

Ordained an American Baptist minister, he oversees 10 different satellite locations along with the headquarters now located at 220 North Ballston Ave., next to the First Reformed Church of Scotia. The center is affiliated with the Samaritan Institute in Denver, Colo., a non-profit entity that has accredited more than 400 centers around the U.S. since the first one was created back in 1972 in Elkhart, Ind.

“Our group is faith-based, and that means we believe in a holistic approach to therapy, including the body, mind and spirit,” said Olsen. “But part of our mission is that we see people from all walks of life. We work with people on their spiritual concerns, but at the same time we don’t proselytize. If someone comes in and has no faith and no spirituality, we’re not going to bring the issue up. And if someone does have spiritual concerns, then we will integrate that into the process.”

The people who visit Olsen and his staff at the Samaritan Counseling Center are dealing with a variety of issues.

“We might have someone who is struggling with major depression and is almost unable to function, or we might work with someone who is middle-aged and is suddenly wondering if it’s all been worth it,” he said.

“We also see people with major addictions, or it could be a young married couple working to keep their relationship intact, or a family with young children who are bouncing off the walls, and we would help them find ways to keep that family adhesive. It’s a real mix.”

Variety of approaches

Different problems call for different responses, according to Olsen.

“Someone with complicated mental health issues is going to need a team to support them, and we’ll make sure they get a psychiatrist, a physician, a therapist and a clergyperson to work with them if that’s what they need,” he said.

“We have a number of therapists here who specialize in different areas. We have licensed clinical social workers, we have licensed mental health counselors and family therapists, as well as a list of consulting psychiatrists.”

While much of Olsen’s work these days involves administrative tasks, he still reserves time for patient counseling.

“The one-on-one counseling is still what I prefer to do most,” he said. “I have the administrative role of trying to manage all this, but what still interests me most is the therapeutic process.”

He grew up in a conservative Baptist family, relatively certain that his spirituality would somehow continue to be an integral part of his life. Becoming a minister, however, wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

“It was something my family always wanted for me, but it wasn’t always clear to me,” he said. “I had a lot of ideas in my head and as I was doing my undergrad work I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I did take a church position and I enjoyed it, but this desire to move into the psychotherapy counseling field was forming in me, and I realized that would be the best expression of my ministry.”

He got his four-year degree at Northeastern Bible School in New Jersey and soon after was hired by the Richfield Springs Bible Church (an independent church). While he worked there for three years, he got an M.S. in counseling from Oneonta State and an master’s degree in social work from the University at Albany before heading back to New Jersey and Drew University where he picked up another master’s and a Ph.D. in psychology.

He then headed to Texas to start up a new Samaritan Center, but soon realized he missed the Northeast and returned to upstate New York a year later to begin his work here.

While he still preaches on occasion and teaches college courses at Russell Sage, Olsen’s position with the Samaritan Center gives him the opportunity to do exactly what he wants to do.

“I miss parts of a parish ministry, but I don’t miss all the administration work, all the committees and all the headaches that come with that,” he said. “If you had asked me 25 years ago if this is exactly what I wanted to do, I wouldn’t have been sure of what it all was going to look like. But I feel like it’s been a pretty good road to be on. Things have worked out very well, and I’m very happy doing what I’m doing.”

When he goes to church these days, it’s usually at the First Reformed Church of Schenectady.

“I’ve gone from a very narrow way of understanding theology to a much more open-minded way,” he said. “I grew up in a conservative Baptist home, but I was always pushing against the boundaries of their way of thinking. I was ordained as an American Baptist, and technically I’m a member of that denomination. In contrast to the Southern Baptist, they had a tradition of being a very open denomination and priding themselves on their diversity.

“I appreciate all that, but with my own faith journey I don’t feel any one denomination has the corner on any kind of truth. So, I don’t want to be identified with any one group or label. The people who make me the most nervous are the ones who think they’ve arrived. I’ll always be on a journey.”

Writing part of process

A big part of that journey has included writing. Olsen has had three books published, the most recent one titled “The Spiritual Work of Marriage.” He is leading a workshop at the First Reformed Church in Schenectady about the spirituality of marriage.

“I do a fair amount of workshops in local congregations, and I really try to stay connected to the ecumenical community,” he said.

“We do a lot of consulting to mainline congregations around issues like visioning, growth, conflict resolution. We do a lot of testing and assessment for candidates for the ministry, and we do clergy coaching. We’re very much tied to the church community through our consulting.”

Still, it’s the one-on-one approach Olsen enjoys the most, even though on some occasions he and his staff don’t feel they’ve been very successful.

“There are days when you’re going to hear some tragic stories, and those days can be a little draining and discouraging,” said Olsen. “But there are also days that are absolutely exhilarating, and you can see people healing and finding some meaning in their life. When you can see relationships start to heal it’s a very satisfying feeling.”

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]

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