Christian Counsellors’ Experience of Hearing from God for their Clients: An Interpretative Phenomenological ApproachReading Time: 33 minutes
Background: The integration of spirituality in counselling is now more acceptable in the counselling profession. Research has tended to focus on the use of spiritual interventions with clients, rather than the effect of the counsellor’s spirituality on the counselling work. The rationale for this study was to explore how Christian counsellors integrate their spiritual selves into their client work. The particular aspect of integration of interest was the phenomenon of Christian counsellors hearing from God for their clients, and what they do with what they receive.
Aim/Methodology: This study used interpretative phenomenological analysis to explore five Christian counsellors’ experience of hearing from God for their clients.
Findings: Three super-ordinate themes emerged from the data. These were: 1. beliefs and activities of the participants that positioned them to hear from God for their clients with sub-themes of: participants’ beliefs about God, self and clients; participants’ inclusion of God in the client work; and what the participants perceived as hearing from God. 2. Participants’ dilemmas with receiving communication from God with sub-themes of: participants’ uncertainties about hearing from God; what the participants do with what they’ve received from God; and professional concerns. 3. What meaning the participants gave to the communication from God with sub-themes of: what hearing from God for their clients meant to the participant personally; what hearing from God meant to the client work; and what the participants thought what they had heard from God meant to the client.
Implications: Inclusion of the transcendent other, the use of covert prayer and hearing from God was discussed, along with ethical consideration. Implications for practice and suggestions for further research were offered.
It is not unusual for therapist’s beliefs and values to influence their motivation to work in the profession (Kernes & Kinnier, 2008). However, in the early twentieth century, psychology seemed to deliberately distance itself from religion and spirituality (Pargament & Saunders, 2007:903). Now views have changed, with it being accepted that counsellors’ spiritual beliefs are likely to influence their practice and the co-creation of the therapeutic relationship (Blair, 2015; Christodoulidi, 2011:94). Furthermore, it is not unusual for counsellors in mainstream practice to use prayer in their client work (Gubi, 2001).
According to Gubi, prayer can have a ‘sense of encounter, communication and connection’ with God (Gubi, 2008:17). This Augustian, relational view of God sees prayer as a two-way communication with God in an I/Thou, intimate relationship (Buber, 1970 cited West, 2011:192; Ashley, 2015:149; Grenz, 2001:162 cited Ashley, 2015:47). If the Christian counsellor chooses to communicate with God about their clients, there could be possible outcomes such as an encounter with God, communication from God or connection with God. Communication from God could come in a variety of ways – through thoughts and impressions, visions, physical sensations, a still, small voice, hunches or scripture (Dein & Cook, 2015; Joubert & Maartens, 2018). Therefore, when a Christian counsellor hears from God for their clients, there is potentially going to be an interaction between God, the counsellor and the client. Hence the rationale for this research.
This research is important for two reasons. Firstly, there are ethical implications for the client work. Christian counsellors could be accused of misusing their position for proselytising (Case, 1997 cited Weld & Eriksen, 2007; Gubi, 2001). If Christian counsellors choose to use what they have heard from God with their client work, explaining how they came to have a particular insight may be a challenge. Also, receiving perceived communication from God about a client could tempt the counsellor into skewing the session away from the client’s agenda, with the client losing autonomy (BACP, 2018:9).
Secondly, it raises questions around Christian counsellors bringing their spiritual selves into the counselling relationship. By excluding this part of their spiritual selves, they risk a loss of authenticity that is driven by a fear of judgement from the profession (Mearns & Thorne, 2013:50). It seems plausible that the counsellor’s physical presence, emotions, thinking processes and choices can acceptably interact with the client – but the counsellor’s spirituality may be less welcome. Much of society today is at odds with Christian beliefs and values. Therefore, if a counsellor identifies as a Christian, they are potentially identifying with views and values that are considered controversial (Curtice et al, 2019:16).
The aims of this research are to explore Christian counsellors’ experience of hearing from God for their clients, to find out what they do with what they receive from God and reflect on the implications for counselling practice.
A brief review of the literature
Historical and social viewpoints
In the early twentieth century, psychology seemed to deliberately distance itself from religion and spirituality, with opposing views held by Freud and Jung (Pargament & Saunders, 2007:903). Freud saw religion and spirituality as a negative influence, whereas Jung acknowledged the reality of religious experiences and was convinced that the lack of acceptance of such is the root cause of psychological distress (Freud 1930/1961b:31-32, Jung 1978:339 & 252 cited Zinnbauer & Pargament, 2000:163).
Towards the end of the twentieth century, integration of spirituality and religion with psychology developed as the psychology of religion and transpersonal psychology evolved (Coyle, 2008). At the same time, Christian counselling models became less suspicious of the influence of psychology and chose to incorporate the common wisdom that the schools of psychology had developed (Ashley, 2015:62).
Speaking of one’s spirituality is now more acceptable and its inclusion within healthcare has provided a more person-centred approach (Young, Cashwell & Shcherbakova, 2000 cited Mayseless & Russo-Netzer, 2017:184). Furthermore, empirical evidence has shown that spirituality and religion help stabilise a person during negative life experiences (Sheldrake, 2013:214; Kreitzer, 2012:707).
Christian counselling integrates Christian theology with psychology and has assumptions on God, humankind and relationships (Collins, 1988; Kallmier, 2011). When this research uses the term Christian counsellors, it means counsellors who have a Christian worldview, values and assumptions, but do not necessarily integrate formal Christian theology in their practice (ACC, 2014). Hood helpfully defines the Christian counsellor as professional counselling by an individual who identifies as a Christian, in partnership with God and employing primarily psychotherapeutic interventions (Hood, 2019:19). Being in partnership with God suggests a relationship that requires two-way communication and it is this communication between counsellor and God about their clients that is of interest to this study.
This current research explored situations where the therapist and client may or may not share the same religious tradition or spiritual worldview. Bergin argued that therapist’s values inevitably influence the goals and process of therapy, rather than the therapist having a neutral stance (Bergin, 1980:4). In the UK, research using qualitative and quantitative methods showed that Christian psychologists are aware of the challenge of holding spiritual values but not imposing those on their clients, and vice versa (Baker & Wang, 2004). French points out that Christian counsellors need to be aware of their own Christian formation or tradition and their expectations that God will work through them in their counselling work (French, 2019:30). Without this awareness, counter transference could occur within the therapy whereby the therapist reacts against or supports the client’s spirituality (Kochems, 1993 cited Hall & Hall, 1997:90).
Covert prayer in counselling
Spiritual integration can occur in counselling through the use of prayer, undertaken by the counsellor. Prayer can be defined as ‘any kind of communication or conversation with God, including focusing attention on God and experiential awareness of God’ (Finney & Malony, 1985 & Tan, 1996 cited Hall & Hall, 1997). Alternatively, prayer could be described as turning one’s heart and mind towards the sacred, as an ‘act of will in which we focus our concentration and to open up to our inner depths’ (La Torre, 2004:2), whereas Moors sees the speech-act of prayer as language which helps to bring God into our experience (Moors, 2017).
Spiritual exercises, such as practising God’s presence, can be viewed as a resource for both counsellor and client (Thorne, 1991:16). Gubi looked at how counsellors use spiritual practices in mainstream counselling as a way of giving their work over to something greater than themselves, and to help them cope with the demands of client work (Gubi, 2008:122). Further quantitative research has indicated that therapist’s spiritual exercises, such as mindfulness centring prior to therapy, enabled therapists to be more present, and according to client reports, more effective in the session (Dunn et al, 2012).
The use of prayer within therapy assumes that God is called upon to actively help in the process of therapy (Johnson & Ridley, 1992 cited Magaletta & Brawer, 1998:322). This could raise ethical concerns for power distribution in the counselling relationship, client autonomy and client agenda (BACP 2018). It could be argued that, if prayer ‘works’, then clients should be made aware of God’s input – but how can the Christian counsellor compartmentalise praying if their habit is to ‘pray without ceasing’? (Magaletta & Brawer, 1998; 1 Thess. 5:17, NKJV).
Gubi has investigated the use of covert and overt Christian prayer in mainstream counselling in the UK (Gubi, 2001). Using grounded theory, he categorised covert prayer as having the benefit of grounding the counsellor, of being aware of the process of counselling and upholding the client (Gubi, 2001). Although participants did express times when they asked God for guidance, Gubi’s research did not explore if and how guidance was received from God and what the counsellor may have done with that.
Hearing from God
Hearing God’s voice, although not necessarily audibly, is common practice for many Christians (Joubert & Maartens, 2018). In their review of how Christians perceive God speaking to them, the most popular way was ‘a still, quiet [or small] voice’, or the ‘inner witness of the Spirit’ (Wagner, 1997:43, 45 and Jacobs, 1995:76-77 and Willard 1999:10 cited Joubert & Maartens, 2018). Communication from God is open to interpretation from the receiver – creating a hermeneutic circle. Whatever the intention of the author of the communication (God), it is interpreted by Christians through their theological interpretation lens (Reichenbach, 2003).
Other ways that can be perceived as God communicating are hunches, impulses, compulsions, urges and physical sensations (Joubert & Maartens, 2018). The variety and subjectiveness of hearing from God does not lend itself to empirical study as Joubert & Maartens (2018) explain: ‘The problem is aggravated by how the voice of God is identified, the inability to distinguish between God’s voice, a thought or feeling in themselves, and the difficulty of distinguishing between a message from God, a self-generated message and a message from an enemy spirit’ (Joubert & Maartens, 2018:53).
In a qualitative study, analysing his data using grounded theory, Gubi found that one of the benefits of covert Christian prayer by counsellors was ‘a means of spiritual guidance for the counsellor’ (Gubi, 2001:433). Unfortunately, the scope of the study did not include how the spiritual guidance may occur and what the counsellors did with it.
Using grounded theory, which seeks to generate theorising on topics, Suarez sought to find out experienced therapists’ assumptions, meanings and challenges in integrating spirituality and therapy (Suarez, 2005). In her category of ‘integration at an experiential level’, participants described being ‘awake/open/aware/connected’ to their spiritual reality while with the client and participants reported being illuminated or directed by the Spirit in sessions (Suarez, 2005:150). However, although her descriptive categorisation tells of participants’ experience of receiving communication from ‘the Spirit’, it does not look at what they did with the communication they received (Suarez, 2005:150). Similarly, Jenkins describes one of his participants receiving suggestions from her spirit guide in a counselling session, but Jenkins focuses on the ethical concerns about that rather than exploring the phenomenon (Jenkins, 2006:289).
The use of Christian prayer in counselling has also been investigated (Gubi, 2008), as has Christians hearing from God (Dein & Cook, 2015). However, inclusion of God by Christian counsellors and their two-way communication with Him concerning their clients has not been investigated. This study explored Christian counsellors’ experience of hearing from God in counselling and what the counsellors did with that in the counselling process.
Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was chosen for this study to examine and give voice to the participants’ lived experience and how they make sense of it (Smith et al, 2009). Its theoretical foundations in phenomenology and interpretation (hermeneutics), together with its idiographic perspective, gives a suitable method to explore aspects of spirituality as it sits in a phenomenological paradigm (Shinebourne, 2011).
Participants and recruitment
Ethical approval for the research was granted by the Waverley Abbey College (WAC) Research Ethics Committee and permission from the Association of Christian Counsellors (ACC) to recruit from their members was granted. A total of 5 participants were recruited; they were qualified as counsellors for more than 2 years and registered members of either the ACC or British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP). They self-identified as Christians who are counsellors and work in partnership with God (Hood, 2019). Despite counselling being a predominantly female profession, I recruited 4 male and 1 female participant on a first come, first served basis (Brown, 2017).
The analysis process generated three superordinate themes from the data, which reflect aspects of shared experience between the participants (see Table 2).
Superordinate theme 1: Beliefs and activities of the participants that positioned them to hear from God for their clients.
This superordinate theme with three sub-themes refers to what the researcher sees as the influencing factors about the counsellor that put them in a place to experience hearing from God for their clients.
Sub-theme 1.i: Participants’ beliefs about God, self and clients
With this sub-theme, participants expressed beliefs about God, which were linked to their beliefs about themselves and their clients. Having the belief that they are loved by God helped participants in their counselling work; for example, David said he would find it hard to muster up the level of care and concern for his clients if he didn’t have a relationship with God where he felt held and loved. Taylor pointed to scripture to illustrate how foundational this is to his work, saying, ‘he so loved the world, he still so loves the world, … and I think that basically underlies all my work. God loves, God loves us, God loves us all.’
Sub-theme 1.ii: Participants’ inclusion of God in the client work
This sub-theme shows participants involving God in their client work. All participants prayed in preparation for their client work, before seeing their clients, but varied in their habits and processes of prayer. For example, Terry would use the Lord’s prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) as a framework whereas David had an ordered way of praying, which he termed his ‘daily round of prayer’, similar to centring prayer where there was interaction going on between him and God that he wasn’t necessarily aware of (Keating, 1994).
Moira would usually pray before the session, asking God for wisdom and insight. In his prayer time, Vince would ask God to be with him, and open himself up to receive communication from God by asking God if there was anything He wanted him to know, or to pass on to the client. Similarly, Taylor noted, ‘I’m going to see XYZ. What is it that’s relevant for them? And basically I’m asking open questions… What is it about this client and…. What is my role here? What do You want me to do here?’
Interestingly, participants stated that they prayed for their clients equally, irrespective of their client’s perceived spirituality. Vince’s prayer habits were the same whether the client had a faith or none at all. He used what he called his ‘inner eye’, an internal eye where he would look into the spiritual world, as an add-on to his counselling skills.
Sub-theme 1.iii: What the participants perceived as hearing from God
Participants described various ways in which they experienced God communicating with them. Vince explained he would often get promptings or random spontaneous thoughts while he was with clients, saying, ‘I was stuck actually and didn’t quite know what to do and then this idea come and went ping.’ He talked of the subtleties of hearing from God which he looked out for, but was aware that he probably missed much of what God may be saying to him. He said, ‘Not the big flashing from the sky where you know this is God speaking… I actually believe that He says a lot more to us than we think. But we miss it.’
For David, hearing from God was more of an embodied sensing experience (Baldwin, 2016). He said, ‘It’s tended to be trusting a kind of an overall sense for each of my clients… a sense for them that feels as if it’s God speaking to me about them.’ And for Terry, hearing from God came with a variety of experiences. He described, ‘that inner voice just kind of like someone having a conversation with me, really…. and there are other times when I have quite a strong impression of something or a feeling’.
Superordinate Theme 2: Participants’ dilemmas with receiving communication from God
This superordinate theme encompasses the dilemmas participants had when choosing to hear from God for their clients.
Sub-theme 2.i: Participants’ uncertainties about hearing from God
This sub-theme pertains to participants finding it difficult to be completely certain that God had communicated with them, recognising a degree of trial and error involved. With an unusually large proportion of male participants, I noticed that the men spoke about being courageous and taking risks – apart from Terry, who didn’t seem to question if he had heard from God or not. For example, Taylor felt he had received communication from God about a new client’s addictive behaviour, but realised there was a degree of risk involved in bringing it up with the client. Yet he chose to use what he thought he had heard from God and the information was correct. He noted, ‘If it had been wrong, I would have probably risked all our relationship.’ Similarly, David talked about ‘riskier moments’, when he had acted on what he thought God had shown him. It was not ‘irresponsible riskiness, but it’s just on the edge of things’.
Moira reflected that maybe she wasn’t as aware of God’s input in her client work as she could be and recognised that it’s a resource that she hadn’t been tapping into. However, unlike the male participants, who were apparently prepared to take risks, she expressed some concern saying, ‘So I think initially, it’s a sense that it’s a bittersweet. There’s like an assurance and an encouragement, but then there’s a kind of, “uh, is that just me?”’ Moira is initially encouraged, but is then faced with the dilemma of wondering if what she heard was from God and, if so, what should she do with it.
Sub-theme 2.ii: What the participants do with what they’ve received from God
This sub-theme is concerned with the challenge the participants had with knowing what to do with what they perceived God had communicated to them. Participants were very aware of staying with the client’s agenda and giving them autonomy, so their way of bringing into the session what they had heard was a tentative offering.
Moira would incorporate pictures that she believed were from God into the session by introducing them gently. She noted she would say something like, ‘As I was preparing for this session, I was thinking and this kind of picture came into my mind’ or, ‘this just came to me and I’m wondering’.
Vince showed his desire to stay with the client’s agenda, preferring to wait for a relevant opening in the session, rather than stop the client’s flow. He would also manoeuvre how he offers what he believes God is communicating by ensuring the client has the option to say ‘no’, without feeling any pressure.
Sub-theme 2.iii: Professional concerns
When working out how to integrate what they perceived was communication from God into the counselling session, participants did not place it above the needs or agenda of the client.
During the interview Moira said she feels she has one foot in the psychotherapy camp and one foot in the Christian camp – with the two often feeling quite separate. She was cautious about bringing what she perceived as God’s communication to the client work, because being part of a professional body, she doesn’t want to over-step ethical boundaries. In particular, she was concerned about power dynamics within the relationship. Likewise, Terry had times when he had heard from God, but hadn’t brought it into the session, as it may have changed the power dynamics in the relationship. Terry was aware that if he were to tell Christian clients he had heard from God for them, it would change the relationship. He noted, ‘One of my clients, who is a Christian, I think puts me on a pedestal, and so bringing Christian stuff into it can actually be really unhelpful.’
There were also concerns about what others in the profession would think if they knew the counsellor believed that God communicated to them about their work. Vince assumed that others in the profession would have a negative view and probably think he was ‘bonkers’ but this would not sway his beliefs or practices. However, David’s reflections seemed able to hold different views. He said, ‘You know, within the counselling world…. there’s that whole intuitive thing that can go on. Or you could interpret it as God speaking… I choose to believe that somehow God is involved in that process, even though it can be described in other ways.’
Superordinate theme 3: What meaning participants gave to the communication from God
This theme focuses on the communication from God and what sense they made of it and has three sub-themes.
Sub-theme 3.i: What hearing from God for their clients meant to the participant personally
This sub-theme captured the participants’ sense that the communication was often helpful to them. For example, Terry was comforted by what he received from God when he was feeling anxious about a client. Similarly, Moira felt encouraged and reassured that she wasn’t on her own in her client work. For Vince, hearing from God for his client confirmed his belief that God was there with him and the client in the session. He said, ‘the thought or the belief that there’s two of us helping this person… I don’t know, it just feels like an added dynamic.’
For David, hearing from God for his client changed David but also his perception of his client. His belief that God is with him in the counselling room changes him, makes him more courageous but also helps him to take more care with the client. He noted, ‘It’s helped me to tune in more to that client. It’s helped me to be more ready to meet them in what I feel God has said about them… hearing from God and being conscious that God is around for me in the counselling room has had the effect of making me more courageous sometimes, but at other times more careful.’
Sub-theme 3ii: What hearing from God meant to the client work
Participants gave examples of hearing from God having a positive effect on the client work. Hearing from God helped David keep his focus on an individual client’s needs and their agenda: He said, ‘I remember saying to myself after I felt God was saying that to me; you wouldn’t want to make it about yourself, you wouldn’t want to do this, you wouldn’t want to do that. But with this particular client, I think you need to be really on the top of your game on this.’ Reflecting on this later, David commented that it enabled the therapy to become more intimate – and safer.
Sub-theme 3.iii: What the participants thought what they had heard from God meant to the client
Here we have the triple hermeneutic (Smith et al, 2009). When participants used what God had communicated to them about the client, they felt that it was a positive experience for the client; that clients felt known, understood, accepted and valued. Taylor used a prompt from God to ask his client the meaning of her Arabic name. By asking this, she felt he had shown an interest in her and that he was taking her seriously. Vince recounted a time with a Christian client, whereby communication he had received from God led to a powerful spiritual encounter for her, which was also powerful and memorable for Vince. He noted, ‘She felt such a sense of peace. She’d never felt it before and said that it lasted six days. Incredible.
Moira thought that when she uses what she believes God has communicated to her for her clients, it helps clients feel more understood and known. However, if the counsellor has received communication from God that is brought into the session and is accurate, Moira was concerned that the client would feel vulnerable. She said, ‘Could there also be a feeling of “Oh is she seeing too much of me?” It may make them feel quite vulnerable.’
This research set out to explore Christian counsellors’ experience of hearing from God for their clients, and what they do with that, using the qualitative method of IPA. This section will draw out how findings from this research relate to existing literature and make suggestions for implications for counselling practice and future research.
Including a transcendent other in the counselling process
Data from this study showed participants were open to spiritual insight from a transcendent other, including suggestions during therapy sessions (Jenkins, 2011:46; Jenkins, 2006:289). Participants also reported that they were emboldened and strengthened by their connection with the transcendent other (Suarez, 2005:149). However, unlike Gorsedene, their involvement of the transcendent other was covert and not brought to the attention of the client (Gorsedene 2011:158).
Use of covert prayer in counselling
Data from this study showed participants’ implicit integration of their spirituality in counselling in their use of covert prayer before, during and after sessions (Tan, 1996 cited Hall & Hall, 1997). Participants used covert prayer similarly to Gubi’s participants: to ground and prepare themselves for their counselling work; and to ask for help and guidance (Gubi, 2001). However, Gubi’s grounded theory research had seven participants, who were counsellor trainers, with a variety of spiritual/religious stances, whereas participants in this study all identified as Christian and were counsellors (Gubi, 2001). Gubi’s thematic prompts were aimed at exploring the use of prayer as an intervention in counselling and its ethical implications, whereas this study viewed covert prayer as a gateway to hearing from God.
Covert prayer was used by participants in their two-way communication with God about their client work. The data shows that what counsellors heard from God for their clients influenced the counsellor and the client work, which contradicts Gubi’s view that covert prayer does not impact directly on the counsellor/client dynamic (Gubi, 2004:466). Participants expressed that involving God in their client work gave it an added dimension and enriched their practice (Baker & Wang, 2004:130; Blair, 2015).
Hearing from God for clients
The data shows that the phenomenological experiences of hearing from God were similar to those described in the literature (Joubert & Maartens, 2018; Luhrmann, 2012; Carroll Futrell, 1971; Dein & Cook, 2015). Comparison with Dein & Cook’s (2015) qualitative research using a semi-structured interview is valid, as its UK participants all identified as Christian. However, Dein & Cook’s (2015) interview was purely about hearing from God, whereas participants in this study were hearing from God within the ethical or personal confines of the counselling relationship.
A discussion on intuition was not included in the literature review, nevertheless intuition was mentioned by three of the participants. Epstein’s suggestion that the intuitive/experiential system is corrected by the analytical/rational system could potentially be seen in the process of discernment undertaken by participants when they believed God had communicated with them (Epstein, 2010).
This process of discernment was also prevalent in Dein & Cook’s (2015) study. It may also account for participants retaining their sense of autonomy, rather than being controlled by God (Dein & Cook, 2015). Moira was concerned that if she used what God had communicated to her about her clients, they would feel exposed and vulnerable. This would suggest that a greater level of discernment is required on the part of the counsellor before they offer anything God may have revealed to them into the client work (Dein & Cook, 2015; Joubert & Maartens, 2018:43). Or, as Wardle points out, counsellors who work with ‘psychic energy’ in this way, do not really understand the implications and risks involved (Wardle, 2011:180).
Learning to hear God’s voice was something that participants commented on – especially Vince, who gathered regularly with other Christians to learn from one another (Luhrmann, 2012; Dein & Cook, 2015). Participants made use of tentative questions to see if what they had received from God meant anything to the client (i.e. validation). Stark (1999) pointed out that ‘validation of the revelation necessitates social support; an individual’s confidence in the validity of his/her revelation is reinforced to the extent to which others accept this revelation” (Stark, 1999 cited Dein & Cook, 2015).
Moira, the only female participant, spoke about fear when hearing from God for her clients, whereas David and Taylor spoke about courage, taking a risk, being bolder and being brave. I wonder if this has something to do with men looking for a hero or action-figure type of deity and women wanting an intimate, safe God (Burke et al, 2005:36). Or it may be that it was an intentional use of risk-taking as a way for them to facilitate a greater therapeutic connection with their client (Knox, 2007). Brian Thorne speaks about it being risky when he integrates his spiritual self in counselling work; he writes, ‘Perhaps it is in the offering of this gift that I give the highest expression to my unique self, and that is why it always feels a risky undertaking because vulnerability and strength are present in equal measure. Nowadays, however, I know that I usually have no option but to take the risk’ (Mearns & Thorne, 2013:50).
The effect of hearing from God
The data showed that when participants heard from God about their clients, the effect on their client work was different ways of being, of seeing the client, and ways of doing therapy, as predicted by Hall & Hall(1997). It was predicted by Bergin (1980) that including spirituality would make psychotherapy more effective. Indeed, participants in this study felt that they had more empathy for clients, and were able to be more present with them, when they had received communication from God about them. This is similar to the findings of Dunn et al’s (2012) research, whose participants felt they were more effective in sessions if they practised centring before the session. David had increased empathy because of what God has shown him, which could be seen as the dynamic effect of the transcendent other on the therapeutic relationship (Clarkson, 2002; Churchill, 2021 Pt2:5). One of Gubi’s participants spoke of ‘higher guidance’ to inform their work – but not to control it – which is similar to David’s description (Gubi, 2004:469).
As well as giving them increased empathy, participants also felt that they received courage – a personal moral quality highlighted by the BACP (BACP, 2018). When God had communicated to them about their clients, Moira and Vince both felt assured and comforted that God was in the room with them, helping the client as well, similar to Dein & Cook’s (2015) participants. Gubi’s participants also spoke about having God’s supportive presence with them in the counselling room, but this is not expanded upon (Gubi, 2004:467).
At the heart of this study as the key question that must be asked: ‘Is it ethical to hear from God for clients and then use that in the work?’. Participants were explicit about ethics and their ethical processing e.g. working to the client’s agenda, giving the client autonomy (BACP, 2018). Although this research is looking from the counsellor’s perspective of hearing from God, ethics and standards need to look from the client’s perspective so that they have an assurance of safety and quality (Bond, 2015:7). The question of it being ethical to pray for clients without their consent still remains, particularly if therapists are wanting to hear from God for their clients (Magaletta & Brawer, 1998:328; Gubi, 2004:472).
Mageletta & Brawer (1998) point out that, if prayer works (and if God does communicate to counsellors about their clients), shouldn’t clients be made aware of that? It could be argued that counsellors hearing from God for their clients is in service of the therapeutic process (Churchill, 2021:B4). A possible resolution could be to make potential clients aware of the counsellor’s spiritual orientation in their advertising or in the initial assessment. Only one participant said they mentioned spirituality as an area of speciality in their advertising. However, they were careful not disclose their own spirituality in order to avoid difficulties such as the client making assumptions about the counsellor’s beliefs and prejudices (Gubi, 2004:472; Bond, 2015:144).
What was evident from the data was participants’ engagement with a reflective process of integrating hearing God for their clients, which was idiosyncratic and personal (Blair, 2015; Churchill, 2021:C6). Each participant had been on a self-led journey to integrate their spirituality (Poll & Smith, 2003 and Wilber, 1979 cited Blair, 2015:167). Two participants explicitly commented that they would not tell their clients that they had received communication from God for them, because it would affect the power dynamics in a relationship where the counsellor already holds much of the power (Aveline, 1995:324; Churchill, 2021:C5). Christian counsellors’ practice of hearing from God for clients is open to the misuse of power using spiritual resources – albeit unwittingly – which could be classed as spiritual abuse (Blue, 1993:12 cited Parish-West, 2009:66). Research by West found that counsellors working with spiritual interventions – which included clairvoyance, spirit guides and channelling – required high-quality supervision from supervisors who were suitably qualified and experienced (West, 2000 cited Wardle, 2011:178).
Moira was the only participant to mention supervision when she got stuck with client work, whereas Terry and Taylor spoke about asking God for help when they got stuck. It could be that Terry and Taylor use self-supervision more frequently, rather than taking their ‘stuckness’ with clients to external supervision (Bramley, 2019). However, there is a danger that counter-transference does not come into the counsellor’s awareness and spiritual activities, such as hearing from God for clients, remain hidden (Case, 1997 cited Weld & Eriksen, 2007:134). This was illustrated by Gubi who found that counsellors did not discuss with their supervisors that they prayed for their clients for fear of being misunderstood, judged or losing respect or credibility (Gubi, 2008:202). The Churchill Framework (2021) has set apart a whole domain for supervision, putting it squarely on the agenda of working with spirituality in counselling (Churchill, 2021:D).
Exploring the experience of Christian Counsellors’ hearing from God for their clients was the aim of this research. This has been achieved to some extent, with a focus on how communication was received and what counsellors did with that. The effect of this on the client work from the participants’ perspectives was explored. As the activity of hearing from God for their clients is a covert activity, it would be difficult to gain a client-centric view of the phenomenon.
As the researcher, I brought my own limitations in how I’ve interpreted what participants have said, which I have tried to reflexively be aware of and bracket along the way. Different subordinate themes may have been apparent to another researcher. As a novice researcher, I was learning the process along the way and relied heavily on the input of my research supervisor (Smith et al, 2009:55). All the participants had been practising more years than myself, some for decades, and are far more mature in their counselling practice. As I searched the literature for this study, I was reading views for the first time which some of my participants had read, reflected on and incorporated into their practice. I was therefore interpreting their practice through the eyes of a novice in this area rather than a master practitioner.
This study was useful in that it added to our understanding of how Christian counsellors integrate their spirituality in counselling. It builds on Gubi’s work of the use of prayer in counselling as it has given examples of participants using prayer covertly in and out of sessions, in two-way communication with God (Gubi, 2004:475). This study was limited to experiences of hearing from the Judeo-Christian God by participants who identified as Christian. It is therefore uncertain if the insights found in this study could be applied to counsellors of different faith or culture. Furthermore, the interpretative nature of this qualitative research prevents generalisation, as does the small sample size.
The gender ratio of this study is not representative of the counselling population, with a ratio of 4:1 men to women. Similarly in Suarez’s (2005) study there was a ratio of 7:3 men to women and in Gubi’s (2001) a ratio of 5:2 men to women – yet across the population of UK counsellors, the ratio of men to women is around 1:5 (BACP, 2014). Gubi’s participants were counsellor trainers, with master’s degrees or above; Suarez’s participants were psychotherapists who had practiced for at least five years with a deep interest in spirituality, whereas all participants in this study identified as Christian. It is not clear why participants within these UK studies on counselling and spirituality do not reflect the gender distribution of counsellors in the UK.
By explicitly looking at Christian counsellors’ experience of hearing from God for their clients, this research has brought into the light practices that may be hidden from supervision. With five participants sharing their experiences of hearing from God for their clients, it shows that this practice does occur in the profession and deserves to be explored more fully.
Implications for practice
This study highlights the counsellor bringing their whole self to the therapeutic relationship, including their spiritual selves, and how that dynamic can influence the therapy. Ethical frameworks have guided participants in their practice of using what they have heard from God, in their client work (BACP, 2018; ACC, 2014). In particular, the Churchill Framework (2021) has been a useful addition to help UK practitioners work ethically when integrating spirituality in their counselling practice. Hearing from God for clients could be vulnerable to issues around counter-transference and the misuse of power (Case, 1997 cited Weld & Eriksen, 2007:134). Good supervision, in a collaborative relationship with a supervisor who has specialist experience and knowledge of spirituality, would be recommended if counsellors sought to hear from God, or a different transcendent other, for their clients (Page & Woskett, 2015:88; Christodoulidi, 2011:101).
Findings from this research indicate that counsellors do integrate what they have heard from God for their clients into their client work, although they are cautious not to impinge on client autonomy or the client’s agenda. Counter-transferential dynamics may be missed if this aspect of their practice is not brought to supervision. Counsellors avoiding bringing issues of spirituality to supervision has been highlighted in previous research, and this study adds to that discussion. By placing the topic of hearing from God for clients amongst the current literature, it has made the practice explicit, rather than being hidden amongst participants’ accounts in other qualitative studies.
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About the author
Hayley Barnett MACC MBACP.
MA Therapeutic Counselling and Psychotherapy; BSc (Hons) Psychology with Educational Studies; Dip Therapeutic Counselling.
Hayley has worked with young people and families for over 30 years in a variety of settings. She runs her counselling practice from her home in Staines, Surrey. She is a tutor on the MA in Counselling at Waverley Abbey College and has a particular interest in spirituality within the counselling context.
Copyright 2022 Hayley Barnett