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The Varieties of Religious Therapy: Christian Psychology

Christian psychotherapy, according to Mark McMinn.

"The Varieties of Religious Therapy (VRT)" is a blog series featuring representatives from twelve belief systems discussing how they integrate faith with their approach to psychotherapy. This installment is an interview with a Christian psychologist and professor. See the Introduction for a full description of VRT and the table of contents.

Christian psychology is a term typically used in reference to Protestant Christian psychotherapists who strive to fully embrace both their religious beliefs and their psychological training in their professional practice. Several APA-approved graduate programs and professional organizations train and support Christian psychotherapists.

Today, I welcome Mark R. McMinn (Ph.D., Vanderbilt University), Professor of Psychology at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, where he teaches and serves as the director of faith integration in the Graduate Department of Clinical Psychology. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association (APA) and a past president of the APA's Psychology of Religion division. Much of his research and all of his clinical work in recent years has focused on clergy health and finding effective ways for mental health professionals and clergy to work together well.

In addition to writing over 120 chapters and articles, McMinn has authored or co-authored ten books and co-edited four more including Integrative Psychotherapy: Toward a Comprehensive Christian Approach (co-authored with Clark D. Campbell), Psychology, Theology, and Spirituality in Christian Counseling, and his latest book published by the APA, Spiritually-Oriented Interventions in Counseling and Psychotherapy (co-edited with Jamie D. Aten and Everett L. Worthington, Jr.). Please enjoy the thoughtful responses from a Christian psychologist who clearly knows his trade.

What is the role of religion or spirituality in your clinical practice?

I have two responses to this. First, my faith informs the way I see the world. In this sense, religion plays a role for every client I see. I could no more separate my faith from my worldview than I could remove my ethnicity or my past experiences. Clients have a right to know about my worldview, so my consent form mentions my Christian beliefs. Clients do not need to share these beliefs, and I don't attempt to change their beliefs to conform to mine, but still, they have a right to know how I understand the world.

Second, for clients who share my Christian faith, we often speak of religious issues in psychotherapy. Our faith becomes a way of joining, a cultural connection that allows us to understand one another and speak a language that others may or may not understand. This needs to be done within ethical boundaries of course, and I always need to be aware of my position of relative power as a psychotherapist so that I won't misuse that power.

How does your technique or theory differ from mainstream psychotherapy?

My psychotherapy methods are quite similar to mainstream methods, though with clients who share my faith we often speak of faith beliefs and behaviors in the context of our work together.

As a cognitive therapist, I focus a good deal on the values, beliefs, and assumptions that clients hold. These form the substance of how a person "tells their story." In psychotherapy, we revisit the story, and how it is being told. Faith is often part of that story.

A new client comes to therapy reporting his main problem is feeling detached from God. How would you proceed?

It depends. On face value, this does not appear to be a question for psychotherapy. I would probe to see if there are mental health issues that need to be addressed. Is the client depressed? Has the client been traumatized in some way? Are there relational or substance use issues that need to be considered? If not, I would probably send the person to a clergyperson for help.

If there are psychotherapeutic issues at play, I would address those first while remaining open to conversations about the client feeling detached from God.

What is the relationship between sin and psychopathology?

From a Christian worldview, sin is both a state and an act. The "acts" of sin get plenty of press, so I won't comment on that here. What is more critical, and more interesting, I think, is the state of sin. That is, a Christian worldview suggests that we are all broken in various ways, all estranged from God to various degrees, all struggling with self-serving biases and perceptions, all on a spiritual journey, all inclined to distort perceptions of self, God, and others along the way. This means that a Christian view of sin ought to engender great empathy for the client, because the psychotherapist and the client are not different. We all limp along in life, and it is best if we have companions to join us in the journey.

But more needs to be said. Grace is the Christian hope for our sinful state. If we stop the conversation at sin, we fail to see that God is constantly working in this world, always offering hope and a measure of healing to our broken condition. Sin is the prelude to grace, with grace being the central part of the story.

Who or what is the primary agent of change in therapy?

In light of the previous question about sin, and my preference to focus on grace, I suppose I would say that God is ultimately the agent of all good change in the world, including change that occurs in psychotherapy. That said, God works through human hands, hearts, and words. It's the therapeutic relationship, and the retelling of the client's story that emerges out of that relationship, that changes people for the better. I don't think a psychotherapist has to be a Christian, or a person of faith at all, for God to be at work in the psychotherapy office.

What is the most difficult part of practicing psychotherapy while maintaining your beliefs?

Psychotherapy is difficult work. It is emotionally draining, requiring intense concentration and focus, and the results are sometimes discouraging. But I don't think of any ways that my faith makes the process more difficult than it would otherwise be.

What is the most rewarding part?

When I sit with a client in pain, I often have the sense that I am doing something Jesus would care about. He spent much of his ministry as a healer, and I think he must be pleased to see so many Christians devoting themselves to emotional healing.

There is a Norman Rockwell painting titled "Saying Grace" that shows an old woman and a young boy—presumably her grandson—sitting in a crowded, smoke-filled restaurant, bowing to pray before their meal. The two teenage boys sharing their table, one with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, stare in disbelief at this pair pausing to pray amidst the clamor of everything. To me, the meaning is not about whether we bow our heads and pray before meals, but more about the metaphor of bringing a quiet center into the most complex places of the world. This is what I find rewarding—bringing all of who I am, centered in the grace of Christ, into the most complicated situations clients may bring. My job is not to convert them, but to sit with them, to be a voice of hope and grace.

Only one belief system remains on our quest. Can you guess which one? Take a look at the table of contents to see where we've been and like my Facebook to get alerts for future posts.

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