Some of the issues that clients will often bring to therapy are issues around their faith, religion or spirituality. This is where a “faith-based” or “faith-informed” practice would be a good fit for them. In fact, a mental health provider could create a niche practice that focuses solely on religious and spiritual issues. And depending on where and how therapist was trained will determine their comfort level and qualifications in helping with these kinds of issues. There are a lot of clergy people that not only have theological training, but are also licensed therapists and have the credentials to provide mental health services.
Faith as a niche
One of the recommended strategies for building a private practice is to identify a specific niche or issue that you feel you can help people with. It helps you to be more specialized and stand out in your practice. This is especially needed and recommended in areas where there are a lot of therapists/counselors in practice. Identifying a niche will help you stand out and attract the kind of clients you like to work with.
When I first went into private practice as a therapist, it was in the context of my church. In other words, my office was located in a church building. For some clients this was absolutely something they were drawn to. For others, it was something they preceded to with a great deal of caution. Nonetheless, it did create a niche. Many of the clients that I had in those early days of my practice chose to come to me because I was in a church.
I do think that faith, religion or spiritual practices can be a niche for therapists. The key to this though is not to cross ethical boundaries. And the way to do this is be very upfront and transparent with potential clients about this.
Where a counselor can cross the line is by trying to proselytize, convert or “witness” to a client. Or when they try to help clients by convincing them to take part in some sort of religious practice or adopt some sort of religious view based on scripture or other religious writings. If this happens, then it is no longer therapy. It just becomes the therapist/counselor pushing their own agenda.
The Person of the Therapist
I have always been pretty active in church activities. I can honestly say it is sort of “in my blood” in that my father was a pastor and I am also a clergy person in the Episcopal Church. It’s one of the other hats I wear. But I do not call or consider myself a “faith-based” counselor even though I have had theological training. I do however like to say, sometimes, that I can be a “faith-informed” counselor.
The other part of this is that I have never considered myself a “Christian Counselor” or “Religious Counselor”. It just does not fit with how I do therapy. I am licensed as Marriage and Family Therapist and hold to all of those ethical standards and laws. My practice, theoretical orientation and treatment approach is fully grounded in evidenced based clinical practices. I keep my therapy and religious practices separate. And my own bias is that I think anyone that is licensed to practice therapy should do the same. But sometimes those two worlds do intersect.
As an AAMFT Approved Supervisor and training new therapists, I put a lot of value and stock in what is called the “person of the therapist”. I think who we are as a person can have a big impact on what is done in the therapy room. Carl Rogers’ person-centered approach to me is basic to learning how to be a good therapist. We have to be able to connect with and be genuine with people. We have to be able give that unconditional positive regard for any therapy or approach to be effective.
Faith-Based vs. Faith-Informed Counseling
So what would be the differences between a “faith-based” vs. “faith-informed” practice? Let’s look at ways to make a distinction. As a clergy person and a licensed therapist, this is what makes sense to me.
- The primary focus would be to help clients deal with spiritual/religious issues.
- Should very transparent and open about the fact that they are going to be incorporating religious practices in their method of helping people.
- Their approach would use religious tenets and beliefs for what they were doing in their work.
- Would adhere to the tenants of a particular religion (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.) in their religious language and approach.
- Also would hopefully make it clear as to what denomination or “brand” of religion they are purporting. (For example, not all Christians are the same. Someone that is for example coming from an Evangelical tradition is going to have a much different theology (beliefs) than say someone that is Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian or Lutheran, etc.)
- Counselors should be clear for themselves, and especially clients, what “brand” of religion they adhere to if they are going to put themselves out there as a faith-based counselor.
- Faith-based practices would be more focused on pastoral care or pastoral counseling and not so much on therapy in the traditional sense. The pastoral care/counseling could be therapeutic, and could be done with therapeutic intent.
- The provider of the services may or may not have had clinical training (licensed), but will have had some theological training
- They may or may not charge for the services they provide.
- They would offer services like “spiritual direction” which has a solely spiritual focus in helping a client with personal growth and development.
- The services provided would very likely be endorsed or supported by a particular church, synagogue, mosque or other religious institution.
- The primary focus would be to help clients using clinical and efficacious therapy practices. Spirituality and religion would not be a primary focus but could be part of the therapy work.
- Counselors and therapists would also be transparent about their faith and religious practices, but it would not be the method in which help was offered. And they would never push or proselytize that view point.
- They could join with the client around religious and faith traditions if the client’s faith was the same or similar but would make a distinction between when it was spiritual vs. clinical with the client.
- The provider would be clinically trained(licensed) and would have had some theological training.
- Could provide spiritual direction, but would absolutely make that distinction with the client and have clear boundaries around that.
- The services provided may or may not be endorsed or supported by a particular church, synagogue, mosque or other religious institution.
So for example, in my own practice I tell (actually fully disclose) people that I am a clergy person (Episcopal Church) and sometimes “wear a funny collar”. And despite all of that, I DO NOT have a religious agenda with my counseling and therapy. My focus is clinical. I also tell them though, if they ever want to talk about religious or spiritual things, we can do that, but they will not hear it from me first. I consider myself a “faith-informed” practitioner.
Keeping Ethical Boundaries
If you are thinking about using a “faith-based” or “faith-informed” approach form a niche, you really need to take into consideration ethics and efficacy. A person’s “faith” can inform who they are as a person. Even if a person considers themselves a “none” or even an atheist, when it comes to religion, that worldview or perspective somehow has an influence on who we are. So in that sense it is important to be aware of that in the therapy space.
All of our various ethical codes are pretty clear about how we treat people. We are bound by our ethics to treat all people as unbiased as possible regardless of race, sex, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Which also means we do our best to not project, or worse force, our own views onto our clients. So letting our own faith, beliefs, religious convictions or values come into the therapy session is something to be avoided. Especially the notion of approaches like “repratorative therapy” which discriminate and target LGBT people.
Help Not Harm
But what if someone is struggling with a faith or spiritual issue? Obviously if you do not feel qualified to to address those kinds of issues you would refer out. And do it in a way that is not going to “throw someone under the bus” spiritually and emotionally. People can be spiritually abused just like it is with emotional abuse.
At the core of most any religion is the desire to connect with something greater than ourselves. AND to show compassion and kindness to other human beings. So in essence treating people with dignity, acceptance and unconditional positive regard can be informed by our faith or simply informed by who we are as people.
Having a faith focus in our private practices can be a valued and important niche in many communities. But do it ethically and make the distinction between being “faith-based” or “faith-informed”.
By L. Gordon Brewer, Jr., MEd. LMFT – Gordon is the President and Founder of Kingsport Counseling Associates, PLLC. He is also a consultant and business mentor at The Practice of Therapy. Follow us on Twitter @therapistlearn. “Like” us on Facebook.