A vast diversity of religious and spiritual traditions exists, and your clients may be affiliated with any of them. This diversity is increasing, even in communities that have previously been relatively homogeneous. Even within one denomination or tradition, there can be an enormous amount of variability in the beliefs, practices, and lived experience of individual participants. Taking the time to learn more about religious and spiritual traditions that are important to your clients will increase your effectiveness as a therapist.
While research shows that the majority of clients want to be asked about their spiritual and religious beliefs and practices (Blanton, 2005; Diallo, 2013; Knox, Catlin, Casper, & Schlosser, 2005; Oxhandler & Pargament, 2014; Post & Wade, 2009), some clients may be sensitive about this and choose not to discuss it during the course of therapy with you. This is perfectly acceptable. If a client isn’t interested in speaking about this and it isn’t part of the reason she entered therapy with you, then let it be. But in some situations you may wish to sensitively inquire further at the time (“Do you want to say more about that?”) or make a note to yourself to return to the topic in subsequent sessions. For instance, you might ask whether a client has any spiritual or religious beliefs or practices and notice that she says no but gets wistful or her eyes tear up. Alternatively, she may respond with anger (“No way. I don’t go in for that hogwash!”) or say, “No, but I really want to.” These are all signals that the client may benefit from further gentle inquiry.
Once you uncover more about a client’s spiritual and religious based practices (SRBPs) (Saunders, Miller, & Bright, 2010), including the possibility that she doesn’t have SRBPs, the next step is to learn more about that faith, tradition, or set of beliefs if these are unfamiliar to you. There are two levels at which you can approach this. The first is to take time outside the therapy room to learn more about the SRBP, and the second is to learn more about the client’s lived experience of religion or spirituality.
You don’t need to become an expert in each client’s spiritual or religious tradition, but it’s valuable to learn about the essential tenets, values, and activities associated with a client’s faith. One of the most powerful things you can do when encountering a form of religion or spirituality that’s new to you is to visit the place of worship or practice. You can gather a lot of information from just a brief visit. You might also choose to have a brief phone conversation or visit with a clergy member or committed practitioner of that faith. Reading a popular book or watching a movie that highlights a given tradition can be enjoyable and illuminating, if not always completely accurate. If you only have a bit of time to spare, you might focus on exploring aspects of the tradition that may be most relevant to your client’s psychological well-being, such as:
Is there a deity, and is that deity viewed as benevolent, punishing, or both?
What is the leadership hierarchy, if any, in this tradition?
How do people access the divine in this tradition?
What are the essential rituals, ceremonies, or activities in this tradition?
What are the major tenets or beliefs that set this tradition apart from others?
What norms, rules, and taboos exist in this tradition?
How are men, women, and relationships viewed in this tradition?
Even a brief exploration of a client’s SRBPs will enhance your understanding of who he is and what resources are available to him.
But learning about the general doctrines of a client’s faith tradition isn’t sufficient for understanding the client. In addition to learning about the formal aspects of a client’s tradition, it’s crucial to focus on the client’s lived experience of it. In fact, scholars are paying increasing attention to what they call lived religion, in an approach that recognizes that the ways that people engage in their SRBPs are typically highly idiosyncratic and fluid, rather than conforming to one precise doctrine or set of activities or beliefs (Hathaway, 2013; McGuire, 2008; Sharpe, 2009).
If clients want to talk about their SRBPs, you might ask questions along the following lines to learn more about their lived experience (adapted with permission from Hodge, 2013):
What sort of spiritual or religious experiences stood out for you when you were growing up?
What do you hold sacred in your life?
What religious or spiritual rituals or practices are particularly important to you?
In what ways has your spirituality or religion helped you understand or cope with your problems?
In what ways has it been a source of difficulties or problems?
How does your spirituality or religion relate to your goals in life?
You may find that some clients are tempted to answer these questions using doctrine or teachings from their tradition, which may or may not reflect their lived experience. If you notice this, you can gently encourage them to share their own lived experience by simply asking, “And how is that for you, personally?”
Don’t assume that the religious or spiritual activities clients engage in always reflect their most deeply held beliefs. Sometimes these activities may have more to do with clients’ cultural identity than their religious or spiritual beliefs. For example, many immigrant families or descendants of immigrants bond with their community around traditions from their country or culture of origin. In this way, attending Orthodox Easter services may be reflective of a connection with Eastern European roots, rather than representing a religious belief. To tease out these distinctions, you might simply ask, “What does attending that service mean to you?”
If you want to boost your effectiveness and your client’s satisfaction, it’s essential to learn more about their spiritual or religious background. For more about spiritual and religious competency, check out Spiritual and Religious Competencies in Clinical Practice.
Blanton, P. (2005). How to talk to Christian clients about their spiritual lives: Insights from postmodern family therapy. Pastoral Psychology 54(2): 93–101. doi:10.1007/s11089-005-6197-3.
Diallo, A. (2013). Clients’ willingness to incorporate religion or spirituality in counseling: A brief report. Rehabilitation Counseling Bulletin 56(2): 120–122. doi:10.1177/0034355212439425. Hathaway, 2013
Hodge, D. R. (2013). Assessing spirituality and religion in the context of counseling and psychotherapy. In K. I. Pargament (Ed.), APA handbook of psychology, religion, and spirituality: Vol. 2. An applied psychology of religion and spirituality (pp. 93–123). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Knox, S., Catlin, L., Casper, M., & Schlosser, L. Z. (2005). Addressing religion and spirituality in psychotherapy: Clients’ perspectives. Psychotherapy Research 15(3): 287–303. doi:10.1080/1050330 0500090894.
McGuire, M. B. (2008). Lived religion: Faith and practice in everyday life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Oxhandler, H. K., & Pargament, K. I. (2014). Social work practitioners’ integration of clients’ religion and spirituality in practice: A literature review. Social Work 59(3): 271–279.
Post, B. C., & Wade, N. G. (2009). Religion and spirituality in psychotherapy: A practice-friendly review of research. Journal of Clinical Psychology 65(2): 131–146.
Saunders, S. M., Miller, M. L., & Bright, M. M. (2010). Spiritually conscious psychological care. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 41(5): 355–362.
Sharpe, E. J. (2009). The study of religion in historical perspective. In J. R. Hinnells (Ed.), The Routledge companion to the study of religion, 2nd edition (pp. 21–45). London: Routledge.