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Sacred Work: Balancing Faith and Professionalism in Therapy

As social workers and therapists, we have an ethical standard that we do not force our own beliefs onto clients. We also tend to avoid self-disclosure so that we can remain an unbiased listener and so that the client does not become our therapist. See here for the NASW Code of Ethics.

That said, we all come with our histories and identities that often mean a lot to us. For many, religion or faith plays a huge role in how we navigate the world, so how do we navigate this work we do while also living in alignment with our various faiths? As a Christian, I know I cannot speak for everyone, but I can speak on what I've learned. So here it goes.

It is not okay to dismiss the pain that organized religion has caused:

I am aware that organized religion has hurt many people, including a large portion of the LGBTQ+ community. A lot of evil has come from hateful people in various religions. One thing I think about is that Jesus was killed by religious people. I, myself, have been hurt by people claiming to be devout Christians led by their faith.

As a social worker, it is important to meet my clients where they are. That is, I need to go down into the trenches with them and explore what they think and feel. Defensiveness is an easy way to ruin the client-therapist relationship. There have been times when I want to shout, "those Christians don't get that God is love!" But that would have missed the point that the client was trying to tell me: they're hurting. So, stay humble and lower your defenses.

Remember, your job is to model a healthy relationship for your client, so watch that defensiveness.

It is not okay to dismiss emotions:

Jesus wept. He got angry. He did so with reason and for good, but He felt human emotions. Some people will use the Bible or other religious beliefs to dismiss emotions, but the Bible says, "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn." (Romans 12:15 NIV). That is, we are in a place to process emotions with clients, not to dismiss them.

Check your biases and consult regularly:

I once worked with a client who held religious beliefs that were... let's just say very contrary to my own. In fact, the way the case was presented to me scared me a bit. It was hard, but I had to take a step back and take a strengths-based approach. I took the time to learn about the client's beliefs and why they were important to the client.

I also had to consult regularly with my supervisor to understand and address how religious beliefs may affect the client's perception of their mental health symptoms. It was a great learning experience.

Recognize the strengths of your client:

Faith and spirituality can be a huge strength and protective factor for clients, whether they are faith-curious or deeply established in a church. It is important to explore someone's beliefs, even if they have the same religion as you. You can't assume someone thinks exactly the same as you.

Not to mention, often religions or spiritual belief systems offer important support networks. Churches, for example, often have community groups and charitable funds to help their members.

Use your beliefs to keep you going in your private time:

This work is hard. Sometimes, it is a thankless job. In these times, I think of 1 Corinthians 10:31 (ESV) "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." That is, I remember that the work I do is for my Father in heaven that loves me and the clients I serve.

It also gives me hope to pray when I feel scared or hopeless. I pray that God grows seeds I planted with my clients, that He be there as I speak to clients, and that He prepare clients hearts for our work together. And when clients suffer, I pray with all my heart that He helps them in their suffering and that He works all things for good. Romans 8:28 (ESV) says "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." That is, God does not cause bad things to happen but He can make a way to turn any situation into a meaningful one.

If you have trouble doing this work without talking about your faith, consider niching by advertising the incorporation of your faith and therapy:

This is not something I choose to do, but many therapists have done so. Sure, some clients will not go to you, but the clients who want a Christian counselor (or whatever religion or spirituality you practice), will be glad to see someone who holds the same beliefs.

I hope some of this was helpful!


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