Integrating Religion and Spirituality into Counseling


The above title is for Marsha Wiggins Frame’s book (Books/Cole: Pacific Grove, CA, 2003) and the following quotes are taken from her book.


Like Frame, a professor at the University of Colorado, a growing number of professors concerned with effective counseling recognize the importance of integrating religion and spirituality into counseling.  This has been a concern of mine for over 25 years. 


“One of the major assumptions underlying this book is that counselors and other mental health clinicians must address their own personal issues regarding religion and spiritually before they can help their clients who venture into this arena” (p. xi).


“Several writers have offered definitions of spirituality that are helpful in understanding the rich texture and myriad meanings that this concept encompasses.  Cervantes and Ramirez (1992) included in their definition of spirituality the notion that it includes the search for harmony and wholeness in the universe.  Tillich (1959) referred to spirituality as that which is related to one’s ultimate concern and is the meaning-giving dimension of culture.  Booth (1992) described spirituality as an ‘inner attitude that emphasizes energy, creative choice, and a powerful force for living’ (p. 25).  Elkins, Hedstrom, Hughes, Leaf, and Saunders (1988) spoke of spiritual values that include an appreciation for the sacredness of life, a balanced appreciation of material values, altruism toward others, a desire for the betterment of the world, and an awareness of life’s tragic side.  Chandler, Holden, and Kolander (1992) defined a spiritual experience as ‘any experience of transcendence of one’s former frame of reference that results in greater knowledge and love’ (p. 170).  Hinterkopf (1994) claimed that spiritual experience is currently felt in the body, that it involves an awareness of the transcendent dimension of life, it brings new meanings and leads to growth.  Holifield (1983) described spirituality as ‘less a method than an attitude, a posture of one’s very being that allows seeing not different things but everything differently’ (p. 88). Winarsky’s (1991) definition emphasized that spirituality may or may not involve a Supreme Being or God: ‘It may be an inner-generated, thoughtful and sometimes skeptical search---a process rather than a product---for universal connections, with no quid pro quo from a higher power sought or intended.  People who consider themselves to be spiritual may or may not participate in organized religion.  Some may find solace in readings, discussion groups, and the like’ (p. 186).”


Exercise: Go back over the above and use these various definitions to help develop a better understanding of how you see the spiritual dimension in your life.  Briefly write down your own personal definition of how you see the spiritual forces in your life.


Exercise: Now have two people read the above and give their responses to you as to how they see the spiritual dimension in their lives.  At least one of these two persons must have religious beliefs that are significantly different than the ones you hold.



Exercise: Ask these two persons and yourself the following questions and write down the responses:

  1. Where do your beliefs come from?  (e.g., From your parents?  From being involved in a church, synagogue, temple?)
  2. Briefly describe your religious beliefs.  (This is a very different question than having them describe their spiritual beliefs and it is important that you ask them about their spiritual beliefs before asking them about their religious beliefs.)
  3. What sources of authority do you use for your religious beliefs?  (e.g., the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, other sources and books.)
  4. Does your belief system encourage reasoning and questioning or urge/require you to have faith and acceptance in the established beliefs?  (e.g., can the leader of your belief system be wrong?)
  5. Why have you chosen your belief system over all others?  (If you consider it the best choice, on what basis do you reach this conclusion?)
  6. Would you change your belief system in any way if you could?  (If yes, What would that change be and what stops you from making that change?)


When you are working with clients and helping them evaluate the effect of their spirituality on their lives, you can utilize a variety of assessments as Frame points out in chapter four of her book.  The purposes of such an assessment are to “understand the world view” of the client, to “facilitate client self-exploration”, to “assist in diagnosis”, to “explore religion and spirituality as client resources”, to “ascertain the degree of health or pathology in clients’ belief systems”, to “uncover religious and spiritual problems”, and to “determine appropriate interventions”.


When you move from assessment to treatment you have a wide array of options.  One of the options that Frame mentions that I have found particularly helpful is the following one where you use the “clients’ religious and spiritual authorities …as tools in the psychotherapeutic process.  For example, in working with clients who submit themselves to biblical authority, counselors might ask clients to gather the biblical texts that speak about their dilemma.  In a subsequent session, counselors may review these texts and inquire about their meanings and how these meanings apply to their circumstances.  Counselors need not be biblical scholars themselves to work effectively with these sacred texts.  In fact, those who are least familiar with them might have fewer of their own interpretations to manage and, thus, might be more open and objective when listening for multiple meanings and perspectives.  By taking clients’ authorities seriously, counselors are able to reduce client defensiveness, and assist clients in generating new hermeneutics for an old story” (pp. 161-162).


Although many therapeutic approaches can be employed by the counselor, the basics that Carl Rogers established are applicable here as they are in other client situations.  “Counselors working from a person-centered perspective (Rogers, 1961, 1967, 1986) can use the concepts of unconditional positive regard and the primacy of the therapeutic relationship when working with clients’ religious and spiritual beliers.  The techniques of accurate empathy, reflective listening, and paraphrasing can be invaluable when addressing religious and spiritual material that emerges in counseling” (p. 167).

Transpersonal Psychology


The authors mention a process that is used by some who are involved in transpersonal psychology.  However, the basic concepts of the process predate transpersonal psychology by hundreds of years.  One such process is as follows:

  1. Have the client “secure an undisturbed sacred space wherein they can be alone and experience solitude in preparation for an inner journey.”
  2. Use relaxation techniques focusing on breathing to reach a state of calm centeredness.
  3. Have the client “engage in reflective thinking in which they select a topic of concern, write it on a piece of paper, and then spend 10 minutes writing about it.  This activity helps clients focus and concentrate.”
  4. Have the client “participate in receptive thinking, in which they reflect on their reactions to the topic and write down their impressions.”
  5. Have the client “undertake visualization, and with their eyes closed, they summarize their reflections in one sentence and then in one word.  As part of this process, clients then wait for an image to appear that represents the essence of their discovery. They are then instructed to attend to the feelings that emerge as they meditate on the image.”
  6. Have the client then “engage in mandala art in which they draw a circle and illustrate the image that came to them in step 5.  Various instruments such as pens, markers, or crayons are used.”
  7. Then have the client “undergo a cognitive analysis of their drawings seeking to understand the feelings, meanings, and symbols attached to their images.”
  8. Have the client then “participate in an inner dialogue in which they question the image they have drawn asking, ‘What have you come to teach me at this time in my life?’”
  9. The “clients involve themselves in symbolic identification or psychodrama by standing up, and actually ‘becoming’ the image using appropriate sounds or movements.  They imagine their ‘normal’ selves standing in front of the image, and they are to ‘give that self a special subvocal message’ and afterwards they sit down and document what happened for them.”
  10. The client then integrates their experiences and participates in homework and strategic planning.  They write down three steps they will take in the near future in response to their insights.  They take their mandala home and put it on the wall so it can continue to speak to them. (p. 177).


In chapter seven the author provides a listing of explicit religious and spiritual strategies that can be employed in helping the client.  They include prayer and meditation, visualization and spiritual imagery, focusing, keeping a spiritual journal, bibliotherapy, using scripture or authoritative writings, forgiveness and repentance, surrender, and the well known 12-step programs employed by AA.   The author also briefly gets into exploring the various ideas people have about an after life and how to help prepare people for death.  She also gets into feminist spirituality.  Although these are very important areas, you would be better served if you read books entirely devoted to these topics so I will not get into this material in this limited summary.