How Christianity and psycho-therapy can work together to bring about healing and change
I’m a sceptic.
I came into this degree with the jaundiced eye of one who believes that spirituality has no place in the modern psychotherapist’s armoury. But my eyes have been partly cleared to see that there is a place for the Spirit-filled counsellor in today’s world. This post will consider the various factors that brought me to this new place of integration and understanding.
First stop was McMinn et al’s (2010) excellent paper, Just What is Christian Counseling Anyway? It sets out the various and diverse ways that spiritual counselling and psychotherapy can be found. Starting with biblical counselling, with its focus on the superiority of the Bible over secular psychotherapeutic theory or technique, and its somewhat closed mindedness regarding the utility of modern psychological science (it views the Bible as completely self-sufficient and comprehensive when considering effective counselling), it was biblical counselling that initially sprang to mind when I thought of a Christian approach to counselling, especially as I have a friend who holds passionate views similar to biblical counsellors. She is well meaning, but perhaps somewhat misguided when she espouses that all someone needs is lots of bible reading, prayer and listening to good preaching in order to cure their ills.
Ministries such as the Theophostic Prayer Ministry (TPM) offer clients specifically spiritual experiences, rather than psychological ones. Hunter and Yarhouse (2009) in their overview of the practice note that training is self-directed and that it is easy to begin administering TPM with nothing more involved than watching basic training videos. There is no formal supervision of the TPM facilitator, either. The TPM website, in its page on guidelines (n.d.), does state that TPM is not a counselling service, but it would be easy for a TPM practitioner to gloss over that fact in their enthusiasm for their work.
My position before this course was that counselling and psychotherapy was the domain of professionals and that Christian counselling was just a well-meaning but unschooled practice carried out by well-meaning but untrained members of the church community. Either that, or the shoe-horning of scripture into more regular psychotherapeutic practice. But my attitude has shifted. Whilst I still hold the therapeutically unschooled in scorn, I am beginning to see a place for religion and therapy to co-exist.
Pastoral counselling (Sperry, 2003) has existed for as long as organised religions have existed. Pastoral counselling has two distinct flavours: one where a pastor or religious elder provides counselling to his or her parishioners, often after receiving very little training in counselling themselves; and a second flavour where practitioners have dual credentials in both ministry and counselling or psychotherapy (McMinn et al., 2010). This is more how I envisaged Christian counselling might work. As long as the practitioner was accredited by the Christian Counsellors Association of Australia (CCAA) and the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA) then I could be confident of the practitioner’s grasp of psychological science in counselling matters. They would be able to add a spiritual and Spirit-filled dimension to any counselling requirements.
To take the science behind counselling and psychotherapy further, a Christian psychologist is someone who has received more training in the psychological sciences than a counsellor. The meaning I ascribe to the term Christian psychologist is someone who is trained as a psychologist and who is willing to identify their faith as important to their work. McMinn et al. (2010) and Moon (2002) call these individuals integrationists, meaning they attempt to integrate religious and spiritual understanding with contemporary psychology. To me, this is the highest form of Christian life: the integration of spiritual insight with modern, evidence-based science. I have not met any integrationists in my spiritual journey, alas, (at least not that I am aware of), but perhaps like me they keep their worldview to themselves for fear of arousing the ire and passion of conservative traditionalist members of their church.
Sozo (Nagib, 2013) presents a view that on the surface appears integrationist, but is in fact something other. Reflecting on the narrative in Luke 13 wherein Jesus heals a crippled woman on the Sabbath, Nagib says herself, “Jesus restored her soul by calling her out in a public place and physically touching her … He healed her body with the power of his verbal declaration … Jesus verbally restored her identity… This is the model that we as therapists can follow in our work with clients” (Nagib, 2013, p. 68).
There are several key phrases here: “calling her out in a public place”; “physically touching her”; “the power of his verbal declaration”; and “verbally restored her identity.” As a client I would be horrified if my counsellor called out my name in public, verbally declared that a spirit was oppressing me and physically touched me. Whilst I accept that a touch could be something as harmless as a touch on the arm, back or shoulder, it could just as easily be a touch to that part of my body that she or he believes is demon-possessed. I shudder to think of where such a practitioner would want to touch a woman with breast cancer or painful menses. But this is exactly the model that Nagib (and by default Sozo, since Nagib is the organisation’s Director for Professional Counselors) believe to be helpful.
To be fair to Nagib and Sozo, Nagib goes to great pains to point out that Sozo is not counselling and should only be conducted with the informed consent of the client. They even suggest having someone other than the client’s regular therapist run the 3-hour Sozo session as a way of keeping boundary issues at bay. But still the emphasis is there, that Sozo and psychotherapy can happily co-exist and that non-Christian therapists should be aware of Sozo’s potential. The current scientific evidence suggests the brain can benefit from top-down approaches where cognitive interventions and interpersonal experiences translate into neurobiological changes (Clinton & Sibcy, 2012).
Reading Nagib also draws out an important fact: that the APA has religion and religious issues embedded into its Code of Conduct (APA, 2010; see in particular Principle E, p. 4) whereas PACFA does not have a requirement for such awareness. This is to Australia’s detriment, I feel.
The dangers inherent in Christian approaches (like Sozo) to psychotherapy are many (Schneller, Swenson, & Sanders, 2010): abuse of power, multiple boundaries, lack of recognition and understanding of client issues (homosexuality and transgender issues spring to mind here), disclosing information about a client to a church leader without the client’s permission, imposing one’s own values/orientation on the client (I’m thinking about sexuality viewpoints here), and bringing arcane spiritual practices into the therapy room, such as using exorcism as a technique in therapy practice. Such abuses can only be avoided by the practitioner having a clear understanding and following of the ethical guidelines produced by his or her governing body (for example, CCAA (2014), PACFA (2014)) and being prepared to justify their actions to a body of their counselling and psychotherapeutic peers.
“Our lack of understanding is abusive to the client if we approach the issue of deliverance with simplistic, ‘nothing but’ thinking, reducing the possibilities to ‘nothing but demons’ or ‘nothing but psychological problems’. It could be ‘either/or’ or ‘both’” (Davidson, 2000, p.3; cited in Tabor College notes (2015)). At least in the APA model the client’s spirituality must be acknowledged if not addressed; there is no such requirement here in Australia. As biblical counselling has shown, a ‘Bible-only’ pronouncement is simplistic at best and potentially damaging at worst. Similarly, a counselling viewpoint that doesn’t account for the client’s religious beliefs and practices is only seeing part of the picture. An integrationist perspective, one that recognises and works with both secular and religious factors, seems to me to be the most sensible practice, and one that I have come to believe is the right thing to do.
APA. (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/principles.pdf
CCAA. (2014). Code of ethics. http://ccaa.net.au/images/documents/CODE_OF_ETHICS_Sept_2014.pdf
Clinton, T., & Sibcy, G. (2012). Christian counseling, interpersonal neurobiology, and the future. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 40, 141-145.
Hunter, L. A., & Yarhouse, M. A. (2009). Theophostic Prayer Ministry in Clinical Practice: Issues and Concerns. Journal of Psychology & Christianity, 28(2), 149-158.
Jones, S. L., & Butman, R. E. (2011). Modern Psychotherapies : A Comprehensive Christian Appraisal (2nd Edition). Westmont, IL, USA: InterVarsity Press.
McMinn, M. R., Staley, R. C., Webb, K. C., & Seegobin, W. (2010). Just What Is Christian Counseling Anyway? Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 41(5), 391-397.
Moon, G. W. (2002). Spiritual direction: meaning, purpose, and implications for mental health professionals. Journal of Psychology & Theology, 30(4), 264-275.
Nagib, M. (2013). Sozo for professional counselors: Integrating psychology and inner healing to restore individuals to wholeness. Redding, CA, USA: The Dunamis Project.
PACFA. (2014). Code of Ethics: The ethical framework for best practice in counselling and psychotherapy. http://www.pacfa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/PACFA-Code-of-Ethics.pdf
Schneller, G. R., Swenson, J. E., III, & Sanders, R. K. (2010). Training for ethical situations arising in Christian counseling: a survey of members of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 29, 343-353.
Sperry, L. (2003). Integrating spiritual direction functions in the practice of psychotherapy. Journal of Psychology & Theology, 31(1), 3-13.
Tabor College. (2015). Lev 8 Minor Paper Questions. http://learn.taboradelaide.edu.au/mod/url/view.php?id=77609
Theopostic Prayer Ministry. (n.d.). Theophostic Prayer Ministry Session Guidelines. Retrieved 22 April, 2015, from http://www.theophostic.com/page143234430.aspx?mtype=1
 This integration of spiritual understanding and modern science is where my heart is currently taking me; I am blessed that I am at an institution like Tabor that allows me the freedom to pursue such matters of faith and practice, walking tentatively away from traditional understandings of faith and religion as I am. I just wish I knew of others who have walked or are currently walking such paths, in order to share ideas and engender encouragement. But I am finding Jones and Butman’s (2011) book enormously helpful at this point.
 What annoyed me more than anything about this book is its layout: a large format book with very large font size and large spacing between lines. It is as though the publishers were scared that the book would be tiny if presented in a more normal manner. As it is, it reeks of unprofessionalism in a book intended to be for professionals. Disconcerting, and others on Amazon have reviewed the book similarly.