Posted by: counselorcarmella | September 17, 2011

Spirituality and Counseling

There is a lot of confusion around terms like “Christian counseling,” “pastoral counseling,” and  “spiritually oriented counseling.”  This confusion exists among therapists themselves, so it is certainly understandable that the  general public doesn’t know what we’re talking about.  I’d like to share some thoughts on this issue.


In grad school, I took a “Spirituality in Counseling” class. The way terms were defined to me, religion is more external and involves rituals and organized  gatherings, and maybe various “shoulds” and “should nots” that a client will reference  that don’t appear to have been critically examined as far as personal belief. Spirituality can include religious practices, but is more personal and internal. It is more than just a label (I’m Catholic, Muslim,  Pagan, etc.) and is more about  private things like prayer and meditation or  personally chosen values and beliefs about where strength and meaning come from. Spirituality is a client’s relationship with whatever we consider “bigger than/beyond” just   day to day human experience. I think it does relate closely to existential and meaning related concerns but may not have anything to do with going to church or affiliating with a particular group. There are a lot of very spiritual people who want nothing to do with any sort of organized religion.


Pastoral is another word that I think is often misunderstood. It means, I think, a counselor who is  specifically interested in addressing the spiritual in counseling and, oftentimes,  refers to someone who has particular training in order to do so. The American Association of Pastoral Counseling is  made up of people from various  religious/spiritual backgrounds and  requires that members meet certain educational and experiential qualifications involving being able to address clients’ spiritual needs. The American Counseling  Association also has a special  interest division  for those interested in  spiritual and religious aspects of counseling (see below for websites).


By contrast, the American Association of Christian Counselors, for example, is clear that they come from a specific worldview. Some counselors choose to advertise themselves as coming from a particular spiritual/religious perspective and I think that’s fine. Even under that term, though, I suspect  one would get clients with  divergent  views and a good amount of diversity. For example, what I mean when I say I’m Christian may be very different than what someone  else means.


My personal  spirituality is Christian and I  have undergrad degrees in Biblical studies and psychology from a conservativeBibleCollege.  I don’t agree with  everything I was taught there, but do feel I got a very solid grounding in  traditional Christian doctrine and in counseling theory. I can say the second part because I went to a state university for grad school in a program that was  quite humanistic, I think, and  I was well prepared for  theory classes and such.  The college I went to did not  believe counseling had to be strictly from the Bible and taught us a lot about how to combine theology and psychology. We talked a lot about addressing the whole person, including the spiritual, even if  someone’s beliefs were different from our own. The premise is that everyone has a spiritual component of their personhood, whether they connect with that part much or not. I believe this, but  certainly wouldn’t push for a client to  explore this dimension if they said they weren’t particularly religious or spiritual. I just try to gauge for myself if they seem more at the external or internal level with  such matters.


Personally, I never desired to work in a church  setting or environment where I would only work with “Christian” clients.  I wanted more diversity than that.  That’s why I chose a state “secular” program for grad school, among other reasons.  If I had wanted to only work with Christians and counsel sstrictly from the Bible, I suppose I would have  pursued education  more  directly  related to ministry and church related vocations.  I would have  done something besides Professional Counseling, which involves a license and ethical codes I agreed to abide  by that  forbid me from  using my influence to try to persuade people to my way of thinking.  I  never wanted to be clergy or to use counseling for evangelistic purposes.  I don’t want to  be an “advisor” or  to  preach  at  anyone.


The agency I work for now is “Christian” but not associated with a particular church.  We get referrals from Drs and  other sources, as well as from churches. A lot of folks refer to us and probably don’t know that our website says we offer a Christian specialty for those who want that as part of their counseling. We are all  Licensed masters level counselors or clinical social workers and get referrals because we are clinically competent to address serious mental health issues, transitional, and relational problems for  all ages.  We have a  question on our intake form that asks people what religion they  are affiliated with, how important their beliefs are to them, and how much they want that incorporated into their counseling. I will ask clients about religious/spiritual affiliations and explain that I’m just trying to get to know as much about them as I can to know how best to be helpful, just like I  ask about all kinds of other things. Sometimes, religious upbringing is part of what is stressing them out due to guilt or  anger or  whatever. Other times, it is  something they draw strength from.


If clients do seem to have similar beliefs to mine, I’ll sometimes disclose  so we can go ahead  and speak the “same language”  if we both know it. I’ll even ask them if they want me to pray with them at the end of sessions. Many do. For those who’s beliefs are different, I’ll draw from what I know of their belief  system/religion and am very open to letting them educate me and to reading up on  the religion they most closely identify with.  The class I took in grad school involved, in part,  representatives from various religious groups coming and talking with us so that has been helpful.


Some clients do know we’re Christian and come here with certain expectations of what that will mean for their counseling. I have been asked if I would counsel strictly from the Bible.  I say I would not counsel in opposition to the Bible, but that I  also draw on  counseling theory, training and experience.   Some parents have wanted me to help them  get their teenager back on the “straight and narrow” and back into church.  I’ve even worked with a couple of families that hoped I could somehow convince their  teen that they weren’t gay.  In these cases, I talk with the teens about  what it is like to know their parents feel so differently about certain issues and  help them  articulate their own beliefs and feelings.  I let them know I just want them to be honest with me about who they are, and let all  involved know its not in my job description to try and persuade anyone to be a certain way or believe a certain thing. It is not my job to tell people what is right or wrong or what they should do.  It is my job to help them explore these issues and to reflect back what I hear them saying to me about what they value and  how they think and feel.


Just because I’m a Christian, that doesn’t mean I’m always going to be most comfortable with others who say they are “Christian” or that I am the best counselor for them. I have a difficult time with folks who use a lot of the Christian buzz words or jargon and with those who believe mental illness is just a sin, prayer, or faith issue, for example. I have a big problem with judgmentalness and fakeness. I’d much rather deal with an atheist who is genuine than with a supposed Christian who says one thing while doing another. I actually have the hardest time with clients who  come from a very fundamental Christian perspective as opposed to those who just aren’t very religious/spiritual or who  have a different belief system than mine entirely by  label and by  interpretation. Many of my “push button” issues are much more about  legalism and  law being emphasized over grace in the name of Christianity than with people  of other faiths.


It is my personal observation that those with  clear religious values that may be more conservative often feel attacked and ostricized and  that such people are often told  they have to explicitly state what their religion is and shouldn’t  work with clients outside of their faith tradition. I think a competent counselor can  accept clients from various backgrounds, even if he or she  does not believe the same way or agree. Of course, if the counselor knows  something is a “push button” issue or  that there is a definite bias that could cause a problem in therapy, or  if the counselor knows that the client desires counseling by someone who shares their beliefs or can advise according to their beliefs, a referral is in order and appropriate. None of us are value free and we all bring ourselves into the counseling room.  It’s just about how we handle that.



ASERVIC creates an environment that empowers and enables the expression, exploration, development, and research of evolving spiritual, ethical, and religious values as they relate to the person, to society, and to the profession of counseling and human development. ASERVIC is an organization of counselors and human development professionals who believe spiritual, ethical, and religious values are essential to the overall development of the person and are committed to integrating these values into the counseling process. ASERVIC has developed a list of competencies designed to assist the helping professional best address the spiritual and religious issues in counseling.



American Association of Pastoral Counseling

The mission of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors is to bring healing, hope, and wholeness to individuals, families, and communities by expanding and equipping spiritually grounded and psychologically informed care, counseling, and psychotherapy.




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