Academic journal article Counseling and Values

Working with God: Managing Conservative Christian Beliefs That May Interfere with Counseling. (Issues and Insights)

Academic journal article Counseling and Values

Working with God: Managing Conservative Christian Beliefs That May Interfere with Counseling. (Issues and Insights)

Article excerpt

Counselors who work with conservative Christians may ask how to respect a client's values when "God" seems to be saying something contrary to what the counselor believes is in the client's best interests. In a managed care era of decreasing choice about one's counselor, referral of such clients to a conservative Christian counselor is not always an option. "Working with God" when counseling conservative Christian clients requires counselors to understand conservative Christian beliefs. This article portrays conservative Christianity as a culture and articulates conservative Christian beliefs that may challenge the counseling process, suggesting options within the framework of these beliefs.


My first supervisor, a Jewish woman, emerged from a counseling session saying, "It's happening again! I can't do battle with God? She had just been told by a conservative Christian family member that her intervention would not work because God would not approve. Other counselors might have felt similarly frustrated after conversations with conservative Christian clients. Such conversations may begin with "Are you born again?" and may include such questions as "Are you a Christian?" or "Are you Spirit-filled?" At the end of such questioning, counselors may feel defensive and unsure, as if they have just been tested and disqualified without being able to study for the exam; such feelings are hardly conducive to beginning a trusting and intimate relationship.

And yet, ethical standards require certain behaviors of counselors. They are to overcome personal biases and to develop respect for and unbiased approaches to counseling clients of differing backgrounds. Counselors are to remain sensitive to differences between groups of people and to changes in expectations and values over time. They are to demonstrate acceptance and to free themselves from being judgmental, and they are not to impose their values on clients. Counselors are to operate only within their areas of competence and training (American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, 2001; American Counseling Association, 1995; American Psychological Association, 1992). Ignoring faith issues can, at a minimum, be "passively prejudicial" (Esau, 1998, p. 32). However, counselors can certainly do harm if they fail to grasp the significance of the client's organizing system, a system that for the conservative Christian is based on his or her tradition and his or her interpretation of biblical teaching (Johnson & Johnson, 1997). If counselors are to remain within the bounds of ethical standards when counseling conservative Christian clients, they require an understanding of the beliefs and values of conservative Christians (Bishop, 1992; Genia, 2000; Ridley, 1985).

Beyond ethical considerations are practical considerations: Most people's counseling choices have been restricted by managed care to a select group of counselors, and particular insurance groups may not include enough conservative Christian counselors in the plan to meet the needs of the conservative Christian clients. Because more clients report believing in God than do counselors and psychologists (Bergin & Jensen, 1990; Goud, 1990; Hoge, 1996; Shafranske & Malony, 1990a, 1990b), conservative Christian clients with mental health needs may not have the luxury of counseling with someone from within their faith. These clients are at high risk for refusing necessary counseling services without clear indications that a counselor understands and respects their belief system. In addition, many counselors indicate feeling unprepared to work competently with religious material (Shafranske, 1996; Shafranske & Malony, 1990b).

The literature, including some informative articles in this journal, is only partially helpful in contributing to counselors' preparation. Some articles offer general suggestions about working with religious (Aust, 1990; Bishop, 1992; Cole, 1998; Genia, 2000; Heise & Steitz, 1991; Johnson & Johnson, 1997; Loevinger, 1996) or Christian people (Esau, 1998; Hannon, Howie, & Keener, 1994; Johnson & Johnson, 1997; Spinney, 1991). …

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