I remember my very first experience with trying to find a job with my newly obtained Masters degree in Clinical Mental Health. I had applied to a couple of places and the first to get back with me was a community mental health center. They asked me a few questions before they would give me the email to submit my resume and one of the last questions was “Where did you get your degree from?” I of course had gone to Denver Seminary and it was clear that I was a Christian which led to an immediate follow up comment of “We have had problems with Christian counselors before, so I don’t know if this will be a good fit.”
Of course, the problem here is one of ethics where counselors may not proselytize or misuse their power in a counseling office. The purpose of this is counselors have “the primary responsibility… to respect the dignity and promote the welfare of clients.” [ACA 2014 Code of Ethics] I do agree that as counselors, we have a responsibility to people who may be struggling with significant cognitive and emotional impairments and vulnerable to unwanted or inappropriate persuasion by imposing values on the client.
This, of course, is what that counseling director was concerned about as they had hired previous staff who broke that ethical code that led to ethical and legal fines, board actions with revoking licenses, and lawsuits. I would suggest you may want to consider Pastoral or Biblical counseling instead. (We actually wrote a topic on different viewpoints of faith and psychology)
Where Clinical Counselors Can Be Christians
The question then is, should faith be discussed in a counseling session? Some of the original founding fathers in counseling like Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner considered spiritual belief systems to be unimportant and meaningless within the counseling session. Yet many of the major counseling ethics boards you can join directly address spirituality within it’s Code of Ethics.
American Counseling Association (ACA)
The most updated Code of Ethics is from 2014 and has several key points. Section A.1.d states that “support networks hold various meanings in the lives of clients and consider enlisting the support, understanding, and involvement of others” which can include pastors, churches, and Christian non-profits. It also places a strong responsibility of the counselor doing (Section C) “self-care activities to maintain and promote their own emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being to best meet their professional responsibilities.” They are also very blunt that no discrimination due to many factors, including religion or spirituality may take place with denying services or treatments for individuals.
Further, the ACA actually has a special division called the Association for Spiritual, Ethical, and Religious Values in Counseling. They promote spiritual and religious competencies around things like culture and worldview as well as self-awareness for the counselor and when to assess if you can bring religious perspectives into the counseling session.
In further research, one other suggestion outside of the formal Code of Ethics by the ACA is to understand their should be a limitation of self-disclosure only to what is appropriate for the client, relevant to the therapeutic process, not self-serving, and not allowing for counter-transference. [Counseling.org]
American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT)
The AAMFT Code of Ethics are much shorter and simply state to not discriminate or exploit clients. That being said, there is a specific AAMFT network to discuss Spirituality in Clinical Practice that you can find here.
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW)
The NASW Code of Ethics states respecting client’s religious beliefs and not discriminating clients due to beliefs. No other descriptions were listed on the Code of Ethics, though more resources appear to be available being a paywall for those who are members of the organization.
How Do We Bring Faith Into Counseling?
I do think the answer to this goes beyond the scope of this article where it needs to be fleshed out more, but I will share a short list of ideas.
- Pray over the room and the time that God can use you within your best capability. This is important for intakes or clients you do not know are coming with more problems than you anticipated.
- After a client’s appointment is over, maybe while getting water or finishing your note, pray for the needs expressed.
- Continue to be a “lighthouse” or “ambassador” in your words and behaviors that exemplify Christ, even if you cannot use Christian language.
- Incorporate your own faith in supervision.
- Seek out and dialogue with Godly Christian counseling leaders.
- Ask a direct question on your intake assessment about spirituality. If they answer something Christian, evaluate if it is important to bring into the counseling session.
- Get a release of information for their pastor/priest/other identified religious figure and identify how you can utilize or promote that support. (Note: if the client is not comfortable, all further ideas are not applicable)
- Incorporate faith into their treatment goals.
- Complete the Religious/Spiritually Integrated Practice Assessment Scale – Client Attitudes if appropriate.
- Look to incorporate spiritual principles or tenents into clinical practices as long as efficacy remains. Need ideas? Try our 99 Self-Care Techniques for Christians.
- Understand not all Christian denominations are the same, nor Christians spirituality developmentally the same. Be open, curious, and remind yourself you are not their pastor, but their counselor.
On top of that, I would encourage you to check out a couple of other articles and resources that also touch on this part of the conversation. This includes the Church Mental Health Awareness Cards, an article where a pastor asked this question “Where do professionals see faith in their practice?,” and to make sure you yourself are being fed spiritually.