Tag Archives: Spirituality and Religious Values

Spirituality and Religious Values

Spirituality in a church-based counseling program

By Jane S. Joyce October 11, 2017

As a counselor in a group supported by a church, I regularly encounter clients who want to discuss spirituality, or who even want spiritual guidance, assuming that because the counseling department is located within the church building, all the counselors are equipped to be spiritual leaders.

The situation can cause ethical concerns, especially considering Standard A.4.b. of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics: “Counselors are aware of — and avoid imposing — their own values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.” The struggle emerges when clients want to discuss spirituality. Although I wish to stay clear of this topic, it can be misinterpreted as my being uninterested or avoiding the topic, which can lead the client to feel disrespected or unimportant. At the very least, the scenario is challenging.

The role of a counselor becomes blurred if too much emphasis is placed on spirituality; in the client’s eyes, the representation of the counselor’s job changes. For instance, the use of prayer can be risky, perhaps setting the counselor up as an “expert” in addressing God and conveying personal beliefs in the wording or delivery. There may be drastically differing belief systems between the counselor and the client, which could potentially damage the relationship. How can I address this situation so that the client’s beliefs and values are respected, while at the same time I follow my ethical code?

In his book Spiritual Practices in Psychotherapy: Thirteen Tools for Enhancing Spiritual Health (2009), Thomas Plante gives some very thoughtful suggestions on using spirituality in one’s practice. I have listed them here, followed by my personal experience of working with them in my practice.


1) Become aware of your cultural competencies.

I have learned not to be afraid to admit when I am unfamiliar with a client’s belief system. As with all clients, I strive to be respectful and sensitive to them and make notes to guide myself in learning more. Research, research, research: The internet is a treasure trove of information. Take advantage of programs offered by different faiths and different cultures. For instance, in a larger neighboring city, several annual festivals are held that highlight Native American, Hispanic, Asian and Greek cultures. Food, ritual, and crafts abound, and the experience lessens anxieties when working with other races.

In my graduate multicultural course, I was required to experience a different cultural setting. I attended the Hispanic mass at a Roman Catholic church. The mass was in English and Spanish, but the hymns were all Spanish. A little boy helped me sing by pointing to the words as they came up. It was a warm and uplifting evening, showing the importance of faith and family and giving me a new picture of that culture.


2) Take advantage of available resources and programs to increase your knowledge base.

Although I may be a church-based counselor, my job is not to promote my own belief system but rather to be available to hurting people. Learning about these clients’ cultures and beliefs assists me in becoming a better counselor. I mentioned some ways to connect in the previous paragraph, and looking for more opportunities around your area can be a fun way to expand your family’s knowledge too.


3) Consider religion to be like any other type of diversity.

Removing the emotion that can be attached to religion frees me to see it as just another facet of the client, just like race or sex. In fact, it can help me form a more objective view of the client’s total perspective. The ACA Code of Ethics emphasizes the need for counselors to honor diversity and adopt a multicultural approach to treating clients. Spirituality is a part of that diversity.


4) Consult colleagues.

I am fortunate to have three other counselors who are available for “brainstorming” sessions, and I receive differing viewpoints and possible approaches from them. Additionally, the American Counseling Association offers a wealth of resources on its website (counseling.org) that can guide counselors in learning more about multicultural counseling.

At times, the questions raised by clients are above my expertise. For example, one client questioned why she had not been given the desires of her heart when the Bible plainly states they will be granted. With her consent, I emailed the senior pastor and asked for his guidance. His answer was considerate and timely and gave her comfort in the situation.

Additionally, my mentor has a degree in theology, in addition to his counseling degree, and is always available for my queries. Clients appreciate that I will go the extra mile in exploring a matter that has so much importance for them and that I consult with reliable sources. It enhances the counseling relationship.

At times, the problem is deciding whether spirituality works in the treatment plan designed for a client. In his article, “A Qualitative Exploration Into How the Use of Prayer in Counseling and Psychotherapy Might be Ethically Problematic” (2009), Peter Madsen Gubi presented four words that can assist in deciding whether to include spirituality. He refers to it as EBQT, an easy way to remember his guide.

Evidence: Does enough quality evidence exist to support a spiritual adjunct to therapy? For me, this would be the amount of importance the client attaches to his or her spirituality and beliefs. Another decision-making took is determining whether the presenting problem includes a struggle with spirituality, which happens quite frequently in the church setting.

Belief: Is there congruence between the client’s beliefs, the counselor’s beliefs and the relevance of therapy? I see this as meaning do we both agree on the necessity of inclusion, and does respect exist for differing viewpoints? This is where knowledge and respect come into play. I must examine my own beliefs and biases to provide the best care for my client.

Quality: Will this improve the quality of care for the client? Does it enhance or detract? Will it derail what has been accomplished? Will it derail where counseling is supposed to take the client to accomplish his or her goals? I must be brutally honest on this point and be sensitive to where the client leads, not where I want to go.

Time: Can the component of spirituality be addressed in the time constraints of the session, with respect to the client? My sessions are 50 minutes in length. At times, addressing a spiritual problem can take the whole session, or a session might even have to be ended before crucial questions are addressed. I don’t have the luxury of allowing the session to run over because of other scheduled clients. This can be a real concern.

One last consideration does not apply to me but may to other people. Addressing components of spirituality can be tricky when dealing with third-party payers (insurance) because, generally, it is not reimbursable. We do not accept insurance at my church, but many other church-based counseling groups do. The treatment plan must be grounded in applicable theory, with goal-oriented, measurable results, to be reimbursed by insurance. Spirituality may be mentioned, but other treatment options must be included in filing claims. This is another time when consultation with peers is most helpful. Experience is the best teacher.

These recommendations have served me well for the past three years of practice. They have kept me on target and allowed me to provide the highest-quality attention to my clients’ needs without the input of my own beliefs. By following these shared techniques, it is my hope that your own practice will be strengthened and improved.




Jane Joyce is a licensed professional counselor and doctoral candidate at Carson-Newman University in Tennessee. She is a counselor with LifeSource Counseling, First Baptist Church, Morristown, and an assistant to Dr. William Blevins at the Blevins Institute for Spiritual and Mental Health of Carson-Newman. She retired in 2014 from the Tennessee State Board of Probation and Parole after 25 years and began her second career. Contact her at jsjoyce@charter.net.




Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Addressing religion and spirituality in counseling with bullying survivors

By Elizabeth R. O’Brien and Amanda L. Giordano June 5, 2017

The alarming prevalence of bullying in the United States warrants continued education and dialogue among counselors regarding effective ways to serve clients who are survivors of bullying. One aspect in need of more inquiry is the ethical and effective integration of religion/spirituality in clinical work with clients who have experienced bullying.

Bullying, defined as unprovoked abuse in the form of physical, verbal, relational or cyber acts of aggression, can intersect with religion/spirituality in several ways:

a) The experience of bullying can affect clients’ own religion/spirituality.

b) Clients can experience bullying by religious groups or group members.

c) Clients can experience bullying as a result of their membership in marginalized religious/spiritual groups.

In this article, we briefly discuss counseling considerations for each scenario.



Bullying’s impact on survivors’ religious/spiritual beliefs 

Consider the case of “Sara,” a 16-year-old Caucasian high school student. Sara does not fit within the thin ideal that is so prevalent among American high school females. Because of her insecurity regarding her physical appearance, Sara wears dark, loose clothing and tries to hide behind her long hair. Sara’s appearance, coupled with her low socioeconomic status, makes her the target of bullying from her classmates. Her classmates call her degrading names (verbal bullying), and many of her female peers refuse to engage with her at all (relational bullying). The cumulative effect of these daily taunts and exclusion leads Sara to counseling.

Sara’s experience of verbal and relational bullying constitutes a traumatic event. Peer groups are extremely valued and influential during adolescence. Through exclusion by her peers and being a target of their verbal assaults, Sara has cultivated a sense of hypervigilance and feelings of perpetual danger. Additionally, Sara has internalized shame regarding her body image and low socioeconomic status.

During the initial counseling intake, Sara reveals that these experiences of trauma and shame have caused her to question aspects of her religious/spiritual beliefs. Sara identifies as a Christian and reports that she has prayed for relief from bullying. She feels as though her prayers have gone unanswered. She also is questioning her worth to God and ruminating on the thought that perhaps he does not love her.

Sara’s case highlights several counseling considerations. It is clear that her experience with traumatic bullying at school intersects with her religious/spiritual identity. Specifically, Sara has attempted to respond to the bullying by using a religious coping skill (prayer), but she continues to struggle with painful emotions and negative thoughts. Furthermore, she is pondering existential questions concerning the nature of God and her inherent worth but has been unable to find adequate answers.

Therefore, it is important for the counselor to fully assess Sara’s religious/spiritual identity. A thorough assessment in the form of unstructured dialogue regarding Sara’s religious/spiritual history, or the use of standardized spiritual assessment instruments, can help the counselor understand Sara’s Christian identity and worldview.

Through the exploration of Sara’s religious/spiritual identity, the counselor discovers that Sara is uncertain about the concept of prayer and how it applies to her current situation. Sara expresses a desire to learn more about various types of prayer and gain insight into the purpose of the practice. The counselor and Sara agree that she specifically is searching for spiritual direction within the Christian faith tradition regarding the practice of prayer. The counselor provides a menu of options for how Sara might meet this goal. These options include self-study (i.e., reading Christian books and listening to sermons/messages on prayer), meeting with a Christian religious leader or engaging in experiential learning through the practice of various types of prayer (ritual, conversational, centering, contemplative, etc.).

After exploring each option, Sara decides that she would most like to meet with a Christian pastor for an interactive conversation about prayer. The counselor is able to refer Sara to a Christian pastor in the community and helps her set up a meeting. Along with prayer, Sara and
her counselor explore other ways in which Sara can use religious/spiritual coping strategies — such as finding support in her faith community — in response to bullying.

Sara’s experience of bullying has also affected her religious/spiritual worldview by calling into question her perceived value to God. The counselor enters into Sara’s frame of reference to unpack the meaning of her victimization as it relates to her relationship with God. The counselor is careful to utilize the skill of bracketing to avoid imposing her own beliefs onto Sara. Bracketing consists of intentionally compartmentalizing the counselor’s personal values to impartially enter into the client’s worldview.

Through their dialogue, the counselor reflects one of Sara’s core beliefs — that inaction is evidence of dislike. Continued exploration reveals that this belief emerged from Sara’s childhood experiences with her mother. Living below the poverty line, Sara often did not have the same possessions and opportunities as other children her age. She concluded that her mother’s lack of material provision reflected a lack of love and care. Sara then generalized this core belief to her relationship with God: His perceived inaction to stop the bullying constituted evidence of his dislike toward her.

The counselor and Sara examine evidence for and against this belief until Sara develops insight into the limitations of such a dichotomous view. Over time, Sara adopts a more adaptive and nuanced perspective of the meaning of others’ perceived inaction, which helps resolve her spiritual struggle. Throughout this discussion, the counselor is careful to keep in mind models of spiritual development, such as James Fowler’s stages of faith development, to work within Sara’s appropriate developmental level.

These represent only a few examples of how the experience of bullying can affect a survivor’s personal religious/spiritual belief system. Counselors should be skilled and competent in assessing client religion/spirituality, referring or consulting with religious/spiritual leaders, bracketing personal beliefs and considering models of religious/spiritual development in their conceptualization of the bullying survivor.

Bullying by religious/spiritual groups or group members

Next consider “Jacob,” a 31-year-old Black male who identifies as gay. He is employed as an accountant for a trucking and transport company that is characterized by strong Christian values. Working for this company for the past three years, Jacob has continuously dodged questions about his personal life because he fears his co-workers’ reactions to finding out he is a gay man.

A few weeks ago, one of Jacob’s co-workers found a picture on social media, posted without Jacob’s knowledge, that showed Jacob and his partner kissing at a friend’s cookout. Jacob was quickly outed, and his co-workers’ attitudes have become difficult for him to manage. Although some co-workers’ attitudes toward him have not changed, others have become hostile (verbal bullying/aggression). And still other co-workers with whom Jacob had no prior relationship have since approached him to discuss their perceptions of the deviance of his behavior (emotional bullying). Because of recent comments from his boss, Jacob also has learned that his advancement potential in the company has been compromised. These instances are very disturbing to Jacob and trigger his own struggle with how his sexual orientation intersects with his religious faith — a topic he has been avoiding since adolescence.

Jacob’s experiences illustrate how clients might feel that they need to deny or hide aspects of their cultural identity in order to belong to the larger group. This experience becomes even more complicated when individuals are struggling with strongly held values that they perceive to be in direct opposition to each other. To elucidate Jacob’s situation, he grew up in a very religious, Christian household. He learned at an early age that members of his family and faith community believe homosexuality to be in opposition to biblical principles. Jacob continues to value religion and spirituality, but he has struggled to reconcile his affectual orientation and the principles of his religion. These seemingly opposing identities (religious and gay) create internal conflict for Jacob.

Jacob’s counseling journey begins by exploring his experiences with his family of origin and the messages he received regarding religion and sexual identity. His experiences of bullying at work have reignited Jacob’s long-held fears that he will be rejected by those he loves. Specifically, he fears that both his biological family and church family will disown him if he is truthful and open about his life as a gay man. In addition, Jacob’s multiple minority statuses (Black and gay) compound his fear regarding potential discrimination.

Through dialogue and reflection, Jacob and his counselor uncover Jacob’s core beliefs about himself, the world and others, including the notion that God’s love, like his family’s, is conditional and must be earned through correct behavior. Jacob’s counselor is trained in Bowenian family systems theory and works with him to create a genogram to begin assessing the nature of relationships between Jacob and those he identifies as family.

In addition, the counselor prompts Jacob to identify the messages he received from individuals in his faith community, family members and religious texts regarding sexual orientation. This begins Jacob’s process of critically examining the relationship between his religious identity and his sexual orientation. The counselor takes a nonevaluative, neutral stance to allow Jacob to wrestle with his prioritization of multiple aspects of his identity and how he can experience more personal integration. Additionally, the counselor helps Jacob consider how he would navigate situations in which his personal beliefs regarding religion and sexual orientation differ from the beliefs of those in his family of origin.

Through counseling, Jacob gains insight into how his current work situation is triggering emotional experiences of rejection from his adolescence, a time when he was not equipped to deal with those experiences. Jacob’s counselor empowers him to see that he has built the resources and skills over time to negotiate his current situation both at work and in his family. Through this collaborative effort, Jacob is emboldened to contact the human resources department at his work. His experiences of bullying are met with concern, and an intervention plan is created to help manage the situation.

Despite the action taken by the human resources department, Jacob discloses to his counselor that he is in a place of unforgiveness toward the individuals who bullied him at work. He describes feeling withdrawn and cold toward these co-workers, where he once felt they had a collegial relationship. His counselor is careful in addressing these emotions because they likely are the coping mechanisms that helped Jacob feel emotionally safe in the past.

Jacob’s counselor explains that experiencing unforgiveness is a natural part of the forgiveness process. His counselor also is very clear with Jacob that the process of forgiveness is about releasing the hold that negative emotions have on him; it does not mean that Jacob is denying that what happened to him was wrong. As Jacob works on his journey toward forgiveness, he relies heavily on prayer and Scripture. These have always been reliable sources of religious coping for Jacob and help him feel connected to both his religious past and his spiritual present.

Bullying related to one’s religious/spiritual identity

A final way in which bullying can intersect with religious/spiritual issues is being bullied because of one’s membership in a religious/spiritual group. Consider the case of “Malik,” a 22-year old Middle Eastern college student. Malik is a practicing Muslim who is a member of his university’s Muslim Students Association and regularly attends worship at a community mosque. Recently, as a result of growing suspicion of Muslims in America, Malik has experienced both physical bullying and cyberbullying. In one instance, while walking home from campus, he was physically assaulted by a group of male students. They called him a “terrorist” while punching and kicking him. Additionally, he has received threatening messages on social media telling him to leave the country. These experiences led Malik to seek services from his college counseling center.

Malik’s religious/spiritual identity is an important part of his cultural makeup. His worldview is shaped by his understanding of Islam and his desire to adhere to the tenets of the faith. As a member of a marginalized religious group in America, Malik experiences oppression in both covert and overt ways, including the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of Muslims as antagonists on TV and in film, poor customer service at stores and restaurants, and being perceived as suspicious or dangerous by others. Additionally, he now is a survivor of various forms of bullying.

Malik reports to his counselor that he feels conflicted regarding his faith. On one hand, he is devoted to Islam, but on the other, he is ashamed of his religion because of the oppression he experiences. He reports feeling guilty for having negative thoughts about his faith and is struggling with feelings of hopelessness.

The counselor listens to Malik’s account with empathy and sensitivity. As a non-Muslim, the counselor also broaches the subject of this cultural difference. He asks Malik what it is like working with a counselor who does not practice Islam. Malik seems to appreciate this question. He acknowledges being nervous that the counselor will secretly be afraid of him as others have been. Broaching the differences between their religious/spiritual cultural identities and the potential impact of those differences on the counseling process helps provide a corrective emotional experience for Malik, who encounters acceptance and understanding from his counselor.

Within the context of this strong therapeutic alliance, the counselor enters into Malik’s worldview and validates his experience of feeling conflicted about his faith. By exploring his thoughts and feelings associated with his religious identity, Malik discovers that he is not ashamed of being Muslim (individual issue). Rather, he longs to be treated with respect and dignity by those who are not Muslim (systemic issue). This insight leads Malik and his counselor into a conversation about systemic oppression and advocacy.

The counselor describes Malik’s experiences with physical bullying and cyberbullying as barriers to his welfare and personal development on campus. As an advocate, the counselor discloses his responsibility to help remove these types of barriers and challenge injustice against oppressed groups. The counselor presents a variety of advocacy options, and Malik decides that he would like the counselor to act with him as he advocates for himself and other Muslims on campus. Malik and his counselor develop an advocacy plan that includes raising awareness regarding Islamophobia on campus, joining with other religious groups to develop a system of support (such as a buddy system to avoid walking alone at night) and alerting campus police to potential threats against Muslim students. The counselor works to empower Malik to develop the skills necessary to complete his advocacy plan.

As evidenced in this scenario, when addressing religion/spirituality among bullying survivors, counselors need a solid understanding of major world religions and the experiences of marginalized religious/spiritual group members in America. Additionally, counselors should have proficiency in the skill of broaching, defined as ongoing, genuine invitations for clients to explore their cultural identities in session. Furthermore, counselors should be able to recognize advocacy needs and be familiar with advocacy competencies and domains at the micro, meso and macro levels.

Resources for continued growth  

Given the many ways in which bullying and religion/spirituality can intersect, it is clear that counselors must be equipped to integrate these important values into the helping process. Although attention to clients’ culture is mandated by the ACA Code of Ethics and various counseling competencies, many counselors struggle to appropriately address aspects of clients’ religion and spirituality. The reasons for this struggle vary but can include counselors’ belief that they lack appropriate training, difficulty bracketing personal beliefs, countertransference issues regarding religion/spirituality and perceived setting constraints. Regardless of the reason, it is up to the clinician to engage in reflective practices and seek additional training as needed in this area.

Resources that are readily available to aid professionals in this task include the ACA Code of Ethics; the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling’s Competencies for Addressing Spiritual and Religious Issues in Counseling; and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development’s Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies. By increasing their knowledge and skills, counselors can feel competent to
address religion and spirituality with bullying survivors.




Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

Elizabeth R. O’Brien is a licensed professional counselor and the immediate past president of the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling, a division of the American Counseling Association. She currently serves as the counselor education program director at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is a UC Foundation associate professor. She has presented both internationally and nationally on issues related to wellness and beginning counselors, marriage and couples counseling, and spirituality and supervision. She recently completed a co-edited textbook titled Supervision and Agency Management for Counselors. Contact her at Elizabeth-O’Brien@utc.edu.

Amanda L. Giordano is a licensed professional counselor and an assistant professor at the University of North Texas. She specializes in addictions counseling, multiculturalism and religious/spiritual issues in counseling. She serves on the board of the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling and on the editorial review board for the Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling. Contact her at Amanda.Giordano@unt.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org



Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Radical alignment: A psychospiritual approach to conflicting values

By Carol ZA McGinnis August 25, 2016

Standard A.4.b. of the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics notes that “counselors are aware of — and avoid imposing — their own values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors” in an ethical practice. Counselor educators and students often need a practical approach for accomplishing this goal when it comes to conflicting religious or spiritual perspectives in the counselor-client relationship. Through a process of radical alignment, this ethical mandate can be accomplished.

Despite recent legislative trends, most notably in Tennessee, the prohibition of referral due to counselor-client value conflict may present a problem for practitioners who need additional help in adopting a genuine empathetic orientation.

One way to approach this potential dilemma is to adopt a psychospiritual approach that is oriented toward the identification of “common ground” or universal themes that are likely to exist in any counselor-client relationship. This kind of self-awareness and exploration is found in pastoral counseling programs that have a vested interest in integrating a religious or spiritual view in counselor training versus secular versions that tend to view this aspect of the client simply as a component of client diversity. The problem with the latter view is that it discounts intellectual and emotional aspects of religious or spiritual beliefs that inform the counselor photo-1462663608395-404cb6246eaffrom a holistic level. When we are not able to bring our full capacity into the session — if we merely bracket, ignore or set aside this part of our humanity — it would seem implausible to fully attend to a client’s needs.

No empirical research has been conducted on the term “radical alignment.” The idea is supported, however, by the collective works of Kenneth Pargament, Henri Nouwen and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, each of whom contributed to a wider understanding of how religious and spiritual views intersect with human interaction. They determined that religious and spiritual beliefs are an invaluable part of daily living oriented toward meaning, spiritual growth and our identity as a member of a larger community.

Recognition of universal themes that connect all people regardless of faith tradition, spiritual orientation or creed can provide the counselor with valuable insight into the inner workings of the client without compromising the counselor’s core beliefs.


Authenticity and trust

The idea of radical alignment begins with the premise that the humanistic principles of authenticity and trust must reside at the core of the counseling relationship. We find these same fundamental principles in the ACA Code of Ethics as veracity and fidelity, which seem difficult, if not impossible, to promote when personal values have been completely removed from the interaction.

Although counselors are health professionals much like physicians and nurses, we rely on the establishment of rapport in the counseling relationship, which is more akin to religious confession than a physical checkup. In this complex aspect of the counseling relationship, only the affirmation of commonly held beliefs and values can provide a tangible path to an ethical practice.

The crux of the problem then becomes more about the “how” of finding solid ground when a counselor’s and client’s beliefs and values clash. How does the counselor begin to determine these elements to connect, or align, with the client? The answer is to return to the fundamentals of what it takes to provide a comprehensive counselor education: the development of appropriate awareness, knowledge and skills (http://www.cacrep.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/2016-CACREP-Standards.pdf).


Awareness, knowledge and skills

To accomplish this, counselors-in-training need practice in exploration and self-awareness activities that will help them to identify and validate their own beliefs and values. These activities will increase their knowledge of religious or spiritual language and behaviors that may alienate clients who hold very different views, while also helping them develop skills for determining universal themes through which radical alignment can occur.

Awareness in this capacity might involve exploration of previous beliefs and values that have stayed consistent or changed over the counselor-in-training’s lifetime. Core values may be highlighted through activities such as journaling, digital storytelling and discussion board exchanges in an online environment. Through these activities, counselors-in-training can learn how to communicate specific meanings, values and beliefs that they have attributed to specific life events and that might guide their day-to-day decisions.

Face-to-face exploration might involve dyad or group activities that include the creative expression of core beliefs. This could involve sharing symbols, rituals, sacred texts or even types of food that help to bring about deeper awareness of how beliefs and values are affirmed and communicated.

Gaining knowledge of what others believe, with attention given to ritual, family tradition and sacred texts, can help counselor-in-training learn about language and actions that clients could interpret as hostile or distancing. When structured responsibly, respectful exposure to various religious and spiritual views can help affirm the belief systems of counselors-in-training and provide a deeper understanding of how these values may fit within the larger context of other worldviews.

This process should not be part of a master plan to bend or subordinate individual beliefs. Rather, it should highlight similarities and differences that can be important in counseling. For example, the concept of prayer may seem universal to one student until further exploration highlights how this term can mean very different things to different clients, or even potentially have no connection to clients who hold Eastern religious/spiritual views.

To determine universal themes, the counselor-in-training must learn to identify client beliefs and values that may be related to the client’s presenting problem without feeling threatened. Although it is still possible for unexpected countertransference to occur, previous exploration and awareness of counselor beliefs will mitigate this response and allow the counselor to focus on determining underlying universal themes. Even if these themes are not completely consistent with the client’s views, recognition of these elements can help the counselor to align with the client in a radical way.

Let’s say, for example, that the counselor-in-training is a Pentecostal Christian with devout beliefs that relate to the sanctity of marriage. The client, meanwhile, professes no particular faith and engages in casual sex with many partners. Further exploration of the client’s values may result in the prioritization of truth as a core belief. This value would be understood as a universal theme that cuts through religious and spiritual orientation and can provide the counselor with a platform to align with the client. The counselor-in-training may not be able to genuinely empathize with the ramifications of the client’s sexual promiscuity, but her desire for truth in all relationships would be a place where radical alignment could occur.

So too might a Muslim counselor-in-training who possesses a strong religious belief to honor his father and mother connect with a client who regularly lies to his parents through a shared universal theme of a desire for justice. This focus would permit the counselor-in-training to be genuine in his empathy for the client who feels bullied and ignored by those people who are closest to him in his life. Through radical alignment, the counselor-in-training could build trust with this client. That sense of trust would be needed by this client to help him move away from self-destructive behaviors and toward healthier goals that have been identified in an authentic counseling relationship.

In short, this process occurs through three steps:

1) Collect and identify client beliefs and values associated with the presenting problem.

2) Determine a core belief that can be understood as a universal theme that is shared by the counselor-in-training.

3) Engage in radical alignment with the client to promote fidelity and trust in the counseling relationship.





Carol ZA McGinnis, a licensed clinical professional counselor and national certified counselor, is a pastoral counselor and counselor educator who specializes in anger processing. Her passion involves teaching with attention paid to religion and spirituality as positive factors in both counseling and counselor development. Contact her at cmcginnis@messiah.edu.




Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.



Behind the book: Critical Incidents in Integrating Spirituality into Counseling

By Bethany Bray July 10, 2015

Professional counselors must consider the entirety of the human experience with clients, an experience that includes spirituality.

Leaving spirituality out of the counseling process does a disservice to the client, say Tracey Robert and Virginia Kelly, licensed professional counselors (LPCs) and co-editors of Critical Incidents in IBranding-Box_Critical-Incidentsntegrating Spirituality into Counseling.

A separate concept from religion, Robert and Kelly define spirituality as “the pursuit of meaning and purpose in life, often individual to clients, including the influence of their belief system and worldview and their values as they face the challenges of life events.”

“Wellness, a foundational construct of the counseling profession, places spirituality at the person’s core. Ignoring this domain can result in a lack of understanding of the client’s worldview and an insensitivity to multicultural issues. Both can be detrimental to the counseling effort,” write Robert and Kelly in the book’s introduction. “In counseling, as in many disciplines, the only constant is change. The counseling field has evolved in recent years to accommodate clients’ changing needs and increasingly has recognized the important role the spiritual domain can play in meeting them.”

Robert and Kelly’s book, published this year by the American Counseling Association, provides cases and examples of ways to incorporate spirituality into counseling, from working through grief and loss to eating disorders and career counseling. The books final section delves into spiritual interventions that can be used in counseling, including meditation, group work and prayer.



Q+A: Critical Incidents in Integrating Spirituality into Counseling

Responses by co-editors Tracey E. Robert and Virginia A. Kelly


What do you hope counselors take away from the book about this topic?

With the growing recognition of the importance of the spiritual domain, there has been an increased need for training materials and strategies for integrating this topic into counseling. Our hope is that counselors will find this casebook a useful tool for a holistic approach to the counseling process and training future counselors.


The Association of Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC) developed competencies on spirituality and counseling in the 1990s. What would you want an experienced, veteran counselor — one who may have completed grad school before the ‘90s — to know about this topic?

Our hope is that any professional counselor will be familiar with the most updated ASERVIC competencies. These competencies have been endorsed by ACA and serve as the standard for integration of spirituality and religion into professional practice.

An experienced, veteran counselor needs to adhere to the same ethical (code) that suggests recognition of the importance of the spiritual domain.


In your opinion, what makes professional counselors a “good fit” for integrating spirituality into therapy? What unique skills do they bring to the table?

Our (counselor’s) emphasis on a developmental perspective and a wellness model makes our profession a good fit for inclusion of spirituality into counseling. Jane Myers’ model of wellness has spirituality at its center.

The key skill would be the focus on the relationship that includes the whole person and examines the client’s worldview.


What advice would you give a counselor who is not spiritual or religious themselves about working with spiritual or religious clients — and vice-versa?

The same advice I would give a counselor to work with diverse clients whose worldview differs from their own: This is part of being multiculturally competent and constitutes professional ethical practice.


The Pew Research Center recently released data that shows a growing number of Americans, especially young adults, do not identify with any organized religion. Do you think this will affect the work counselors do? (If so, how?) Is there anything you would want counselors to keep in mind about this?

No I don’t think this will affect our work. We have distinguished spirituality from religion by defining them separately and then we focus on the client’s worldview. It requires that counselors are able to assess the client’s spiritual/religious values and to address them in counseling if they choose to.

But with more young adults not having an organized religious connection, we may see alternative connections to spiritual practices filling the need for community.


What makes you, personally, interested in this topic?

We have both been interested in this topic for a long time. Tracey’s interest was influenced by her work as a career counselor when clients were seeking meaning and purpose in life. Ginny’s scholarly interest emerged from her research in the treatment of substance abuse and addictions that has always incorporated a spiritual component.


What prompted you to collaborate to create this book? What made you want to include case studies?

Both of us have had a scholarly interest in spirituality and counseling. Ginny (Kelly) had edited Critical Incidents in Addictions Counseling (published by ACA in 2005) and suggested that this format has served as a valuable resource in several counseling arenas (e.g., school counseling, group counseling, addictions counseling). We decided to collaborate on a similar project related to spirituality. Tracey (Robert) then took the lead on the project.




Critical Incidents in Integrating Spirituality into Counseling is available from the American Counseling Association bookstore at counseling.org/publications/bookstore or by calling 800-422-2648 x 222




About the editors

Tracey E. Robert is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and associate professor and director of clinical training in the Counselor Education Department at Fairfield University in Connecticut. She is current president of the North Atlantic Regional Association for Counselor Education and Supervision and a past president of the Association of Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC), a division of the American Counseling Association.

Virginia A. Kelly is also an LPC and associate professor in the Counselor Education Department at Fairfield University. She is past president of the International Association of Addictions and Offender Counseling (IAAOC), a division of the American Counseling Association, as well as the North Atlantic Regional Association for Counselor Education and Supervision.





Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org


Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook: facebook.com/CounselingToday


Preparing tomorrow’s counselor for post-conventional faith

By Zvi J. Bellin June 23, 2015

The Pew Research Center’s 2014 survey on the landscape of religion in the United States showed a drastic change in the way people relate to religion and spirituality. Those who identified with the pray_hands_smallcategories of “unaffiliated” or “nothing in particular” reached 38.6 percent of the population, suggesting a crack in the United States’ identity as one of the world’s most religious countries. However, 84.1 percent of those surveyed who identified as unaffiliated or nothing in particular still demonstrated some degree of belief in God or a higher power or deemed religion as important. Furthermore, there was an increased level of diversity within every category of religion.

Counseling students can expect to encounter clients who no longer fit neatly into conventional religious categories. So the question becomes, how can counselor educators adequately prepare tomorrow’s counselors for the evolving landscape of religion and spirituality? The answer is in our ability to provide expanding definitions, examples, theoretical frameworks and training activities.


It is crucial for counselor educators to define the nuanced relationship between religion and spirituality. Both concepts require separate, though related, awareness on the part of counselors. Informed by the writings of P. Scott Richards, Allen E. Bergin and Kenneth Pargament, religion can be explained as a subset of the spiritual. Religion tends to focus on institutionally held dogmatic beliefs, practices and feelings, while spirituality is a relationship with the sacred that tends to be more personal, fluid and affect-oriented.

When teaching about this distinction, I project an image of a framed photograph — for example, a picture of a flower — that is growing out of its frame. The frame represents the necessary religious rules and dogmatic boundaries that provide the structure for expressing one’s religious or spiritual identity. The subject of the picture (the flower growing out of its frame) is symbolic of the spiritual and gives purpose to the frame. However, in its transcendence of the frame, the subject of the picture also represents the function of spirituality that might lead an individual to explore beyond the defined rules.

Creating a distinction between religion and spirituality can sometimes lead to seeing the two as dichotomous. Perhaps religious dogma takes on all of the negative qualities of faith — for example, in the concept of rejecting a community member on the basis of sexual orientation. Spirituality, on the other hand, may be given all the credit for the transcendent aspect of faith practice. A more objective picture will see each side of the religious-spirituality coin as containing both beneficial and challenging characteristics. It is important to emphasize that religion and spirituality have been associated with both mental health benefits and struggles.

Post-conventional faith speaks to the emerging and blended religious and spiritual identities that defy the classically neat categorizations of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and so on. Post-conventional faith can be seen in James Fowler’s stages of faith development as an individual moves from an acceptance of a socially prescribed faith framework to a complex resolution of a conflict between the individual’s experience of the world and the previously accepted faith.

What follows in the next section is an example of an organizational expression of post-conventional faith. Although this example can be used to educate counseling students, it is important to emphasize that the allowance of diversity and fluidity within the group speaks more to post-conventional faith than does the group itself.

Example of post-conventional faith

Since 2007, the organization Kohenet (which means “priestess” in Hebrew) has trained and ordained Hebrew priestesses. The mission statement of Kohenet (kohenet.com) includes that it “revives and re-embodies Judaism through the gifts of women spiritual leaders and through experience of the sacred feminine. Kohenet facilitates the creation of transformative Jewish ritual that is embodied, earth-based, feminist and inspired by traditions of women’s spiritual leadership.” This statement is in stark contrast to the traditional male-dominated leadership of the Jewish community and the traditional image of the Jewish God as characteristically masculine.

The “mission” page on Kohenet’s website provides further insight into the organization’s post-conventional faith expression: “We seek to serve the Shekhinah [sacred feminine] through traditional mitzvot like the practice of caring for the mourner and rejoicing with the bride, and also through honoring ages and stages of women’s lives that previously went ignored. We seek to be transmitters of Jewish tradition and practice, and also to evolve Jewish tradition and ritual to acknowledge the emerging needs of Jewish women and the planet as a whole. We seek to honor traditional images of the Divine, and also to make the Divine feminine a full part of our liturgy, ritual and lives. … This experimental model of spiritual practice and leadership offers an embodied, ecstatic earth-based approach that is interconnected with all life.”

Kohenet is an organization rooted in Jewish culture, but it in no way fits into, or intends to fit into, a conventional Jewish framework. The organization’s inclusion of Goddess spirituality, “Jewitchcraft” and paganism can be seen as directly opposed to traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. The founders of Kohenet and cohorts of Hebrew priestesses challenge these conventional assumptions and make space for their religious and spiritual paradigm in part by using the same tools of hermeneutics and creative interpretation that allow the conventional Jewish perspective to be redefined from generation to generation. (For example, see Sisters at Sinai by Jill Hammer.)

Kohenet’s work is making space for the voice of Jewish women to be heard in new ways and is drastically challenging the classic boundaries of Judaism in general. Kohenet has stepped far past convention, serving as an example of a movement that is inspiring post-conventional faith.

Theoretical frames for post-conventional faith 

To help counseling students understand post-conventional faith from a theoretical perspective, I suggest teaching Crystal Park and Susan Folkman’s Meaning Making Model and Kenneth Pargament’s concept of search for the sacred. Both frames have been used to explain the nature of growth in the face of spiritual struggle. The first takes on a meaning perspective, while the second deals directly with language of the sacred. The theories help explain how post-conventional faith develops for clients.

Meaning Making Model

Post-conventional faith can be explained in terms of meaning because religion and spirituality are ultimately meta-meaning frameworks in which people orient their lives and provide a sense of cohesion. The Meaning Making Model deals with two levels of meaning: global and situational.

Global meaning is the comprehensive meaning framework held by an individual. It is composed of one’s beliefs and values about the way things are and how they ought to be. For example, a traditionally religious Catholic will most likely believe in God’s eternal goodness and that everything happens for a reason. Situational meaning, on the other hand, is the appraised meaning ascribed to a situation that one encounters in life. The meaning of a situation is appraised from the perspective of one’s global meaning. The Catholic believer encountering serious illness, for example, might be challenged in his or her belief in God’s ultimate goodness.

From this conflict between global and situational meaning, meaning making can arise in at least two ways. The believer might reappraise the situation so that it can be better assimilated into the global meaning framework. Thus, illness becomes a test that brings a person to a deeper level of faith. God remains good and in control. Alternatively, one’s global meaning can be altered to accommodate the appraised meaning of a situation. In our example, the Catholic believer might consider that not everything happens for a reason but that God ultimately can be found in the community support that brings comfort and nurturing.

The Meaning Making Model can be used to help counseling students understand the narratives from which a post-conventional faith identity emerges. Most clients and counseling students themselves are born into some faith tradition (global meaning) that becomes a source of struggle (situational meaning) at different times in their lives. One might imagine the variety of possible life narratives that would result in someone finding a spiritual home in an organization such as Kohenet. Similarly, the Meaning Making Model can help make sense of the high percentage of people who believe in some form of a higher power yet remain unaffiliated in their religious identity.

Search for the sacred 

In this construct, sacred is defined as any aspect of life that is seen as connected to divinity. A person first encounters something sacred through a social or personal experience. For example, an individual is born into an Orthodox Jewish family and is raised to conceptualize the sacred through the lens of Orthodox Judaism. Once established, a person will go to great lengths to conserve his or her relationship with the sacred. Thus, at first, an Orthodox Jewish man will most likely deny any homosexual desires that might arise because, according to the Orthodox Jewish interpretation of the Bible, homosexuality is abhorrent.

At some point, one’s relationship to the sacred is challenged by internal or external changes. To continue our example with the Orthodox Jewish man, his same-sex attraction becomes so strong that he can no longer pray with his community without becoming aroused. These spiritual struggles challenge his relationship with the sacred so fiercely that conservation is no longer possible. He may now experience an interruption in his search for the sacred. For example, he may disavow the Orthodox Jewish conception of God completely or be propelled to seek out the sacred in a new way, such as embracing a more personal experience of the divine that accepts the spiritual potential in same-sex attraction.

This search for the sacred can be applied to the spiritual journeys of clients and students alike who have transcended conventional faith identities in favor of more nuanced and complex sacred expressions.

Training recommendations for counselor education

Classroom experiential activities are one way that future clinicians can gain both comfort and competence in working with clients who express post-conventional faith. An important step in training counselors is to help them become aware of the potential biases that exist when they encounter religious and spiritual language.

An exercise to uncover these biases involves preparing several PowerPoint slides, each containing a single word or phrase that is associated with religion and spirituality. For example, separate slides might contain the following words or phrases in large, bold letters: God, Divine Mother, Blood and Body of Christ and Pagan. Instruct students to attend to the physical sensations, emotions and thoughts that arise as they are shown each new word or phrase. After displaying each word or phrase, ask students to share what they are experiencing. Trainees can witness their own automatic internal responses to a variety of religious and spiritual language, and they can see how their peers might react in ways that are different or similar. At the conclusion of the exercise, ask participants to reflect on how their reactions might have surprised them or what insights arose knowing that their peers experienced different internal responses.

With these personal biases exposed, counselor educators can facilitate an exercise in which students expound on their own religious and spiritual identities, values and beliefs, increasing the sense of religious and spiritual diversity that exists within and between individuals. Janine Roberts shared the following exercise in a chapter appearing in the text Spiritual Resources in Family Therapy, published in 2009. The exercise is called On the Line: Voices and Views.

In this activity, students are asked to clear a space in the middle of the classroom stretching from one end of the room to the other. One end of the line across the classroom is designated as “highly agree,” while the other end is designated as “highly disagree.” The instructor projects multiple PowerPoint slides, one at a time, each containing a different phrase that shares an opinion held about religion and spirituality. For example, I use the following statements:

  • Everyone should be able to find their unique blend of religion — the more choices the better.
  • Everyone is spiritual, even if they identify as agnostic or atheist — even if they choose not to express their spirituality.
  • I believe there is a force of goodness in the world and that everything happens for a reason.

As each statement appears, participants stand along the line in the place that symbolizes their degree of agreement or disagreement with that particular statement. Students can be asked to turn to someone standing near them to discuss why they chose that position. Next, they can be directed to find someone standing elsewhere on the line and discuss why their positions differed. Alternatively, a selection of students along the line’s continuum can share out loud why they chose their current position.

The goal of these exercises is to tune students in to their own religious and spiritual beliefs, expose them to a variety of other religious and spiritual beliefs, and learn how to manage their expectations and reactions to an endless array of faith identities that exist outside of themselves.


Counselor educators have a responsibility to help students think beyond conventional faith designations. Post-conventional faith speaks to the increasing diversification of religion and spirituality in the United States.

Groups such as Kohenet provide real-life examples of post-conventional faith expressions. The two frames of meaning making and the search for the sacred can help students understand how post-conventional faith develops. Because of ever-expanding faith expressions, counseling students need to be taught to take a narrative approach to assessing for spirituality and religion.

Finally, I shared two experiential exercises that I use to help future clinicians achieve greater comfort and competence in dealing with post-conventional faith. Please be in touch with me as you try these exercises and as you create your own.


This article was adapted from a previous article published in VISTAS 2014 (see counseling.org/knowledge-center/vistas).



Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

ZviBellinZvi J. Bellin is an assistant professor of holistic counseling at John F. Kennedy University. Contact him at zbellin@jfku.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org