How to Become a Theologically Reflective Counselor

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Integrating Christian spirituality and counseling in ethically appropriate ways is an important skill for Christians who counsel.  Doing this well goes beyond adding a few scripture verses at the end of your treatment plan. Robust integration is more than well-placed “Bible speak.”  It involves the on-going spiritual formation of the counselor with lived vital piety, who has a solid grasp on sound theology, which may then transform counseling sessions into occasions where the Holy Spirit works in clients’ lives.

Spiritual Formation of the Counselor

Most seminary graduates will be familiar with practices of spiritual formation.  These have been highlighted in my own seminary’s Christian formation process since around 2000.  Today the core of the Christian Formation Process is summed up in three categories: Loving Transformation, Loving Community, and Loving Mission.  Our hope is that graduates will continue to engage daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal practices in these three areas.  Maintaining these practices in the midst of a busy clinical or pastoral schedule becomes a challenge!  Yet they are vital to remaining open to the Holy Spirit’s prompting during any counseling session.  The increasing press of work, family, and life in general can create the illusion that you have no time for these vital practices.  Let me encourage you to reinforce your spiritual self-care practices for your own soul’s sake, and for the sake of your clients.

Theological Formation of the Counselor

It is highly unlikely that clients will ask you to help them understand eschatology, or to help them decide which view of the atonement will work best to heal their broken heart, or even to help them live lives of deepening personal and social holiness.  Yet these theological themes are echoed in many counseling cases.  The counseling office is not the place for a theological lecture.  Yet many client situations ooze with theological realities that counselors overlook.  Remaining sensitive to these deep areas of potential transformation requires counselors to continue to grow theologically in addition to spiritually.  It may take some consultation with others to find the theologians who write in ways that appeal to you, and it will take work on your part to read these works with the mind of a counselor so as to mine the gold for your work with clients.  But if you do so, your clients will reap a great reward as your own soul deepens its spiritual and theological roots.

Clinical Transformation

Transformation is an aspiration for most of us in our clinical work.  We want to see our clients transformed from people living in pain to people who are celebrating in victory when they have reached their clinical goals.  By implementing the best of your clinical skills, and by engaging your heart of compassion for your clients, you invite your clients into a particular kind of “healing relationship” with you, and through you with the God of the Universe.  Some clients ask for Christian spirituality as part of their counseling program.  Others will not do so.  A counselor cannot bulldoze Christian spirituality into the counseling session.  This is unethical.  However, you can tune your heart to listen for the strains of theological realities that play in the background of many clients’ stories.  Here are questions in four areas which will help you do just that:

  1. Client-presenting concerns: How do the client’s presenting concerns reflect theological themes or spiritual concerns?  Are they interested in spiritual things?  Do they see spirituality as a component of their healing?
  2. Ethical commitments: To what degree do clients desire overtly Christian interventions?  Has the client given his/her informed consent for the inclusion of spiritual or religious interventions?
  3. Therapeutic Commitments: If clients have given consent to proceed with spiritual interventions, what spiritual practices or strategies will help clients reach their counseling goals?  Have you had adequate training so that you can implement the spiritual counseling strategies responsibly?
  4. Theological Commitments: Where might God already be at work in this client’s life, especially in the context of the presenting problem?  How proficient are you in discussing the clients concerns using theological content framed in every day language?

This article originally appeared in the Asbury Alumni E-link.

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Dr. Virginia Todd Holeman is Professor of Counseling at Asbury Theological Seminary.

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