Teaching Christian Integration in Psychology and Counseling: Current Status and Future Directions

Article excerpt

In this article, we review the current status of theory and research on teaching Christian integration in psychology and counseling. Changes in student characteristics, emerging technologies, and paradigm shifts in the disciplines themselves predict unique opportunities and challenges for the future. We reflect upon directions integration learning theory and pedagogy should take in light of these considerations.

For over 40 years, evangelical Christian psychology and counseling programs have focused on how to integrate faith and psychology. Numerous models describe the relationship between Christianity and psychology (see examples in Entwistle, 2010). Likewise, sophisticated treatment models have emerged (e.g., Coe & Hall, 2010). This wealth of knowledge stands in contrast to the dearth of models focused on how students actually learn integration. Accordingly, we examine the current status and future directions of teaching integration. We consider the present theories, research, opportunities, and challenges involved. Finally, we ponder the future directions integration pedagogy should take.

Current Theories

Randall Sorenson proposed the lone well-articulated theory of how students learn integration (Sorenson, Derflinger, Bufford, & McMinn, 2004). He developed his ideas from Bowlby's attachment theory (e.g., Bowlby, 1988). Briefly, attachment theory focuses on how the quality of a person's relational bonds, beginning in infancy, impacts intimacy, relational satisfaction, and emotional health throughout life. For growing infants, the parent's task is to become a secure base from which to explore the environment and a safe haven for comfort and soothing. People continue to need significant attachment bonds throughout life in order to adapt, grow, and maintain psychological health. Many attachment figures are important across the life span (e.g., parents, siblings, peers, spouses).

In essence, Sorenson proposed that attachment principles relate not only to emotional health, but also to student learning of integration theory and applied skills. He hypothesized that the quality of student attachment with professors serves as the primary mediating pathway that permits meaningful integration learning to occur (Sorenson, Derflinger, Bufford, & McMinn, 2004). If professors want their conceptual integration models to "stick', they must have a relationship with students. Students need to sense the professor's on-going personal relationship with God. While the instructor's Christian worldview certainly impacts the quality of course content, Sorenson proposed that only limited integration learning will take place without attachment.

Psychology and counseling programs contain enormous potential for attachment to occur. Faculty serve as instructors, mentors, clinical supervisors, and chairpersons for students' dissertations. Faculty holistically model integration on a personal as well as professional level. In positive relationships, students seek out professors for prayer, support, and to address questions outside of psychology. When effective, faculty-student relationships promote a "secure base" for students in which they can "explore the integration environment," asking hard questions and thoughtfully examining the various models proposed. If students have doubts or struggles, faculty can serve as a "safe haven" for support and encouragement. Sorenson posited that students need at least one meaningful attachment to a professor.

Current Research

A small literature exists on the teaching of integration in psychology and counseling. Only study findings specifically focused on the teaching of integration will be reported here.

Research on Faculty

Sorenson conducted a series of four studies in graduate schools of psychology. The first (1994) confirmed the importance of attachment relationships in the integration process, finding that students' therapists had a greater influence than professors. …