Does Faith-Based Counseling Work?

faith-based counseling: peanut butter & jelly?

I had a supervisor in graduate school who had very strong opinions on faith-based counseling. He was very involved in his church, and had strong religious convictions. Because he was open about his belief, he often received referrals for faith-based counseling.

Surprisingly, he turned them all down, re-referring them to another counselor whose specialty was this form of treatment.

Does Faith-Based Counseling Have a Place in Therapy?

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He explained this in an article he wrote for our local area society newsletter. I’m paraphrasing what he wrote, but this was the essence of it: “I’m a psychologist. When I treat a client, I use the psychological techniques that I was taught in graduate school. I’m not a minister, and even if I was, I couldn’t be certain that my belief system coincided with the client’s system. I don’t think that religion and psychology should be combined.”

There are many with an opposing view. Religion and psychology, they say,  are not sardines and ice cream – two things that should never be combined. Instead, they are peanut butter and jelly – distinctly different, but with each complimenting the other’s flavor.

Each is a “weltanschauung”-- a way of understanding our experiences of the world, with religion having more of an emphasis on a set of organizing principles and a history, and psychology having an emphasis on techniques and understandings of mental processes. They overlap in their desire to remove fear and anguish from their respective “clients” and to provide a sense of meaning and purpose.

Blogfaith-based (1200 × 300 px) (2)So you could say that one of the “pros” might be the luscious “peanut butter and jelly sandwich” that could come from combining the two. The “faith” part of “faith-based counseling” provides the desired destination; the“counseling” part provides the vehicle for getting there.

But what about my supervisor’s “con” concerns? What are the odds that a particular client walking through the door has exactly the same spiritual beliefs as the therapist on the inside of that door?

I’m not just talking about the name of the religion with which each identifies. I’ve attended a lot of church classes in which members spoke freely of their beliefs, and they were wide-ranging, even within the same church. Is it realistic to assume that the therapist could maintain neutrality and not nudge their client in the direction of their own beliefs? 

“But we all share a common Book!” might be argued. True, but as Americans we all share a common Constitution, and there are certainly a lot of different interpretations of that document! And it was only written 250 years ago, not several thousand years ago, and in a different language!

Does Faith-Based Counseling Work?

I think there is room in our society for both faith-based and secular counseling. Consider the needs of these three clients:

Client One

Client one is a deeply religious woman who is completely comfortable with her spiritual belief system. To her consternation, her deep faith in a higher power has not kept her from experiencing recurrent bouts of depression. She doesn’t want or need faith-based counseling; she has read about Cognitive Therapy, and wants a place to learn more about this set of techniques. She just needs another tool in her toolbox so that she can stop weeping in her synagogue every week.

Client Two

Client two attends religious services regularly, and has problems with free-floating anxiety. He mentioned this to a friend who attends his church, who cautioned him against going to see a therapist. “They’re all atheists, they’ll put your soul in danger” the misinformed neighbor admonished. The client was delighted to find a therapist who advertised herself as a Christian counselor.

Client Three

Client three is a young man with a deep sense of meaninglessness in his life. He has always considered himself an agnostic, or even an atheist, but has lately been reading about Buddhism and wondering if this faith system could help him. But he also worries that cleaving to a belief system is just a distraction from dealing with his history of sexual abuse. He wants to sort through all of this in therapy.

Three different clients, three different sets of needs, and probably three different “best match” therapists to help them. There is room in our culture for them all. 

Final Thoughts

But now I want to share my own belief system. I believe that, though faith-based counseling is OK, proselytizing-based therapy is not. Our job as therapists is to help our clients find their own sense of meaning, not to prescribe one for them. A caricature of a therapist shows her saying, “I don’t know; what do you think?” In this case, the caricature is dead-on accurate! 


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