Understandings, Definitions, and Experiences of Clergy in Residential Psychiatric Treatment. (Research and Theory)

By Brenneis, Michael J. | Counseling and Values, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Understandings, Definitions, and Experiences of Clergy in Residential Psychiatric Treatment. (Research and Theory)


Brenneis, Michael J., Counseling and Values


The author conducted a qualitative examination of the understandings, definitions, and experiences of forgiveness held by members of the clergy who reported initial or ongoing conflict with the religious superiors who mandated their entry into residential psychiatric treatment because of substance abuse/dependence, sexual misconduct, compulsive behavior disorder, or affective disorders. Participants completed an 8-item reflection questionnaire constructed for this study. Responses were examined qualitatively to identify trends, commonalities, or differences in the understandings, definitions, and experiences expressed in these responses. The author compared the data collected with definitions presented by previous researchers who have examined forgiveness in other populations.

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Research on the development of a forgiveness construct is about 10 years old, with the first empirical studies appearing in the literature in 1989 (Enright, Santos, & Al-Mabuk, 1989). However, studies dealing specifically with forgiveness as it is understood, defined, and experienced by the clergy have not been done, and this study attempted to begin such an inquiry through qualitative analysis of material that had been gathered from an interdenominational group of clergy who had experienced residential psychiatric treatment in the past 5 years.

Citing 18 articles or monographs published on the subject between 1966 and 1989, McCullough (1995) pointed out that this literature explored how forgiveness might be understood or defined in the context of some specific theory of counseling or psychotherapy, but none of it included empirical investigation or data of any kind. He made a similar point in citing other literature that presented process models for forgiveness that were published roughly in the same time period (McCullough, 1995). Since that time, studies have been entering the literature with increasing speed. The results of an electronic literature search done on the subject of forgiveness indicated that the average number of references per year has increased from 2 during the years 1966 to 1983 to 12 during the years 1984 to 1992. Although the average after 1992 was not calculated, it would seem, simply from a review of the references cited for this article, that it would be even higher now.

Two early studies that did include empirical data were not methodologically strong because the researchers relied only on self-report, some of which was retrospective. Nevertheless, Trainer (1981) and Nelson (1992) produced doctoral dissertations that attempted to formulate typologies for forgiveness. As such, they presented foundation material out of which subsequent definitions have grown.

In studying persons who had experienced divorce, Trainer (1981) identified three types of forgiveness, which were called role expected, expedient, and intrinsic. Individuals perceived that it was necessary to undertake the role expected form of forgiveness because of some role that they played or participated in. Rather than leading to some resolution of conflict, this form of forgiveness led to fear, anxiety, and resentment and actually increased anger over time. In a similar way, expedient forgiveness, undertaken to accomplish some other social purpose, also resulted not in resolution of internal or external conflict but in condescension and hostility and led to increases in anger. The form of forgiveness that Trainer designated as intrinsic was the process that led to changes in attitude and affect toward offenders and developed benevolent behavior and expressions of good will toward them. These individuals showed decreased anger over time and experienced a heightened sense of personal power as a result.

Nelson's (1992) study, although also seeking to formulate a typology of forgiveness, put forth the elements of the definitions that are currently in use by identifying three types of forgiveness (detached, limited, and full) and by assessing the degree of behavioral, attitudinal, and emotional change the participants experienced toward the ones who offended or hurt them. …

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