A South Asian Muslim woman in her 20s lives at home with her Muslim family and has been struggling in her relationship with her parents. She feels they interfere with her ability to make decisions for herself and treat her like a child.
The woman decides to go to therapy. After listening to the client talk about the issue, the counselor says, “If you move out, this will no longer be an issue.” But this advice was not helpful, and this woman sought out a different clinician, which led her to Nadia A. Aziz, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) at the Empowerment Therapy Center in Manassas, Virginia.
“The client felt the counselor wasn’t informed on how to deal with issues in a culturally informed manner,” Aziz recalls. “The counselor failed the client by not incorporating [her] values” into treatment.
In South Asian cultures, which embrace the spiritual teachings of Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism, it is expected that adults live at home with their families until they either get married or move away for work or college, explains Aziz, who is South Asian and Muslim.
“A counselor suggesting moving out of a family’s home would be insensitive to the [client’s] cultural and religious needs because the client was not able to move out and it wasn’t a realistic expectation,” she says.
Aziz, a member of the American Counseling Association, worked with the young woman in therapy to set healthy boundaries and develop assertive communication skills so she could express her feelings and needs to her parents in a way that was respectful of her family’s cultural and religious beliefs.
An evolving practice
This scenario is an example of what many clinicians fear — not knowing how to respond to the religious and spiritual needs of a client. J. Scott Young, a licensed clinical mental health counselor and professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Development at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, says his research on religion and spirituality in counseling, which includes conducting counselor surveys, shows that many mental health professionals feel anxious and uncertain about incorporating a client’s faith into therapy.
“They don’t want to do anything unethical,” Young explains. “They’re worried that they don’t know what to do to help people with [these] issues.”
The uneasiness counselors feel stems from a long history of prohibiting the intersection of religion and spirituality in the therapeutic process. In the third edition of Integrating Spirituality and Religion Into Counseling: A Guide to Competent Practice (published by ACA), Young and Craig S. Cashwell point out that “religion has long been a highly controversial topic in the mental health disciplines.” They also note that Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner, two pioneers of psychology, considered religious and spiritual belief systems to be frivolous.
However, the counselors interviewed for this article all agree the counseling profession, and the mental health field in general, has evolved over the years to regard religion and spirituality as important additions to counseling education and practice. And they stress that with the proper education, training, and focused introspection into their own religious and spiritual beliefs, counselors can effectively bring a client’s faith into the therapeutic process, if that is the client’s desire for treatment.
In 2009, the Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC), a division of ACA, developed the Competencies for Addressing Spiritual and Religious Issues in Counseling to serve as a guideline for counselors seeking to incorporate a client’s religion and spirituality into practice. The competencies work in tandem with the ACA Code of Ethics.
Jesse Fox, an ACA member and the current president of ASERVIC, says evidence-based research into the importance and efficacy of religion and spirituality have made them topics for therapeutic exploration.
“The evidence base for interrelationships between spirituality, religion and mental health has grown exponentially,” says Fox, an associate professor of counselor education at Stetson University. “In the most recent systematic review in 2012 produced by Harold Koenig at Duke University Medical School, there were over 3,000 published peer-reviewed studies documenting the connection between spirituality, religion and health. In fact, the number of studies grows exponentially every year.”
This empirical work has mapped out how these domains — religion, spirituality and health — of human experience function psychologically, he explains.
“The net effect is that mainstream mental health models have recognized that spirituality needs to be considered alongside of other dimensions of wellness like emotional health or physical health, as well as intersectional models of identity like race and sexuality,” Fox says.
Religion and spirituality continue to be important to many in the United States. According to a 2022 Gallup Poll, 81% of U.S. adults believe in God. Statistics such as this, Fox says, suggest that religion or spiritual matters will likely be “an aspect of a client’s identity” in counseling.
Young, an ACA member, says research has shown that people who have a faith or religious commitment that supports them tend to experience less anxiety and depression, more stability in their primary relationship, and more stability and commitment in their work and career. This commitment “seems to be sort of a buffer against some of the stressors that they might otherwise face,” he explains. “And if that’s that case, [it] sort of helps to support their mental health as well.”
People often use spirituality or religion to make meaning of their lives, notes Young, who treats clients at Triad Counseling and Clinical Services PLLC, which has offices in High Point and Greensboro, North Carolina. “In counseling, we talk to people about their childhood, their parents, their family drama … [and] their sex life — all these are very personal things for people,” he says. “At times counselors are hesitant to discuss spirituality or religion for fear that it is too personal or that they may misstep.”
Know thyself, know the client
The counselors interviewed for this article say that before attempting to bring a client’s faith into therapy, counselors should thoroughly explore their own religious and spiritual beliefs, or the lack thereof.
“If counselors have not taken the time, or realized the importance of taking the time, to know themselves — their values, their beliefs, their own spirituality and religious preferences — then that’s not going to be a good match for clients who have needs in that area,” says Amy Evans, a licensed professional clinical counselor in Minnesota.
“The challenge is making sure we do not push our own values, worldview and perspectives on our client,” Evans stresses, which is something both the ACA Code of Ethics and ASERVIC competencies make clear counselors should not do. “To make sure we’re not doing that, we have to know ourselves,” she adds.
Aziz says she was able to explore her religious and spiritual identity in undergraduate and graduate school, where she took courses in multicultural counseling and faith-based counseling, as well as other classes that encouraged self-discovery, self-awareness, and exploring one’s own values and biases in the realm of religion and spirituality.
Justin K. Hughes, a LPC in Dallas who offers religious/spiritual integration, most commonly for Christians, says he learned important tools for bringing a client’s faith into treatment from his own experience receiving counseling as an undergraduate student and from the counselors he worked with during his Christian seminary training and clinical internship.
Hughes, owner of Dallas Counseling PLLC, says these mental health professionals set the model for him by being respectful and humble and always asking questions to assess his needs and learn more about his religious and spiritual experiences. He says he now mirrors these traits in his own practice.
Faith and self-disclosure
While it is important for counselors to feel comfortable with their own faith and belief systems, the counselors interviewed for this article agree that it is not necessary for clinicians to share this part of their lives with clients. If clients do inquire about their faith, they advise clinicians to be thoughtful in how they respond.
Young, a past president of ASERVIC, says he doesn’t discuss his spiritual views in session unless the client brings up the topic, and even then, he is careful not to divulge too many details.
“I have, on occasion, had a client who really wanted to know how I see these things, so I always preference [my response] with ‘We’re here for you,’” Young explains, noting that he will then try to explore what salience religion and spirituality holds for the client and what the client may be trying to learn by asking about his beliefs.
“I do not try to deflect or redirect if they are truly curious,” Young says, “but I do want to understand why it is important for them to know my beliefs.”
Aziz says her faith is evident in the photograph she posts on Psychology Today’s directory of mental health providers and her practice’s website. “I wear the head scarf, the hijab, [so] it’s kind of hard to miss,” she says. “A lot of times I do get contacted through those avenues, so I am implicitly disclosing that I am Muslim, and they are looking for a Muslim therapist.”
If clients inquire to know the specifics about her faith, Aziz says she always brings the discussion back to what the client is looking for and what they need in treatment. Although a discussion of Aziz’s faith may sometimes be helpful in building rapport with a client, she is mindful that it is not relevant to the therapeutic process.
“A lot of times it is [about] setting boundaries with them,” she says, “and making sure they understand that the counseling session is not about me, it’s about [them], keeping the focus on them.”
Hughes, who specializes in treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety and related disorders, is a member of the International OCD Foundation, which has been examining the role of religion and spirituality in the treatment of OCD during the past couple of years.
Hughes says he is “usually fairly open about being a Christian” with clients if they bring it up. For example, some of his clients have asked, “Are you a Christian?” “Would you be willing to pray with me?” and “I’m not very religious. Are you OK with that?” He only provides specific information if he feels it will be a therapeutic benefit for the client, which he notes varies case by case.
Counselors do not have to share the same religious or spiritual beliefs as their clients to be effective in therapy, yet for some clients, having a match in faith may matter to the client. Evans, an associate professor and program director of the master’s in counseling program at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, says research shows that what matters in practice is the quality of the therapeutic relationship and the counselor’s responsiveness to the client.
“If a counselor is trained well and really considers the client’s worldview, culture and values — then that can be helpful to the [therapeutic] relationship,” says Evans, an ACA member. A counselor’s training and ability to modify therapeutic techniques to meet the client’s needs is what is most helpful in practice, she stresses, not the counselor’s faith.
Young acknowledges that a counselor’s faith may be important for some clients. If there’s not a match in faith, it may be barrier for some clients who may not feel as safe in the relationship as they should, he explains. But “as long as the counselor is open and meeting the client where they are [and] they’re not anti-religious or struggle with it themselves,” Young says, “it really shouldn’t make much of a difference.”
Broaching the topic
Counselors must first determine a client’s therapeutic needs to find out if they would like to include their faith in counseling. The counselors interviewed for this article suggest bringing up the topic of religion and spirituality in the first session and including it on intake forms.
“One of the most important things is to … broach the topic,” Evans says. “If we don’t let clients know it’s OK to talk about it [religion and spirituality], they may not know it is acceptable to bring it up.”
Evans says counselors should also inquire about a client’s faith on the intake form. Then during the first session, they can ask open-ended questions in response to what clients have shared on the form. Evans provides a few examples of things counselors can say to initiate this conversation:
- It sounds like your spirituality/religion is important to you.
- How might you envision bringing your spirituality/religion into the therapeutic work we are doing?
- You mentioned that spirituality/religion is an important part of your life. How might it relate to the therapeutic goals we have agreed to focus on?
Evans says partnering with the client to agree on goals, including goals surrounding the client’s faith, helps builds the therapeutic relationship so it can be effective and have positive outcomes for the client.
Aziz also brings up the client’s faith during the intake process. “I ask [clients] if there is anything they want me to know about their cultural or religious beliefs and if they are looking for faith-based counseling,” she says.
Aziz notes that about 70% of her clients are South Asian and follow the teachings of Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism or Buddhism, and about 30% are from a different cultural background or faith. So she first works with clients to help them identify their own values. “That gives me a better understanding of what they’re looking for in session, and I tend to take the counseling sessions in those directions,” she says.
Blending faith and counseling
Once counselors assess the religious or spiritual needs of the client, or the lack thereof, they can work with the client in treatment to resolve any issues or explore new insights. Young says bringing a client’s religion or spirituality into practice should be a collaborative process that is not one size fits all.
One approach, he continues, is to ask open-ended questions that explore the client’s thoughts and feelings around their religious or spiritual practices and traditions. For example, he says counselors could ask:
- When or where do you feel most connected to the larger whole?
- What brings you the greatest sense of peace in your life?
- What rituals, if any, do you practice that bring you comfort (prayer, meditation, walks in nature, etc.)?
- Have you thought about using these rituals or practices to help resolve problems?
- Do you have an understanding about a higher power? How is this helpful to you?
Evans co-authored, along with Jennifer Koenig Nelson, an article exploring adapting counseling to clients’ spirituality and religion, which was published in Religions in 2021. In it, Evans and Nelson argue that using the therapeutic approach of cultural humility to incorporate a client’s religion or spirituality into practice can result in positive outcomes for the therapeutic relationship and the client’s treatment goals. Citing Joshua Hook and colleagues’ 2013 article published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, they define cultural humility as “having an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented in relation to another individual’s cultural background and experience, marked by respect for and lack of superiority toward another individual’s cultural background and experience.”
Cultural humility “relates to positive outcomes and reduces power dynamics in the [therapeutic] relationship,” Evans says. “The openness allows the counselor to step back and have the client determine what is most salient to them, rather than the counselor pushing for the client to focus on certain parts of their identity.”
The counselor operating from a stance of cultural humility “allows for the client to determine if spirituality/religion is something important to them [or] salient to the work they are doing in counseling,” Evans continues. The client can then decide if they want their faith brought into counseling.
In their article, Evans and Nelson suggested an adaptation to Hook and colleagues’ guidelines for integrating cultural humility into therapy that focuses on religion and spirituality. Their revised guidelines are:
- Remain humble when engaging with clients around spirituality and religion.
- Do not assume you understand the client’s spirituality and religion based on prior training, knowledge or experiences.
- Explore spirituality and religion with the client to determine what is positive and what might be detrimental in relation to their beliefs.
- Remain curious about the spirituality and religion of the client as it relates to the presenting issues and ask questions when appropriate.
Aziz finds creative ways to incorporate the client’s faith into session when appropriate. If a client is having a hard time controlling their anger, for example, she may integrate the client’s religion into a breathing and mindfulness exercise to help them learn to respond to stressful situations in a healthy way.
In this scenario, Aziz would first ask the client to come up with a word or phrase that is connected to their faith and has a calming effect. The client must be able to repeat the word or phrase with ease. A client may choose the word “patience” as their mantra for breath exercises, for example, because it reminds them of the Islamic scripture “God is with those who are patient,” Aziz says.
She would ask the client to relax and clear their mind of any thoughts. Once the client is settled, she would ask them to take four deep breaths in through the nose, hold for a count of six and then breathe out through the mouth for a count of six. While engaging in this breathing exercise, they would focus on repeating their mantra in their mind. This exercise is a helpful way for clients to calm their body and mind and focus on inner peace, Aziz notes.
Asking clients to select a mantra that resonates with them makes it more likely that they will follow through with the practice on their own, Aziz says, because it helps to make the practice personal to them. And that approach works with clients whether they are religious or nonreligious, she adds.
“If the client requested faith-based counseling, they usually gravitate toward phrases that have religious significance” to them, she says, noting that she may also talk to the client about why the phrase is important to them.
The guided imagery “wise being” exercise (see lifepluswork.com/guided-imagery-wise-being) is another technique that counselors can adapt to incorporate a client’s religion/spirituality, Aziz says. This technique, she explains, allows clients to tap into their own faith and values.
Aziz begins the exercise by asking the client to imagine a safe space where they would feel comfortable having a personal conversation with someone they view as a wise being. The purpose of the conversation is to allow the client to discuss their problem or issue with the wise being without judgment and to receive guidance from the wise being on how to resolve or approach the problem, Aziz says.
“A lot of times people might pick a spiritual guide based on their faith,” Aziz says. For example, a Muslim client may select the Prophet Muhammad, a Christian client may select Jesus Christ or a Buddhist client may select Buddha.
After the client selects their wise being, Aziz asks them to imagine the guide walking toward them to begin the conversation. “It is almost a spiritual moment for them to have this conversation,” she notes. They “may have felt the presence of their spirit guide” during this exercise. And the exercise often provides clients with clarity or helps lead them to what they want to discuss in counseling, she adds.
Aziz leaves the decision to share the details of this conversation with her up to client. Sometimes, it takes clients a few sessions before they are ready to share what they felt or experienced in that moment, she says.
If a client chooses to discuss the exercise with her, Aziz often asks, “Why do you think [the] wise being said what they said?” Then together they process the client’s feelings about the wise being’s message and its meaning. She asks, “How are you going to incorporate [the wise being’s advice] into your life?”
Integrating a client’s faith into session may not be easy for some clinicians. Young reminds counselors that they don’t have to be an expert on a client’s religious or spiritual beliefs to be effective.
“Counselors don’t have to have the answers for [a] client’s faith questions,” he says. “It is an important part of faith development for people to struggle with questions that do not have clear answers.”
Young advises counselors to remember that staying present for the client, being curious about their experience and not projecting their own values onto the client can help to navigate the ups and downs of practice if they are focusing on a client’s faith or another area of the client’s life.
Hughes says counselors must be willing to meet challenges and make reasonable mistakes when bringing a client’s faith into practice, and they must be willing to use compassion to correct themselves. But when counselors deal with religious and spiritual sensitivities, they don’t feel they have any space for errors.
Counselors don’t want to violate the code of ethics, Hughes says, but even if they’re doing therapy competently, they may sometimes ask irrelevant questions or make a human gaff. For example, he once worked with a Jewish client who often brought details about her faith into therapy. But when he attempted to define the Hebrew word “shalom” in reference to the client’s therapeutic goals, the attempt “fell flat,” he recalls.
“I have studied some of the original Hebrew and knew what I was talking about technically,” Hughes explains. But the client “corrected me from her personal understanding, and because I am neither Jewish nor living her life, she had the right to define what the word meant to her in relation to her goals.” This exchange highlights the need for communication and questions as well as the importance of never taking things for granted, he adds.
Fox, executive director of the Episcopal Counseling Center in DeLand, Florida, says navigating a client’s faith can be challenging for counselors when they realize the diversity of religious and spiritual perspectives.
“You encounter a myriad of worldviews, practices, frameworks of meaning, [and] it can be daunting about where to start,” Fox says. It can be hard for counselors to “discern when a client’s religious or spiritual life has become unhealthy,” or if the real dangers of imposing their values onto the client have become evident, he adds.
Fox and Aziz recommend counselors find a mentor or supervisor or seek additional training if they have questions or want guidance on discussing faith with clients. “I think there’s a lot of benefit to talking to colleagues and supervisors [to get] a different opinion or view of things,” Aziz says.
The counselors interviewed for the article agree that clinicians should take advantage of opportunities through professional channels and in their community to learn more about the diversity of religious and spiritual traditions of their clients.
“We learn best by engaging with individuals who are different from us,” Evans says. “Get out there, get to know people, … and be curious.”
She suggests attending different religious services and reaching out to local religious leaders who are open to sharing information about specific religious and spiritual practices.
“[Do] what makes sense clinically,” Evans says. “Start exploring things. … Take the time to be curious and investigate and interact with people outside [your] regular circle.”
Most professional trainings about religion and spirituality are Christian in nature, Aziz notes, so counselors who are seeking guidance about other religious or spiritual traditions should consider reading books or researching multicultural blogs.
Evans, Fox and Young recommend counselors take advantage of the resources offered by ASERVIC, including Counseling and Values (their official publication and one of the oldest peer-reviewed journals on the topic of spirituality and religion), their annual conference and webinars.
Fox serves as co-investigator of the Spiritual and Religious Competency Project (srcproject.org), an initiative funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which aims to provide mental health professionals with basic competencies to address the spiritual and religious aspects of their clients’ lives. His team of researchers are “testing methods of training mental health professionals in spiritual and religious competence” and are tracking how mental health professionals may utilize this training nationwide. They are also “using implementation science to discover the best ways to make this type of training more likely to happen in mental health care in the future,” he says.
The project’s early research has found that more mental health training programs are open to including religious and spiritual studies, but staff lack the training to confidently teach and supervise students, Fox explains.
“Over the next five to 10 years, we are hoping that through our efforts we see this gap close so that every client who brings religion and spirituality into their counselor’s office will be met with competent help,” he says.
Young is also hopeful about what the future holds for the integration of religion and spirituality within counseling. He says the more research that is done in this area and the more conversations that takes place among counselors, the more possibilities there are to expand the reach of religion and spirituality in clinical practice for the benefit of clients.
Lisa R. Rhodes is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.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.