Counseling & Psychotherapy of Religious Clients

Photo Thanks to Aaron Burden

Photo Thanks to Aaron Burden

I decided to summarize a few books as a discipline for “keeping” some of the material I’m reading. I just finished Vicky Genia’s Counseling and Psychotherapy of Religious Clients. I will say that I love the kind of material in this book. I find great value personally and professionally in the work of counselors and therapists who are familiar with the beautiful country of a person’s soul. Genia’s book brought together her theory of how faith develops from a psychological perspective. I’m still thinking through specific applications for pastoral care and for spiritual care. There are a handful that I may put in a different post.

Genia is writing for counselors and spiritual caregivers. And her hope in writing the book is to offer a developmental approach to faith development. She is a psychologist, not a theologian. She would likely consider her specialty the therapeutic work she does with people who have religious convictions and whose religious values or the lack thereof impact their lives. But her book is on the psychological dimensions of faith formation.

For her, faith develops in a never-completed lifelong process with an end we can only approximate. Faith or religious development may not be smooth or linear, though it does progress—like childhood into adulthood—through distinct phases. She is writing from a primarily psychoanalytic point of view, though she critiques the Freudian version of it. Part of what her viewpoint means is that she centers her work on the role and value of parents, particularly, but not exclusively, the mother. If you read the book, you sense the parents pronounced role in nourishing what will largely be an unconscious (or perhaps less conscious) process of faith development.

The book opens with a brief review of the predominant theoretical responses to religion and spirituality. Genia notes the Freudian reaction to religion as an elongated adolescent desire to be protected and cared for by a (divine) parent. She also points to the derivative behaviorist and cognitive-behavioral findings of religion as related to the irrational thoughts which come from people’s backgrounds and upbringing, making religion a part of that background. While Genia quickly summarizes humanistic psychology’s view of religion as 1) among the many things people find important and 2) dealing with some of the same themes and concerns which cause people to seek therapy, she says that humanistic psychology doesn’t generally embrace religion. She paints a picture, which is a very historical one, that the major theories in psychology are unsympathetic to religion.

Genia is clear in her kind treatment of the import and role of religion and religious expression in healthy living. She admits to and thinks through her own religious experience in the book to some degree. She’s coming at the subject as a person of faith. After having identified “the spiritual enterprise” as complex and deeply personal, she says that “This book is largely a result of my own efforts to straddle the boundary between psychology and religion.” Another way of saying that, is that she is not searching to affirm the words of Freud. But she does discuss good qualities of a person’s upbringing and how those qualities relate to religious health. She discusses the contrary too.

When talking specifically about health, she says (p. 11-12), “Admittedly, some religious communities are healthier than others. In some cases emotional disturbance can be exacerbated by harsh or deranged religious indoctrination. Nevertheless, emotionally unstable people are often drawn to destructive religious communities where they can reenact their emotional traumas.” The distortions, strife, and abuse in a person’s background severely impact religious development and expression. They impact a person’s choice of a faith community which is the context of faith development for most people. Genia then enters into the primary content of the book which is to provide developmental stages of faith.

In Stage one (Egocentric Faith) she defines egocentrism as a normal experience where a child is developing the capacity to engage in stable relationships, learning to associate and deal with positive and negative affects within the parent/child relationship, and beginning to develop an integrated sense of self. Infants and young children judge the world through the parent-child dyad; will see parents as good and trustworthy in order to feel secure; and will deny a parent’s wrongdoing in order to manage overwhelming feelings of helplessness. Because children don’t distinguish wishes from actions, when children hate their parents (for abuse or mistreatment), children can develop dissociative or delusional disorders, coping by creating illusory worlds, on one hand, or can “cultivate an exaggerated sense of self-importance,” on the other hand. In either case, Genia says that all children who have suffered maintain an “entitlement to a responsive other.” She relates this to the religiously egocentric in her writing, saying that abused children will reenact traumatic relationships in their relationship to God. “People who relate to others and to God as need-satisfying objects do not do so out of deliberate selfishness or insensitivity, but because of severe deprivations and mistreatment in infancy and early childhood…The plight of egocentric adults should spark our deepest compassion and understanding” (p. 24).

In terms of guidance for those who work with people in this stage, empathic bonding is temporarily reparative. Genia says that such bonding taken too long may foster over-idealization and dependency and reinforce splitting. Because persons in this stage don’t trust and because they expect mistreatment—they themselves have experienced deep betrayal—they have “little in his or her psychological repertoire from which to conceptualize a benevolent or loving deity.” In a therapeutic relationship, Genia says that calm acceptance of a person communicates that feelings aren’t fundamentally bad and that encouraging the person to examine feelings is reparative.

The second stage is a hardened stage in my view. Dogmatic Faith is the stage where religious obligations are observed out of a strong, firm, and unwavering view that compliance earns love and acceptance. This stage could take root in authoritarian parenting or in a context of overprotective parenting. People in this stage may be compulsive, emotionally constricted, and secure in such things. Individuals in this stage are wary of revealing feelings about anger or sexuality. In effect, they hide. Their “excessive need for approval compels them to inhibit any feeling or behavior that they think will result in rejection or criticism” (p. 54). In terms of faith development, they uncritically accept the parent’s religious view and conceptions and then begin to project a sadistic superego (i.e., the self-critical conscience within) onto God while experiencing God as critical and impossible to please. Experience of the parent impacts the experience of God. Religious affiliation brings a sense of security, affirmation. Genia offers several subgroups or subtypes for this stage of faith. They include the legalist, the martyr, the crusader, the intellectual, the recluse. She gives good explanation for each type in the book.

Photo Thanks to Levi Price

Photo Thanks to Levi Price

The third stage is what she calls transitional faith, and it results from significant inner conflict as a person seeks an integrated philosophy of life and personal identity. It happens during adolescence, though, as with other stages, characteristics of the stage can be re-experienced by adults. As for faith development, like in adolescence, the person feels a thrust toward independence as well as a desire to maintain bonds and relationships with “people who matter.”

Faith matures in the “storms of doubt” and leads to critical reflection on previous stages and previously held values. In this stage, people try on different ideologies, choose different religions, and experiment with new practices and affiliations. They lose previous selves in a sense, are susceptible to depression. They “become disembedded from the world view that they previously took for granted, they may feel anxious and confused,” and Genia suggests support, assistance with grief, and encouragement for them on this spiritual path. Also, it aides these persons to read spiritual histories or biographies of leaders who’ve encountered transitions.

The fourth stage is reconstructed faith. A person comes from the transitional phase of development and meets the self-accusations of the superego. The psychic ideal (or spiritual whatever have you) is working against a shame-provoking voice. In this stage, persons push toward the positive ideals and resist temptations. They adhere to certain behaviors and religious codes because they feel right and resonant with new inner convictions. God is experienced as an ally, as supportive, as trusted. People in this stage commit to chosen ideals, rely on personal conscience as opposed to others from a peer group or a church. Faith reconstruction involves releasing what feels like outmoded beliefs in comparison to the newly shaped identity. Spiritual experience that helps the person hear the voice within prove meaningful in this stage. One concern of this stage is that people within it don’t tend to associate with people of different views. They may lose the ability to foster such relationships during this phase. They may not, then, grow in particular ways because of their disinclination.

Transcendent faith is the highest stage in Genia’s paradigm. An endpoint of maturation, there is a focus on both what we believe and how we believe. There is a “celebration of selfhood” in this stage as well as an accompanying celebration of the diversity of others with different philosophical and theological values. This final stage includes a pervasive acknowledgement that “By weakening the human spirit and sacralizing self-contempt, a sin-focused religiosity has devastating effects on the person’s psychological and spiritual development” (pg 114). Indeed, this is a theme throughout Genia’s book. The parental experiences which have framed the spiritually unhealthy people she writes about are negative experiences, and her treatment, while not focusing on the parent’s sins, does focus on the impact of them.

History of Pastoral Care in America

Thanks to Patrick Fore

Thanks to Patrick Fore

I finished E. Brooks Holifield’s A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization. The book has been a grounding or a re-grounding for me since my seminary days. As the title tells, it is a history of pastoral care and pastoral theology in the United States of America.

Holifield walks through several Christian theological lanes, surveying and summarizing some of the major figures in pastoral theology broadly and pastoral care more specifically. He intends the book to be narrow in the sense of covering Protestant pastoral counseling and ministry.

I found it broad in how it went about telling that history. The author named several primary voices in pastoral work, drawing out the thoughts and conceptions of thinkers and preachers and teachers who shaped the practical ministry of pastors and the academic institutions who trained ministers. Holifield wanted to show specifically how the “self” was revealed in history, how attitudes about the self developed in American religion, and wrote in that direction.

Any history that covers centuries has to be clear in its scope and intention. Holifield told of theological traditions and how they dealt with (i.e., defined, taught, and constructed meanings for) sin and spiritual development, two primary foci of pastoral care and those seeking such care throughout history. How a church defines sin directly relates to how a person in that church develops him/herself, whether they develop at all.

I appreciate learning names and dates that I was not thoughtful of. Holifield named preachers and leaders who framed debates that I know of but didn’t know the progenitors. One criticism is that the historical debates were framed around churches and communities which regularly disallowed the names and thoughts of non-white people.

That lack of voice is loud in Holifield, and I found myself wondering why he wrote about the influence of Jonathan Edwards but didn’t discuss with equal precision the thoughts and impact of Richard Allen or Alexander Crummell, the Episcopal priest who started what was essentially a society for African American intellectual and theoretical development. The omission is both honest from the historical perspective–since Allen wasn’t “invited to the debate” in his time–and discouraging because I don’t note Holifield walking through his work with the sense of loss with which I read him.

He presented a lot of philosophical material that made me feel informed, and he made the connections to keep me interested because he used several local church pastors to offer what could have been, simply, heady stuff. A central event in American history of the Protestantism Holifield writes about is the Great Awakening. He writes of the psychology of the Awakening and how with the best of intentions, leaders disagreed (meaning argued) about conversion and cure.

He notes the remark of one historian who says that the central conflict of the time was not theological but psychological, about opposing views of human psychology. Holifield points to how misleading that comment was, but it as helpful as it is misleading. As he says, “the theological context of any clerical assertion about psychology profoundly affected the interpretation of the psychological claims” and “the antagonists had far more in common than any such dichotomy might suggest.” Both are true then and seem true still.

The book covers material that can’t, or shouldn’t be covered in a review. There’s stuff about will and affections, comfort, cure, accountability, capitalism, and urban culture which I hardly would relay as urban in contemporary sense. He develops in solid detail the early therapeutic movements which we see but don’t see in pastoral counseling and therapy offices. He documents the beginnings of the Emmanuel Movement, explains less popular figures like Harry Stack Sullivan (whose work I appreciate), and points to how clinical focus moved from adjustment to insight.

He opened up for me a connection between mainstream culture in the US post-Civil War and the accompanying shifts of emphases in counseling and ministry and which established the primary contexts for the 20th century pastoral care movement. The same was true after World War 2. National violence, world violence directly impacted the needs for, methods of, and providers for pastoral care and mental health. Power and achievement and success were foci. Warlike metaphors abound from that time in clinical history, and the residuals of that period are still with us.

The last half of the book was much more relatable. He employed names and methods I have been introduced to, and the book did a good job unearthing the nuanced theories from which today’s approaches in pastoral theology stem. He dealt with the ever popular client-centered therapy and its large reception among pastors, as well as the derivative therapies thereafter. He mentioned early to mid-twentieth century pastoral heavy weights like Hiltner and Boisen and Oates and Wise.

I remember thinking about something one of my Bible professors said. Perhaps they are words I put in a professor’s mouth: the people who write our texts are the people whose stories stuck. Their stories endured. In other words, those we quote continue to be those we hear.

I felt Holifield reminding us of good historical stuff while also, in my view, choosing certain voices and neglecting others relative to a history of United States of American pastoral care. I certainly am developing a personal project to augment Holifield’s good work, thinking through whose voices are missing but shouldn’t be.

In summary, as good as this history is, it is short-sighted in the direction of white, male perspectives which is nothing surprising. Most of theological scholarship bends in that direction. Certainly most recognized histories bend there too. I could see more complementary texts coming alongside this book in order to illuminate the less-told stories of women and people of color. Indeed, I know the work of folks like Carroll Watkins-Ali and Archie Smith should be read with Holifield’s book.

Now, I’m on the hunt for another pastoral theological history that captures and enriches the story by adding the voices that Holifield didn’t include. That said, this quote, pages from the end, summarize well the good ground the author did cover and offers a kind of vista into the next places historically minded theological scholars may next dig:

Pastoral conversation–whether understood as counsel or as counseling–has never been a disembodied activity, isolated from social and cultural expectations and ideals. The strategies of pastoral discourse, the tone and vocabulary of private communication between the minister and the person in distress, always have borne the dim reflection of a public order. One begins to understand something about pastoral counseling by looking closely not only at prevailing conceptions of theology and psychology but at popular culture, class structure, the national economy, the organization of the parishes, and the patterns of theological education. And one must also look at the past.


Something I Read

I was researching a question for someone, and I came across this in my work: The struggles you probably face in living a life centered on God–while they may be new to you–are not new to humankind.

This feels to me like a very good reminder.  It’s an impressive statement because it speaks to my own inferior places, my own fears, and my own hardships.  But it’s equally impressive because it’s right.

What we’ve experienced as we’ve attempted our religious reaches toward God, our responses to the One who has always reached first, these experiences are common.  Humans have always sensed the Divine, and humans have always experienced that sense as inviting and terrifying, as worthy and hard, as beauty and horror.

It’s the origin of creativity and art and prayer and sex and sleep and addiction. At the bottom of us is the mixed experience of struggle and relief which responds to great love.  And our struggles are not new.  They’ve been lived through before.

May we take comfort in the stories of others who have been where we’re headed and who have left good instructions for the paths under our feet.