First I want to acknowledge, this article is about my story, which is within a specific faith. I hope the lessons presented are applicable to any faith– Muslim, Jew, Agnostic, and others. Any and all are welcome to take what resonates and leave the rest.
Second, believe it or not, I have written this blog about 3 or 4 times, each time starting over with a blank piece of paper. My hope is this is the clearest version. My rewriting is due to my own blocks around sharing such a vulnerable piece of myself. It feels very exposing but I only want to do this if it will be of benefit to others.
The heart of the matter is therapy is relational and when we show up, our faith shows up as well. It is a part of all of us. This is my story of how it showed up for me in my private practice.
Faith is complex. It involves beliefs sometimes tied to a religion that has its own culture and expectations. Now tie that into psychology and you have a big pot of soup.
I come from a fundamentalist background. I was born and raised in the Christian church. I continued with my religious practice into college and grad school. I went to a seminary specifically because I planned to become a minister. I had already done youth ministry but now I wanted to bring counseling into the church.
My first seminary was one, well, that wasn’t too open to women working within the church with as many options as I had hoped. During this time I started to have a deconstruction in my faith (a very positive yet challenging transformation). I met a pastor who was also a therapist and had gone to a different seminary. That’s where I discovered Fuller Theological Seminary.
Fuller was a place where there was an embrace of psychology, the biology of the brain, and the tension of not knowing all things (myth was welcomed and ok). It was a great fit for me. Over this transition, I realized I no longer wanted to work in the church. So I started on my journey to be a therapist. Being at seminary must mean that I was going to be a Christian counselor, right?
When you see “Christian Counselor” it can mean so many things. Some are pastors with little education in psychology , others are trained clinicians who are personally Christian and are comfortable integrating prayer or talking about faith, just like someone would with meditation, and others are clinicians who are trained in both theology and psychology.
I am fortunate to have that kind of training and training specific to integration. Since I no longer wanted to work as a pastor, I found my place doing therapy in the public sector and then later in my own private practice. I also found my faith looking very different than my upbringing. (This is the stuff people don’t talk about in seminary).
One of my best friends will tell you – I am a collector of faith stories. Inevitably people tell me about their journey. So as I began my career as a therapist, it naturally would happen that faith would come up. It wasn't my agenda. I often found people attracted to my practice or were even just referred from word of mouth, had deep pain in their faith. With very little marketing on my part. I had a specialty page on Spiritual Crisis. I never talked about Christianity. The word was so weighted I just didn't want to use it. The rigidity, sometimes spiritual abuse, had taken it’s toll on many of my clients in the form of anxiety or depression. The church, God, and the pastor all become symbols for parts of the system which they are trying to rearrange.
Am I a Christian therapist?
I never addressed it in my practice but simply having that I went to Fuller brought up the question from clients. I am the kind of therapist who takes an interest in the spiritual life of my clients. I am the kind of therapist who understands the complexity of faith and is still willing to dive in. Most clients that come to me are the ones who no longer feel solid in what they believe and it has rocked their world. They are also the ones who don’t know what label fits anymore – and that is quite ok with me.
I am the one interested in the tension. I am the one not afraid to ask about beliefs and explore intersection of mental wellness and faith. Coming from my background I could definitely relate to the Christian context. Having been through seminary (two very different schools) I was also exposed to the variances within the faith. If a client brought up a verse, I could very well give them more of a context, but it really is about what it means to them.
Here is what I want you to understand:
- Throw your preconceived ideas about what any label means (this goes for things beyond faith too). You already know this, but get to know your client’s faith as theirs alone. Ask about the culture. Even if you were raised in the same culture, play dumb and be opened up to life through their eyes.
- Use the language of your client, not of just your own experience in the faith culture. You might be surprised by the differences amongst us all. Don’t assume.
- Keep your counter transference in check with clinical consultation and ongoing training. Always be aware of your own story, biases, and beliefs.
- Get training. Just because a client wants to pray with you and you are a Christian, should you? Do you really understand how to bring these two things together? Build up your knowledge if this is something you want to do. Consultation and training are paramount.
- Give yourself permission. You can find criticism and support anywhere. The key is to honor your heart’s desire in your work. This is your art and if you want to integrate faith – then do it and do it well! If you don’t want to do it, at least assess and understand your clients’ stories.
What do you think? How are you integrating faith in your practice?