Why Not Leave Spirituality to the Spiritual Professionals?

Clients don't compartmentalize their lives. We can't either.

Posted Feb 21, 2020

In 2019, I wrote a book called Spirit in Session: Working with Your Client’s Spirituality (and Your Own) in Psychotherapy (Templeton Press). I wrote in a conversational voice, a therapist talking to other therapists, and I am delighted that conversation is exactly what’s happened. Therapists and clients have emailed me comments and questions that the book has evoked for them, and this blog is your carbon copy of those exchanges. Please join the conversation any way you want: email me at russell@russellsilerjones.com, or just sit at the edge and listen in.

Q: I’m a therapist who values my clients’ (and my own) spirituality, but I’m uneasy getting too involved with it in therapy. Spirituality is so complex and consequential, and there are professionals who are better trained at working with it than I’ll ever be—ministers, chaplains, spiritual directors. Wouldn’t it be better to let them handle the spiritual issues and let me handle the mental health issues?

A: Right off the bat, I want to tell you three things I love about your question.

First, there’s your respect for your clients and your desire that they get the absolute best care possible. Second, there’s your respect for professional colleagues who have different training and expertise than you do. You’re embodying the absolute opposite of professional arrogance.

Third, there’s your respect for spiritual experience itself. You say it’s “complex and consequential,” and it is. Unquestionably. People who’ve had significant spiritual experiences of their own, or who’ve witnessed the impact of other people’s spiritual experience, are invariably humbled by the magnitude and mystery of the spiritual dimension.

In my mind, the respect and humility evident in your question are by far the most important attributes anyone brings to a moment of care, no matter what our particular areas of expertise might be. Are there “spiritual professionals” who know more about spiritual belief and practice than you do? Undoubtedly. Rabbis, imams, priests, pastors, chaplains, spiritual directors, and others have specialized knowledge and skills for working with spiritual experience—the barefaced, big picture elements of spiritual experience, and the smaller, subtler, nitty-grittier particulars—and every therapist should have a long list of trusted spiritual professionals with whom they can consult and to whom they can refer.

But expertise, knowledge, and skill are of little use apart from the capacity to stand before another human being and authentically, humbly, sincerely bow. So, before you disqualify yourself on the basis of what you might not know, please do not underestimate the power of what you do, nor the power of being the respectful, humble human being that you are.

Now I want to tell you three more things, these even more to the point of your question.

First, your clients are not going to bracket out their spiritual experience from the rest of their life, bringing just the psychological experience to you, saving the spiritual experience for their priest and their somatic experience for their physician. In an actual human life, the psychological, social, physical, and spiritual dimensions are all happening all at once. Your clients won’t stop being spiritual just because they’re in your office and not their rabbi’s.

Second, these days, there are fewer people actually sitting in a rabbi’s office. The well-known Pew Research Center Religious Landscape Study of 2014 showed a decline in the number of U.S. adults who attend religious services (down from the last Pew study, in 2007) and an increase in the number of U.S. adults who self-identify as atheist or agnostic or say their religion is “nothing in particular." The “nones” comprised 23 percent of the U.S. adult population in 2014, up from 16 percent in 2007. So, the clients in your office are less likely to have “spiritual professionals” in their lives than they were ten years ago, and they are more likely to turn to you as the “wisdom figure” in their lives.

Simon Matzinger/Pexels
Source: Simon Matzinger/Pexels

Third, the human experience that brings almost everyone to therapy is the same human experience they bring to religion: that of suffering. It might be the suffering of a mood disorder, or grief, or guilt, or shame, or a strained relationship, or an unbearable circumstance. But suffering, in myriad forms, is at the heart of psychotherapy.

It’s also at the heart of religion. All four of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, for instance, speak of suffering: the reality of suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path that leads to the end of suffering. People come to therapy to deal with suffering. And the way forward they find, with our help, is almost always informed by their already-established core beliefs and values or by newly discovered beliefs and values that their suffering sets them in search of.

So, question-asker, colleague in this good work, poster child of professional humility and spiritual respect: I do not think you can be a therapist and avoid the spirituality of your clients. It’s just too embedded and integrated in everything else about them.

You can be respectful of it, as you are. You can know your limits, and when people are up against a spiritual struggle you think calls for the support of a spiritual specialist, you can encourage or facilitate that. But the human being who comes to you for help will get that most when you meet them as the whole human being they are, spirituality included.

Good luck! And stay in touch!

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