Tag Archives: Spirituality and Religious Values

Spirituality and Religious Values

In search of an affirming faith

By Laurie Meyers July 25, 2018

One of Cyndi Matthews’ most vivid memories of growing up in a fundamentalist Christian church was watching the minister point at her brother’s best friend during a service and say, “You don’t belong here. Get out.” The reason? The boy was gay.

Matthews, a licensed professional counselor supervisor (LPC-S), says that incident was her first glimpse of a pattern of spiritual abuse directed at congregation members who identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning (LGBTQ). The animosity that leaders of the church held for LGBTQ members did not fit Matthews’ conception of Christianity. This religious cognitive dissonance would lead her to leave the church and subsequently focus her research and counseling practice on spiritual abuse.

Matthews, a member of the American Counseling Association, sees many LGBTQ clients in her Garland, Texas, private practice who struggle to reconcile their religious beliefs and experiences with their affectional orientation or gender identity. Many of these clients grew up internalizing a message that it wasn’t just their identity or orientation and behaviors that were wrong, but that there was something “wrong” with them as people, she says.

The LGBTQ community has frequently encountered intolerance from religious institutions. Although there are religious traditions that are affirming and open to LGBTQ people, many are not, says Misty Ginicola, lead editor of the book Affirmative Counseling With LGBTQI+ People, published by ACA. Nonaffirming religious groups usually have markedly rigid beliefs — there is wrong and there is right, and nowhere in between, she says. These are the voices that call for anti-LGBTQ legislation under the guise of exercising their religious freedom. As a result, even LGBTQ individuals who do not identify as religious are affected by nonaffirming religious beliefs, points out Ginicola, a member of ACA.

This conflict has produced not just a broader culture clash, but in some religious traditions, a pernicious history of rejection and outright abuse of LGBTQ individuals. Many of Matthews’ LGBTQ clients have been subjected to a wide range of religiously sponsored or endorsed abusive techniques intended to “cure” them. One client — a gay male — was not allowed to cross his legs or wear pink. He was directed to pray anytime he had “gay” thoughts and to replace “gay behavior” with Scripture reading or increased proselytizing. Other of Matthews’ clients were sent to church-sponsored “reparative” retreats where they were prayed over or even subjected to “exorcisms.” Matthews, an assistant professor of counseling at the University of Louisiana Monroe, has also been told about particularly horrific techniques such as forced ice baths and electroconvulsive therapy.

The emotional and even physical abuse that some LGBTQ individuals from strict religious traditions experience is so traumatic that Matthews says all of the survivors she has encountered in her practice were actively suicidal or had been suicidal in the past. At the same time, because clients from strict religious traditions have internalized the idea that what they are told in their churches is God’s word, it is often difficult for them to label their experience as abuse, she says.

Even LGBTQ individuals who break away from their religious traditions so they can fully embrace their affectional or gender orientation have a hard time discounting what they were taught. If someone who identifies as LGBTQ has been told from a young age that they are inherently wrong and immoral, it creates an inner message that lingers, says Ginicola, an LPC in West Haven, Connecticut, whose practice specialties include LGBTQ issues.

Brady Sullivan, a provisionally licensed professional counselor specializing in LGBTQ issues, has worked with clients who believed God hated them. “Every time they engage in sexual or romantic behavior or participate in pride activities, they feel an overwhelming sense of guilt,” he says.

Examining beliefs

Matthews says that, despite their experiences with spiritual abuse, some of her LGBTQ clients still want to find a way to reconnect with religion or at least retain a sense of personal spirituality. Others no longer want anything to do with religion; they come to counseling to untwine the message of being sinful or wrong from their sense of self and sexuality or gender identity.

The therapeutic relationship that is the core of counseling is especially crucial with clients attempting to navigate a conflict between their religious upbringing or current beliefs and their identity as LGBTQ, Matthews says. When people have been taught to seek comfort and strength from a religious tradition that then ends up rejecting them, it feels like a violation of trust, she says. Unfortunately, that sense of rejection can be further compounded when people in the LGBTQ community seek therapy from a practitioner who turns out to be nonaffirming. Matthews always asks clients if they have previously been in counseling and, if so, what that experience was like. This information helps her to address the therapeutic trauma that some LGBTQ clients have experienced.

Matthews screens for spiritual abuse as part of her intake process. She asks clients about their religious background and beliefs and if their experiences are something they would like to address as part of the counseling process. She says that LGBTQ clients from strict or fundamentalist religious backgrounds are highly likely to have experienced spiritual abuse, so the question usually isn’t “if” they will need to work through their experiences, but “when.”

These clients don’t always disclose or even perceive a history of spiritual abuse. However, counselors can look for a number of red flags, Matthews says. These include clients who:

  • Talk about how they are the cause of their own suffering and need to attend church more and to be more faithful and forgiving to alleviate their suffering.
  • Display magical thinking attached to “good” and “bad” behavior; they commonly believe that accidents, illnesses and other tragedies are the result of their “sinful” behavior.
  • Have a difficult time setting boundaries and saying no because of underlying guilt and shame.
  • Feel powerless to take action or make decisions because they fear repercussions from family members, church members, church leaders or their personal deity.

It is critical that counselors understand their role as helping professionals dedicated to providing a safe and affirming space for all clients, including those who are LGBTQ, says Ginicola, a professor of counseling and school psychology and coordinator of the clinical mental health counseling program at Southern Connecticut State University. Simply sitting with clients, supporting them in their pain and validating their experiences helps the healing process begin, she says.

Once clients are ready to talk about their conflicted views and feelings related to their sexual or gender identity and their experiences with religion, Matthews helps them explore the harmful beliefs they have been holding on to and works to dispel them. She is careful not to disparage clients’ faith traditions but does encourage them to question whether the condemnation they have been confronted with is actually the voice of God.

Lorrie Byrd Slater, a licensed professional counselor-mental health services provider in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who counsels many survivors of spiritual abuse, uses her knowledge of Christianity to help clients examine their beliefs. She urges clients whose religious communities have condemned or disparaged them to consider what the Scriptures say about the nature of Jesus Christ. She then asks them if their experiences are in line with Christ’s teachings. Slater, an ACA member, also reminds clients that their particular church is just one church out of many; other places of worship hold very different — and affirming — views of LGBTQ individuals.

Ginicola says cognitive behavior therapy is particularly helpful when confronting clients’ internalized beliefs that being LGBTQ is wrong or sinful. She asks clients to consider how those beliefs began and who taught them that they are inherently wrong. Ginicola exposes clients to religious viewpoints that are affirming to LGBTQ individuals through documentaries and bibliotherapy or putting them in touch with affirming pastoral help. She also encourages clients to explore a question for themselves: If God is love, as they have been taught by their faith communities, how could he hate them?

Practicing GRACE

Both Ginicola and Sullivan have found the GRACE model originally developed by counselor R. Lewis Bozard and pastor Cody J. Sanders — particularly helpful for guiding LGBTQ clients through the resolution of their conflicted religious views. Sullivan, who is practicing part time in addition to earning his doctorate in counselor education at the University of Missouri–Saint Louis, emphasizes that the model is just a guide, not a step-by-step process. For most clients, he uses only a few of the “stages.” The process involves:

  • Goals: Sullivan, an ACA member, talks to clients about their religious background, asking questions such as what faith tradition they grew up in (Christian, Muslim, Jewish, other) and whether they identify with a particular denomination or sect. He also asks how they feel about what they have experienced, both good and bad.

Ultimately, he wants to find out what clients are hoping to achieve by addressing the conflicts they feel between religious belief and who they are as a person. Sullivan asks: “If you woke up tomorrow and all these issues went away, what would that look like?”

As Sullivan guides clients through their background and goals, he stays alert for reactions, particularly any signs of trauma. If a client seems too upset in a particular session, he will back off and switch to another topic.

  • Renewal of hope: This stage involves uncovering shame and abuse and working through it, Sullivan says. For instance, some nonaffirming religious leaders individually confront LGBTQ congregants with questions about their affectional orientation or gender identity. These confrontations often take on the tone of an interrogation, culminating with  a reminder that “God hates those people.”

Sullivan tells clients that although a particular pastor might think that God hates LGBTQ people, many other religious leaders and faith communities do not hold that belief. If clients are amenable, Sullivan offers to help them make contact with an affirmative pastor to talk about religious views that do not condemn those who are LGBTQ.

  • Action: This stage represents decision time. Sullivan and the client have talked about the religious conflict for a while, and together they’ve processed the client’s trauma and grief. What does the client want to do now?

Sullivan says his role is to explain clients’ options to them and help them identify what they need to do to move forward. Some clients choose to remain planted in their current religious tradition, unready to move on from a community in which their spiritual roots were cultivated, even if that means continuing to wrestle with painful beliefs and practices. Other clients want to stay under the larger umbrella of their current religious faith but choose to find another church home or denomination that is more affirming of LGBTQ people. Still others decide to make a more drastic change, such as converting to a different faith system entirely. And, finally, Sullivan says, many clients decide that they no longer want anything to do with religion at all.

  • Connection: For some clients, processing their past experiences and finding a new place to worship isn’t enough, Sullivan says. Instead, they need to examine their personal relationship with God or whatever higher power they relate to. Ultimately, this involves clients identifying what God or that higher power believes about them and how that affects their view of their religion as a whole.

For instance, Sullivan might probe by asking clients what they believe God’s reaction is when they engage in sexual activity with someone of the same sex. He says that most clients are only able to develop the view that although they are sinning, God loves them anyway.

Sullivan does not like to end the GRACE process with this belief still intact. However, he says the pervasive sense of shame that many LGBTQ clients feel often makes it difficult for them to let go of the notion that living a life that embraces their true affectional or gender identity is sinful behavior. “It’s a struggle to get people to realize that God has made them this way and to accept that they are not sinners,” he says.

  • Empowerment: Sullivan acknowledges that he doesn’t see this stage achieved very often. It takes place only after clients have taken some kind of step such as attending a different church, joining a church-affiliated small group gathering or Bible study, or connecting with a church-sponsored social event, he says. Counselors have an obligation to help clients process these experiences, particularly if they are negative.

“The goal of the empowerment phase is to keep the client traveling down the path toward connection of spiritual and sexual identities, even if they have a negative experience,” Sullivan explains. “This is important because self-confidence and comfort with sexual identity are increased as a result of exploring the intersection between spiritual and sexual identities.”

In reality, Sullivan says, most clients who go through the GRACE model still struggle to reconcile their religion beliefs with being LGBTQ, but they are more at peace with the conflict.

Looking for aff irmative alternatives

One way that counselors can support LGBTQ clients who want to maintain their religious affiliation but feel conflicted is to help them find an affirming congregation, Sullivan says. However, he stresses that counselors must do their due diligence. It isn’t enough to read that the church is part of an affirming denomination or to see that it includes a rainbow flag on its website.

To ensure that he isn’t sending clients into a religious environment that appears affirming but actually isn’t, Sullivan makes a point of calling churches directly. He tells whoever answers the phone that he is a gay man and wants to know the church’s stance on the LGBTQ community. If the person tells him that he is welcome to attend the church and that the church will pray for him and support him in efforts to leave the gay lifestyle, Sullivan thanks them for their honesty but says the church is not for him. Although “welcoming” to LGBTQ people on the surface, churches that hold those types of beliefs do not make it on to Sullivan’s “recommended” list for clients.

Matthews notes that some faith traditions pose a specific and significant challenge to LGBTQ individuals who want to maintain a religious connection. Churches such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormon church) embrace particularism — the belief that their particular religious tradition is the only authentic path to God. These paths rest on tenets that are significantly different from what mainstream Christians believe.

For those raised in a church that embraces particularism (and is not affirming of LGBTQ individuals), pursuing their faith by switching denominations is akin to losing their religion entirely, Matthews says. When someone has been told all their life that there is only one path to becoming a Christian and gaining salvation, envisioning another form of faith and worship is almost inconceivable, she explains.

LGBTQ individuals struggling to align their personal and religious identities may look to their families for support. Unfortunately, families are sometimes part of the problem, Matthews says. Many families find it difficult to reconcile their religious beliefs with the reality of their child identifying as LGBTQ.

Matthews has worked with couples from strict religious backgrounds grappling with how to support a child who, according to what the parents hear in church, is living a sinful lifestyle. She provides these parents with psychoeducation by recommending books, giving them information about PFLAG (an advocacy and support organization for the friends, families and allies of those who identify as LGBTQ) and answering their questions, such as whether being LGBTQ is a choice. Matthews might also ask the couple to look for what the Bible actually says about being gay rather than relying solely on what their religious leaders say.

Counselors must also consider that particularly for LGBTQ people of color (POC) or those of low socioeconomic status (SES), leaving their religion behind may also mean losing their community, Ginicola says. “If you are a POC or have low SES, religion is not just a place you go sometimes; it could be a lifeline,” she says.

Losing a whole community can be devastating for anyone, but particularly for someone who has multiple marginalized identities, Ginicola continues. She gives the hypothetical example of a gay black man who, by coming out, loses his church. But when he turns to the LGBTQ community, he may encounter sporadic instances of racism. As a result, he ends up feeling like he is not fully accepted — and, thus, can never feel totally comfortable — anywhere.

Counselors need to let those with marginalized multiple identities know that counseling is one place where they can be fully themselves, Ginicola says. Counseling can encompass all of who these clients are — black, Christian, gay — without judging. Many people seem to think that they can identify either as LGBTQ or religious, but not both, Ginicola notes. She believes the idea that these two identities can’t coexist is harmful because faith — believing in something greater than ourselves, even if it isn’t a deity — is an integral part of life.

Given their negative experiences, some LGBTQ people lose all desire to return to organized religion. Regardless, spirituality can remain a significant part of who they are as people, says Slater, an assistant professor of counseling and associate dean of students at Richmont Graduate University. Spirituality is not the same as religion. In fact, an individual’s spirituality may not even encompass God. Spirituality is simply something that is bigger than us and that provides people with a sense of purpose, Slater says. For some people, that sense of spirituality and meaning can derive from nature, philosophy, personal ideology, science or even the belief in human rights for all, she explains.

Even when LGBTQ clients ultimately decide that they no longer identify with their past religious faith, Matthews tells them that it is possible to hold on to certain positive aspects and values of their religious upbringing that still resonate with them, such as practicing generosity and gratitude and loving others. Or, if these individuals previously enjoyed reading the Bible as literature, she might suggest that they explore other religious or spiritual texts outside of their faith tradition. If the ritual of prayer once provided clients with a sense of peace, she might encourage them to replace that experience with something nonreligious, such as a meditation practice.

Wearing blinders

Counselors who identify as religious know that imposing their values on clients is unethical, and most counseling professionals work hard to bracket their beliefs. Laura Boyd Farmer, an assistant professor of counselor education at Virginia Tech, has published numerous research studies on LGBTQ issues. She recently completed a research study that has not yet been published but that was presented at the 2017 ACA Conference & Expo in San Francisco. The study consisted of a survey that asked 455 mental health and school counselors how they thought their religious beliefs affected their work with LGBTQ clients.

Some respondents said that because their religious traditions were based on acceptance and the idea that Jesus loves everyone, their beliefs had a positive effect, helping them to provide LGBTQ-affirmative counseling. Other participants said their work was in line with their religious tradition, which calls on believers not to judge. Some counselors said that they disagreed with the LGBTQ “lifestyle” but chose not to judge. Others disclosed that their religious beliefs pose a conflict with which they struggle — striving to practice ethically despite their nonacceptance of LGBTQ individuals. Some respondents said that they agreed with the statement “love the sinner, hate the sin” and that this belief did not negatively affect their counseling of LGBTQ clients.

When counselors refuse to counsel LGBTQ clients because their religious beliefs tell them that doing so is wrong, that represents an obvious violation of the ACA Code of Ethics. But where things get tricky is with counselors who take a low-profile nonaffirming stance, says Farmer, an LPC who provides pro bono counseling for LGBTQ individuals in the Roanoke, Virginia, area. These are the counselors who say that they don’t agree with the “lifestyle” but wouldn’t refuse to counsel LGBTQ clients. These practitioners may think that no matter what their beliefs are, they can still maintain unconditional positive regard for their clients, but they might be operating with a big blind spot, Farmer contends.

To illustrate her point, she describes a recent casual conversation she had with a practicing counselor. This person talked about working with gay clients despite believing that being LGBTQ is a sin. The counselor said that they just tried not to judge. Farmer, an ACA member, asked how the practitioner was able to do that. Their response: “To be honest, it doesn’t come up.”

In providing counseling yet not fully accepting LGBTQ clients, this counselor was attempting to manage conflicts with their personal religious beliefs by avoiding pertinent topics. For example, Farmer says the practitioner was working with a gay youth struggling with depression, yet the challenges of identifying as LGBTQ “never came up.” Farmer says this makes her wonder how many other professional counselors are walking around wearing blinders.

Counselors like the one in Farmer’s story are not fully owning — or understanding — their bias, Ginicola says. A bias isn’t just, “I hate these people,” she explains. It’s also that working with someone who is LGBTQ doesn’t feel “right” and the counselor isn’t comfortable with it. By not confronting the discomfort, counselors are much more likely to miss signs (even if unintentionally), miscommunicate and project their worldview on the client rather than identifying the real issues, Ginicola asserts.

Disaffirming counselors resent that ACA’s ethics code requires them not just to set aside their personal beliefs to work with LGBTQ clients but to actually be advocates for them, Ginicola says. These counselors don’t view the experiences of LGBTQ clients as valid, she adds, and it is impossible to work effectively with clients unless you intrinsically embrace their value.

 

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Additional resources

To learn more about the importance of exploring aspects of religion and spirituality in clients’ lives, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:

Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)

Books (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)

  • Critical Incidents in Integrating Spirituality Into Counseling, edited by Tracey E. Robert and Virginia A. Kelly
  • Integrating Spirituality and Religion Into Counseling: A Guide to Competent Practice, second edition, edited by Craig S. Cashwell and J. Scott Young
  • Understanding People in Context: The Ecological Perspective in Counseling, edited by Ellen P. Cook

Journal of Counseling & Development (counseling.org/publications/counseling-journals)

  • “Psychological Safety and Appreciation of Differences in Counselor Training Programs: Examining Religion, Spirituality and Political Beliefs” by Amanda L. Giordano, Cynthia M. Bevly, Sarah Tucker and Elizabeth A. Prosek
  • “The Ways Paradigm: A Transtheoretical Model for Integrating Spirituality Into Counseling” by Joseph A. Stewart-Sicking, Paul J. Deal and Jesse Fox

Competencies (counseling.org/knowledge-center/competencies)

  • Competencies for Addressing Spiritual and Religious Issues in Counseling

ACA divisions

  • Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling (aservic.org) and Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling (algbtic.org)

 

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Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lmeyers@counseling.org.

Letters to the editorct@counseling.org

 

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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.

 

Ethics, religion and diversity

By Gregory K. Moffatt February 5, 2018

Tears streamed down her face. Kaylah (not her real name) was a 21-year-old woman struggling with a romance in trouble. I’d seen it many times, even though I’d only been in the field for a few years at this point. My heart broke for Kaylah as I saw the same old story played out in the same old way — only the names and a few of the details were new.

Kaylah had been psychologically mistreated and her relationship was in serious trouble. Her partner demonstrated what social psychologists call the principle of least interest. This principle teaches that the person in any relationship — work, friendship, marriage — who has the least interest in maintaining it possesses the most power. My client’s partner treated her well on occasion but at other times humiliated her in front of others, exploded at her or ignored her for days on end. Kaylah tolerated these behaviors because she was desperate to maintain the relationship.

Kaylah’s partner’s emotions ran hot and cold. One day, they were talking about starting a family; the next, Kaylah’s partner threatened to leave, causing Kaylah to feel confused, hurt, angry and torn. Like most abused women, at times Kaylah felt surges of confidence that she should leave the relationship and never look back. Then, as if someone had flipped a switch, she was overwhelmed with love, hope and compassion for her relationship. In this phase, Kaylah made excuses for the pitiful way she was treated and assumed all the responsibility for their relationship troubles. It was classic battered woman syndrome.

What readers also need to know about Kaylah is that she was a lesbian. She was also a staff member at a church. Her lover, a member of the pastoral staff, was also Kaylah’s boss, which created a serious power issue (and a significant ethical issue too). For obvious reasons, the relationship was a carefully guarded secret. Kaylah had no one to talk to because her family wasn’t receptive to her lesbian lifestyle and she didn’t feel she could confide in her friends in the religious community. She also worried that if anyone found out, her partner would terminate the relationship — the thing Kaylah feared most in the world. Exposure might also mean that Kaylah could lose her job, her family and the few friends she had. She was totally isolated. What a mess.

One last thing that I need to tell readers: I am a person of religious faith, and until I met Kaylah, I hadn’t been forced to clarify the place for my religious beliefs in the counseling profession. That day, the decision I faced became crystal clear to me.

No room for debate

It was around the time that Kaylah entered my world that I taught my first college course overseas. As I was preparing to teach a marriage and family course in India, it dawned on me that our two cultures were very different. I worried that my knowledge would be so based in American culture that it wouldn’t translate well into Indian culture. But without denying our vast differences, my host reassured me. “Dr. Moffatt,” he said, “problems are problems.”

How right he was. Hurting relationships are the same regardless of culture, age, religion or sexual orientation.

In some ways, I can’t believe that equity for LGBTQ clients even remains a topic for debate. I remember when the AIDS epidemic first became public in the 1980s. Some people of religious faith actually stated that AIDS victims deserved the outcome as punishment for their lifestyle. I hope that even the most cold-hearted person today wouldn’t utter such nonsense. Even in those uncertain times when we didn’t know much about the disease, doctors served these men and women because it was their professional duty to do so, regardless of their personal opinions on homosexuality, drug use, multiple partners or other factors. Today, many nonprofit counseling agencies are run by faith-based agencies specifically for those who have HIV/AIDS. Thank goodness.

How, then, could there still be any possibility of debate in the 21st century over whether we should discriminate against our clients? Our concept of human rights as counselors is that all people deserve the same treatment, regardless of worldview, religion, gender, age or creed. Our modern view of equality has been evolving for decades, yet even counselors have not yet perfected it in practice. Just in the past decade or less, there have been several highly publicized court cases in which graduate students have refused to work with gay clients and suffered academic consequences because of their beliefs. These include Julea Ward in 2009 at Eastern Michigan University, Jennifer Keeton in 2010 at Augusta State University and Andrew Cash in 2014 at Missouri State University.

Supporters of these students lauded their bravery and commitment to their religion. Even though I am a person of faith, I cannot see why this type of irresponsibility to clients should be lauded. Interestingly, Christian tradition teaches that Jesus spent most of his time with the outcasts of his culture, not with the religious upper echelon, and he didn’t abandon people simply because they behaved in ways that were contrary to Jewish teachings. Gandhi and Mother Teresa also demonstrated a seeming lack of interest in religious pedigree. Instead, they helped the people who came to them.

Sadly, the three lawsuits from academia that I noted are just the ones that made the news. I suspect that many more therapists are practicing discrimination without the public becoming aware. “I’m not culturally competent to work with those issues” is a common argument that I hear among some in the profession to justify their referral of LGBTQ clients. In fact, the real reason is often a personal belief system rather than a question of competence. There is no way to tell how much of this type of referral or redirecting of client goals happens in our profession, but if my anecdotal experiences as a clinician, supervisor, professor and public figure in the field are any measure, the answer is a lot.

This clearly violates our ACA Code of Ethics. Under Standard A.4.b., we are clearly called to “seek training in areas in which [we] are at risk of imposing [our] values onto clients, especially when the counselor’s values are inconsistent with the client’s goals or are discriminatory in nature.” Notice that it says seek training, not refer. In fact, Standard A.11.b. specifically prohibits referring solely on the basis of a conflict between the counselor’s values and the client’s values.

This culture war hit home for the American Counseling Association in 2016 when the Tennessee Legislature passed a bill that the state’s governor subsequently signed into law making it legal for counselors and therapists to discriminate against their clients if the client’s “goals, outcomes or behaviors … conflict with the sincerely held principles of the counselor or therapist.” This legislation clearly contradicted the ACA Code of Ethics. Consequently, ACA moved its planned 2017 annual conference from Nashville to San Francisco.

It should be noted that before we even get to the standards in the ACA Code of Ethics, our association’s mission statement directs that we exist to “promote respect for human dignity and diversity” through the profession. The key word here is not diversity but rather promote. We are actively to promote diversity, not actively run away from it.

A common base for truth

For any reader who thinks that I am not sensitive to the importance of religion, please bear with me. Religion does indeed matter, and many religions have clear teachings on a variety of subjects — sex, marriage, work, the roles of men and women — that are central to people’s faith and shouldn’t be ignored. But we must also recognize that many discriminatory traditions have their roots in religious teachings. Even in my short lifetime, I can remember a relative of mine excusing the discriminatory practices of his all-white church, saying, “God didn’t intend for the races to mix.” He then proceeded to use Bible verses to justify that belief. He made similar comments about mixed-race marriage, again justifying them weakly through religious teachings. Refusing to see clients based simply on sexual orientation is no different.

Some religious therapists have defended discriminatory practice by arguing that equating racism with clinical treatment of gay couples is comparing apples and oranges. The argument goes that if a counselor’s religious views teach that, for example, the heart of a couple’s problems is directly related to homosexuality — something the counselor’s religion teaches is inappropriate — then helping these clients maintain the very relationship that is causing their grief would be problematic if not unethical/immoral. I’ll address this argument momentarily. But, first, a brief tangent.

It would be disingenuous to say that counselors never force a worldview on a client. Of course we do. For example, one of the goals we almost always have for clients who are addicted is that they stop doing their drug of choice, even if they don’t want to stop. The difference between this worldview and that of the anti-gay worldview, however, is that this worldview is based on objective research, not moral code or religious teaching. Using methamphetamine destroys tooth enamel, leads to degenerative behaviors and can eventually kill the user. Alcohol abuse changes brain structure, destroys the liver and leads to degenerative lifestyle and potentially death, not to mention a host of other social ills.

As for a religious argument against homosexuality, there is no scientific evidence that being gay, transsexual, bisexual, etc., is clearly linked to any social or physical issue that is not also present among the heterosexual population. We must have a common base for “truth,” and that base is research, not religion.

Many years ago, a religious group, knowing I am a person of faith, asked me to do a seminar addressing why homosexuals would not be good parents. I refused because there is absolutely no evidence that one’s sexual orientation has anything to do with quality of parenting. It would be unethical to promote such a baseless argument. Academic integrity demands that as professional counselors, we pursue what we know. We must be driven by facts, not opinions and preferences.

Make a choice

Empathizing and working with a diverse population does not mean that a counselor must sacrifice her or his own position. We are free to think what we want, engage in our own religious practices and beliefs, and live our lives as we choose.

For many years, I’ve spent part of my year in the United States and part of the year in Chile, my second home. During this time, I have also traveled the world. Whether I’m in a clinic in India, the Philippines, Peru or Mexico, I still think like an American/Chilean. But when I’m in those varied cultures, I try to see the world through the eyes and culture of the people I encounter. I can easily do that without making any value statement about the culture itself, and even though I have personally adopted many customs and preferences from around the world, I have done so voluntarily. I would still be a competent counselor in those cultures if I hadn’t. My preferences are irrelevant when working in another country.

Our professional ethic simply means that we will not thrust our belief systems upon our clients any more than we would try to sell our clients a car, recruit them into a political party or manage their retirement accounts. What we cannot do is make choices that are at odds with wanting to work as a counselor, such as simultaneously wanting to function as a missionary who proselytizes clients into our personal belief system.

I occasionally work with individuals who have been mandated to treatment. Some of them have drug issues. I’ve heard all the arguments:

“Why is weed illegal? It’s a dumb law.”

“Who cares what I do in my own home?”

“Smoking weed doesn’t affect my job or my personal life, so why should I have to go to addiction counseling?”

My response is always the same. You can do anything you want — but all behaviors have consequences. If you want to smoke weed, go ahead. But if you don’t want to risk arrest, being fired from your job or kicked off your athletic team, don’t smoke weed. You can’t have it both ways.

To our profession, I make the same suggestion. If you are a pastor or priest, be a pastor or priest. Nobody is trying to stop you. But do not attempt to be a pastor while you are a counselor. If your religion teaches that you must proselytize in the workplace, then the counseling profession is not the best fit for you. There is nothing wrong with being a pastoral counselor in which your focus is pastoring, not counseling. But don’t pretend to be a counselor who is religious when, in fact, you want to function as a pastor who is also a counselor.

As counselors, our job is to help the hurting. We cannot — we must not — attempt to evaluate who we think is worthy of our help. Whether our clients are gay or lesbian, battered women or batterers, abused children or abusers, we don’t pick and choose who we help. Our ethical standards determine when we refer or step away, but our personal feelings — whether driven by religion, morals or anything else — have no role in our decision to help. Pain is pain. The pain of Kaylah’s relationship was no different than the pain from any other relationship. The fact that she was a lesbian was, in some ways, irrelevant.

Diversity includes people of faith

History hasn’t always been friendly toward people of faith. We hardly need to be reminded of the many wars and episodes of genocide that have been perpetrated against various religious groups throughout history. Even today in different places around the world, including the U.S., Christians, Jews, Muslims and others are persecuted for their faith. Television mogul Ted Turner brashly claimed in 1990 that Christianity was a “religion for losers.” These were thoughtless words from one who knew nothing of the religion. Jewish men, women and children are still isolated in many parts of the world. And I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to live as a Muslim in the U.S. Sadly, the words “Muslim” and “terrorist” are sometimes used interchangeably these days.

The field of psychology has not always been friendly to people of faith either. Sigmund Freud proposed that neurosis and religion were closely related and that religious people were weak and in need of a dominant father figure. In the 1950s, Alfred Kinsey despised religion, claiming it repressed “healthy sexual desires.” And as a graduate student, I was taught that we should never talk about religion in session, even if our clients brought it up, because it would only distract from more important issues. Really? Faith can be a central part of a person’s existence, influencing almost everything, from food, dress and marriage to job choice and child rearing. Yet I was taught that this was somehow unimportant and distracting.

About 20 years ago, I was presenting an ethics seminar for professional counselors. One of the case studies the seminar participants were supposed to discuss involved religion. The concise version of the question I posed was, “If your client was a person of religious faith, would it be acceptable to include that person’s religion in your therapeutic process?” Every single one of the 75 or so participants said no. Apparently, they had the same training I had.

I have personally witnessed bias within the counseling profession against people of faith. At professional conferences, I have heard comments in hallways and elevators openly disrespecting people of various religions. One clinician, wearing her conference name badge, rolled her eyes as the elevator door closed and said to another attendee, “Oh, God, this hotel is crawling with Christians. Heaven help us!” To which her friend snickered and nodded consent, as if Christians, Jews or Muslims were some sort of infestation.

At a past ACA annual conference, I attended a workshop on gay and lesbian issues. In the workshop, the leader subtly condescended to people of faith — something Derald Wing Sue calls microaggressions — and the audience openly jeered, laughed and mocked Christians in their public comments. No one said a word about the overtly biased, thoughtless and hurtful commentary. Although I certainly didn’t fear for my safety, I didn’t feel comfortable confronting this bigotry. And even though I agreed with the position presented by the session leader, I have never felt more discriminated against in my life.

The heckling I witnessed was the same thing that those in the LGBTQ community have rightly fought against in times past. It was the same behavior — only the target had changed. People of faith should be as welcome as members of any other group in a professional meeting.

I might also argue that people of religious faith can make outstanding counselors. Many religions teach the inherent value of all humans, creating a natural empathy among the religious for a hurting world. Although there are individuals who have used religion to pursue their own selfish agendas, there is no scientific evidence that people of faith are less intelligent, weaker or any less capable of working in the helping professions than are nonreligious individuals.

Conclusion

In a public presentation many years ago, Albert Ellis, a man known widely for his aggressive approach to his clients, littered his address with profanity. Visibly upset, several participants in the room eventually made an overtly public statement by storming out. The only remark Ellis made about it was this: “Counselors should never be upset with what people say.”

I have never forgotten those words. Whether or not Ellis was right, the message I took away was that, as counselors, we treat those who need help. In that regard, our clients’ words, sexual orientation, religion, age, gender, race, criminal history and socioeconomic status have no relevance. We help. That is what we do.

Many people in the counseling profession are also, in their personal lives, deeply committed to their faith. These counselors see clients daily without issue and function at the highest level of ethical conduct. But the few who feel they are called to change the profession, rather than to accept the profession as it is or to move on to another line of work, give us a black eye. Even worse, these counselors leave clients hurting — and perhaps discourage them from ever seeking help from another counselor again. It is always about the client.

Counselors using their religion as an excuse to refer clients or to force their ideas about sexuality upon their clients can deceive themselves into thinking they have ethical grounds for doing so. You don’t. Period. You must seek training to work through this issue (Standard A.4.b.) rather than perpetually referring LBGTQ clients.

As a footnote, I saw Kaylah in counseling off and on for a little over a year. During that time, her relationship went through various ups and downs. When we terminated, her daily functioning had improved significantly, but she was still nursing her seriously troubled relationship.

Months after termination, I happened across Kaylah in a shopping center. She was with her mother. Meeting clients on the street always makes me nervous, but when our eyes met from a distance, she beamed and ran toward me, towing her mother along by the hand.

Kaylah introduced me to her mother and, in turn, her mother’s face brightened. She stepped forward and hugged me tightly. When she stepped away, she had tears in her eyes. “I don’t know what all you did, but I know you saved my daughter,” she said. “Thank you for helping my baby.”

These were the most sincere and heartfelt words of gratitude I have ever received. I’m positive I did the right thing by my client, and I can’t imagine a world in which my religion would have allowed me to tell Kaylah to move along because I don’t work with clients who are gay.

 

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Gregory K. Moffatt is a professor of counseling and human services at Point University in Georgia. He is a licensed professional counselor and certified professional counselor supervisor. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Other pieces written by Gregory K. Moffatt, from the Counseling Today archives:

 

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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.

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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.

 

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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

 

 

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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.

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.

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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