‘Not a straitjacket’, but creatively flexible: An interview with Dr Owen Ashley on the Waverley integrative framework.

Author: Dr Owen Ashley & Dr Janet E. Penny

Publish date: October 1, 2021
Reading Time: 23 minutes


Dr Owen Ashley currently leads Year 1 of the BA (Hons) Counselling programme and the MA in Therapeutic Counselling and Psychotherapy at Waverley Abbey College. He worked as a counsellor in general medical practice for many years and currently has a private counselling practice. As a practising counsellor/psychotherapist for 30 years, he has 20 years’ experience as a counselling trainer and supervisor. Stress management and Christian theology/spirituality are particular areas of interest. Owen has undertaken a PhD, researching the Waverley integrative framework, which offers an approach to counselling rooted in a Christian perspective, and he has played a vital role in the ongoing development of this model. In this interview with Dr Janet Penny, Deputy Head of Counselling Training at Waverley, he looks back at his own professional journey and that of the framework itself.

JP: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed today, Owen. I understand you’ve been connected with Waverley Abbey College for some time. How far back does this connection go?

OA: Well, in my conscious memory it goes back to 1986 when Waverley, then called CWR, were putting on a series of day conferences for the Church at large in London at Westminster Central Hall, and I was in London at the time, having gone to college there. The notice came up at my church one Sunday morning, saying, ‘If you’re interested in helping people, there are three courses – Enlightenment, Encouragement and Exhortation’ (nice alliteration!), and their argument was that, in the New Testament, all Christians are asked to be encouragers. The second day of the conference was about enlightenment and they suggested that there’s maybe a bit more wisdom required to impart some enlightenment to somebody. The third day  was about exhortation, where the implications were of being a bit more directive.

So that was in 1986, and at the end of those three days they indicated that if you wanted to explore helping people further, they were running what was then called an Introduction to Biblical Counselling, which was a ten-week course over ten Monday evenings at Westminster Central Hall. I think there were about 40 of us there doing the course, which was close to what is now the Introduction to Christian Care and Counselling course that we run at Waverley.

JP: So, it’s 35 years ago that your journey started with Waverley.

OA: Yes, I was very young then – very, very young!

JP: Of course! Yes, and obviously there have been some changes over that time. Now you’re currently lecturing at Waverley Abbey College. How long have you been lecturing there? And what sort of different roles have you undertaken during that time?

OA: Well, it will be 20 years come April. I was first employed by CWR and seconded to London School of Theology (LST) for a while. (Waverley ran the joint course in Theology and Counselling with LST.) For a number of years, I ran the counselling side of the certificate course (the first-year course at LST). Then subsequently, I taught some modules on the third year of the degree course there. When that joint venture ended, about seven years ago, I ran the equivalent certificate year at Waverley. Also, for a couple of years, I ran year four of our BA Counselling degree programme when we had the Pilgrim Hall campus. Then, in 2005, it went up from three days a week to full-time work when I started the PhD, scrutinizing what is now known as the Waverley integrative framework (WIF)[1]. When the PhD finished, in about 2012, I started leading the MA in Therapeutic Counselling and Psychotherapy programme, which has been running for about eight years. I have been running that ever since and continue to lead the BA Counselling year one, both the residential and day release programmes. So, that keeps me fully occupied!

JP: Yes, it sounds busy, but it also sounds like much of your focus has been on the students that are coming in new at level four, in that very formative stage, and that feels like quite an important point in their journey as they start out.

OA: Yes, I have. And certainly, with the year one programme, I have really enjoyed that journey, often introducing them to lots of concepts – including the Waverley integrative framework and a brief introduction to human development – and seeing their whole journey of self-awareness, transformation and change, and challenging them to think in terms of counselling and psychotherapy, but also in terms of Bible and theology, which are two of my great passions. As someone once said, ‘It’s an Owen-shaped job.’

JP: Yes, I can hear your passion for the work, but also for the particular approach that Waverley has developed – the Waverley integrative framework. What was it that initially drew you to it?

OA: I think that there are several things really. I think the first thing that really appealed to me was that it was an integrative framework. Selwyn Hughes, the founder of CWR who developed the Waverley integrative framework in the UK, was a Pentecostal minister and, through a traumatic experience in his role as a minister, really got challenged to think about the importance of Bible and theology in helping people live well, but also about God’s gift in science and beyond Scripture that could potentially help people. He thought about how we could put together and integrate the best and most relevant aspects of science and Bible to create an even better way of helping people. I still wrestle with some of the big issues and questions that go along with integration, but that kind of integration really appealed to me and still does.

Secondly, the fact that the Waverley integrative framework is a holistic framework. Putting it in biblical language, it is about body, soul and spirit (or body, mind and spirit), and I like that kind of holistic view of human functioning, avoiding the temptation to a more reductionist explanation where it’s all spiritual or all psychological, or for that matter, it’s all organic and physical and about chemicals in the brain. It could be all of them and more. And with the challenges of that broader, complex kind of conception of human functioning and all that can interact within our five areas of functioning, and indeed beyond the five [2] areas of functioning as well, I think holding that kind of holistic model really appealed to me.

Thirdly, the WIF has a very clear and specific view of human motivation around what we would call our spiritual longings for security, self-worth and significance, and that really appealed to me back in 1986 when I first came across it. It shed some light on my own way of thinking about myself and what is motivating me. I think those core longings were really important. I liked that, from the off, the framework was also taught by Selwyn Hughes as a flexible framework. Before he died (when I was just about to embark on my PhD, scrutinizing his model), I remember he said to me, ‘It’s not meant to be a straitjacket.’ I think I heard that from the beginning, back in 1986. But I like how the framework goes deep, and, from a biblical perspective, not just looking at our behaviours or thoughts (our cognitive sense), but also what we might think of as our real core sense of self: our personality, our spirit, our inner being (using biblical language) or the heart of humanity (to use another anthropological term). I think Larry Crabb’s well-known book[3] sums it up: life works best when we start from ‘the inside out’, and this is what we refer to as the spiritual area of functioning. I think the fact that it went to that, the deepest part of ourselves, really appealed to me.

JP: Yes, it sounds as though, even right from the start, Selwyn wasn’t afraid to really wrestle with what the deep motivations and longings of people were and to get into some of the complexity and messiness of what it means to be human.

OA: I think what occurs to me, Janet, as you talk about the messiness and complexity, some would critique that kind of integrative approach, saying we just need the Bible and that tells us all we need to know. I understand where they’re coming from, and part of me would applaud that kind of emphasis of Scripture being relevant and central to wellbeing, but what I would say, and what I think Selwyn came to realise, is the Bible is not the only gift God has given us: He has also given us the gift of science. We can come to understand that not only is Jesus the Lord of salvation – which, of course, the Bible is focused on and says a lot about – but Jesus is also the Lord of wisdom, of creation – which takes us beyond the canon of Scripture to the gift of creation and science. Science, at its best, helps us understand how creation works, and, of course, how we as humans, in the midst of creation, are designed to work best. So, rather than thinking in terms of either/or, it is understanding that, with some kind of scrutiny and judgment, we can take the best of modern science not to undermine our understanding of Scripture, but to use it to embellish and fill out areas that the Bible doesn’t talk about. Neuroscience is an obvious example because the writers of the Bible didn’t have the understanding of that subject, which we have now through the study of science. It can be hard work trying to wrestle with both the Bible and science, but I think there is a prize at the end of the rainbow. We’re trying to mix up all these different ways of thinking and knowing, and grappling with that complexity. I think it’s still a worthy journey to take students on, and I’m on that journey myself, of course.

JP: You’re saying that it would be simpler just to take the Scriptures, the simplicity of that. But you’re also saying that there’s a both/and, integrating other understandings that God has gifted us in science and secular knowledge. As you say, that can be quite an interesting, messy and challenging conversation, but one that’s worth it.

OA: Yes, definitely, I would say so, in the sense we’re talking about integration – of Bible and science – but also, even in modern secular counselling models, there is the wrestling, working with clients and the complexity of holding an integrative stance. It sometimes occurs to me that it might have been easier for me to be purely (if there is such a thing as ‘purely’), psychodynamic, which is one of my original trainings, or purely cognitive behavioural therapy or purely person centred, having a simpler road map or lens through which to think about what we’re doing with clients. Having a single therapeutic approach however, means that you miss out on the richness of the diversity of different approaches and, more broadly, those linked to the Bible and theology as well.

JP: Those strengths that you’ve mentioned (richness of diversity of difference approaches), would you say you still regard those as strengths of the Waverley integrative framework now?

OA: I think the short answer would be yes, but I’d need to qualify that as it dips into part of my own journey and indeed part of Waverley’s journey in wrestling with the framework and the different contexts it can be used in. Back in the 1980s, it was a kind of pastoral care model for the Church. But then, working with LST and the first certificate course in counselling in 1998 and subsequently the Diploma in Counselling, students being out there in the ‘marketplace’ and wrestling with the framework in newer broader contexts – how does the model fit in those contexts? If it is a Christian-based, Bible-based model, when you’re working, hopefully with anybody and everybody in a fair and open way, how does that work? Can it make that journey?

Amidst those kinds of questions, and thinking those issues through myself, I felt God led me to think about the whole model more deeply and hence I did my PhD and the book[4] that has emerged from it. I was really wrestling with this issue of context, and I extended the view of humans to one which was more holistic. So what the initial framework taught in 1986 – those five areas of functioning – still holds true for me. But I have added a sixth area of functioning – the outside world. I’m happy to go with five areas of internal functioning, but I’ve always had the conviction that you can’t understand people in isolation, just purely internal, looking into themselves in isolation. Those areas of functioning always exist in lots of external context systemically. So it imbibes that notion of the outside world, the immediate outside world of our first attachments, family, the town we may be brought into, the culture we grew up with and then our broader awareness of planet Earth. As we grow up, all those contexts and more are really significant in the way we can understand any individual developing and growing. Still a holistic framework but I tried to expand the scope of what constitutes holistic, both interior and exterior – holistic but a broader concept.

There is the challenge of using the model flexibly as different contexts have emerged and people have thought ‘How do I use this model in a context with people who may or may not be atheist? Or they may be theists, but Muslims or Buddhists or any other theistic model?’ ‘How does this work in that context?’ I think we’ve been wrestling with that as well. It is something I’ve tried to articulate in my book, The Bible, Wisdom and Human Nature. This issue of talking and thinking about things Christianly or biblically, but understanding that doesn’t mean, when you’re working with people who are atheists or Muslims, for example, that you have to be talking explicitly about Scripture. Jesus is the Lord of creation, wisdom and (as Eric Johnson once said provocatively in a journal article) of psychology and science. So, it may be a lot more implicit, but we can still put the two together without undermining either.

JP: It sounds as though, through your own clinical work and PhD, you’ve really held onto the essence of what the framework is – its biblical roots and its general principles. But there’s also been a deepening and a broadening of the framework. You have identified perhaps something of a gap in the framework. As you look at it now, are there still potential limitations of the framework at this point?

OA: A few thoughts come to mind, and one is not quite directly the framework itself, but how we use the WIF. I think the worst thing we could do with this model, or indeed any model of counselling, is to be enslaved to it as if it says everything, covers everything and you treat it almost like the law that you’ve got to abide by or else something terrible will happen. It is particularly easy for first year students to have a quite rigid, inflexible view of the WIF – how to use it and what it constitutes. I think back to Selwyn’s comment: ‘It’s not meant to be a straitjacket.’ The WIF is a series of principles. If you believe in them, you want to hold onto them. Yet what that might look like in practice could be very varied and I suspect would be. So, I think that’s danger number one, not maybe quite directly of the framework itself, but how it’s used. Being a leader for year one students, for those are coming across it for the first time, I really try to emphasise that one needs to think about it flexibly and contextually.

I think the second challenge would be the way it was originally taught. We teach three phases of the counselling process: helping the client tell their story; coming to an understanding, diagnosis or (in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) terms) conceptualisation, which then provides the foundation for phase three; the resolution of the problem. I think the challenge with that three phases approach is it most easily fits in terms of secular models with a CBT structured approach. I suspect that, where students adhere to that more structured way of working, the WIF counselling process will fit more neatly. Where students don’t, for whatever reason – they identify with a more person-centred way of doing the process or indeed a psychodynamic way – that structured linear, step-by-step approach may be more challenging for them. It may be harder for them to adopt the counselling process in the way it is set out. Being aware of that – more so now than ever, and more so than Selwyn Hughes would have done back in 1986 when I was taught it – is why, in explaining the principles of the three phases in year one, I really lay it on thick that in real life it is more organic, it’s messier. But I think the WIF does have an educational value in terms of helping people get round the complexity of not only of the five areas of functioning but how you might apply that in practice. I teach it heavily laced with an emphasis on how one has to connect with the client and go with the flow of what is happening in the moment. It may be more of an implicit process for some people, depending on how they use it, or it may be something more explicit, depending on the client and the individual student who’s using it.

JP: Your comments are reminding of the discussion by Gregory Bateson that ‘the map is not the territory’[5]. It sounds like you’re holding in tension the need to give a degree of clarity and a map, as it were, to students, but also alerting them that they don’t need to hold on to that at the expense of what is happening in the process with the client.

OA: Yes, that’s right. We know that one of the factors that influences a good outcome is, of course, being tuned into the client’s learning style and their needs at any point in time. Some clients might really need and appreciate a quite explicitly structured approach. In my own private practice, there are clients who need and value an explicitly biblical approach, in which case, I can use the WIF framework in a much more explicit manner, whereas for another client it might be unethical to do so. There is the issue of discernment, whatever theoretical frameworks we adhere to, always discerning how we might use it flexibly and creatively in service of the person in front of us and, of course, treating them as unique. Equally, what they need in the beginning of the counselling process may be quite different by the end of it. There can be flexibility through a series of counselling sessions with one client.

JP: It takes me back to what you said about Selwyn’s comment that the WIF is not a straitjacket but there is a need for flexibility.

OA: Part of my own journey is the question of how I use it in different contexts. I’ve used it, as you know, as part of the work in the doctor’s surgery in Reading where we both worked for some period of time. I used the framework to run stress management courses, offering five sessions on the five areas of functioning. I offered a voluntary sixth session for anyone interested in looking at a Christian approach more explicitly and answers to issues of stress from that perspective. I found a practical, ethical and creative way of trying to be true to who I was and yet be sensitive to context. We also taught general practice registrars a brief two-day counselling skills course, and, again very loosely, we used the five areas of functioning. It was a way of helping the registrars think holistically, and I think it really illustrates the points of the principles: if you believe they do apply universally, which I do, that they can be used with sensitivity to the context. The WIF talks about spiritual needs, so when I was talking to the folks in that context and doctors coming from all faith backgrounds, or none potentially, I would tell them that if the word ‘spiritual’ isn’t part of their worldview, then they might want to change it for words like ‘foundational needs’, ‘basic needs’ or just ‘needs’. It really does illustrate the importance of not getting hung up on the words or language but find different ways of communicating the same themes.

In counselling, whatever our approach is, one of the tasks is to find a shared language that doesn’t trip people up but still conveys the same principles. It is a case of finding the appropriate words, metaphors or images. Perhaps use different metaphors to convey the same issue or hold the same issue together for a client. With an accountant, I might use the language of a bank balance with incomings and outgoings. With an artist, I might think of a different metaphor to use. That shows the creative potential of the framework both in the stress management courses and in terms of training others. I’d be creative in the clinical process with clients as well. I work with quite a number of Christians, including church leaders, where we can talk about Bible and theology in a very appropriate and relevant way. I might then think about the Waverley framework in a more explicit way to help them think about their core spiritual longings. That, to me, is the ongoing creative use of the framework. I think that is the spirit of what Selwyn Hughes meant when he said that it’s not meant to be a straitjacket that we somehow are rigidly enslaved to.

JP: I was really struck by your phrase about how the principles apply universally but there is the need for sensitivity to context. There’s something that speaks so universally about what it means to be human in the framework, but then there is flexibility with a sensitivity to context in how you work that out.

OA: Yes, the word ‘spiritual’ for people from a Christian worldview is Christ-centred spirituality, whereas we could still think about an atheist having a spirituality. It may be a nontheistic spirituality, may even be a materialistic spirituality, a kind of sense of worldview or big picture, spirituality of existential issues, the essence of meaning, purpose and things like that. I think that’s another point of crossover and that’s the kind of language one could use to convey similar principles.

JP: Yes, and maybe part of the longevity of the WIF is that it does speak to those core human basic needs universally.

OA: I am certainly convinced of that. If you think of the core needs for security and belonging, they map on to the whole world of attachments and secure insecure attachments to find a secure base, as one well-known attachment theorist wrote about[6]. Also, with purpose and significance, I think of the core CBT schemas of powerlessness – the idea that ‘I haven’t got an impact’, which is really kind of what we mean by significance. Recently, it thrilled me when I read some of the developments in CBT around the core problematic schemas. I think it was Judith Beck who added a third one, which was around self-esteem, and I thought that seemed to map onto the development of the model from Larry Crabb[7] (from whom Selwyn Hughes originally developed his model), who focused on two core spiritual longings of security and significance (with Selwyn adding a third one of self-worth). I can see a parallel with the developments in CBT and what they call their core problematic schemas around these issues. In my mind, it alludes to this issue of integration. I suspect that Selwyn, when he was developing his own model back in the 1980s and when second wave CBT was really coming into its own, may well have therefore borrowed some of those insights in his integrative approach to understanding our core function. He also borrowed from Erik Erikson’s eight stages psychosocial model[8], particularly the first three quite explicitly. Security, self-worth and significance relate to Erikson’s first three developmental phases around trust, autonomous self and initiative, which is significance and impact really. You can see how he’s borrowed from the theories that were around in the culture of the day, which is both helpful but also a challenge when those emphases or theories may have adapted and moved on. That has been part of our work at Waverley Abbey College, helping the WIF develop and move along as well.

JP: Yes, so given that, how do you think the Waverley integrative framework might develop?

OA: I think the future is really exciting. Over the past eight years, we have had students doing master’s degrees at Waverley. Your own role, Janet, heading up the research is a really exciting development that will really add into this ongoing dialogue around scrutinizing the model and keeping up to date with modern research and science. Indeed, our own students are contributing to the body of research; for example, it was thoroughly exciting when, three or four years ago, one of our students did her research on the initial impact of the Waverley integrative framework on our first-year students. You can imagine I was interested in what they were going to say! This year, we have a student looking at the Waverley framework, the issue of it’s not meant to be a straitjacket and how students in practice embody the framework.

I’m really looking forward to that kind of research and the opportunity for our students to have an ongoing voice, so I think that’s really exciting for the future. I’m also looking forward to having more diverse voices from our student body. This year one of my first-year students noted that the key voices we often cite – who indeed have explicitly written on the framework, including my own book – are all men, thinking of Ron Kallmier[9], Larry Crabb[10], Selwyn Hughes[11] and myself. I thought, Oh yes, I hadn’t quite thought of that. I said, ‘Well actually you’re right, but you know what?’ – and it was a female who asked the question – ‘You can be part of the solution to that, to take up the baton.’ We had lots of ‘Hallelujahs!’ from the female students as well as the male students. It is not only the male–female balance that needs to be addressed but to include more fully people from other cultures and other backgrounds. I really think it is a great opportunity for students from a whole diverse range of backgrounds to get involved in the ongoing research dialogue and the process of writing in articles and journals – our own as well as other journals. I think there is a great melting pot of potential there.

JP: Oh, that sounds so exciting! In a way, it coheres with your own theoretical development of putting the WIF within its wider context, involving people from a wider context to think about how the WIF can be developed, like a kind of social epistemology – ‘How do we know what we know? We know together, in dialogue with others.’

JP: How do you think Selwyn would react to where the WIF is now?

OA: I think he would be really thrilled. It really struck me how open he was for those ongoing dialogues. I somewhat provocatively and mischievously said in an article in Accord Magazine[12] about my research that ‘It’s never completed, it’s never perfect.’ I added that if you think it is, you are probably going down the road of idolatry – which is a sin. So even if you don’t think the framework needs revising, you do (that is, you need revising!). It’s a way of getting students to think about how they hold any model, including the Waverley integrative framework. I think Selwyn would be really up for the debate, the scrutiny and the research, so I think we’re still on track, and I think if Selwyn was here, he’d say something similar.

JP: Yes, that’s interesting. He really set about an on-going process, developing something that has flexibility and room for growth.

OA: Yes, absolutely.

JP: As we’ve been talking, what has struck you? What has stayed with you or surprised you in terms of our conversation?

OA: It has reminded me, in miniature, of my experience at the recent Association of Christian Counsellors’ conference where there were about 400 delegates, and I realised I’d probably talked to and taught about a quarter of them – about 100 of them over the last 20 years. Thinking about my involvement with Waverley and the way the framework has developed, its starting place and where it is now, there has been quite a parallel with my own life and professional and personal journey. I think that parallel has really hit me. It has got me thinking quite deeply about things, fond memories and how time has gone by, but also the kind of ongoing open-ended journey that we are on. I want to say thank you for giving me the opportunity to put the story together as much as one can do in in a relatively brief period of time.

JP: My own reflections are that it reminds me of the mustard seed parable: how from the trauma and story of one person, this model has been developed, grown and impacted hundreds of students at Waverley, as well as clients through your own clinical and pastoral work. This growth is replicated in different ways over and over with each person who learns the WIF, so it is a kind of living embodiment of that parable. I think it has just left me feeling a great warmth for the WIF and that sense of connection with it again that I’ve always had.

OA: Of course, the WIF is not perfect because it doesn’t say everything, but that kind of passion for the WIF is important for me because I couldn’t teach it if I didn’t believe in its core principles. I couldn’t stand up and teach it with conviction and passion if I didn’t. I think there is always things to change and adapt, but I think the core elements, as I was taught back in 1986, for me still hold truth. And that means great joy.


[1] The Waverley integrative framework was previously called the Waverley model. The terms ‘model’ and ‘framework’ are used interchangeably in this interview.

[2] The Waverley integrative framework posits five areas of human functioning: rational, physical, emotional, volitional and spiritual. For more information, see Ashley, O. (2017) The Bible, Wisdom and Human Nature: Developing the Waverley Model of Counselling, Farnham: CWR, and Kallmier, R. (2011) Caring and Counselling, Farnham: CWR.

[3] Crabb, L. (2013) Inside Out, (Revised and updated) Colorado Springs: Navpress.

[4] Ashley, O. (2017), The Bible, Wisdom and Human Nature: Developing the Waverley Model of Counselling, Farnham: CWR.

[5] Gregory Bateson discusses the ideas of Korzybski, in Bateson, G. (2000) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[6] For further information on attachment theory see, e.g., Holmes, J. (2014) John Bowlby and Attachment Theory, London: Routledge.

[7] Crabb, L. (2013) Understanding People: Why we long for Relationships, Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[8] Erikson, E. H. & Erikson, J. (1998) The Life Cycle Completed: A Review, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

[9] Kallmier, R. (2011) Caring and Counselling, Farnham: CWR.

[10] Crabb, L. (2013).

[11] Hughes, S. (2006) Christ Empowered Living, Farnham: CWR.

[12] Published by the Association of Christian Counsellors (www.acc-uk.org).

About the authors

Dr Owen Ashley BSc (Hons), MA (Couns), PhD, MBACP Reg. (Snr. Accred), PG Cert HE, ACC (Accred)

Owen worked as a counsellor in general medical practice for many years and currently has a private counselling practice. Owen has undertaken a PhD, researching CWR’s Waverley Counselling Model. As a practising counsellor/psychotherapist for 30 years, he has 20 years’ experience as a counselling trainer and supervisor. Stress management and Christian Theology/Spirituality are particular areas of interest.

Dr Janet Penny BA (Hons), MSc, PGPDip, C. Psychol., AFBPsS; HCPC Registered Psychologist, Chartered Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society

Janet is Deputy Head of Counselling Training at Waverley Abbey College. As well as having a private clinical practice, Janet is a research supervisor for doctoral candidates at the Metanoia Institute and London School of Theology. Her own doctoral research was on power dynamics and the development of intra-cultural competence within Christian counselling. She has many years’ experience teaching in higher education, focusing on the integration of faith and psychology in Christian counselling, and research methodology.

Back to Article List