Higher Counsel Health: In growing numbers, devoutly religious patients are finding comfort and help in faith-based therapy.


In a suburban office with homey pillows and a poster about the importance of being a father, social worker Ken Zeigler helps those who have lost their jobs, their marriages and sometimes even their belief that God loves them.

He uses his clinical skills to guide clients through their painful confessions and angry tales of betrayal. But he also keeps a Bible near his chair should they want to discuss passages of Scriptures. And he will pray with them should the occasion merit it.

Zeigler is a Christian psychotherapist, one of a growing number of clinically trained mental-health professionals who believe that allowing clients to explore and express their spirituality during treatment will help them get better.

Although he and other counselors at Wellspring Counseling Services in Greenspring Station treat clients who do not want to discuss religion, they also find that many clients insist upon therapists who share their religious values. They want to ensure that any solution to a problem is constructed upon the foundation of their beliefs.

"My job is not to proselytize," says Zeigler, who holds a master's degree in social work from the University of Maryland and is a member of Central Presbyterian Church in Towson. "I don't want say that Jesus is your answer and will get you through your problems. We approach therapy by saying that Christ is your anchor. That is a solid framework that helps us through anything we will go through."

Over the past 20 years, psychotherapists have begun to drop their long-standing indifference -- or in some cases antipathy -- to religion. Many now use their clients' faith in Christianity, Judaism or some other set of religious beliefs to help them improve their lives.

People who seek faith-based therapy struggle to honor God while they confront difficult and uncertain situations, says Russell Lingle, a psychotherapist who counsels couples at Liberty Christian Counseling Services in Sykesville. The treatment must incorporate a pre-existing set of ethical standards. The "right" course of action for a client does not merely depend upon what best fulfills his or her personal needs.

One former client of Liberty Christian Counseling Services, a man who had physically abused his wife, says he sought Christian counseling with his spouse because their secular therapists were leading them toward divorce. Christian therapy helped him learn to control his violent behavior and allowed the couple to reconcile. Six years later, he says, the marriage is thriving.

"The therapy techniques weren't particularly remarkable -- we talked about how to talk to each other lovingly, how to talk when we're angry, how to resolve difficulties -- but what was different -- was that by going to a Christian therapist, we had an absolute commitment to making the marriage work," he says. "The therapy techniques have to have a moral center. When you don't have that deep level of commitment, you also don't have that deep level of commitment to the solution."

Although there are no statistics on how many Americans are seeking psychotherapists to work within their religious beliefs, interest in faith-based therapy is clearly growing.

Minirth Meier New Life Clinics, which offers a Christian approach to mental-health care, has opened 100 clinics throughout the United States during the past 12 years. The organization offers in-patient, out-patient and therapeutic day-hospital programs to roughly 5,000 clients each week.

Dozens of seminaries have introduced graduate programs in psychology and counseling. And there are now several doctoral programs in Christian-based psychology, according to the Christian Association for Psychological Studies.

Loyola College, which offers the country's only doctoral degree in pastoral counseling, will be host of a national conference this spring for more than 40 different degree programs in the field. When it sponsored a similar event in 1987, there were only 12 programs.

"Twenty years ago, you could present a program on religious issues in counseling and no one would show up. Now the room will be full," says psychologist Randolph Sanders, director of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies.

Not only does the American Psychological Association have a division devoted to the psychology of religion, but earlier this year it also published a landmark compilation of scholarly writings on religion as it relates to therapeutic practice.

Some are not sure

However, some remain uncomfortable with blending worlds they believe are better separated. Some religious leaders worry that psychotherapy may lead Christians toward a godless self-centeredness. Some psychotherapists fear that faith-based treatment may undermine or mask the need for work based on clinical principles.

But even the most tradition-bound psychotherapists have had to acknowledge the success of 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which require participants to seek help from a higher power to transform their lives.

Another cultural influence is psychiatrist M. Scott Peck's phenomenal best seller: "The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth."

Peck's medical training has made his ideas more credible to the therapeutic community.

"Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the head of almost every psychiatric department in the country was a Freudian analyst," says psychiatrist Paul Meier, a co-founder of Minirth Meier New Life Clinics. "Psychiatrists thought religion was crazy, and Christians thought psychiatrists wanted to take away their faith."

Many Christians resisted any form of counseling, Meier says, because they believed if only they were "good" Christians, they would be happy and fulfilled. Their pastors persuaded them that they could find any answer they needed in the Scriptures.

Now many pastors are referring congregants to counseling programs.

"I don't think the Bible addresses every question we have in life," Zeigler says. "It becomes our foundation to process and cope with life and move through our troubles. But we are meant to be in relationship to one another. We are meant to bear one another's burdens together. We aren't made to be alone in our joy or in our suffering."

He says Christian counselors use compassion and empathy along with their clinical skills in therapy.

Growing importance

Psychologist Carole Rayburn, immediate past president of APA's division of psychology of religion, treats clients from many faith backgrounds. She deals with specific religious issues, and she has witnessed the growing importance of spirituality in her practice.

"Religion can be very cold in the sense that it is the codes and creeds of a system of belief," the Silver Spring psychologist says. "I see spirituality as a warm entity: The vitality, the heart of a communion.

"Spirituality is the energy to look at what's going on in the problem and to long for the communion and recommitment with other people. It's the force behind wanting to do good, behind wanting to create a loving and kind situation with other people. That particular slant -- the intensity and fervor of wanting to do the good thing -- makes it different from a secular approach toward problem solving."

Many counselors do not advertise their belief in spirituality. If they did, they say, they would waste too much time convincing other people that they are not untrained religious fanatics.

"When I go to clinical groups, I do not say I'm a Christian counselor," says August Lageman, executive director of Pastoral Counseling Services of Maryland. "In the mental health world, 'Christian' generally means conservative and evangelical."

Some Christian counselors get more respect if they describe their explorations of faith as pertinent to a client's culture, says Hendrika Vande Kemp a scholar of the history of religion and psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

She says family therapists began paying more attention to religious beliefs when they recognized them as fundamental to various ethnic and cultural traditions.

"Just as you might have feminist therapy specialists and therapists who specialize in African-Americans and Latinos, you can now have therapists who specialize in clients of a conservative Christian cultural background," she says. "The argument goes that these people have not traditionally been well served by the psychology community."

Pub Date: 9/24/96

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