Counseling Today, Online Exclusives, Opinion

Respecting the faith of clients and counselors

By Laurel Shaler May 20, 2019

The Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC) describes itself as “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.” Although ASERVIC is a division of the American Counseling Association, and all counselors likely would agree to the importance of ethics, not all counselors share the mission of ASERVIC in its entirety.

With some counselors and counselor educators, this is related to a lack of knowledge, in particular because few counseling programs — other than those whose own missions include the integration of faith — address spirituality and religion thoroughly. Still other counselors and counselor educators perceive a value conflict between counseling and religion or spirituality. Although other spiritual, ethical and religious values should be explored, this article pertains specifically to the Christian faith because I believe this is something that is often misunderstood and overlooked by many counselors and counselor educators.

Unfortunately, many individuals in the counseling field are not comfortable addressing issues of faith. Although the majority of Americans highly value faith, the same cannot be said of mental health professionals, according to researcher Pamela Paul. If counseling students are not being trained to assess and treat from a faith-based perspective, how can they best meet the needs of clients who are seeking this?

The lack of comfort and competency in this area is reflected across presentations, publications and even Listservs such as CESNET (the Counselor Education and Supervision Network). At best, this is because of a lack of knowledge, training or understanding. At worst, it is a brushoff of the Christian faith of clients — in particular, if those clients are conservative or evangelical. Sadly, it is not just clients’ faith that is sometimes disrespected. Often, the Christian faith of the counselor is not respected by fellow counselors either.

From a personal perspective, I have seen many professional counselors put in writing disparaging remarks about conservative and evangelical Christians — including their own clients. If these counselors are making those comments publicly, how can we ensure that they are treating their clients who hold these views with authenticity and respect? I have even read where counselors attempt to persuade clients to “explore” their biblical worldviews — with a clear agenda of trying to encourage clients to change their deeply held beliefs. Much like the serpent in the Garden of Eden asks Eve in Genesis 3:1, “Did God really say you must not eat from any tree in the garden?” there are counselors who ask their clients, “Does the Bible really say … <fill in the blank>?”

There may be a place for this — such as when a Christian counselor and a Christian client are working together, based on a common belief system, to explore the truth of God’s Word about who the client is at his or her core, for example — but there is no place to try and convince clients that they are wrong about their biblical convictions.

Simply put, the faith of the client and the faith of the counselor must be respected. It is entirely possible for clients and counselors who do not share a similar faith to work together effectively. The ACA Code of Ethics applies equally to the evangelical Christian who should not force his or her beliefs on to a client as it does to the nonevangelical (Christian or otherwise) who should not attempt to force his or her beliefs on to a client.

Instead of just lamenting over the way that this population of clients and counselors is often discounted, I would like to offer three practical tips for integrating and respecting faith. Truly, this is what is expected of all counselors as they work with clients and interact with colleagues.

1) Listen: As the saying goes, listen to hear rather than to respond. If your first instinct is to prepare a rebuttal, that is a clear indication that you need to take a step back. Understand first, respond second. This is true not only in the counseling room with our clients, but also in communication with our fellow counselors. We should be willing to hear from those who are not like us without making assumptions or jumping to conclusions.

It is not our job to change anyone else’s belief system or way of thinking. While we absolutely should ensure that students and fellow counselors are upholding ethical standards, we should also recognize that we are all different; that is not only “OK,” it is good. For example, on more than one occasion I have worked in non-faith-based settings. When a potential client would come in requesting to see a counselor who was Christian, the client was often referred to me. It wasn’t that the other counselors could not work with the client effectively. Rather, we were trying to listen to the client and meet his or her needs. Instead of going to a place of defensiveness, our team was able to see the benefit of placing clients with counselors who shared similar values with them when possible.

2) Think: Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. We often call this empathy. Ask yourself how you might feel if your deeply held beliefs were brushed off or challenged in a demeaning or disrespectful way. Think through how you would want to be treated, and then treat the other person that same way. Take some time to reflect on what you are hearing before you immediately respond.

Interact critically with what you are hearing. It is unlikely that someone will change their mind because someone has belittled or criticized them, but they may be willing to flex a bit in their thinking if given some time to process. For example, CESNET often becomes abuzz with emails flying back and forth rapidly. What if we took some more time (as some do) to really think through what is being stated before we respond? We talk about the value of silence in counseling. Perhaps it would be helpful if we put that into practice and spent more time thinking and less time speaking.

3) Ask: After taking the time to listen and to think, there is also a time and a place to ask questions. As every counselor learns in a basic counseling skills course, this can be done in a respectful manner. As we all know, open-ended questions typically produce richer responses that contain more depth and meaning. We should make sure that we are not attempting to lead the other person to what we perceive to be the “correct” answer.

Ask to learn rather than to teach. What do you want to know about the faith of the client? Don’t be afraid to ask about the client’s belief system, how they came to that belief system, how they are living out their belief system, and how they want to (or do not want to) integrate their belief system into their counseling sessions.

This does not mean that the counselor has to share the client’s belief system (although they very well may, and there is strength in that too). It does mean that as counselors, we should be able to respect our clients and meet their needs to the best of our abilities.

Evangelical Christian clients — as well as those who simply identify as traditional or conservative — deserve to be heard and treated with dignity and respect, even when the counselor does not agree with their points of views. I also identify as a Christian who is evangelical and conservative, but there are certainly times when I do not agree with all of these clients.

Years ago, I was working with an individual whose relative was dating someone of a different race. Because of my client’s deeply held beliefs, the client became distressed about this. When seeing the young couple together, my client became distraught, went home and attempted suicide.

Was there more going on with this client? Yes. Yet the reality was that this was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. I consulted with a colleague about this case. In the process, I expressed my shock and disdain over someone reacting this way to a relative dating someone of a different race. I did not understand the client’s gross overreaction.

My fellow counselor reminded me of what I have shared in this article — that although I may not always understand my clients’ views, I should strive to empathize with them and that this situation had meaning for my client beyond what I could comprehend. My colleague was neither conservative nor Christian, but she was respectful of all clients — and of me.

Although I viewed my client’s beliefs as a distortion of the Bible, the client and I both identified as conservative evangelical Christians. Yet we have to be able to accept our clients where they are and take them where they desire to go — not based on our own agendas but on theirs. (There are limitations to this, of course, such as in the case of suicidal ideations.) I had to work hard to empathize with my client’s pain while also helping him work on his desired outcome of changing his thoughts and feelings about the situation as he grappled and struggled to accept what he could not change. With proper supervision, I was able to do this and supported this client during his time in counseling.

Likewise, we should be respectful of our fellow counselors. When we make disparaging remarks about people who are not like us — when I make disparaging remarks about people who are not like me — we are inevitably disparaging some of our colleagues. It is one thing for us to challenge one another, hold each other accountable, and even heartily debate. It is another thing entirely to expect that any group of people should change their entire belief system or else not be included in the field.

Conservative or evangelical Christians are not a rogue group or a small group. We constitute a substantial number in the field who share varying views and beliefs. We cannot all be lumped together. Neither can our clients. With so many clients seeking Christian counseling, perhaps the field should recognize the value of having counselor education programs that teach the ethical integration of Christian faith into counseling (while also recognizing that not all graduates from these programs will hang their shingles as Christian counselors). In fact, it may be time for more training programs to address spiritual assessments, religiously accommodated psychotherapy, and the impact of spirituality and religion on both the client and the counselor.

If you do not understand this perspective, I encourage you to get to know us for yourself. Listen. Think. Ask. Most importantly, get to know your clients. And respect them — and us — for who we are rather than for who you want us to be.

 

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There are many excellent resources for the integration of the Christian faith into counseling settings. These books, journal articles and videos provide the research behind and the details about the practice of being an ethical and effective Christian counselor. They make it clear that this type of treatment is not one-size-fits-all, and it can (and should) be provided at the highest competency level. If one wishes to be a Christian counselor, or if one desires to further understand the Christian faith of a client, the education is available and accessible through the works of individuals such as Tim Clinton, David Entwistle, Fernando Garzon, Ron Hawkins, Harold Koenig, Anita Knight Kuhnley, Mark McMinn, Jim Sells, Lisa Sosin, Siang-Yan Tan, John Thomas and many others.

 

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Laurel Shaler is a national certified counselor and licensed social worker. She is an associate professor and the director of the Master of Arts in professional counseling program at Liberty University. Contact her at doctorlaurelshaler@gmail.com.

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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.

7 Comments

  1. Chester Robinson

    Regrettably, I fear that many counselors and counselor educators who might disagree with Dr. Shaler’s comments will choose to discount them because she is a licensed social worker and not a licensed professional counselor.

    Reply
  2. Elaine Garrison

    Thanks for the refreshing and insightful article. Being present with clients of all religious beliefs is foundational to the practice of establishing a good therapeutic alliance.

    Reply
  3. Michelle

    Thank you for a thoughtful article. As a Christian, throughout my graduate program in counseling, I felt that I would be discriminated against if I even “came out” as a Christian! It seemed okay to respect every other world view besides Christianity. It was such a double standard. I am happy to see that someone is brave enough to write an article like this about respecting EVERYONE and meeting ALL clients where they are.

    Reply
  4. Belinda Scott

    Thank you for this article Laurel. I agree with your thoughts. There are times when I become concerned over two things- Christians only seeking Christian counsellor and in doing so may not always find the best fit, and when counsellors struggle to provide the insight into a client’s spirituality because of their own personal experience. I worked in a secular organisation ( in Australia) as a counsellor until recently and the team were very respectful of my personal interest in spiritual factors in counselling. Personally I find most clients open to explore spirituality, it is often an area they have never considered as potential strength and can be pleasantly surprised by the positive effects. I do not push any one theology or religious expression but encourage people to find their core values and sense of life meaning. I think that’s congruent with counselling!

    Reply
  5. Alison

    This is interesting as I have written about the issue of “cultural competency” in my ethics class, and I questioned the idea that counselors should be able to work with ALL types of clients. I suggested that there are times when counselors might want to specialize and work with members of their own community. I used as an example a counselor who is an adherent of Orthodox Judaism, but the same would apply to an Evangelical Christian.

    I am an atheist, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate my clients’ spirituality, and I’m completely comfortable working with clients who are religious — and not. I think we all have to assess what our limitations are, but I am in essential agreement with this article.

    What gets tricky sometimes is when a person’s religious beliefs or lack thereof conflict with a parent’s. I’ve had young clients who are gay for example, and their religious parent had great difficulty accepting their children’s sexual preference. But I didn’t treat the parent so it wasn’t an issue that came up with me. I could see that I personally might find it difficult to work with the parent of one of my clients who holds what I might find a homophobic viewpoint. This stuff can get tricky, can’t it?

    That said, there’s no reason religious counselors should feel hesitant to express their ideas, and I’m happy to see this article. Not all atheists/agnostics are so rigid that they can’t make room for religion. One of the best counselors I ever had was a Methodist minister, and his tolerance for my atheism must have taught me well.

    Thank you for this. I certainly hope that clients can make room for the idea that there are all types of counselors.

    Reply

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