Posted by: counselorcarmella | September 27, 2011

My Experiences Integrating Spirituality and Counseling In the College Counseling Setting


Integrating spirituality and counseling has been of interest to me since I made the decision to become a therapist when I was about 16. This is probably because, when I set my sights on this career path, I was becoming increasingly committed to my own spiritual beliefs and practices.  During my undergraduate psychology training, which largely focused on counseling, I attended two religious colleges.  Though I didn’t know the terminology for it at the time, I did this out of a desire to incorporate my own spiritual beliefs with what I was learning about people and how to work with them. I was able to interact with professors and other students who were committed to their own spiritual growth, and believed the spiritual dimension was important for their clients, as well.  Admittedly, the schools I attended, and the vast majority of professors and students, were of one specific religion and approached spirituality accordingly. Still, spirituality was recognized as a vital component of people’s lives.


I decided I wanted to complete my graduate training at a state university, rather than at a seminary or school with a particular religious orientation. I felt that I had enough of a grounding in counseling and spirituality to continue integrating the two, regardless of my educational setting. During graduate school, I took an elective course on counseling and spirituality that helped me address this integration from an academic perspective.  This course approached the subject matter from various religious viewpoints and focused on the differences and similarities between religion and spirituality. Exposure to this broader perspective was very interesting to me, and I felt comfortable learning about ways of approaching spirituality other than my own. I enjoyed the class, and came away from it with a better understanding of various religions and ways of integrating spirituality into one’s personal life and counseling work.


Though I was of a definite religious belief system and background, I had decided before completing my undergraduate training that I did not want to do my practicum and internship work in a setting that would only expose me to clients of my own religion. Specifically, I did not want to work in a setting where I would only be counseling other Christians.   I applied to complete the clinical portion of my graduate training at my university’s counseling center. During my interview with the center’s director, he zeroed in on my undergraduate studies at religious colleges.  He asked me about my personal values and spirituality, and how I thought that would influence my work with clients. He had concerns about value conflicts and whether or not I would try to influence clients to believe the way I did.  He also wondered about my ability to work with certain types of clients and specifically mentioned topics such as abortion and homosexuality. 


I replied honestly that I had wondered about the same things throughout my graduate training. Fortunately, I’d put a lot of critical thought into these matters. On several occasions, I sought to articulate my opinions about such topics during email discussions with other graduate students from various parts of the country who were grappling with similar issues, or who wondered how counselors with specific religious beliefs would handle certain situations. I shared some of the conclusions I’d come to during my interview with the center director.


I said that I did not want the responsibility of telling people what was right or wrong, and did not feel a need to make such judgments with clients.  I knew this was not part of my job as a counselor. I could have studied to become a member of the clergy if I felt it necessary to moralize or evangelize.    I stressed that I did not feel a sense of conflict around keeping opinions about certain behaviors or beliefs to myself. I knew that my rather conservative values would most likely not be the same as the values of many students I would counsel. That was neither surprising nor offensive to me.  My task as a counselor was to accept each person as they were and to understand how they viewed the world.  I said that I could separate my feelings about certain behaviors from my feelings about the people who engaged in them so that I could genuinely care about each client. In fact, since I believed each person was created by God, I explained, it was easy for me to respond to each client as unique and as someone who was both loved and valued by their Creator, even if I did not personally find them all that likeable.


I stressed that I would not, and could not, separate who I am as a person from who I am as a therapist, however. As part of my own beliefs, I told him that I valued prayer. I said I would privately pray for my clients and for each session. I would pray in a brief open-ended way that did not include agendas or attachment to particular outcomes. I would pray for those who came to me for counseling out of a place of caring and concern and would pray that I would have the skills to be helpful, and that we would have the kind of therapeutic relationship that would foster growth and change. He must have felt okay about what I said, because I got the placement. In fact, I had supervisors who were also spiritual people. I shared similar beliefs with both of them, and we were able to openly discuss how we managed our own spirituality and values when working with clients. Their insights and experiences were extremely helpful to me as I set about figuring out how to integrate my own spirituality into my work as a therapist, and as spirituality came up with various clients.


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