Editorial: Reflections on research – connecting with creativity and transformation

Reading Time: 4 minutes


There are few areas of our lives that are not shaped by research in some way: from the more concrete aspects of experience (such as the clothes we wear, the food we consume, the medications for health, the layout of buildings we enter) to the more complex ways in which we live our lives. Everything is shaped by empirical research – whether qualitative or quantitative. Not only is research part of the experience of living but it speaks to what it means to be human. There is an innate curiosity in people (Kidd & Yaden, 2015). Humans are fundamentally inquirers with an interest to discover what is new and research is an expression of that inquiring tendency in systematic form (e.g., Cooper, 2008; McLeod, 2013). We are continually engaging with the world, seeking to understand, transform, control and make sense of our lived experience and ecology.

The origin of the word ‘research’ is linked with the Latin word for ‘circle’, in the sense of ‘going round’ or to ‘explore thoroughly’ (Cresswell, 2010: 390). However, at times, in my experience as a trainer in counselling and psychotherapy, research students can rather feel as if they are getting stuck going round in circles as they learn to make sense of the complexities of the research process. Fortunately, research assures me that this is not solely down to my particular teaching style but is a common experience; research students are impacted not just cognitively but emotionally and experientially by engaging with research (e.g., Cooper, Chenail & Fleming, 2012). Research can be daunting for newcomers as my own article in this issue highlights, and it is rarely the topic in the curricula that students look forward to the most. Moreover, published research tends to only recount the research triumphs, often glossing over the problems that arise. As West and Hanley point out, ‘Rarely does it seem we hear or read of research attempted that resulted in abject failure. This creates unreal expectations particularly for novice researchers’ (2006: 209). All of this, and more, contributes to the unfriendly relationship people can have with systematic research (e.g., Berman et al, 2017) and it can occlude research’s potentiality for discovery, creativity, innovation and transformation.

Action research methodologies have long understood research’s potential for transformation and to contribute to human flourishing (Reason & Bradbury, 2008: 4). Most research, however tangentially, usually seeks to improve lives – an aim that coheres somewhat with a Christian perspective. Moreover, the capacity for creativity and to bring about something new, whether in terms of knowledge or problem solving that research requires (Van Aken, 2016), is resonant with the idea that human beings are made in the image of the Divine Creator. Gabora is clear in her discussion of creativity that this capacity is inherently human, saying, ‘Creativity is arguably our most uniquely human trait. It enables us to escape the present, reconstruct the past, and fantasize about the future, to visualize something that does not exist and change the world with it’ (Gabora, 2013: 1548). Arguably, participation in the research process, far from being alien, can connect us with what is good in ourselves.

This issue of the Waverley College Journal offers a number of articles that have engaged with the research process in some way. Lucy Thomas’ qualitative investigation of courage throws a light on an under-researched and important area of clinical practice. The timely piece by Sookyung Yang explores the impact of COVID-19 on Christian counsellors. Annabel Clarke’s article explores some of the implications of Engage’s research findings on the gender balance in UK churches for Christian heterosexual marriage and the Church. Charlotte Wears adds to the small but growing body of empirical research on the Waverley integrative framework (WIF) in her research on students’ experiences of integrating the WIF in practice. Although not formally framed by a research methodology, the work of Sarah Armitage and her colleagues, Mary Sam, Sochenda San and Wendy Scott, bears some of the hallmarks of good participatory action research as they wrestle with teaching the Waverley integrative framework in the Cambodian context. And finally, the ‘Research Pond’ is offered by myself as a tool to aid learning research methodology with some reflections on research from a Christian perspective and an invitation to continue the dialogue. Good research has something to say in response to the ‘So what?’ question and it is hoped that these articles will be of service in their respective areas of research.


Berman, M. I., Chapman, N., Nash, B., Kivlighan, D. M. & Paquin, J. D. (2017) Sharing wisdom: Challenges, benefits, and developmental path to becoming a successful therapist-researcher, Counselling Psychology Quarterly, 30 (3), pp. 234–254.

Cooper, M. (2008) Essential Research Findings in Counselling and Psychotherapy: The Facts are Friendly, London: Sage Publications.

Cooper, R., Chenail, R. J. & Fleming, S. (2012) A grounded theory of inductive qualitative research education: Results of a meta-data-analysis, The Qualitative Report 17 (52): pp. 1–26.

Creswell (2010) Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins, 3rd Edn, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gabora, L. (2013) Research on creativity, In Elias G. Carayannis (Ed.) Encyclopedia of 

Creativity, Invention, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship (1548–1558), New Delhi, India: Springer.

Kidd, C. & Yaden, B. Y. (2015) The psychology and neuroscience of curiosity, Neuron, 88 (3), pp. 449–460.

McLeod, J. (2013) An Introduction to Research in Counselling and Psychotherapy, London: Sage Publications, Ltd.

Reason, P.& Bradbury, H. (2008) Introduction to groundings, In, P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds), The SAGE Handbook of Action Research, 2nd Edn, London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Van Aken, K. L. (2016) The critical role of creativity in research, MRS Bulletin, 41, pp. 934–935.

West, W. & Hanley, T. (2006) Technically incompetent or generally misguided: Learning from a failed counselling research project, Counselling and Psychotherapy Research, 6 (3), pp. 209–212.


Copyright 2021 Dr Janet E. Penny

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Out of the trenches: An Interpretative phenomenological analysis of trainee counsellors’ experiences of courage in the therapeutic domain

Reading Time: 31 minutes



Counsellors are encouraged by the British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapists (BACP) to periodically examine the internal values that shape the development of relationships with clients. Embedded within these values is courage – the ‘capacity to act, in spite of known fears, risks and uncertainty’ (BACP, 2016b) – a complex intra- and inter-personal dynamic, rarely the subject of conscious reflection. An interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) study using semi-structured interviews was undertaken with five counselling trainees, all attending a British educational institution and nearing the completion of their training. The research question was: What are trainee counsellors’ experiences of courage in the therapeutic domain? Three themes were established as relevant to a trainee’s experience of courage: courage as an expression of ‘form’; courage as an ethical act; and courage expressed within systems. The review of the extant literature highlighted the multidimensional nature of courage and revealed the lack of qualitative evidence to support mainly theoretical findings. If counsellors are to consciously examine their own courage, it would seem valuable to ascertain where courage is needed and how it is experienced by fellow counsellors. The findings provide rich evidence of the embodied, holistic, and systemic nature of courage. This offers a resource for counselling trainers in the development of a courageous mindset as well as for counsellors themselves as they reflect on their ever-growing capacity for courage in their life and work.



Counsellors are encouraged by professional bodies to assess themselves in personal character development (BACP, 2016a) to enhance effective practice and ultimately foster a better society for all. Feltham (2008:25) highlights that the ‘complexities of counselling’ with its many variables, while negotiating the ‘moral hazards in relationships and competence’ (Bond, 2014:36), requires a tapestry of moral qualities undergirding ethical principles.

In a profession concerned with the alleviation of distress and suffering (BACP, 2016a), counsellors will often feel the need to call upon their own sense of moral and psychological courage. Paul Gilbert (2009:471) states ‘compassionate behaviour can require us to be courageous in the face of potential shame, personal uncertainty and fear.’ If courage is a prerequisite, as Freud found, describing it in a letter to a friend as ‘the best thing in me’ (cited in Poland, 2008:556), it would seem necessary to ascertain how counsellors currently experience their own courage; how they may better reflect on that courage to build resilience and a growing mindset to sustain them in the long haul; and additionally how they may learn from the courageous actions of others.

Research question 

Using the BACP (2016b) definition of courage as a starting point for reflection, this research study asked the question: What are trainee counsellors’ experiences of courage in the therapeutic domain?

Literature review 

The concept of courage is universally known yet the internal psychological process is little understood (Pury and Lopez, 2010). In this review, relevant literature pertaining to courage is presented and critiqued using a chronological approach.

Ancient texts to the Medieval period 

Socrates’ question of Laches, ‘Tell me if you can… what is courage?’ (Plato and Jowett, 2012:4) has continued to stretch philosophical thinking over hundreds of decades. Aristotle, (trans. Reeve, 2014) in his writings on ethics, maintained that courage was a ‘mean’ between the two extremes of cowardice and rashness. The Stoical view of courage turned ‘inward’ with an emphasis on inner freedom and control (Soccio, 2001). The free choice of not acting was equally considered ‘real’ courage, and the emphasis on choice in the here and now ‘moment of reflection’ (Putman, 2010:15) resonates today in mindfulness practices (Williams & Penman, 2011) and humanistic approaches (Perls, 1969, Rogers, 1967).

Medieval to twentieth-century texts 

Aquinas described courage merely as a ‘general’ virtue (Aquinas, 1960) and included the concept of ‘patience,’ modifying Aristotle’s work (Pury & Lopez, 2010). While the existentialists found courage absolutely essential to the task of ‘authenticity’ (Kierkegaard, 1985). The latter moved to the very ‘coeur’ of self in advocating courage to ‘be’ and to ‘become’, overcoming the existential anxiety of ‘non-being’ by courageously responding to the ‘thrown’ experience of being in the world (Heidegger, 1927, Camus, 1942, Tillich, 1952, May, 1975). May (1975) hailed creative courage the most important of all forms of courage.

Screwtape, in C.S. Lewis’ novel (1942:124), proposes ‘courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point’, presenting an interesting angle on how courage might be experienced by counsellors and challenges the mainstream view (BACP, 2016b) that courage rests alongside other moral traits such as integrity, resilience and respect.

Twenty-first-century published articles 

Faith-fuelled courage is highlighted by Medina (2008), whose seminal paper on ‘everyday’ courage integrates the existential, theological, and psychological literature. Five key components of ‘everyday courage’ are outlined: being, self-hood, choice, faith, and creativity. While the article is compelling, an existential bias is evident, and Medina highlights the lack of inter-relationship between the five components. He notes a clear need for phenomenological research and the ‘lived experience of others’ (Medina, 2008:295) to qualify assumptions.

By contrast, Hannah et al.’s research into the ‘courageous mindset’ (2007) outlines how character differences, social forces and feedback loops can impact on courageous experience. A particular strength of this approach is in its training use in reducing counsellors’ levels of fear when facing risk. However, its emphasis on positive psychology and ‘positive’ states largely negates the possible presence of suffering in the development of courage. Furthermore, the authors profess to the lack of empirical testing and acknowledge the ‘complexities of affect, mood and neurophysiological effects on courage’ (Hannah et al., 2007:134).

In 2010, editors Pury and Lopez compiled research and theoretical papers presented at the 2007 Courage Summit to form The Psychology of Courage: Modern Research on an Ancient Virtue. It was recognised that ‘people need to know what, in fact, courage is in order to call on it’ (Rate, 2010:63). Twelve chapters provide vital insight into this ‘multidimensional’ construct (Rate, 2010:51). However, the ‘paucity of empirical research’ (Rate, 2010:54) and large sample sizes throughout lead to ‘myriad conceptualizations’ of courage (Rate, 2010:62). Furthermore, small scale idiographic accounts are wholly absent.

Counselling literature 

Courage is implied (if infrequently mentioned) in counselling literature and there appears to be a paucity of published articles on the subjective understanding of courage in the therapeutic realm. Hewitt’s (2014:30) IPA unpublished study on courage is seemingly the only qualitative study on the topic. It highlights the cyclical nature of courage between counsellor, client and supervisor, hailing courage as the ‘nexus’ of therapy.

Literature that recounts the ‘struggles…. self-discovery, shortcomings and disappointments’ (Cozolino, 2004:205) of therapists can be useful in highlighting areas where courage is needed. For example, Mearns and Cooper’s (2005) insights on working at relational depth add insight to understanding the courage of the ‘here and now,’ while Wosket’s (1999) reflections on therapist ‘failure’ and the use of self are insightful for trainee counsellors. Denham-Vaughan (2010:36) explores the dialectical tension of ‘will’ and ‘grace’ in her work on the ‘liminal space’, which casts a fresh look at threshold moments in the ‘in-between’. Her idea of ‘embodied flow’ (2010:40) in relationship and, along with Powlison’s (2000), the learned task of stillness and patience are interesting ideas to explore in the realm of courage.

In view of the theistic worldview of the current research’s sample, Benner’s (1998:126) Care of Souls provides a backdrop to psycho-spiritual health, addressing freedom from ‘guilt and excessive anxiety’, perhaps pertinent to the present study. Benner emphasises the need for spiritual security, as do Mason and Sawyerr (2000), in pointing to secure attachment as a basis for courageous conversations.

The BACP (2016b) suggest that courage is ‘the capacity to act in spite of known fears, risks and uncertainty’ and, despite the BACP’s reference to courage, there is a paucity of literature on the subjective understanding of courage in the counselling profession. Hewitt’s (2004) IPA study stands alone as a ‘lived’ account of a counsellor’s courage and this study will complement and add to this small body of evidence. This research question asked: How then do trainee counsellors experience courage in the therapeutic domain and what are the wider contexts influencing this phenomenon?



In view of the moral and ethical dimensions of courage in the sphere of counselling (BACP, 2016a), it seems fitting to select a methodology that honours an individual’s unique experience of the phenomenon. IPA (Smith et al., 2009) was chosen for this research. The ontological emphasis on a ‘more interpretative and worldly’ (Smith et al., 2009:21) critical realist position was helpful for exploring the real lived experience of counsellors as they seek to stop, step back and consciously reflect on their experience of courage in everyday situations. Being mindful of the ‘third hermeneutic’ (Smith et al., 2009:41) – the imagined reader – it is hoped that this research will inform future training courses as well as assist readers to reflect on the experience of courageous action in their own practice, whether in counselling or other helping contexts.

Participants and ethics 

Purposive homogenous sampling (Smith et al., 2009) was used in line with the idiographic nature of the study. The sample included four females (one of whom was of non-British origin) and one male, all aged between 30 and 55 years old, and all participants shared a Christian worldview. Careful consideration was given regarding issues concerning trustworthiness, management of risk, relationships with participants and integrity of the research (Bond, 2004). Ethical approval was granted by the Waverley Abbey College Research Ethics Committee.



Superordinate themes and related subordinate themes are presented in Table 1, followed by a brief outline of the main findings.

Superordinate and subordinate themes


Table 1: Overview of the superordinate and subordinate themes.

Courage as ‘form’ 

Inspired by May’s (1975:125) writings on courage, the word ‘form’ aptly describes the sense of interpersonal creativity where client and counsellor ‘are struggling with their world… by constructing new forms and relationships in their world, and by achieving through proportion and perspective a world in which they can survive and live with some meaning.’

Use of self in sculpting the space 

This courageous struggle for form is seen in terms of ‘space’. For example, Rex1 commented, ‘I’ve felt, this is too much space for them in the sense that they almost need that shaping from me… which I find hard’ and ‘I’ve got to step out’, requiring conscious choice and a sense of embodied movement. An absence of courage for Rex was experienced as a ‘sense of not filling the space or not shifting to make changes’, indicating the responsibility he feels to direct and shape. Steph describes movement into space: ‘I can remember leaning forward slightly… and there was a push-pull going on inside me’, yet described moments of occupying space by standing ground. Alice said, ‘It’s a very personal thing… to really sit with that and not do anything.’ Alice had ‘felt cornered’, yet, with the same client, described courage in the moment of commitment: ‘I’m not going anywhere… I’m prepared to stay.’ 

1 Pseudonyms have been used.

Counsellors spoke of diminishment in the presence of others and a need to change their felt ‘size’ to address this. Rex noted, ‘I would almost say smallness… in the space of someone… he always sat on this chair that was higher up and I really got this sense of almost who am I to impose myself on him?’ Rex described courage to ‘step up… out’ with the possibility of ‘being cast down’, highlighting the psychological threat to himself. Penny too describes diminishment: ‘The client was everything that I felt I lacked’. Yet described an emerging moment in the use of self, saying, ‘I started using my voice in a more confident natural way… the client found that very soothing… so it just emerged… so, the courage of being myself really.’. This is reminiscent of an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (Carroll, 1865, Powlison, 2013) feel of constant adjustment of size until a point of mutuality in relation to the other is reached (Olthuis, 2001).

Expressed through metaphor 

Metaphorical language was used by every participant to varying degrees. For Rex, a theme of war surfaced: ’It feels like… the trenches… like where you step up… out and then maybe I’m in the line of fire. It does really feel that now I can be cast down… or shot’, indicating a felt sense of vulnerability and lack of resources to fight the battle. The trenches are viewed as a safe place, ‘warm and friendly’, a place from where he is ‘driven out to do more structural stuff.’ Interestingly the metaphor moves from confrontational to collaborative later in the interview, ‘I will go forwards and backwards almost – times of being courageous and times of retreating. It’s almost in synergy with the client, there are times when you didn’t want to go there and times when you ventured forth almost… so I was with him when I was in the trenches.’ It is noticeable again how Rex’s subjective sense of courage is in ‘venturing’ alluding perhaps to the archetype of the Greek hero (Rohr, 2012).

There was a fear of sustaining injury following the action of letting oneself be ‘seen’. Situations can potentially ‘crush you’ or be ‘crippling afterwards’. Steph describes a ‘wrestling between us’, indicating a confrontational experience in the relationship and her courage came through in immediacy concerning the wrestle: ‘the courage element for me was talking about it.’ She later speaks of synergy in the metaphor of waves and reeds. ‘It does go in a pattern, it does go backwards and forwards… parallel, circular. I see it as a wave… like the reeds in the water going backwards and forwards.’ This speaks of a fluid form, rather than fixed, of experiencing courage within the therapeutic ‘dance’, which will be discussed later.

Rosanna refers to a war theme in her archetypal understanding of courage. ‘Soldiers in the first world war…. had to go… over the top. They knew there was a high chance they were going to be killed.’ Interestingly, Rosanna diminishes her own courage in the light of greater heroes when she speaks of having a ‘little bit of courage’ and ’I think there is a feeling of, almost a bit of a feeling of courage there’, referring to the size of her courage again in terms of form.

Expressed within tensions 

Balancing tensions (such as comfort and stress) are factors common to most forms of therapy (Cozolino, 2004), and this was echoed in the participants’ experiences. Rosanna senses her courage within time tensions and working within the window of tolerance (Siegel, 1999). ‘A feeling of treading a tightrope… where I’m sort of watching their arousal and mood… I’ve only got half an hour with them left.’ The tension of whether to step into another ‘space’ of experience (Denham-Vaughan, 2010) is evident. Alice said, ‘And then it kind of escalated and there was a very tentative five minutes when I thought, “Oh! this could go one way or the other” and ‘I had to make a decision. I had to be aware that it still could have gone very badly wrong.’ 

Rex described the feelings as being ‘in no-man’s land almost’ with a vulnerable sense that anything could happen in that moment, and Rosanna commented on crossing into the other side of ‘knowing’. ‘Part of you… is thinking, “Please don’t tell me this! Now you’ve told me, I can’t not know it”… so to almost have a little bit of courage to say, “I need to look at this.”’ 

Penny highlighted the tension of controlling the session versus allowing relational flow to emerge. ‘I used to write very prepared sessions and what happened in the session was very different.’ Once the courage came to take off the mask, ’I start(ed) being myself and she started being herself too.’ 

Tensions are evident in the holistic intrapersonal multidimensional nature of courage (Rate, 2010). Steph noted, ‘There was a push pull going on inside me. It wasn’t fear as a gripping fear. I almost wanted to laugh at myself… this is so serious and potentially so bad… and there was tension and there was relief afterwards and that was in my body.’ Alice revealed an internal ‘flight’ dialogue. ‘This was going on in my head.. so do I tell her, “Look, I’ve had enough, I don’t need this.” On the other hand I was thinking, “There’s more to this here.” This is part of the therapeutic relationship… if I run away, or let her go, who am I?’ It might be said that courageous intrapersonal moments are ‘identity’ moments.

Courage as an ethical act 

Participants showed the presence of courage as part of ethical practice (Lind et al., 2010).

Ethical guilt 

The presence of ethical guilt implies how much the profession drove courageous action. Courage was implied in staying with the process. Alice said, ‘If I run away, or if I let her go…. what kind of counsellor am I? What kind of professional am I?’ Similarly, Steph commented on a lack of courage that ‘feels like… it’s a feeling of failure and guilt of not hitting the mark.’ Rex, when asked what it is that drives him to act, said: ’It’s a sense that this is the responsibility I have.’ 

The demands of the ethical framework (BACP, 2016) undergird action for trainee counsellors. For example, Rosanna noted, ’I needed to do it because it was ultimately in the client’s best interest, not for me to put the lid on and say, “That’s a bit painful.”’ Rex expressed it thus, ’I’ll get the support beforehand so that I know what it is I should… I said should!…what is it? There’s an element of “should”, but actually it’s deeper than that. I want to be a good counsellor… so what is it I need to be doing for that?’ 

Ontological to becoming 

May (1975:13) states that courage is necessary in human beings to make ‘being and becoming possible’ and therefore ‘ontological’ (Tillich, 1952) – essential for every person. This is reflected in the data. For example, Penny said, ‘So it just emerged… the courage of being myself really’, having moved continents where she ’went through a process of metamorphosis… a process of shaping and readjusting and learning and finding a compromise.’ In a similar vein, Steph said, ‘Voicing what’s happening for you both in the room… risking rupture, risking retreat… or getting it wrong… but I’ve had the experience that it’s not failure, it is transforming, I think.’ Alice stated, ‘It’s a process that builds for me… it’s actually helped me grow into who I am.’ 

Specific risks 

Three areas emerged requiring courage for trainees: client suicide risk, fear of rejection and facing ruptures. Rosanna on suicidal ideation: ‘I think there was an element of not wanting to “go there” when you see the conversation going in that direction… so to almost have a little bit of courage to say, “I need to look at this” and not back off.’ Rex commented on suicidal ideation that ‘there’s a lot of anxiety there”.

There is evidence of collusion indicating a fear of rejection as well as neglecting the ‘survivor part’ in clients. For example, Rosanna noted in her work with a client that ‘she didn’t have the ego strength to be challenged, she was too fragile, so I could make a case for how I handled it being the right way, but I was also left feeling that it was actually more about me… because she was quite fragile, she would have been offended.’ Micro accounts of cognitions highlight the thought process in this regard. Penny reflected, ’That’s a fear… I’m going to upset people… it is going to be bad for me, so I am very conscious about fear of making a fool of myself or shame… or feeling inadequate.’ 

Alice, reflecting on her cognitions when faced with ruptures, commented, ‘I think I felt “Oh what have I done wrong? What’s happened?”’ and “Who am I? Am I good enough? Is this good enough? Do I have the tools to work with this person?”’ Predominant risks in counselling have brought the micro internal processes of counsellors to the fore when searching for courage.

Courage within systems 

Attachment systems 

Counsellors spoke of the need of a secure base (Holmes 2001, Gerhardt, 2004, Benner, 1998) from which to venture. Rosanna commented on her anxious attachment style: ‘Some people have a better foundation to be courageous in having… secure attached relationships… that still plays out in the counselling room. If I challenge people and they don’t like me anymore, then I would feel devastated!’ It seemed that attachment to God plays a stabilising role: ’So that’s a real strength, that there’s almost nothing that could happen that could take me beyond God’s care.’ Similarly, Rex said that a ‘time of reflection, time of prayer and engaging spiritually is really important for my sense of who I am… when I don’t get that space, that’s when I will feel less confident.’ Looking to the family and wider, Alice points to family and the environment as a basis for courageous action. She noted, ‘I’ve got an amazing husband… and my children are really supportive. A bit of recreation, dog walking, just getting outside.’ 

Parallel processes 

Participants brought in the parallel process of supervisor courage and counsellor courage. Rex said, ‘Actually, this is the… responsibility I have… that’s been developed in my training and in the supervision. My supervisor, just last week, said, “Rex, you need to be more brave.” I thought ”Ah, yeah I do.” Alice commented on her supervisor, saying, ‘I’ve learned more from just how she is with me …and I remember being quite shocked thinking “Whoah! Real challenge! That’s really good.” It gave me greater faith and trust in her experience.’

Rosanna commented on the importance of training and research as an external ‘cog’, fuelling courage, saying, ‘Knowledge does give me a sense, even though it feels like a painful conversation, that I know I am doing the right thing. There’s being prepared, knowledgeable, being able to defend your actions… It wouldn’t just be, “Well, I haven’t got a clue.” It would be, “Actually research indicates…”.’ 

Contexts of suffering 

Steph recognises a context of suffering has given her resources to be courageous. She noted, ‘I’ve found that when I’ve had struggles in my life, I’ve had to face them. My broad mindset… is to face things.’ Penny drew on her cultural background to frame present courageous action. ‘It’s already there because of my genes and my culture… I use that a lot, especially to do things that can be quite… not very… orthodox or… popular, let’s say!’ She recognises that a cross cultural move has changed her. ‘It wasn’t an easy position because it meant leaving my family, leaving my career, leaving everything… so yeah… I was very courageous at that time.’ 

A sense of the ‘bigger picture’ system motivates counsellors to act courageously. Rex reflected that, ‘women down through history… [drew] courage from other people who’ve had to do things more difficult… There was also a sense of overwhelming joy really. “How did I do that?” Something good’s going to come after the difficult time.’ 


The superordinate themes of creative ‘form’, courage as an ‘ethical act’, and the wider systemic influences of courage have been explored. The presence of voluntary choice, emotions, cognitive processes and behavioural responses as well as evidence of moral goals, particular character dispositions and external circumstances are echoed in the literature and will be now discussed.


Courage as ‘form’ 

May (1975) speaks of a passion for ‘form’, when counsellor and client not only seek to understand the world but are in constant engagement with each other to re-form that world. Trainees shared a holistic experience of courage in the therapeutic ‘space’, where a re-negotiation and re-forming of worlds was taking place.

Negotiating the ‘between’ of the relationship (Husserl, 1931, Buber, 1958, Clarkson, 2003) often left the participants feeling vulnerable, uncertain, and questioning their levels of involvement, control, and ability to negotiate that relationship. This was reflected in their own sense of ‘size’ and ‘shape’ as well as the push-pull feel and ‘holding’ of tensions. Courage emerged in changing the form of these ‘in-between’ dynamics balanced with caring for their own emotional wellbeing and sense of self in relationship.

Mearns and Cooper (2005:160) highlight the importance of the dyadic relationship where ‘both people contribute and both are shaped by the influence of the other.’ Being able to sit with dissonance, and the ‘variable process’ (2005:161) as well as increasingly being able to reflect on ‘under-involvement’ or ‘over-involvement’ are assumed to be part of a trainee counsellor’s learning and not something of which to be afraid.

Spence and Smythe (2007, cited in Lindh et al. 2010:563) describe courage ‘in relation to creating opportunities in a space between chance and security.’ Denham-Vaughan (2010:35) in her writings on the ‘liminal space’ speaks of reflecting on one’s response to these opportunities: ‘whether we shrink, fall back, go boldly forward, leap ahead, wobble.’ These varied experiences were shared by most participants, where forward movement inferred courage and ‘shrinking’ or staying in a ‘retreated’ position was deemed as an absence of courage, even shameful.

The pervading presence of threat and tentativeness expressed through metaphor as well as pervasive self-questioning and fight/flight experiences in the moment might indicate a limited skill set in managing transitional courageous moments. Denham-Vaughan’s (2010:41) twelve elements point to a useful framework in negotiating the ‘space’ of the dyadic relationship, where perhaps a softer ‘willingness to risk stepping out into the new and assessing the impact of this step upon ourselves and our situation’ might replace the heightened anxiety evidenced in the data, possibly arising from a harsher, ‘fixed’, self-critical thinking pattern.

It was notable how few participants commented on the courage to be ‘still’ (Powlison, 2000), allow a moment to ‘emerge’ (May, 1975) and ‘catch the wave’ (Denham-Vaughan, 2010:43) as it arrived.

The findings resonate more closely with the work of Olthuis (2001:151) who describes ‘a wild space’ that can be ‘unchartered, unpredictable and risky.’ Olthuis speaks in terms of zigzagging movements ‘however oblique a route we must take to spiral to port’ (2001:161). The process of ‘with-ing’ (Olthuis, 2001, 2006) echoes what most trainees experience in the data – a tug-of-war attack or collusion, keeping distant from the client, ‘retrenching instead of releasing’ (Olthuis, 2001:162) – leading to a gradual mutuality and flow in relationship, which was reflected by Steph in the metaphor of the reeds and the wave and an emerging collaborative relationship.

Cozolino (2004) highlights, along with other therapists (Mearns and Cooper, 2005, Kearns, 2007, Wosket, 1999), the need to embrace mistakes, ‘failure’ and ruptures. Within the interviews, the participants expressed some all-or-nothing, ‘right-or-wrong’ thinking patterns with an over-riding sense of responsibility for the session. Denham-Vaughan (2010:40) sheds lights on this complex intrapersonal process experienced by most trainee counsellors. ‘We are constantly making numerous value-based judgements concerning what to pay attention to, what to raise awareness of, which aspects of this data to convey to the other and when to pass along the information.’ If trainee counsellors were to practise self-compassion in this area, realising the complexity and time it takes to reflect upon and learn this ‘dance’, I wonder if there would be less fear and anxiety present in a session? Courage in this sense would be in ‘inhabiting the multitudinous thresholds offered in every moment’ (Denham-Vaughan, 2010), whether that be a forwards motion, a backwards motion, or a sense of resting in that moment.

Courage as an ethical act 

Pury, Lopez and Key-Roberts (2010:229) describe moral courage as ‘standing up for what is right in the face of disapproval. It is associated with risk to one’s image and can include rejection… Individuals with moral courage make choices that benefit the common good rather than their own interests.’ The study revealed participants’ desires to fulfil certain ethical and training requirements (BACP, 2016a) highlighted by the presence of ethical ‘guilt’ (Lindh et al., 2010). It also highlighted inner vulnerabilities and fears leading to people pleasing and collusion. Thorup et al. (2012) call for a need to ‘dare to accept the possibility of rejection’ and the courage to confront oneself, ‘being confident of (one’s) completeness as a human being’ (2012:433).

Cozolino (2004:207) states that ‘personal failure is an essential part of development… failure in relationships provides opportunity to repair what has been ruptured.’ Wosket (1999), Clarkson (2003) and Mearns & Cooper (2005) write extensively on failure, espousing that failure brings us in touch with our humanity and that paradoxically our most courageous moments may be in sharing, admitting, and reflecting on ‘failures’ (evidenced solely by Steph, who recounts courage in ‘immediacy’ moments). Clarkson (2003:142) goes further in suggesting it is necessary to fail clients, which in turn builds up resilience and a strong core self.

It might be suggested that trainee counsellors could reduce the amount of fear and the subsequent requirement for ‘courageous’ action if they were able to accept and hold their own weaknesses (Cozolino, 2004); embrace the need for courage in welcoming ‘failure’ and release themselves from over-responsibility for outcomes knowing that the client is the main predictor of ‘success’ (Cooper, 2008). Medina’s (2008:291) idea of the courage to ‘achieve less’ and allowing the space to be filled with ‘stuckness’ may be releasing for trainees who feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility.

The study deepened the researcher’s understanding of trainee counsellors’ positive voluntary intentions, reminiscent of Gruber’s (2011) work on cognitive, voluntary ‘intention’ in courage. These cognitive micro processes were evidenced in the data. However, it became clear that trainee counsellors would tend to ‘sacrifice’ themselves, thus calling into question the ethical principle of self-respect (BACP, 2016b) and that both beneficence and self-respect need to be balanced for ethical practice.

Trainee counsellors experienced courage as a self-actualizing process, which resonated with the existentialist literature (Tillich, 1952, May, 1975). Medina (2008) draws on existentialist writers to develop his concept of ‘everyday courage’ where the ‘battlefield’ is seen in everyday life, an impression echoed in the research data with the war metaphor. There was a shared experience of courage in the continual embodied experience of decision making, emotional regulation and in the struggle to maintain a sense of identity, knowing that in simply being involved in the world of the client we ‘are also constantly in danger of losing our sense of self in the relational dimension… without an everyday courageous dedication to plot our own course’ (Medina, 2008:287). The data showed abundant evidence of the process of becoming more ‘themselves’ through the conscious choices made and the opportunity to reflect on courageous practice. Cozolino (2004:207) concurs that in the process of helping others, we are ‘simultaneously discovering ourselves.’

Courage within systems 

Tim Bond (2014:39) in writing on his work with HIV AIDS clients was mindful of his need for ‘the moral courage of others’ to negotiate this new territory in counselling. Likewise, the data shows that trainee counsellors are inspired by courageous ‘others’, whether that be church, family, professional circles or archetypal figures or their own felt sense of being part of a bigger spiritual narrative.

Hannah et al.’s (2007) courageous mindset approach affirms how social forces interact with personal values to moderate courageous behaviour in the presence of fear. It is proposed that a person’s core value and belief system ‘exerts significant psychological pressure’ (Hannah et al., 2007:133) to be congruent in the face of fear and that universal values promote courageous behaviour (Peterson and Seligman, 2004, cited in Hannah et al., 2007). Trainee counsellors’ spiritual belief systems, cultural and archetypal systems were evident in the data in driving courageous action.

Trainee counsellors described how secure attachments, whether physical or spiritual, enhanced courageous practice, resonating with systemic counselling literature (Mason and Sawyyer, 2002) and Benner’s (1998) work on developing psycho-spiritual maturity. These counsellors ‘are therefore, content to be with the other… who will be with them in the midst of whatever they face, thereby mediating the grace of God who is also with them’ (Benner, 1998: 211). The data revealed counsellors’ doubts over issues of identity, their struggle at times to feel ‘centred’, yet their frequent return to ‘secure bases’ (Holmes, 2001).

Suffering as a context for growth in virtues is a well-known theme in spiritual contexts and trainee counsellors who hold a Christian worldview predominantly connect pain and struggle with growing courage as evidenced in the data. Thompson (2006, cited in Woodard, 2010:116) speaks of the ‘wisdom of submitting to suffering and making use of it’ in the pursuit of authentic living.

Olthuis (2001:199) reflects on therapists of faith and their ability to ‘suffer-with’, ‘Knowing that we need not dispel the darkness ourselves because the darkness has been dispelled… we can gather up our courage and cry with those who cry and groan with those who groan – because there is hope.’ Keller (2015:285) casts an interesting light on courage in a spiritual context, suggesting that in ‘feeling the fear’ (Jeffers, 2007) and having an ‘I can do it’ attitude is not purely self-confidence. It is when we have an over-riding sense that ‘this is more important than me’ (i.e.,love for God) that we can know ‘true courage’. Surely a combination of internal strength as well as a connection with an overarching ‘telos’ narrative is a potent combination for courageous action.

Several participants highlighted the importance of a parallel process between supervisor, counsellor and client, as well as the restorative function of supervision in counsellors being encouraged to re-enter sessions with a strengthened core self. This evidence gives strength to Hewitt’s (2014) thesis on therapeutic courage in parallel and cyclical relationships.

Lester et al. (2010) advocate not only being influenced by relationships but to actively seek out training in courage. They state, ‘perhaps one of the greatest hurdles to developing courage in a protégé is his or her understanding of where and how one is expected to show courage in a given profession’ (2010:198). The data in this research showed that trainee counsellors rarely considered and reflected upon courageous action and were unsure as to what might be considered courageous or not. Aristotle’s (trans. Reeve, 2014) view that courage is the mean between two extremes points to the need to ‘practise the mean until it becomes a more or less natural tendency’ (Putman, 2010:11).

Training systems (alluded to by the participants) echo Thorup et al.’s (2012:433) statement that ‘certainty and knowledge enhance… courage and improve… confidence’ when making decisions, while recognising that paradoxically it is only the ‘courageous who dare not to know anything for sure’ (Spence and Smythe, 2007 cited in Thorup et al., 2012:433).


The limitations mainly concern the sample and scope of the study. Of five participants, only one was male and a more balanced sample in term of gender would have been preferable. In terms of diversity, four were white English and one originated from the southern hemisphere, providing interesting insights in terms of metaphor and cultural influence, yet diluting the sample’s homogeneity.

Of note is the researcher’s relationship with the participants. Three out of five were fellow students on the same course, the remaining two from different courses at the institution. An empathic relationship was quickly established with those known to the researcher, producing honest, authentic accounts quickly. However, it was an intentional act to maintain a researcher’s stance, bracketing possible biases and ideas about what the interview might produce (Smith et al., 2009).

It is recognised that this is a small-scale study, which, due to wordcount restrictions, was unable to address the wider circular and parallel processes in detail. As stated in the literature review, however, a small idiographic study such as this may serve the wider body of literature well in detailing the lived experience of counsellors sharing a Christian worldview.

The findings point to further areas of interest for research such as: the experience of courage within a specific counselling context; the experience of courage in ‘mature’ counsellors; the relationship between attachment, spirituality and courage; a further exploration of courage at threshold moments and in the ‘liminal space’ following training in this area; and an exploration of the inclusion of ‘the courageous mind’ as an integrative aspect of a therapeutic approach.


The subjective experience of courage, seen through the lens of trainee counsellors, has shown how an individual’s experience, context, character traits and personal dispositions play a part in their own courageous understanding. Courage was experienced as a holistic creative act, changing form and shape throughout the dialogic process and at crucial threshold moments. Furthermore, courage was inextricably linked to systems in the individual’s life and driven by ethical expectations.

The opportunity to reflect on courage (a subject previously unconsidered) was experienced as transformational by all participants, building a sense of confidence in their own courage and in the acknowledgement that in acting courageously, participants were becoming more and more authentically ‘themselves’. The ‘personal moral quality’ of courage has been ‘consciously examined’ (BACP, 2016b) by five trainee counsellors, and a new curiosity and enquiry into the subjective nature of this courage has been stirred. In the words of Rate (2010:64) may this exploration into the nature and meaning of courage be ‘simply the beginning of another’.

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About the author 

Lucy Thomas MA, BSc (Hons), MBACP (Accred), MACC

Having gained her MA qualification from Waverley Abbey College / Roehampton University in Integrative Counselling in 2017, Lucy has been working in private practice with young people, adults and couples. Over the past year, she has also been working as an Employee Assistance Advisor with Optima Health. She particularly enjoys working with local charities in Reading, providing counselling support to frontline staff as they serve the town.

Over the last ten years, Lucy has served as a deacon for marriage strengthening and marriage preparation at her local Church and is passionate about welcome, inclusion, hospitality and creating spaces where people feel seen and heard.

Contact: Lucy Thomas Counselling: www.readingcounselling.co.uk


Copyright 2021 Lucy Thomas

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Exploring Christian therapists’ experience of the Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on their faith and spirituality: An interpretative phenomenological analysis

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Aim: The present study carried out a qualitative exploration of the impact of COVID-19 on Christian therapists’ faith and spirituality.

Method: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with five female Christian therapists, which served as the crux of the study, using the interpretative phenomenological analysis framework (IPA).

Findings: IPA analysis of the interviews revealed three superordinate themes and ten subordinate themes. The three superordinate themes that emerged were as follows: dealing with the sudden sense of loss brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic; adaptation and spiritual growth; religion and spirituality as a coping mechanism in response to the global crises. The findings are discussed in the light of previous research and psychological theory. The quality and limitations of this study are also considered, alongside proposals for potential research prospects going forward. Taken together, it can be observed that the pandemic led to a multifaceted reaction that tested the depth of the participants’ Christian faith and spirituality. Eventually, however, it remained steadfast with the participants showcasing a renewed relationship – both with God, and indeed with themselves.


Background and rationale 

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented health challenges throughout the world (Pfefferbaum & North, 2020; Rogers et al., 2020). Previous research has shown that infectious disease outbreaks have been followed by drastic individual and psycho-socioeconomic impacts, which have been exacerbated to become more pervasive than the epidemic itself (Li et al., 2020; Ornell et al., 2020). Although empirical research on the impact of COVID-19 on religious faith and spirituality have been limited to date, a significant body of research has since demonstrated robust links between trauma (such as epidemics and natural disaster) and spiritual and religious struggles (Pargament et al., 2014; Richards and Bergin, 2014).

The closure of church buildings and religious institutions during the pandemic resulted in the inability to actively engage in congregational life. This can bring about negative influences on mental health and wellbeing (psychological and spiritual), especially for those who belong to religious traditions in which regular and active participation in their religious group is a strong norm (Douthat, 2014; Lim, 2015).

Moreover, given the potential for major life crises to shake people deeply both psychologically and spiritually, the pandemic has intensified the need for therapists to address clients’ religious and spiritual issues and to consider spiritual wellbeing as a critical component of holistic care for clients in this most challenging time (Ellison and Lee, 2010; Krause, 2015; Bell et al., 2020:1). As such, detailed insights from qualitative studies on the impact of the pandemic on Christian therapists’ faith and spirituality are necessary to facilitate the development of refined intervention techniques for the benefit of clients’ and therapists’ psychological and spiritual wellbeing (Holmes et al., 2020:547; Roman et al., 2020:1).

This research focuses on exploring Christian therapists’ experience of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their faith and spirituality.

Literature review 

The Impact of COVID-19 on mental health 

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it profound consequences, not only for one’s physical health, but also for the mental wellbeing of the population (Pfefferbaum & North, 2020:510; Lucchetti et al., 2020:1). One of the most widely practised methods of public health control continues to be social distancing (Lucchetti et al., 2020: 2). Consequently, the prescribed sense of isolation that comes with adhering to these measures have contributed extensively to the widespread increase in depression, stress and anxiety related issues, which have flared up in vulnerable individuals especially (Lopes & Jaspal, 2000; Shader, 2020; Kanter & Manbeck, 2020). Such psychological consequences can have implications that are both short and long term, and are likely to increase the prevalence of anxiety, depression, insomnia and post-traumatic stress (Rogers et al., 2020; 616-622) and other variables related to maintaining one’s wellbeing (Umucu et al., 2020; Fisher et al., 2020; Arslan et al., 2020).

With regards to the various channels through which the pandemic has impacted psychological wellbeing, recent studies (i.e.,Hamouche, 2020:4-5) have suggested that COVID-19-related psychological distress may be caused by multiple stressors (a combination of determinants) such as environmental (e.g., social disconnection, stigma; Xiang et al., 2020), organisational (e.g., job insecurity; Zhou et al., 2020; Brooks et al., 2020), as well as other supplementary factors (e.g., the risk of contagion, financial loss; Zhang et al., 2020; Wang et al., 2020). And the psychological burden that the ongoing pandemic has placed on individuals can be especially high for vulnerable demographics, including individuals with pre-existing mental health issues, patients with the virus and their families, the elderly, and healthcare workers (Rajkumar, 2020; Dubey et al., 2020).

It is therefore crucial that mental health is taken into consideration at multiple levels, including age, occupation (employment), status, and socioeconomic and religious factors (Lopes & Jaspal, 2020:466; Holmes et al., 2020:547). An essential strategy that may prove useful in reducing pandemic-related stress, and lead to improvements in one’s mental health, is that of spiritual care. It is commonly known that such forms of treatment are directly linked to a broader range of indicators, such as finding a greater sense of purpose and meaning in life and increased satisfaction with themselves – all of which are key pillars of supporting an individual’s mental wellbeing (Unterrainer et al., 2014; Shirkavand et al., 2018). Furthermore, evidence shows that religiosity and spirituality (R/S) are more seriously considered during life crises and that utilising clients’ religious beliefs and practices are associated with better clinical outcomes (Hook et al., 2010; Hodge, 2006; Lim et al., 2014).

Christian religiosity in the midst of the pandemic 

As the UK government imposed a series of lockdowns and implemented social distancing measures, these COVID-19-related restrictions have impeded the progress of religious practices significantly (Roman et al., 2020; Campbell, 2020). It is important to note that religious practices, by their nature, are concentrated around religious communities. Social distancing therefore interrupts the opportunity to engage in faith-based activities that may have implications for multiple domains of wellbeing (Sulkowski & Ignatowski, 2020: 11-12; Coppola, 2021:1).

In response to these restrictions, churches have introduced various offline and online initiatives to minimise the disruption caused by the pandemic (Meza, 2020: Campbell, 2020). Although the transfer of the Church to the online platform was deemed as being a ‘pragmatic response’ (Campbell, 2020:10), certain academic sources soon began to illustrate the setbacks of engaging in religious practices through a virtual medium (Bare, 2020:36; Garner, 2020:56). According to Nye and Lobley (2020:14), while many have turned to the internet for worship and community connection, others have found it to be simply inaccessible (predominantly at a personal level), stating that it intensifies their sense of separation. Indeed, the elderly and those with limited digital access particularly tended to find it difficult to engage with, either technologically or emotionally due to the mentioned constraints.

Nonetheless, there is some evidence to vouch for the increased manifestation of religious activity during the pandemic (Bentzen, 2020; Coppen, 2020). In fact, during the first few months following the initial outbreak of the virus, there were several reports that indicated the revival of religious practices in many parts of the world (Bentzen, 2020; Gareli, 2020; Gecewicz, 2020). Possible explanations for this soaring interest could be that when faced with dramatic and life-threatening situations such as illness, war, unemployment or extreme poverty, people have the tendency to seek solace in religious coping mechanisms, thus reducing their psychological stress levels (Pargament, 1997; Lopes and Jaspal, 2020).

Religious and spiritual (R/S) struggles and coping 

Given that religious faith and spirituality contributes to the formation of one’s ethics, values and their interpretation of the meaning of life (Pargament et al., 2014; Richards and Bergin, 2014), it is important to recognise that the pandemic may trigger profound religious and existential questions as people struggle with issues of uncertainty, loss, and tragedy (Lee, 2020; Nye and Lobley, 2020). Religious and spiritual (R/S) struggles are termed as being ‘conflicts, strains, and tensions on religious and/or spiritual issues’ (Exline and Rose, 2013:460). Individuals whose religious beliefs, values and practices are central to their guiding orientation in life or to their primary worldview tended to find that their religious and spiritual struggles often shook them to the core, resulting in psychological distress and a decline in their mental and physical wellbeing (Pargament, 1997; Noth & Lampe, 2020).

Although empirical research on COVID-19 and the R/S struggle is yet to gain traction, existing studies have shown that there is a clear relationship between trauma, illness and religious/spiritual struggles (Exline, 2013; Park et al., 2011; Lee, 2020). In the context of the pandemic, individuals who struggled with suffering, loss, and uncertainty, further experienced ‘conflict, question and doubt regarding matters of faith, God and religious relationships’ (McConnell et al., 2006;1470). For example, due to the suffering caused by the pandemic, some individuals may have experienced negative feelings toward God; exacerbated further by the feeling of being unprotected, or the inability to place their trust in God in the midst of all their fears and anxieties (Exline et al., 2014: Counted et al., 2020). Also, some religious individuals may have seen the pandemic as being a punishment for their sins or wrongdoings, resulting in feelings of anger developing towards God or doubts about the truth of their religious faith, or indeed questions about the ultimate meaning and purpose of life (Lee, 2020; Nye and Lobley, 2020).

Nonetheless, R/S struggles may instead result in inherently positive changes and spiritual growth (Stauner et al., 2016; 48; Exline et al., 2017:501). This can be corroborated by the fact that post-traumatic growth often occurs on the back of a prolonged period of suffering (Philippians.3:10; Powlison, 2018). Studies have shown conflicting evidence for spiritual growth during the pandemic (Bare, 2020; Meza, 2020; Coppola et al., 2021). The Pew Research Center survey found that while few people (for example, in Spain and America) say their religious faith has weakened as a result of the pandemic, people who prioritise religion are more likely to say COVID-19 strengthened their religious faith (Pew Research Center, 2021). It is crucial to acknowledge the fact that even though religious individuals may experience R/S struggles, those struggles might indeed act as a precursor for positive change and spiritual growth that may in turn lead to a healthier engagement with their surroundings (Pargament, 1997; Exline et al., 2017).

Although much of the literature on religion and mental health focuses on the positive influence of religion, some researchers suggest that negative religion induced coping strategies may result in an increased sense of distress by provoking R/S struggles that can harm one’s mental health (Pargament & Ano, 2006; Mantyla, 2020; Doehring, 2020). Research conducted by Yingling and Froese (2020:311) found that an individual’s sense of control may vary with religiosity, and relational direction may change according to a person’s perceived image of God, which is further influenced by their socioeconomic status. Specifically, they found that believing in a judgmental God was negatively associated with a sense of agency.

The literature review highlights the fact that COVID-19 and the subsequent social distancing imposed by the series of lockdowns not only threatened people’s psychological health but also influenced their religious and spiritual life (Sulkowski & Ignatowski, 2020; Lucchetti, et al., 2020).

Currently, there are a limited number of scientific studies on the impact of COVID-19 on religion and spirituality, with existing research mostly using quantitative methods. To the best of the researcher’s knowledge, no studies have employed interpretative methodologies to examine the lived experiences of Christian counsellors and psychotherapists in such a way within the UK.

The research question therefore was: ‘exploring Christian therapists’ experience of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their faith and spirituality’.


Research Design and Epistemology

This study aims to explore how Christian therapists experience and interpret the impact of COVID-19 on their faith and spirituality using interpretative phenomenological analysis (Smith, Flowers & Larking, 2012). Qualitative research was considered to be the most befitting for this enquiry, given the need for a detailed breakdown of the individual’s subjective experiences within their social world (Emslie, 2005; Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2012).

Five Christian therapists were recruited in line with the sampling criteria of the IPA (Smith et al., 2012). To protect participants’ anonymity, pseudonyms were used. As the data was collected during the third UK lockdown (February–March 2021), all the corresponding interviews were conducted by video-call due to the imposed restrictions.

Research Findings 


Analysis of the interview data revealed three interconnected superordinate themes: the initial impact of COVID-19 and dealing with the sudden sense of loss; adaptation and spiritual growth; and religion and spirituality as a coping resource. Each of these superordinate themes has several related subordinate themes and these are presented in Table 1.


Table 1: Superordinate themes and subordinate themes

The Initial Impact of COVID-19 and dealing with the sudden sense of loss 

As the participants began to talk about the closing of churches and religious institutions, there seemed to be a noticeable sense of ‘sudden loss’ or ‘grief’, which resulted in sudden changes to their spiritual engagement. Alongside this sense of ‘sudden loss’, participants also expressed a powerful longing for their congregational gatherings and faith communities. Specific issues that were discussed can be represented within the following three subordinate themes.

The sudden loss of organisational religious activities 

A sub-theme that was directly linked with the outbreak of COVID-19 was the participants’ experiences of how COVID-19 restrictions forced places of worship to stop or limit services, with many moving to online forms of worship.

Annie reflected on how the pandemic affected her normal religious practice, saying:

‘I just didn’t have any routine in it, and I think the pandemic forced a change of routine. I’ve just lost that consistency with God really. And it’s been a struggle… my church went online but to be honest, I forget what has been said in the church service because I haven’t been attending or, alternatively, I listen later in the week.’ 

When COVID-19 disrupted our lives abruptly, ‘the feeling of no longer having collective worship and congregational gatherings’ was described by the participants as being ‘so painful’ . And Olivia’s narrative described how it was affecting her spiritual identity: ’I felt like I lost a part of who I am… my life used to revolve around church activities such as Bible studies and women’s fellowship.’ 

The loss of social connection 

Another subordinate theme that can be discussed, in the context of the loss of in-person collective worship, was the loss of face-to-face contact with fellow worshippers, which left participants feeling disconnected. Participants’ narratives described how they experienced relational losses with respect to the Christian community. Caroline stated, ‘within a very short period of time, so many in-person gatherings have been cancelled… I missed the powerful moments when we, as the body of Christ, came together for a common purpose, hearing each other’s voices and seeing each other.’ 

Connecting via online platforms such as Zoom, or FaceTime has proven to enhance offline relationships (Campbell 2012:7). Yet, it seems as though virtual contact cannot, in any sense, replicate one’s physical presence. Jenny shared, ‘…being on a screen is OK but there’s not that much interaction… we do have Facetime… the family and the interactive body of the church… part of that relationship has kind of been lost a bit and so I feel a bit numb, a bit at a loss for that part (J-2:74-75).’ These forms of online religious practices may in turn promote other negative outcomes such as ‘Zoom fatigue’ (Wiederhold, 2020: 437). In-person interactions within faith communities seemed to be an essential feature of ‘feeling connected’.

The loss of social support 

Participants highlighted ‘the loss of social support’ proffered by faith communities that they usually relied upon, being fractured by lockdowns and social distancing. Religious practices can be a source of social support through a variety of means – similar sentiments were echoed by all the participants.

Throughout Caroline’s interview, she often explained how she incurred relational losses tied to the Christian community, which had previously offered her an accountable place in which she could both serve others and be sustained by them: ‘ I was an active member of the women’s group… I helped out at this coffee shop. All of those friendships that I had made are now gone… Those friendships are probably the biggest losses… I felt like I was missing something.’ 

Lucy specifically expressed how being disconnected from the faith-based community affected her emotional wellbeing, which contributed to the challenges in acquiring replacement support, saying: ’Not having that social support, meeting with other people which would encourage me… that was taken away so I had to make an adjustment in terms of what I would normally do for self-care.’ 

Religious and spiritual challenges 

Each of the participants talked about how they had experienced tremendous religious and spiritual challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

A year into the pandemic, Jenny explored her experiences of spiritual numbness, and the desert place represented the feeling of numbness that was slowly building up inside her, saying: ‘My faith… I mean praying to God and relying on God… is always there, but I feel quite numb in some places[respects]. So sometimes it’s been quite hard, but it is always, you know… God is constant. God is there always… the whole experience is like being in a desert place.’ 

As the global pandemic forced people to confront the unprecedented sense of uncertainty and chaos (Bentzen 2020), it seemed as though the impact on the participants’ faith were manifold, including feelings of disorientation and isolation. For Annie, it also gave her the grounds to question her unexamined beliefs. This led to new struggles as the faith, that she said she once had, was being eroded away. Annie mentioned, ‘… at the beginning of the pandemic, I was kind of challenging those beliefs mostly because of family influences… it really challenged what I believed in and why I believed it… I needed to be stripped of the control I thought I had and removed from my faith community in order to challenge my beliefs… it has left me feeling quite disorientated.’ 

Adaptation and spiritual growth 

Despite the feelings of loss, grief, and the challenges of engaging in worship, participants described how COVID-19 pushed them to change the way they practise their faith. This second theme captures the participants’ descriptions of their ways of adapting to such changes, which fortuitously led to spiritual growth.

Changes in religious practices 

One big difference was that COVID-19 quickly affected institutional religiosity; adjustments to personal religious practices were a major part of the participants’ response to the impact of the lockdown and social distancing. Lucy reported that her church closing increased her awareness of the need to adjust: ‘I know I still need to find ways at home to do that… I mean things like Bible reading and praying that sort of thing… I’ve been more intentional about praying for my clients.’ Both Caroline and Jenny said that they believed that their personal devotional practices were more frequent than those organised by their churches. Caroline reflected: ‘I was busy before the pandemic and rushed through the scriptures. Nowadays, I am able to spend the mornings reading God’s word with greater focus [and I do] (C-3:96-97).’

Interestingly, in the context of the pandemic, the ‘natural world’ was incorporated into conventional spiritual practices. Olivia noted the following: ’So I can put the music on, whatever, I can take the dog out for walk, say hi to people, meet other people also affected by the pandemic. COVID-19 has meant that I stop to watch a sunrise or a sunset… I feel closest to God when I am on my own in nature… My spiritual practices during these times have helped me stay grounded and feel connected.’ 

Technologically-mediated religious practices 

The participants reported that the pandemic gradually changed the ways they practise their religion. Despite disruption and the evident challenges, participants said that the restrictions have pushed them to adapt to virtual religious activities to engage in worship and stay connected with their faith and religious communities.

Lucy illustrated some examples of how she would spend time exploring things that she never really thought of doing before the pandemic. She noted, ‘It [the pandemic] kind of pushed me more and more into using things like the 24/7 Prayer app, whereas previously I was convinced that was so isolating. Why would I want to use my mobile phone to connect all of a sudden with these things? Although in fact they became really useful and only recently I started to listen to Premier Christian radio and watch things on YouTube that I wouldn’t normally watch.’ 

Online religious resources can make it easier to incorporate religious practice into a busy daily life. Annie stated, ‘So he [my husband] introduced me to YouTube clips of American gospel and he also introduced me to different online courses… it’s so much nicer not having to go out… we just sit on the sofa with a cup of tea (A-5:190-193).’ 

Yet, while some participants recognised advantages to virtual worship or religious practices, Caroline reported some practical disadvantages. As Caroline put it: ’Sitting at my desk in front of my laptop is a different experience from laying on my couch with my Bible and prayer notes… The computer drew me away from reflection and reading (C-4:121-124).’ 

Spiritual growth 

All the participants expressed an experience of significant spiritual growth through the challenging circumstances brought on by COVID-19. For most, they reported that their spiritual growth came from re-evaluating their beliefs, religious life, or priorities, gaining new insights about themselves and/or the world.

Lucy talked about how COVID-19 brought about spiritual growth: ‘And I guess it’s [the COVID-19 pandemic] that forced me to build spiritual muscle in areas that needed to be built up… But again, I think it’s positive if I look back now to where I am today. It was hard but I’ve learnt such a lot.’

Through uncomfortable circumstances, Jenny said that she became aware of a new perspective and insight about herself and others (i.e.,such as increased empathy). She described the pandemic as God’s training school, saying: ‘Once I recognised that actually I could start to come out of it [the COVID-19 pandemic] and heal, and understand it… it was really helpful for my client work. So, you know God is good in that He’s giving me more insight and I’m a believer in God training me from the inside out.’ 

The lockdown seems to have motivated participants to reassess all aspects of their lives. Olivia reflected on how she had developed a heightened sense of appreciation: ’I’d been mentally and spiritually exhausted… but it was also an experience that made me extremely humble and grateful for all the things that God has given me.’ 

Religion and spirituality (R/S) as a coping resource 

The third major theme is the role of religion and spirituality (R/S), employed by the participants to cope with the ongoing spiritual and psychosocial impacts of the pandemic. Despite the distractions to their normal religious and spiritual practices, as a result of these restrictions, participants talked about how their Christian faith and spirituality contributed important resources in coping with the difficulties.

R/S as a cognitive resource 

All the participants clearly said that their intrinsic religious beliefs and beliefs about suffering (also known as theodicies) provided cognitive understanding of the religious and existential dimensions of the pandemic, contributing to a sense of purpose, and meaning in their current challenging experiences.

Jenny shared how her belief that God compassionately shares in human suffering was enhanced, and that God sustains people with His presence through stressful times: ’I believe that God is suffering, and that God is there with us in our suffering. So, when people are sick, when people are struggling… I know that God is still in control and whatever happens, however bad it gets I know God is still in control.’ Caroline spoke in a similar way, saying, ’I had a moment where it felt like fear and anxiety gripped me… but God is greater than what is around us. He comforts and protects us (C-6: 225-227).’ 

R/S as a psychological resource 

Aside from the cognitive strategies, participants described the ways that they have stayed connected with God by involving themselves in prayer, Bible reading, and spiritual activities. They said that acquiring these coping skills ultimately aided their resilience throughout the pandemic. Interestingly, participants reported more frequent use of prayer than other religious practices in order to experience God’s presence. For example, Jenny discussed the significance of her prayer life in enabling her to cope with the ongoing pandemic, saying, ‘The prayer and coming before Him has been a key to sustaining me. It’s what holds me and I’m not quite sure how people do without it. Prayer is a key part of my daily life.’ 

Prayer appeared to work in similar ways to psychotherapy, specifically through reflective processing. Simply talking about their life and struggles seemed to provide relief and promote psychological wellbeing (Jeppsen and Wooldridge, 2012). For example, Annie reflected on how she experienced God’s presence through prayer, and she said it helped her to think more clearly. She noted, ‘ Its really helpful… I think when I pray… I feel relaxed and think more clearly. That’s why when I’m stressed and worried about everything going on around me… I just want to rely on God.’ 

R/S as a social resource 

The third category is one of social support and social networks, the use of which seemed to lead to a reduction in pandemic-related stress on mental and physical health.

Annie noted that it was through engagement in online Bible study that she had access to social interaction: ‘just doing the Alpha course recently… I feel a lot better knowing that I’ve been able to speak to people and be heard. It feels like you belong and that you are known.’ Similarly, Jenny also stated that her religious involvement had brought tangible benefits during the pandemic period: ‘It does help me because… people with similar priorities around me gives me strength. People to push me along and give me strength in everyday living.’ 

Summary of findings 

The closure of churches and religious institutions, as a result of the pandemic, profoundly affected the way in which the participants practised their faith. Although they initially experienced feelings of sudden loss within their institutional religious lives, social connection and social support, all of them showed remarkable resilience in adapting to the barrage of challenges and staying connected with their faith communities. Interestingly, all the participants expressed feelings of significant spiritual growth through these challenging circumstances. Their Christian faith was a prominent factor that allowed them to develop refined coping mechanisms, functioning as a social resource for them to maintain their mental wellbeing throughout the lockdown periods especially. It helped them to make sense of what was happening and to find a renewed sense of meaning while adapting to the ‘new normal’.



This study aimed to explore how Christian therapists experience and interpret the impact of COVID-19, on their faith and spirituality. The observed findings will further be discussed, relating back to the main research aims (Smith et al., 2012).

Dealing with the feelings of sudden loss 

The pandemic has profoundly challenged the way in which religious and spiritual life is conducted (Lucchetti et al., 2020; Dein et al., 2020). Each of the participants reported that the Christian faith was at the centre of their lives. When the narratives touched on issues to do with the corresponding impacts on their faith and spirituality; ‘a sudden sense of loss’ seemed to be the dominant theme, affecting their spiritual and psychological wellbeing in a number of different ways.

When the social distancing measures were first introduced nationally in the UK, the most significant change to the participants’ faith and spirituality was the sudden loss of institutional religiosity (Lucchetti et al., 2020:6; Bentzen, 2020:4). Aside from the disruption to normal religious practices, participants’ connections with others were abruptly fractured as a result of the public health controls, which resulted in the decline in interpersonal rapport within their support systems. Consequently, the loss and erosion of social connections and support networks became another loss that the participants had to accept as a part of this negative sequelae. In fact, churches provide not only a sense of belonging or connection but also a strong foundation of social support through the engendering of fellowship (VanderWeele et al., 2017:515). Undoubtedly, the closure of these sites of worship were considered to be particularly challenging and described as having a detrimental impact on psychological and spiritual wellbeing.

These findings are consistent with previous research, which highlights how experiencing situations of crisis and loss can result in corresponding knock-on effects to one’s mental health (Brooks et al., 2020; Roy et al., 2020; Coppola, 2021). Additionally, the study corroborates the existing literature in the discourse, as shown by the fact that religious experiences of service attendance itself seemed to be powerfully related to the individual’s spiritual and psychological wellbeing (Petts, 2014: 759; VanderWeele, 2017:521).

However, although the participants’ experiences of relational losses tied to their individual faith communities were somewhat varied, the perceived value of these social relationships were substantial, which tended to have a greater impact on their wellbeing (Siedlecki et al., 2014:561-562; Cooper et al., 2020:15-20). The findings provide a degree of insight into the correlation between social connectedness and psychological wellbeing, revealing that the meanings assigned to human interaction tended to directly influence an individual’s susceptibility to stress (Cooper, 2020:21-23).

From a relational perspective, faith is experienced in relationships with others and God (Buber, 1990), and this engagement fulfils a basic psychological need for belonging (Baumeister and Leary,

1995:497). As such, it is unsurprising to see that the COVID-19 related restrictions that impeded this bond had a significant impact on their spiritual wellbeing. It also appears that face-to-face religious involvement itself contributes to this emotional support system for the participants through a variety of means (Koenig, 2012; Bentzen, 2020). Nevertheless, it is evident that additional research is necessary to better understand the implications of physical closeness during corporative religious practices, and to examine more closely the factors that connect mental health with the benefits of in-person services.

With regards to the religious and spiritual (R/S) struggles, the participants clearly stated that the stressors caused by the pandemic raised R/S struggles considerably, generating distressing emotions. Undoubtedly, the unprecedented global conditions could indeed be profoundly existential and a collectivistic experience that has come about due to the radical changes in the way we engage with the self, with others, and with the world (Huang et al., 2020; Maaravi et al., 2021).

The above findings are supported by existing precedent that traumatic stressors tend to increase the propensity of religious and spiritual struggles – the outcomes of which can vary significantly according to the individual (Exline and Rose, 2013; Desai and Pargament, 2015). Incorporating this into a clinical perspective, it is necessary to explore the degree to which the pandemic-related restrictions caused individuals to renegotiate the relationship with their faith on multiple domains (i.e.,spiritual, psychological, and social). Indeed, particularly for those with strong religious values that are central to their worldviews, wellbeing may be affected more significantly through these spiritual struggles (Lee 2020; Dein et al., 2020). Hence, consideration of these ongoing tensions in therapy is necessary, with caution. Sensitivity is paramount during such discussions with clients, whether religious faith is considered as a means of obtaining comfort, or whether they engage with faith as both a resource and a challenge. Additionally, there is a need to develop more refined therapy strategies, and existing techniques should further be tailored to consolidate the ramifications of COVID-19.

Adaptation and spiritual growth 

This study has shown that a noteworthy repercussion of this pandemic has been the further development of latent procedures in individual or private religious practices (Koenig, 2020; Galea et al., 2020). Religious people, naturally, have been compelled to adapt their practices and behaviour in order to preserve their wellbeing (Simonsen et al., 2018; Villani et al., 2019).

Although this new virtual normality contributed to the eventual re-connecting of people in shared worship and fellowship, the findings show that this situation may also have led people to distance themselves from their faith community, and to challenge existing religious beliefs or preconceptions (Parish, 2020:1). Furthermore, even for those continuing to participate in their faith communities remotely, individualised religious practices (e.g., reading the Bible or praying) seemed to be more frequent and intensified than when participating in institutional rituals or official meetings in faith communities. With regards to the religious resources, participants reported that they preferred to seek out their own resources rather than those offered by their respective churches.

The reason for this tendency is likely to be attributable to a decrease in levels of engagement with institutional religious activities (Parish, 2020:2). In addition to this, it could be the fact that many resources suddenly became available during the lockdown period, as nearly all the Christian faith-based institutions began to offer online access to their activities, especially for those involving interactive communication (e.g., Zoom) and live-streaming (Church of England, 2020; Glatz, 2020; Delap, 2020). However, it is acknowledged that this study is situational within the cultural context of participants who are computer literate. As such, it is necessary to note that online religious resources or activities might not be regularly accessible to all members of the faith community, especially for those who cannot access computers or the internet (Gasser et al., 2020:425; Nye and Lobley, 2020: 17). This can be explained through Campbell’s study that the transfer of churches to online forums may not only deny access to a dynamic and changing process, determined by individual needs or choices, but also deny members to the various religious practices that individuals participate in, either in groups or individually (Campbell, 2012 & 2020). Taken together, it is evident from this study that the efficacy of virtual methods was at best sporadic, especially in relation to spiritual reflection.

Spiritual growth 

A similar pattern of connections between religious and spiritual (R/S) struggles and spiritual growth is widely noted in previous studies of mental health during times when unpredictable events have become the norm (Desai & Pargament, 2015: 42; Stauner et al., 2016: 64; Rudolfsson & Tidefors, 2014). This study also found that the COVID-19 pandemic seemed to function as a catalyst for spiritual growth since it brought the opportunity to gain a renewed and strengthened faith through one’s engagement with R/S derived struggles.

Among the various religious factors that contributed to spiritual growth in the participants, it is important to note that the most common feature appears to have been the increase in private religious activities, such as prayer and Bible study. This finding is intriguing as there is a tendency in previously conducted studies to denote religious service attendance as the most important variable driving spiritual growth (Li et al., 2016: 8; Chen et al., 2020: 2030; VanderWeele, 2020: 85). Historically, religious practice is mostly associated with organised practice and resources (Austin et al., 2018:1). However, in the context of COVID-19, social restrictions prevented routine religious attendance and for this reason private or online religious involvement seemed to offer the same benefits found in institutional religiosity (Dolcos et al., 2021).

Religion and Spirituality (R/S) as a coping resource 

The present study exhibited a number of compelling insights. First and foremost, it could be observed that the participants opted to turn to God to deal with the stressors that they were facing during the pandemic. In addition, it was clear that their Christian faith had a remarkable influence on their mental health (Hart & Koenig, 2020; Koenig, 2020). Although such results have been widely showcased in pre-existing research (Pargament, 1997; Park et al., 2011; Exline, 2013), very few studies have investigated the way in which the Christian faith and spirituality operates in this context to minimise the effect of external traumas and feelings of social isolation (Koenig, 2020; Pirutinsky et al., 2020). Therefore, clarification of these issues is necessary, as it is a core aspect that informs both general counselling practices and the counselling procedures of religious clients (Singh & Madan, 2017:342). Christian faith as a religious coping mechanism was further evidenced throughout this study, which showed that intrinsic religiosity and faith in God’s plan in suffering (coupled with religious involvement) function primarily as a cognitive, psychological, social, and relational resource for the participants that supports their spiritual and psychological wellbeing.

R/S as a cognitive resource: intrinsic beliefs and theodicies 

Consistent with previous research, the findings indicated that R/S provided participants with a source of cognition and attitudes that reframed the pandemic into relatively less stressful frames (‘positive cognitive reappraisal’; Thomas and Savoy, 2014: 88; Dolcos et al., 2020), and facilitated the search for meaning and purpose (Rosmarin and Koenig, 2020; Pirutinsky et al., 2020) by increasing spiritual and social connections (Lim & Putnam, 2010: 914) while developing self-control (McCullough and Willoughby, 2009: 69).

Several authors thus far have established the importance of religion for ‘meaning making’ and helping individuals endure and even grow through times of suffering (Park, 2010: 257; Hall et al., 2018: 77). This study also supports the interpretation that believing in God’s involvement in the pandemic may be positively correlated with a sense of ‘meaning making’ in practice. Moreover, the participants’ inherent belief in God’s benevolent involvement further seemed to reinforce their trust in God and promote increased resilience within themselves. These findings again correspond with that of existing studies; the intrinsic belief that ties less stress with positive religious coping has proven to be one of many ways through which God achieves His purpose (Hovey et al., 2014; Villani et al., 2019; Pirutinsky et al., 2020).

R/S as a psychological coping resource 

Aside from cognitive strategies, the findings suggest that the participants’ positive beliefs about God represented a basic strength and a resource that enabled them to better manage their psychological distress in times of hardship. Existing theories and academics within the discourse have often theorised that people are more inclined to use prayer as a coping mechanism when the problems are more severe, or indeed when the other resources have been exhausted (McCullough & Larson, 1999; Masters and Spielmans, 2007: 329; Dezutter et al., 2011: 542).

Consistent with current academic theory (Masters and Spielmans, 2007; Dezutter et al., 2011), the study showed that prayer was most frequently used in religious practice among all the participants and that it seemed to help them develop a deeper awareness of God’s presence. Consequently, this appeared to enhance their psychological robustness. Particularly, prayer reflecting on ‘who God is’ seemed to have been effectively used by all of the participants when coping with COVID-19-related stress. From a cognitive perspective, it can also be argued that mentally focusing on the character of God as a loving and protective figure could also serve as a valuable resource. Shifting the focus away from the pandemic and relinquishing all control to God would give them the added liberty of spiritual solace (Krause, 2003; Masters & Spielmans, 2007; McLaughlin et al., 2013).

In addition to the importance of prayer content (e.g., reflecting on the character of God), the participants’ experiences indicate that their prayer life needs to be incorporated into their religious meaning system before it functions as a buffer for the negative thoughts that come with thinking about the pandemic (Park, 2006; Dezutter et al., 2011; Krok, 2014). It is possible that individuals who are intrinsically motivated by their faith may primarily cope with their stressors by engaging with their religious meaning systems through prayer, which in turn helps them to reinterpret situations in a more positive and meaningful light (Masters and Spielmans, 2007; Dezuttere et al., 2011). Therapists should also be alert to how clients’ religious meanings and attributions could be both a resource and a potential source of struggle during periods of intensified stress.

R/S as a social coping resource 

All in all, this study corroborates the preceding research, which indicates that religion can be both a social and relational resource, differentiated by interpretation (Koenig, McCullough, & Larson, 2001; Holt et al., 2019).

Contemporary insight identifies that attending religious activities and engaging in religious behaviour prospectively predicts an increase in social support over time (Strawbridge et al, 2001; Holt et al., 2014), and that social relationships are a mechanism underlying the effect of religious practices on wellbeing (Koenig et al., 2012; Holt et al., 2014; Merino, 2014). Although such results have been extensively discussed throughout the course of the past decade especially, few studies (Vilog et al., 2020; Dutra & Rocha, 2021) have since assessed these considerations in the context of the current pandemic. In support of previous literature (Holt et al., 2014; Vilog et al., 2020), the present study shows evidence of the same pathway via virtual means of social support. Historically, religious activities often occur within a social context. It is conceivable that for people living with enforced social isolation, especially during pandemic times, their faith community may provide the only viable sense of social support, satisfying the need for belonging that contributes to a positive mental outlook (Koenig et al., 2012; Nica, 2019; Weinberger-Litman et al., 2020).

In this sense, the faith community appears to be more than a space of worship, it’s also a social juncture that strengthens participants’ sense of connection during such periods of social isolation. These places maintain their own sense of sacred agency that ultimately allows for a more positive psychological attitude (Fagan et al., 2012; Weinberger-Litman et al., 2020).


This IPA study yielded detailed and rich outcomes of how the therapists grappled with their faith and spirituality throughout the pandemic period. Yet, it is nonetheless the case that the observed findings need to be interpreted with care and with consideration of the following limitations.

Firstly, the study, while homogeneous, had an imbalance of represented religions, with all the participants being from evangelical church backgrounds. As such, it cannot be regarded as being representative either of the entire population or of Christian therapists in general. Additionally, all the participants in the sample group were female Christian therapists, who agreed with the notion that the Christian faith was at the centre of their lives. Previous research indicates that women tend to be more religious than men (Forlenza and Vallada, 2018: 1741; Kowalczyk et al, 2020: 2676). This could have impacted the high levels of spiritual growth and positive religious coping evidenced in the study. However, it is crucial to note that understanding representativeness was never the objective of this IPA study, which instead emphasises an ideographic and phenomenological approach to gain a deeper insight into the participants’ lived experiences (Smith et al., 2012).

Also, as reported previously, religious coping strategies can have negative and positive influences on mental health. However, the current study did not highlight the negative aspects of coping among the participants. While the IPA does not deviate from making generalisations, it is committed towards analysing individuals’ subjective accounts rather than the formulation of objective narratives (Smith et al., 2012; Flowers et al., 1999). Conclusions drawn are therefore specific to this particular group as mentioned, and generalisations should be approached with caution.

Recommendations for Future Research 

The study was conducted during the third national lockdown between February–March 2021 in the UK. During a pandemic that had not previously been experienced by anyone involved. While this implies that this research is unlikely to ever be replicated in the same circumstances, further studies would be needed to analyse the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the Christian faith and spirituality.

Several participants spoke directly about how their professional role as a therapist had been affected by COVID-19, as well as speaking in the position of being clients themselves. Many were keen to forget the disastrous circumstances they initially found themselves in, at varying stages of the pandemic. Future research could perhaps explore the overarching impact of COVID-19 on the administration of therapeutic practices.


This body of research sought to explore how Christian therapists experience and interpret the impact of COVID-19 through their faith and spirituality.

The observed findings illustrated that the closure of churches had lasting effects on the spiritual life of the participants, resulting in a sudden loss of institutional religious life, social connections, and social support systems. Despite such difficulties, all the participants demonstrated marked resilience and the ability to adapt to the pandemic life. Engaging in virtual religious activities and connecting with their faith and religious communities, gave them the means to preserve their religious livelihoods. Noteworthy consequences of the pandemic were that it led to the acceleration of pre-existing individualised religious practices. Interestingly, each of the participants could relate to an instance of significant spiritual growth through the challenging circumstances. Christian faith does appear to constitute a key resource in coping with pandemic-related stress, functioning primarily as a cognitive, psychological, social, and relational resource.

Ultimately, in spite of the limitations of qualitative research, the current study is among the first to explore the lived experiences of therapists in relation to the consequences of COVID-19 on Christian faith and spirituality. Given the potential for major life crises to shake people deeply both psychologically and spiritually, the pandemic demonstrated the pressing need for therapists to address clients’ religious and spiritual issues directly and to consider spiritual wellbeing as a critical component of holistic care (Ellison and Lee, 2010; Krause, 2015; Bell et al., 2020:1). As such, it is with a degree of optimism that this research was conducted, in the hope that it would supplement the resources of therapists that may result in more positive clinical outcomes going forward.


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About the author 

Sookyung Yang BA (Hons), MA, MBACP.

Sookyung Yang is a counsellor at AHA counselling, in Kingston upon Thames.

She recently completed her MA in Therapeutic Counselling and Psychotherapy at Waverley Abbey College.

Born in South Korea, she spent nearly 30 years in China, Nigeria, and the United Kingdom, fostering her interest in multicultural and diversity issues. She can be contacted at ahacounsellinguk@gmail.com


Copyright 2021 Sookyung Yang

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Individuals’ situations in a church context. Why taking an eco-systemic approach is crucial for supporting a gender balanced church with healthy singleness, dating, marriage and youth.

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Imagine that a family member or friend (in your personal life), or a counselling client (in your professional life) wants to talk to you. Their situation is one of the following:

  • a single person who feels isolated in a family-focused church;

  • a single Christian man who would like to get married but cannot seem to commit to a relationship;

  • a single Christian woman who would like to get married and have children but cannot seem to find suitable men to date;

  • a Christian couple who are struggling in their marriage;

  • a Christian man who feels he does not really ‘fit in’ at church;

  • a Christian woman who is married to a man who does not share her faith;

  • a Christian teenager who is struggling because their parents have split up, and they are no longer sure that good marriages are possible.

How do you respond? This may vary depending on a number of factors, including how much you are aware of the potential impact of the current church context.

This paper outlines the work of The Engage Network and why it is needed. Aspects of the current church context that affect the experiences of people such as those described above are then explored, and why an eco-systemic and solution-focused approach to helping them is so important. Finally, some practical points and next steps are suggested for both counsellors and clients.

You may find that some of what is covered is directly relevant to your own personal life too. If you are involved in church leadership at local or national level, you will also notice applications to your role there.


To begin with, this paper will summarise what Engage is, and why it is needed.


Some years ago, I found a page of data on the internet, which showed that there were nearly twice as many women as men in the Church. The ratio really struck me, as did the implications for men, women and children, and the future of Christian families. The current balance is two men for every three women overall (Clarke, 2018, p. 54), and there are twice as many single women as single men in the majority of the Church (YouGov, 2014). In two generations’ time, only 16% of today’s church’s grandchildren will have two Christian parents, if current trends continue (Clarke, 2018, p.19). The Church gender imbalance is therefore a crisis that has major consequences for all Christians, as will be shown throughout this paper.


For several years after finding the page of data, I started to hear about ministries that seemed relevant to the situation, but who were not necessarily working together on these issues. They included ministries around men, singleness, dating, marriage, young people, and others. After a series of surprising ‘coincidences’, Engage was formed. This is a collaboration of national Christian organisations and individuals with the joint vision: ‘For singleness or marriage to be a genuine choice, for all Christian women and men, through a Church which is gender balanced, and teaches about healthy singleness, dating and marriage.’


Engage brings together leading organisations including Christian Vision for Men, Care for the Family, Ridley Hall Theological College, Single Friendly Church, Youth for Christ, New Wine, Jesus House, the World Prayer Centre, and others. It involves individual Christians, those working at local and national church levels, and professionals in various diverse fields.


Engage has a resource website (www.engage-mcmp.org.uk) and has produced a resource handbook, 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men: How to Lead a Gender balanced Church Supporting Healthy Singleness, Dating, Marriage and Youth (Clarke & Blackaby, 2018). We facilitate joint work between different partners, which ranges from research projects to connecting speakers for national events. We hold conferences/webinars, teach sessions at theological training colleges and are also often promoting the excellent work that other people are doing.

Key underlying principles of Engage 

We are keen for what we do to be biblical and research based.

The Great Commission is central. Jesus said, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Matthew 28:19–20). Engage is about people having the opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel and experience effective discipleship. Relationship with Jesus, spiritual and emotional flourishing and relationships of all kinds are fundamental discipleship issues for everyone.

Importantly, the Bible values both singleness and marriage. Single people are equally as valuable and competent as married people. At the same time, God’s design from the start has been for marriage to reflect His covenant relationship with the Church, to be foundational to society, and to be personally experienced by most people. Engage is about ‘making Christian marriage possible’ (not compulsory!). By this, we mean marriage between Christians. Because the context of the church gender imbalance is core to our work, our focus is on relationships between men and women, including making it possible for a single Christian woman to marry a single Christian man, making it possible for any emotional barriers to marriage to be resolved, making it possible for a non-Christian spouse to come to faith, making it possible for marriages to be all they can potentially be when God is at their centre, and making it possible for the church’s children to marry a Christian when they grow up. In the context of Engage, we use the phrase ‘gender balanced’ to mean an equal number of men and women.

Engage is about working together so that everyone benefits, and about men and women equally supporting each other. It involves organisations and churches collaborating because we see the overall ‘big picture’.

Context and balance 

It is essential that we all understand the context around issues that men, women, and young people face around singleness, dating and marriage. This includes wider socio-cultural trends and key relevant contexts within the Church.

Socio-cultural trends 

The general socio-cultural context around relationships in the UK has changed significantly in recent decades, as Harry Benson (Research Director at Marriage Foundation) helpfully summarises in his chapter of 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men.

Among adults in their early thirties, 74% of women and 68% of men already live with a partner. Two thirds of these couples are married. Of the remainder who live alone, most have not married, leaving 21% of women and 30% of men are still single, unattached, and never married. By the time adults are in their late forties, 81% of women and 76% of men have been married and just 13% of women and 12% of men live alone, not co-habiting and not yet married (Benson, 2018).

The divorce rate is about 40%; for married couples with children, the rate is 24%. The break-up rate of parents who do not marry is 69% (Benson, 2013, February). A report published in early 2017 by the Social Trends Institute (a US think tank) found that Britain has the highest rate of family instability in the entire developed world (DeRose, Lyons-Amos & Huarcaya, 2017). Just under half of all British teenagers are not living with both biological parents (Benson, 2013, May).

Overall, there is less expectation from general society that people will get married ‒ more couples cohabit now (Benson, 2018), but this is not so common among Christians. Many people have experienced their parents splitting up and avoid marriage themselves because they are afraid of being hurt, of failing, or of repeating their parents’ mistakes. ‘FOMO’ can affect some if they commit to one person (Fear Of Missing Out ‒ a very prevalent modern phenomenon) and unresolved emotional issues around relationships can lead to protracted singleness for others (e.g., previous rejection or hurt, unrealistic expectations of others). Christians are not immune to the impact of these trends, and we need to view Church data in the context of what is happening in wider society.

Theological context 

It is beyond the scope of this paper or Engage to cover the theology of singleness and marriage in depth. However, a few central points are noted here.

The concept of the ‘gift of singleness’ is often talked about in churches. This is taken from 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul explains that marriage is not mandatory (counter-cultural for many at the time), especially in the ‘present crisis’ (v26) of the Corinthians’ then difficult situation. He talks about singleness and marriage and says ‘each man [sic] has his own gift from God: one has this gift, another has that’. It is obviously important for single people to make the most of the positive aspects of their situation, and ‘life live to the full’ (John 10:10). However, there is often a ‘spiritual re-framing’ (whether uninformed or unintentional) of the unprecedented rate of unwanted singleness in our present-day Church, which is simply often deemed a ‘God-given gift’ for individuals, without acknowledgement of the impact of the gender imbalance or other societal influences.

Spiritual gifts are described in various Bible passages (e.g., Romans 12:6–8, 1 Corinthians 12:8–10 and 28–31, Ephesians 4:11–13 and 1 Peter 4:9–11), which tell us that the purpose of these gifts is to build up and strength the health of the body of Christ (the Church), to prepare us for works of service, and for the praise of God. Certainly, some people may feel they have a gift of singleness or a particular calling to be single and the Church must support them, but this is completely different from enforced singleness, which affects so many Christian women who stay single and childless due to the Church gender imbalance.

With regards to marriage, most Christians would agree that it is a covenantal sign of the relationship between God and His Church, and fundamental to God’s design for society. Most would say that it is best for a Christian to marry another Christian, based on biblical teaching (e.g., 1 Corinthians 7.39; 2 Corinthians 6:14), and the experience that having a Christian spouse is a significant factor for a happy marriage whereas difficulties can arise in ‘mixed’ marriages (Evangelical Alliance, 2012) because the underlying spiritual vision is inevitably disparate if only one person believes. It is important to recognise that people may come to faith after they are married, and that there can be aspects in Christian, ‘mixed’ and non-Christian marriages that are ‘good’ or ‘struggling’. Modern research also tells us that most single Christians want to marry another Christian (Pullinger, 2014).

Rev Dr Adrian Chatfield (Fellow, Ridley Hall Theological College, Cambridge) draws attention to the theological implications of today’s context in his chapter of 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men.

… the work of Engage… is so crucial to the wellbeing of the church and the mission of God’s kingdom today… the troubling gender imbalance in the church means that even where there is a will to foster and nurture healthy Christian marriages, it is plainly not possible for many Christian women… a failure in the area of Christian marriage is not just a failure of pastoral care or of social wellbeing. It contains the seeds of a theological failure, and obscures key aspects of God’s nature and purposes in this world (Chatfield, 2018).

The Church gender imbalance 

The current Church gender imbalance has vital consequences for the whole Church, which impact on many people’s spiritual, emotional, relational wellbeing.

What is the gender imbalance, and its causes?

As noted above, the overall ratio in the UK Church is two men to every three women. The numbers vary between studies, but studies show there are between ½ million and 2 ½ million more women (e.g., Clarke, 2018, p55). The majority of the Church (62%) is middle class, and among the single/unpartnered people in this group, the number of women is double that of men (YouGov, 2014).

Engage draws on research to help identify the main causes of these trends. Firstly, research shows that the majority of church ministers (84% in 2017) are male (Brierley, 2017), and they get married and have children at a young age (Graveling & Cara, 2017). This has three major consequences. Male ministers are less likely to understand how Church is experienced by non-Christian men, they do not share the personal experience of Christian women who are unable to get married and have children, and their limited understanding of the urgency of the issues impacts their motivation to address them.

Secondly, personality seems to be a factor. One study found that both men and women who scored more highly for more common ‘male personality traits’ were less likely to go to church, pray and have a positive attitude to Christianity. They preferred new and adventurous experiences, which the average church may not involve very often. Differences in religiosity were due to personality differences rather than being male or female (Penny, Francis & Robbins, 2015). It has also been found that overall, clergymen have personality types closer to female population norms, and clergywomen personalities are closer to male population norms (Robbins, Francis & Kay, 2001; Robbins, Littler & Francis, 2001). Most church ministers are male, and they are probably going to most effectively engage with personalities similar to their own. A more personality-balanced leadership could help develop a more gender-balanced Church.

Thirdly, men often feel that they do not ‘belong’ in church. There are fewer single than married men in the UK Church. Research has found that if a man has children, they are more likely to attend church more often, and many appear to leave after ten years because of finding little of real value other than their presence for their children (YouGov, 2014). The gender imbalance also means there is a more limited group within which they can build deep friendship bonds.

Fourthly, it seems that social issues affecting men and boys are not always effectively addressed by the Church. When the Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society was being set up in 2018, it was demonstrated that there are a number of well-researched social and emotional problems that affect men and boys more than women and girls (e.g., suicide rates). There was a call for psychologists ‘to pioneer new ways of reaching men and boys in need of our help and create the research, teaching and intervention that can help boys and men, and by extension also help the women and girls who share their lives’ (Seager, Barry & Liddon, 2018; p12–13). From a spiritual perspective, this could describe part of Engage’s work, and the Church is perhaps ideally placed to help further prevent and address the spiritual, emotional, and social issues underlying the problems that men are facing.

Finally, another UK survey showed that people also suggest the Church gender imbalance is due to romanticisation of the Church and its worship leading to more emotionalism, e.g., respondents noted that some song lyrics make it sound like Jesus is their boyfriend; the lack of masculine role models, lack of friendship patterns for men; and Church creating a sense of passivity (Pullinger, 2014).

Consequences for men 

Men are not currently being given equally effective opportunities as women to respond to the gospel and grow in faith. There is an urgent need for the Church to better reach and disciple more men, primarily for their own sake of course, but also for the health of the whole Church and wider society.

Fewer men in Church means fewer opportunities for them to support each other in life and growth, including in their singleness, dating and relationships, marriage, and parenting. For example, how often do Christian men intentionally disciple, support, and challenge other men about their relationships with women? It is important to note that the work of Engage focuses more on men and Church, because we want to address the impact of the Church gender imbalance. However, women’s evangelism, discipleship and ministry are clearly equally important.

Consequences for women 

Christian women do not currently have equal opportunity as Christian men to get married to someone who shares their faith and have children. If women (or men) are genuinely and honestly content with their singleness, then of course that is good. The Engage vision is about making singleness or marriage a genuine choice for all Christian women and men. However, currently, up to half of single Christian women face the dilemma of marrying a non-Christian, or remaining single and childless. This is hardly ever mentioned in churches. After a session which Engage ran for all the students at one theological college, a single female ordinand shared that ‘It’s excruciating ‒ and no one ever talks about it.’ Many women have to reconcile their suffering, resulting from faithful sacrifice, with a God who loves them. One respondent from the biggest ever national survey of single Christians highlighted that it had made them count the cost of following Christ more than any other single thing (Pullinger, 2014).

It is important that assumptions are not made about why a woman does not have children, or how they feel about their situation. Some women may not want children, and some may feel content about not having children, and it is important that this is acknowledged and understood. But for many, that is not the case. Most Christians are empathetic towards childless couples they know who would like a family. More prevalent, but much less recognised, however, is the situation of single Christian women who would like to have children but are not able to because they cannot find a suitable marriage partner.

Over the next two generations, this means the lives of several million babies being prevented, which makes the issue an intergenerational one.

Engage carried out a survey of more than 300 single Christian women over the age of 35 who do not have children (biological, fostered or adopted). When asked if they agreed that their church offers good pastoral support for single Christian women who are childless but would like a family, 65% strongly disagreed or disagreed, and 27% weren’t sure. While some spoke about feeling ‘OK’ and noted the freedom that their situation could bring, most used negative descriptions, and nearly half (46%) reported that they are dealing with grief and loss around not having children.

The main reason they gave for not having children was ‘There aren’t enough single Christian men in the Church.’ They said that some of the least helpful things they had been told included ‘It’s God’s will’ and ‘Just get a dog’. Some of the most helpful things included ‘This must be hard and it’s OK to grieve this. How can I help?’ And ‘We will keep on praying’ (Clarke, 2018).

Consequences for children and young people 

As noted above, if current trends continue, only about 16% of today’s Church’s grandchildren will have two Christian parents.

‘Spiritual fatherlessness’ is increasing due to the Church gender imbalance – both within families and within the Christian community. There are fewer children with a Christian father at home, and fewer positive male role models for them within the Church. This may impact on children and young people in many ways, including how they learn about their self-identity and healthy Christian relationships.

A report from Youth for Christ, Generation Z: Rethinking Culture, found the number one positive influencer for 11- to 18-year-olds was family (Youth for Christ, 2017). Although not all Christian marriages might be positive models, there is more potential for young people to learn about godly relationships if their parents are Christians, or they know other single and married people at their church.

It is, of course, also helpful for men and women of all ages to have ‘older and wiser’ spiritual fathers (and mothers) in their lives.

Church teaching and discipleship 

Churches very rarely teach on healthy Christian singleness. They sometimes teach on marriage (e.g., marriage preparation/marriage courses), but usually only for people who have already found someone to marry, which is perhaps leaving it a bit late. They hardly ever teach on how to get from A (singleness) to B (marriage) in a godly way (i.e.,via dating and relationships). Each of these aspects of teaching, however, is vital.

Church awareness and action 

Many Christians are unaware of the Church gender imbalance and its impact, and therefore there is a general lack of action. Even for those who are conscious of it, Engage has often heard church leaders say things like ‘I know it’s an issue, but what can be done?’ Engage is helping to provide the practical answers.

If a church also teaches that Christians should marry another Christian but is doing nothing about the gender imbalance in their congregation (if there is one) and is doing nothing to support women in finding suitable marriage partners, then there is a significant disconnect between its words and actions.


Sometimes male ministers are worried about excluding or offending women. This is why some well-intentioned church leaders avoid ‘doing men’s ministry’. The salient message is probably ‘balance’ ‒ women are unlikely to mind if the church further encourages men as long as it is very clear that the women are equally encouraged. If someone objects, then listening to their personal experiences and sharing the implications of the statistical realities may help.

Balanced teaching and discipleship are also required in churches, so there is equal support and input on singleness and dating and marriage and parenting.

While there are others that could be discussed, these are some of the important contexts of today’s Church.

An eco-systemic approach 

Systemic psychology has a wide range of applications, including for individuals, families, groups, and organisations.

Urie Bronfenbrenner was a developmental psychologist who saw the process of human development as being shaped by the interaction between an individual and their environment. He developed his ‘ecological systems theory’, which states that there are different levels of influence on a child. These are the ‘microsystem’ elements around the individual (e.g., family, peers, school, health services); the ‘mesosystem’ (the interactions between the microsystems); the ‘exosystem’ (links between social settings that do not involve, but can impact on the child), the ‘macrosystem’ (attitudes and ideologies of the culture or nation), and the ‘chronosystem’ (the impact of events and transitions over the life course, as well as changing socio-historical circumstances). This work has become foundational to how many psychologists now examine an individual’s functioning and interaction with their environments (Bronfenbrenner, 2005).

When exploring how individuals experience church, singleness, dating, marriage or parenting, we need to take this sort of meta-perspective. Engage uses an eco-systemic interactionist model to illustrate how all the elements of our work are related (shown in Figure 1).

We are all surrounded by the current socio-cultural context around relationships, then within that is the Church and its gender imbalance, and within that is everything happening around marriage, parenting, youthwork, singleness, dating and relationships. (This is not to suggest that everyone should ‘go round the circles’ of life stages in the centre of the diagram.)

Engage intentionally gathers people from diverse ministry fields (including those represented in the diagram) that have traditionally been quite separate (e.g., men’s ministry and youth work), showing how their work is a crucial, inter-linked part of the whole system. We promote mutual understanding and collaborative work at a national level, and within local churches.


Figure 1 Engage eco-systemic interactionist model

A solution-focused approach 

Solution-focused psychology, pioneered by Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg in the 1980s (De Jong & Berg, 2008), also has a wide range of applications, including for individuals, families, groups and organisations. The work of Engage intentionally uses solution-focused approaches to generate positive steps to help individuals and the Church move forward on the issues we are addressing.

Traditionally, solution-focused psychology has worked on future possibilities rather than on problem causes, however Engage takes the approach of raising awareness of both perspectives, but then very much emphasising and promoting positive action.

The Church needs to articulate a clear vision of what healthy Christian singleness, dating and relationships and marriage can involve. Christians need to speak this out, live it, and model it to the next generation and the rest of society as a witness to God’s grace and love.

Engage set up a series of consultation events for relevant UK experts. We used a structured systemic framework to co-create a positive vision of what things could look like if they were working well in the Church, in each of the ministry areas involved in Engage. If the Church can clearly articulate where it wants to get to, it is more likely to get there. The resulting series of ‘consultation vision grids’ form the basis of relevant chapters in our handbook, and other aspects of our work.

Issues and solutions 

The Engage resource handbook 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men looks in parallel at issues and solutions relating to the individual, the local church, and the national Church. This is because we need to understand the interaction between these three further systemic levels. Many positive practical suggestions are given in the book’s vision grids at each of these levels.

For the purposes of this paper, the focus in the following section is on individuals. There are many deep psychological issues that counsellors may need to explore in therapy with clients, but these are not covered here. What follows is an outline of some context consequences that affect the life situations of individuals in the Church, so that both these, and the deeper issues can be held and explored together.

Men’s ministry 

Men can often lack a sense of belonging in a church. Organisations such as Christian Vision for Men (CVM) exist to support the Church to reach and disciple men. CVM has many resources and events to support individual men to grow in faith and relationships, and to support churches to include them.

When things are working well, men regularly meet with a small group of other men, with close, safe, trusting relationships that provide encouragement, challenge, and accountability. They are involved in pursuing Jesus wholeheartedly and are free from destructive behaviours and addictions (e.g., porn/alcohol/anger/others). They are aware of their main strengths, gifts, calling/purpose and are using these, both within and outside of their church. They are involved in reaching other men too and sharing their life and faith with them.

Readers wishing to further explore the field of male psychology may refer to The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health (Barry, Seager & Sullivan, 2019).


A third of church-going adults are single, many report that they feel isolated in their church, and most want to marry another Christian (Pullinger, 2014). They often report that churches are too ‘family focused’ (e.g., language used, sermon illustrations) and do not understand the issues they are facing. Main challenges include loneliness (even if they have good friends, it is often exhausting for single people to constantly be proactive and arrange social contacts and events), lack of male friends, childlessness, ill-health, housing and finance. Weekends, holidays (who to go with?) and birthdays (another year and nothing has changed?) can be painful – it is not unusual for these to be the dreaded times of the year.

When things are working well, single people have some sort of encouraging small group or prayer partner with whom they can meet regularly and with whom they can be totally honest. They will be supported to work through spiritual, emotional and relational issues, including those to do with boundaries, relationships, and their parents’ relationship. They will consider how they feel about singleness and why, and intentionally pursue personal growth in all areas, identifying and using their gifts. Where needed, they will have sensitive support from friends and others to process the grief of singleness and childlessness. They will feel fully integrated socially into their church’s life.

Too often, single people feel pressured to either entirely focus on healthy singleness, or entirely focus on finding a marriage partner. If a relationship is right for them, then they should be encouraged to balance the pursuit of both healthy singleness and healthy dating.

Dating and relationships 

The dating and relationships context in the Church is hugely impacted by two fundamental factors: the gender imbalance and the lack of teaching. As a result, 54% of single Christian adults report that they have not dated for at least a year, or, it is many years since they last went on a date (Pullinger, 2014).

The Church gender imbalance has had a significant adverse effect on the psychosocial dynamics between single men and women. These can be invisible to most Christians who have not experienced them personally. Research has shown (Pullinger, 2014; Verbi, 2017) that a significant over-supply of women in the dating market results in a very low level of exclusive dating commitment from men, but relatively high level of emotional, and sometimes physical, intimacy given by women. Women are more than twice as likely to be asked on a date by a non-Christian, and men often perceive that they can achieve a ‘super model’ girlfriend who fits some very specific criteria. Men are passive, indecisive and play the large field without always sufficiently valuing or respecting women. There is competition between women for men. Older men pursue women 10 or 20 years younger. Women give up and date non-Christians.

As well as addressing the gender imbalance, the Church needs to provide more teaching and discipleship around healthy dating and relationships. Work by Engage has shown that this can most helpfully be structured into a three-part framework. Firstly, the ‘Foundations’, with a healthy balanced single life. Secondly, ‘Dating’ which is defined as ‘getting to know someone with a view to seeing whether or not we want to be in a relationship’. And thirdly, ‘Relationship’ (a mutually exclusive, romantic one), which is defined as ‘getting to know someone with a view to seeing whether or not we want to get engaged’. Often, these ‘Dating’ and ‘Relationship’ stages are conflated, which leads to too much pressure from the start. One of the Engage dating mottos is ‘a coffee isn’t a marriage proposal’. When things are working well, people know the steps to intentionally take at the beginning, middle and end of both dating and a relationship. These are given in detail in the Engage handbook, along with lots of other practical resources.


For Christians, later problems can sometimes be averted if couples discuss and manage shared, realistic expectations of being engaged, and being married. When things are working well, engagement is a time to support each other’s healthy self-identity and value each other’s similarities and differences.

Christians will then both intentionally work at having God at the centre of their marriage and commit to personal and emotional growth. They will both be seeking to develop sacrificial giving and forgiving. They will protect time to invest in their relationship, but also be outward-looking and hospitable. A detailed relationship ‘MOT’ such as the inventories by organisations such as Prepare-Enrich can be helpful in finding ways forward.

Research by Evangelical Alliance found that more women than men were married to a non-Christian. Over 90% of Christian couples expressed happiness with their marriage, while only 66% of those in a mixed marriage did so (Evangelical Alliance, 2012). It will be helpful for couples to deeply explore and understand each other’s beliefs and values before getting married and consider the implications of a ‘mixed marriage’ if one is already a Christian. The Christian spouse may value meeting and praying with others who are in similar situations. Churches need to both support the Christian spouse and welcome the non-Christian spouse.

Parenting and youth work 

There are an increasing number of useful resources available to help adults encourage different aspects of the spiritual, emotional and relational development of children and young people from a Christian perspective. The work of Engage focuses on supporting young people’s dating and relationships.

Research by Youth for Christ found that 94% of young people were on social media every day (Youth for Christ, 2017). Relationships of all kinds are often formed online instead of in person. Their context also involves social media pressures, online porn, sexting, and TV programmes that illustrate relationships that are far from God’s design. Despite this, another survey found that 72% of 14–17 years olds wanted relationship education to understand how to build lasting relationships, and 78% said they wanted to get married (Family Stability Network & Centre for Social Justice, 2018).

Many teenagers have experienced their parents separating, including those in Christian marriages. They may need support to consider how this affects them and their feelings about relationships in the future.

Parents and youth workers need to have thorough understanding of biblical teaching on relationships and how it is applied to today’s experiences. Laura Hancock (National Ministries Director, Youth for Christ) discusses in 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men how adults need to talk explicitly with young people about how to do relationships well. She writes, ‘So often, we don’t plan to make bad dating and relationship choices, we just don’t plan not to. By talking about things in advance of actual situations arising we can give young people a better chance of making the right choices when they find themselves negotiating relationships on their own.’ This includes discussion about boundaries, triggers for unhelpful thoughts or behaviour patterns, online dating, conflict and breaking up well (Hancock, 2018).

Parents can often feel ill-equipped to help their teenagers in these areas. Paula Pridham (Executive Director of Care for the Family) writes in 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men how parents can helpfully pray and have their own support network of other parents. They can focus on understanding the challenges their children face, and on listening and questioning rather than telling. They can model ‘good’ relationships, and at the same time identify other significant adults who can be part of their child’s life. They can also help young people find the support of Christian peers to support them in being countercultural (Pridham, 2018).

Next steps 

It is hoped that this paper gives an overview of essential context factors for readers to consider while supporting individuals who come to them for help, whether family members, friends or counselling clients. By taking an eco-systemic and solution focused approach to understanding issues that people are facing, we have a more wholistic framework within which to facilitate personal healing and growth. It is recommended that next steps would usefully include reflection and prayer on the issues that have been covered.

7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men: How to have a gender balance church supporting healthy singleness, dating, marriage, and youth is relevant for counsellors and their clients in exploring ways forward in their situation. It is suggested that the handbook would be a very helpful addition to your resource bank (all proceeds go to the ministry, not the authors), as Sue Monckton-Rickett, Chair of the Association of Christian Counsellors has highlighted.

This book is brave enough to tackle may difficult but vital topics often ignored by the church… it is a call to rethink and embrace vital change, but it also includes practical suggestions on how to do so, making it an invaluable resource for individuals and churches (Monckton-Rickett, 2018).

In conclusion, let us each pray and play our part in making the Engage vision a reality: ‘For singleness or marriage to be a genuine choice, for all Christian women and men, through a church which is gender balanced, and teaches about healthy singleness, dating and marriage.’


Barry J.A., Kingerlee R, Seager M.J. and Sullivan, L. (Eds.) (2019) The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health. London: Palgrave Macmillan

Benson, H. (2013, February) What is the divorce rate? Cambridge: Marriage Foundation.

Benson, H. (2013, May) The myth of “long-term stable relationships” outside marriage. Cambridge: Marriage Foundation.

Benson, H. (2018) The wider context: current marriage trends. In A. Clarke & N. Blackaby (Eds.), 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men: How to lead a gender balanced church with healthy singleness, dating, marriage and youth. Cambridge: The Engage Network.

Brierley, P. (2017) UK Church Statistics No. 3: 2018 Edition. Tonbridge: ADBC Publishers.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (2005) Making Human Beings Human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. London: Sage.

Chatfield, A. (2018) Theological foundations. In A. Clarke & N. Blackaby (Eds.), 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men: How to lead a gender balanced church with healthy singleness, dating, marriage and youth. Cambridge: The Engage Network.

Clarke, A. & Blackaby, N. (2018) 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men: How to lead a gender balanced church with healthy singleness, dating, marriage and youth. Cambridge: The Engage Network.

Clarke, A. (2018) How do single Christian women feel about not having children? Cambridge: The Engage Network. http://www.engage-mcmp.org.uk/book (accessed 23 August, 2021).

Clarke, A. (2018) ’Men and church: the ‘What?’ questions’. In A. Clarke & N. Blackaby (Eds.), 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men: How to lead a gender balanced church with healthy singleness, dating, marriage and youth. Cambridge: The Engage Network.

Clarke, A. (2018) ‘What is The Engage Network and why is it needed?’ In A. Clarke & N. Blackaby (Eds.), 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men: How to lead a gender balanced church with healthy singleness, dating, marriage and youth. Cambridge: The Engage Network.

DeRose, L., Lyons-Amos, M., Wilcox, W., & Huarcaya, G. (2017) The cohabitation go-round: Cohabitation and family instability across the globe. New York: Social Trends Institute.

Evangelical Alliance (2012) How’s the family? https://www.eauk.org/church/resources/snapshot/upload/EA-FAMILY-REPORT-WEB.pdf (accessed 23 August, 2021).

Family Stability Network & Centre for Social Justice (2018) Relationships and Sex Education. https://www.centreforsocialjustice.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/Survation_Report_Web.pdf

Graveling, L. & Cara, O. (2017) Living Ministry Wave 1 Panel Survey. The Church of England.

Hancock, L. (2018) ‘Youthwork and discipleship around young people’s dating and relationships: what would it look like if things were working well in the church?’ In A. Clarke & N. Blackaby (Eds.), 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men: How to lead a gender balanced church with healthy singleness, dating, marriage and youth. Cambridge: The Engage Network.

Monckton-Rickett, S. (2018) ‘Book commendation’. In A. Clarke & N. Blackaby (Eds.), 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men: How to lead a gender balanced church with healthy singleness, dating, marriage and youth. Cambridge: The Engage Network.

Penny, G., Francis, L.J. & Robbins, M. (2015) ‘Why are women more religious than men? Testing the explanatory power of personality theory among undergraduate students in Wales’. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 18(6), pp. 492-502. Permanent Warwick Research Archive Portal URL: http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/81722 (accessed August 23, 2021).

Peter, De Jong; Berg, Insoo Kim (2008) Interviewing for solutions. Belmont Brooks/Cole.

Prepare-Enrich. https://www.prepare-enrich.co.uk/

Pridham, P. (2018) ‘Parenting around young people’s dating and relationships: what would it look like if things were working well in the church?’ In A. Clarke & N. Blackaby (Eds.), 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men: How to lead a gender balanced church with healthy singleness, dating, marriage and youth. Cambridge: The Engage Network.

Pullinger, D.J. (2014) Singleness in the UK Church. https://www.singlefriendlychurch.com/what-do-single-christians-say-about-church/data-files-for-download (accessed August 23, 2021)

Robbins, M., Francis, L. J. & Kay, W. K. (2001) ‘The personality characteristics of Methodist ministers: Feminine men and masculine women?’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 40(1), pp. 123-128.

Robbins, M., Littler, K. & Francis, L. J., (2001) ‘The personality characteristics of Anglican clergymen and clergywomen: The search for sex differences.’ Pastoral Psychology, 60(6), pp. 877.

Seager, M., Barry, J. & Liddon, L. (2018) ‘Pioneering new ways of reaching men and boys.’ The Psychologist, June 2018 edition, pp. 12-13. The British Psychological Society.

Verbi, S. (2017) See https://www.premierchristianity.com/home/70-per-cent-of-single-women-want-christian-men-to-man-up-and-ask-them-out/2416.article (accessed August 23, 2021).

YouGov (2014) Men practising Christian worship. Christian Vision for Men and Single Christians Ltd.

Youth for Christ (2017) Gen Z: Rethinking Culture. https://yfc.co.uk/rethinkingculture (accessed August 23, 2021)

About the author 

Annabel Clarke BA (Hons), PGCE, MSc, C.Psychol., AFBPsS, HCPC Registered Psychologist, Chartered Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society

Annabel is a Senior Specialist Educational Psychologist for a large Local Authority where her role includes providing training for adults, as well as supervision for doctoral trainee psychologists and clinical supervision for experienced psychologists. She has over 20 years’ experience supporting children, young people, adults, families and organisations, at work and through ministry in local churches. She is Co-Founder and Co-Chair of Engage, facilitating collaboration between national Christian organisations and churches to help promote a gender balanced Church with healthy singleness, dating, marriage, parenting and youth.



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Twitter: EngageMCMP


Copyright 2021 Annabel Clark

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Working with the Waverley integrative framework (WIF). Exploring the experience of counsellors, trained in the WIF, in incorporating the framework into their therapeutic practice.

Reading Time: 49 minutes

Charlotte Wears 



Aim/research question: This paper examines the experiences of five participants from within Waverley Abbey College alumni with between ten- and sixteen-years’ experience in clinical practice using the Waverley integrative framework (WIF): a counselling framework built on a biblical philosophy, and taught since the 1980’s.

Method of data collection and analysis: An interpretative phenomenological approach was employed to engage with the lived experience of participants.

Findings: Three superordinate themes emerged from the analysis. Therapist experiences of assimilating theory, of developing practice, and discovering a sense of becoming – each with three subordinate themes.

Implications for counselling: In working with the WIF, a process of ontogenesis was identified, where participants described moving from perplexity towards embodiment. A symbiotic relationship between theory, practice and research was found to sustain and develop WIF practitioners and the framework itself. Reflective practice, further research and continuing professional development are offered as recommendations to enrich the development journey of the WIF, its therapists, its paradigm community and its standing within the field.

Introduction: Integration and the Waverley integrative framework 

The current research 

The Waverley integrative framework (WIF) approach to counselling has accompanied many cohorts of students on their training pathway, taught at Waverley Abbey College (WAC) and beyond. Yet little is known, except anecdotally, about the way the WIF carries into the philosophical and skills formation of its students.

Review and scrutiny into the practical outworking of the framework can only enhance the quality of teaching, the delivery of effective and ethical clinical, and improve practitioner credibility and public standing (Bond 2004:4). In asking ‘What is the experience of counsellors, trained in the Waverley integrative framework, in incorporating the framework into their therapeutic practice?’, this study presents the experiences of qualified counsellors who have translated and incorporated the WIF into their practice. Working with the Waverley integrative framework: Exploring the experience of counsellors, trained in the Waverley integrative framework (WIF), in incorporating the framework into their therapeutic practice.

Genesis of the Waverley integrative framework 

The WIF is an integrative relational framework for counselling, underpinned by a Christian anthropology with a holistic view of human functioning (Kallmier, 2011:205, Hughes, 2002:13,15–26). Since its conception by Selwyn Hughes in the 1980’s, the WIF has been academically explored and expounded upon by a small group of contributors (Hughes, 2002; Kallmier, 2011; Ashley, 2015; Armitage (unpublished thesis), 2018).

Hughes’ conceptualisation is deeply grounded in the work of Crabb, whose personal, rational, volitional and emotional ‘capacities of personhood’ (Crabb, 1987:93-6) form the basis of the WIF’s ‘five areas of [human] functioning’ (Hughes, 2002:64,194; Kallmier, 2011:47-50), to which Hughes adds a physical area (see figure 1). Hughes adopts Crabb’s two ‘crucial [human] longings’ for security and significance (Crabb, 1977:59,191) and adds another: self worth.


Figure 1: Hughes’ conception of the Waverley integrative framework (2002).

Integration with psychology 

The WIF integrates considerably from cognitive behavioural therapies (Steele, 2014:208; Hurding, 2003:301). Ashley recognises insights gleaned from Ellis, Adler and Rogers, (2015:62,125) and influences from Erikson’s (1980) developmental model; Frankl’s emphasis on meaning (1946); and Bowlby’s attachment theory (1969) (Ashley, 2015:67,72,114-115). The concept of ‘deep’ or ‘core’ longings (Crabb, 1987:15; Hughes, 2002:107-112) shows alignment with the ‘universal psychological principles’ Seager et al have substantiated (2012, noted by Ashley, 2017:18), and resonate with both Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory (Maslow, 1999) and ‘core conditions’ Rogers deems ‘necessary and sufficient’ (Rogers, 1957:95-96 ) from the person-centred therapist.


Kallmier’s contribution is outlined in his primer Caring and Counselling: An Introduction to the Waverley Model of Counselling (2011). He overtly advocates application of the WIF in secular contexts, opening the framework considerably to engagement with all clients respecting, and regardless of ‘their own faith belief (or none)’, their ‘gender, age, ethnicity, culture, class, sexuality, religion and belief’ (p205). There is also an emphasis on relationships with others and greater fluidity between the areas of functioning (see figure 2).


Figure 2: Kallmier’s conception of the Waverley integrative framework (2011).

‘The Bible, Wisdom and Human Nature’ is Ashley’s (2015) critical assessment and development of the WIF. His work argues for ‘evolution, not ‘revolution’ of the framework (2015:128). Ashley recognises in Hughes’ model marks of its modernist beginnings; elements that have structuralist and reductionist leanings, he critiques the closed ‘self in isolation’ diagram (2015: 7,41,83-87). His ‘evolution’ does not reject Hughes and Crabb’s conception of self, so much as highlight how the influence of their modernist context insinuates an individualism somewhat incongruent with the prominence relationality is given in their theoretical grounding (p77) (see figure 3).


Figure 3: Ashley’s conception of the Waverley integrative framework (2015).

Ashley cites empirical research findings (2015:129) as support for a heightened emphasis on the role of relationality, both in human nature and in therapeutic attempts to facilitate change (p128). Indeed, Ashley remarks that Christian approaches to counselling have a legacy rooted in depth of relationship, harmonising with the likes of Petruska Clarkson (2003) and Carl Rogers (1951) in deeming the therapeutic relationship of ‘central importance[…] a key agent of positive change’ (Ashley, 2015:129). Object relations theory, attachment theory and neuroscientific findings are drawn into the integration of Ashley’s grounding for the critical importance of human relationality (Ashley, 2015:112-117).

The situation of the WIF within the burgeoning field of psychological integration will now be explored.

The emergence of integrative counselling 

Integrative frameworks have developed in response to an aspiration, voiced by Hollanders, for ‘a philosophy out of which a meta-paradigm can emerge… a central focus of endeavour… alongside the research-focused quest for ever more effective practice’ (1999:488). The WIF is well-positioned to be relevant: a framework that enables constructive integration of concepts, skills, theories and interventions from varied provenance, rooted in a fundamental philosophy.

Developing as an integrative practitioner 

Giovazolias (2005), has published autobiographical experience of developing as an integrative practioner, as has Nuttall, (2008). Giovazolias’ experience, drawn from individual experience and self-reflexivity, differs from the choral perspective of particpiants and researcher this IPA study seeks to elicit, but it does allow an intertextuality in having potential resonance with the experience of WIF-trained counsellors undertaking a journey of integrative development. To date, only one IPA study has been carried out focused on the WIF (Armitage, unpublished, 2018), leaving considerable scope for investigation

Literature on the Waverley integrative framework 

Accounts of the WIF in practice are limited to Hughes’ original illustrative vignettes (2002) and Armitage’s (unpublished, 2018) investigation into student experience of the framework. The former are connected to the theoretical formation of the WIF; the latter, perceptions from the personal formation of trainee practitioners. Armitage’s findings substantiate the impact of the WIF upon persons newly-immersed in it (notably self-awareness, emotional processing, spiritual development, openness to change, and growth in compassion for the self and others. p3, 53, 56, 57, 59, 60), but the learning environment ‘which was congruent with the WIF’s core values’ (p61) does not correspond with clinical scenarios where the WIF is exercised professionally.

Current curricula at WAC support their advocation that students ‘engage in critical analysis of the Waverley model’ and formulate their learning into an individual approach (Ashley, 2015:127–128; Kallmier, 2011:205). Yet despite ten years of university-level WIF-trained therapists existing in the psychotherapeutic pool, no research or data demonstrates lived ways in which this is done, or what it feels or looks like. Working with the Waverley integrative framework: Exploring the experience of counsellors, trained in the Waverley integrative framework (WIF), in incorporating the framework into their therapeutic practice.

This research has potential to contribute to WAC’s commitment to maintain the WIF’s responsiveness to the latest research and its application to the contemporary context’ (Ashley, 2017:19).


This study explores the lived experience of qualified counsellors who have translated and incorporated the WIF into their practice using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) developed by Smith (1997).

The study recruited five participants, within the range suggested by Smith, Flowers & Larkin, allowing for ‘the development of similarities and differences across cases’ (2009:51). All participants were alumni from WAC in the UK. All participants had trained and qualified in the WIF: two had a diploma, one had a BA and two had MAs. They had all been in active practice using the framework for ten to sixteen years, (ten years as a modal average), although no criteria was set to select according to length of practice.


In analysing the interview data, three emergent superordinate themes and nine subordinate themes were selected as germane to the research question: What is the experience of counselors, trained in the WIF, in incorporating it into their therapeutic practice?

These themes are explored here, with excerpts from the original interviews and reference to extant literature. In line with decisions around ethical practice, all participants are referred to by gender-neutral pseudonyms, (Alexis, Blake, Cameron, Dana and Eliot). Table of Grouped Themes:

Table of Grouped Themes:


Table 1: Summary of superordinate and subordinate themes.

Superordinate theme 1: Assimilating theory 

Participants’ experiences suggested incorporation of the WIF into therapeutic practice begins at the earliest stages of learning, initiating a process of ontogenesis: development from the earliest stage towards maturity.

Subordinate theme A – Beginnings: a sense of tangle 

The majority of participant accounts described introduction to and theoretical assimilation of the WIF as challenging. Cameron’s perception testified to a universal struggle and sense of bombardment: ‘Everybody finds it hard to grasp to start with; there’s quite a lot coming at you.’ Self-doubt and uncertainty were evident in Dana’s self-questioning delivery of the following statement:

‘I don’t think at that time I really, really deeply understood it [the WIF]… it was all kind of new information and we were learning it… I’m not sure it kind of sank deeply, if that makes sense.’

While exposure to a new discipline, new ideas, and taking on the role of student accounts for some of this (Rønnestad, et al., 2019), Norcross compares students of integrative psychotherapy to children within a bilingual family: ‘delayed initially in the acquisition of skills’ and ‘more apt to feel frustrated.’ (Norcross, cited In Hollanders, 1999:492). Blake, a self-identified ‘fast learner’, experienced this frustration in a singular way:

‘I was frustrated by it; I wanted to be able to offer more than that… [there was] so much more to learn than just this model, this framework.’

Subordinate theme B – A Christian philosophy to ‘hang on to’ 

All five participants in this study identified as having a personal Christian faith. The foundation of the WIF in a Christian worldview was essentially resonant with the sample’s faith grounding. Alexis stated: ‘As a Christian, I know I’ve got my Christian viewpoint anyway, so I kind of sat with that and just kind of worked with it [the WIF] that way.’ Personal faith finding anchor within the familiar spirituality of the framework allowed new learning to be knitted into an established understanding of the world.

Among these accounts, a collective sense of soul-deep security and familiarity emerged, together with the possibility of a like-minded community under common constructs (Gergen, 2009), arguably positioning the WIF as the kind of ‘meta-paradigm’ that can be ‘adopted by individuals and communities under the same mix of influences’ (Hollanders, 1999:487). Alexis demonstrates this collective (we) and personal (me) belief held in tension:

‘We’ve been designed with these needs and that kind of helps me just to sort of see a basis. We’re looking at howthe whole kind of philosophy sits with my Christian viewpoint. It backs everything up for me from where I’m sitting.’ 

Dana articulated a process of using the WIF to critique therapeutic models: ‘OK, so how does this fit with a Christian worldview?’ That fits, that doesn’t fit.’ There is a sense of curating and collecting theories, ideas and interventions. Like a seed in fertile ground, germinating and beginning to lay down roots, even in complete darkness, so these participant accounts suggest the WIF has offered philosophical grounding, and cultivated critical thinking in a place of bewilderment.

Subordinate theme C – Grasping the framework 

Participant accounts indicated an emergence out of confusion. Alexis’ assessment was that eventually the WIF ‘just makes sense’ – a phrase that also ran like a refrain through Dana’s interview.

The WIF is a framework, like a jewellery setting or a wall mount, designed to hold something. Images that convey how this is experienced were frequent in all interviews. The following metaphor demonstrates how, having grasped the WIF, Alexis conceptualised its role in ongoing practice:

‘I picture it as this big framework that I hook everything else onto. This basic frame… I can sort of hang everything on it… and whatever doesn’t align with itself… I don’t have to take.’ 

Superordinate theme 2 – Developing practice 

Participants identified clinical practice as a cultivating force within the development of a WIF-based approach. These findings demonstrate something of the role experience plays in the process of ontogenesis through the participants’ own meaning-making of their counselling practice and understanding of how it has shaped and challenged their learning.

Subordinate theme A – Authentic practitioners 

Participants described experiences of deep authenticity in the therapy room. Alexis described a professional persona that ‘doesn’t have to go outside of who I am as a person’, openly stating: ‘I’m a Christian; that’s part of who I am and that’s in every area.’ In acknowledging a deep affinity between the WIF and firmly held personal values, Alexis also articulated a sense of freedom and empowerment within a world that held the possibility of disenfranchisement: ‘I can be myself as a counsellor, which I think a lot of people can’t if they’ve not been able to incorporate a framework that can bring in faith.’

The benefits of bringing a congruent self as a therapist are documented (Steele, 2014:149–151; Rogers,1957:223–4). Alexis’ observations suggested a WIF approach had been empowering and enabling in a context where therapists of faith might feel apologetic, silenced or secretive. In allowing an integrated and whole self to be brought to the client, therapist personhood had not been required to fracture, enabling scope to realise Cozolino’s suggestion that ‘The private personal world of the therapist is in fact, one of our most important tools’ (2004:xviii).

Participants’ experience of authenticity extended beyond the intramural: professions of open-hearted, beneficent, respectful, valuing and hopeful attitudes towards clients emerged that held scriptural resonance (Galatians 5:13–14, 22–26) aligned with the wisdom of psychological theory (such as Clarkson, 2003; Frankl, 1946/2004; Rogers, 1951,1957; Thompson, 2010) and that of psychotherapeutic governing bodies, (e.g., BACP, 2018: Principles, personal moral qualities). For example, Alexis described a faith-inspired universal optimism, equity and inclusive openness towards clients:

‘We’re all made in God’s image. That is humanity. So, whether you believe it or not… it helps me to be a lot more open and… hopeful, really, in just being able to come alongside people.’ 

Subordinate theme B – Fluidity above formulation 

Jung’s well-used quote resonates well with these participants taking theory into practice: ‘put them aside when you touch the miracle of the living soul. Not theories but your creative individuality alone must decide’ (Jung, 1953:73).

Cameron repeatedly asserted the Framework was ‘extremely practical’, but admitted ‘I’m not really, on the whole, a “by the book” person. I do tend to go with the flow of the client.’ Instead, he advised a more fluid approach: ‘Keep the basic skeleton; work from that, and allow yourself to tailor-make what you’re doing to the actual needs of your counselee.’ In this Cameron was not alone.

Kallmier’s presentation of the WIF as a defined structure and step-by step process (2011) may influence critique by participants that the Framework is ‘reductionist’ and ‘prescriptive’. It is emphasised during training, however, that it is ‘not a straitjacket’ (Ashley, citing Hughes, 2015). Alexis illustrated a felt absurdity in how an attempt to literally translate Kallmier’s process into practice would appear: ‘Ooh, I’m working the emotional area, and, ooh, we’re working in the rational area, and, ooh!, ooh!, we’re going into the spiritual area.’ 

Returning to a serious tone and demeanour, Alexis qualified, ‘You have to remember that, in theory, that happens; but when you’re actually counselling, you’re all over the place, you know.’ This parody raises the matter of teaching. An over-simplified, prescriptive structure may be necessary to break down the WIF for instruction and assimilation (especially in a context already described as theoretically overwhelming and confusing to a novice). But a shift appears to take place.

Blake described application of the framework as more fluid than formulaic: ‘I don’t necessarily follow the phases very well, I just let it all… happen naturally’, while concerned that ‘some counsellors maybe try too hard to follow it strictly because it is very emphasized in our training.’ Blake believed ‘that’s a good thing so that it’s clear and they preserve the framework.’ An express tension surfaced between the need to learn clearly, with a level of theoretical purity for preservation and maintenance of the framework, alongside the need to practise this learning in a far more flexible manner. Blake illustrated the problem of keeping to Kallmier’s tri-phasal structure (2011:133-138) within an area of professional expertise: ‘You’d be missing the struggles of an ADHD person if you tried to interpret the stages of the presenting problem and all that resolution.’ 

Subordinate theme C – Framing practice 

Experience of the WIF within practice was a very rich vein, providing plentiful findings around how the WIF is practised and how it is received. As participants spoke of ways in which the framework accompanied their personal evolution as therapists, a growing sense of partnership arppeared between the framework itself and those practising it. Hughes’ diagram of the areas of functioning (2000, see diagram 1) emerged as a particularly central element within practice. Three of the five participants regularly drew the diagram for the client within a session. In many ways the diagram appeared in an affiliate role; a close consort in: ‘risk assessment’, in ‘conceptualisation’, ‘working your way through the whole skeleton’ (pacing the work), ‘intervention choices for attending to the areas’ and in ‘psycho-education’.

The WIF’s three core longings: security, self-worth and significance (Hughes, 2002:109-112) received frequent reference from participants. Alexis identified these terms as also being popular in current vernacular and within secular ideologies:

‘I think they translate very, very easily to be able to talk about it [the spiritual core] and understand it and see where maybe there are some unhealthy ways in which they’re getting these met.’

Hughes’ ‘three S’s’ (as all participants familiarly abbreviated the core longings to) were viewed among the sample as highly relatable to clients. Described by Alexis as ‘foundational longings and needs’, and given substance and magnitude, in the main, through biblical grounding (as expounded by Hughes, 2002:100 and Ashley, 2015:64–7), participants also noted that correlations can be observed with Erikson (1980) and Maslow’s (1999) psychosocial models, and Winnicott (1965) and Bowlby’s (1969, 1988) work on attachment and relational and intersubjective depth psychotherapy.

Alexis explains the concept of core longings to clients using an organic metaphor:

These are almost like the three roots that everything else can come out ofwe all want to be loved. We all want to feel that we belong. We all need to have value. We all need to have a purpose and meaning.’ 

The concept of roots delving deep into the earth, questing for moisture, becomes a parallel to the longing, reaching spiritual self for its most coveted needs. This metaphor holds notable synchronicity with Eliot’s depiction of the areas of functioning, illustrating how these ‘roots’ connect to systemic health:

‘I’ll often say… picture a tree cut down, and all the circles in a tree. They’re all part of the same tree, it’s still an oak tree… but they are all important circles in that tree’s life and these [areas of functioning] are in yours.’ 

Assimilating theory has been compared to a seed taking root in the soil of the WIF. Perhaps development in practice can be likened to a burgeoning plant: the ‘becoming’ of a therapist.

Superordinate theme 3 – A sense of becoming 

With between ten and sixteen years’ experience as qualified therapists, all participants sat within Rønnestad et al’s criteria for either ‘established therapists’ (7–15 years) or ‘seasoned therapists’ (15–25 years) (2019:223). Accounts of how their incorporation of the WIF has matured during their careers will be considered here, alongside their hopes for future evolution.

Subordinate theme A – Leaving and returning 

Two participants described having left the WIF behind. Dana recalled, ‘I… left it on the shelf… and looked more to the different modalities and just sort of found my own path.’ But on returning to the WIF as an experienced therapist, Dana felt ‘It just made a lot of sense… so I kind of just fell back in love with it, really.’ Alexis, too, felt that ‘I’ve kind of come back to the WIF; I think I went away from it.’ The interposing journey appeared to have been meaningful: ‘I think maybe that’s because as I’ve grown as a counsellor myself and I’ve got my own style.

Learning, leaving and returning has resonance with that of a child’s developmental journey in relationship with a parent. Return as an adult may involve warmth and familiarity but also a distinctive individuation established through the synergy of imparted learning and lived experience (Arnett, 2016).

The passing of time, the decision to return, and the acknowledgement and appreciation of the WIF in a new way all appear significant. While some may never engage with the WIF and some may leave it and not return, Alexis’ string of realisations suggested a greater complexity for the committed WIF practitioner than simply a departure and a return:

‘I think I went away from it. Not entirely, but just kind of maybe in using it unconsciously, and maybe I’ve started to see how consciously I do fit it in because I think I might have taken it on board and just did it. Did it, and not realise how I was working with it. But I think that was quite hard for me to think “How do I incorporate this?”’ 

The discovery of the WIF as present, essential and dynamic within Alexis’ practice suggested a transition from it being something one does, to integral in what one is becoming.

Subordinate theme B – Becoming and embodying 

Eliot articulated how the WIF ‘permeates, but in a kind of unconscious way’, suggesting something systemic had occurred. Alexis expanded on this ‘permeation’:

‘It’s difficult, isn’t it? because it’s sort of integrated into everything I do, so it’s quite difficult to say, oh, this is where I use the WIF when I look at it now ten years, eleven years down the line. I can see that it’s integral… it’s in everything. I’m using it more without consciously realising that I’m using itI think it’s become part of me.

It appeared the WIF could not now be disentangled from other aspects of practice. ‘In everything’, it had become a mode of being: a reflexive way of functioning, both ‘integrated’ and ‘integral’.

When asked whether a WIF-approach is exercised within Eliot’s own personhood, the reply was ‘probably subconsciously, I do apply it’, followed by an ‘in-the-moment’ self-analysis of Eliot’s personal awareness of and attending to the areas of functioning, in clear resonance with Armitage’s findings among students of the WIF, of personal growth, self-understanding and awareness, leading to a self-compassion (unpublished thesis, 2018:36). Mearns’ (1997) model of personal development also suggests growth takes this pathway: self-awareness, self-understanding and self-experimentation.

Ontogenesis is a process of development: an organism moving from the earliest stage towards maturity. If participants’ experiences of exposure to theory were compared to the germination of a seed, and development in practice to rooting, stemming and producing leaves, this phase might suggest flowering and pollination.

Across the sample, an unconsciousness about the incorporation of the WIF into the therapeutic self was evident. During interviews, it appeared to emerge, bud-like, into the consciousness of the therapist-as-organism. It was here that participants appeared most settled, comfortable and creative, describing a state of intuitive embodiment of the WIF within their practice. Cameron recognised: ‘I do it [recognise areas of functioning] automatically, you see; I don’t think about it anymore.’ 

Each participant spontaneously turned to images or ideas to give a sense of how incorporation of the WIF had come to feel for them. A common theme (perhaps unsurprisingly for a framework) was that of structure. Blake’s remarks gave a vivid sense of something inconspicuous, though fundamentally essential and containing:

How I’m conscious of it? It’s just a framework. It’s like when I’m taking a bath, I’m more conscious of the water, but if the tub wasn’t there, I might not have the water.’

It appears the WIF has been enabling for participants; envisioned and absorbed as a structure that is resourcing and secure, lending strength and sanctuary to practitioners.

Subordinate theme C – Augmentation and progression 

Three of the five participants voiced a desire for WIF-specific continuing professional development (CPD) to support their ongoing journey. Explicit aspirations included deepening integration with other modalities, training with spiritual support, and recapitulation of the framework.

Eliot also expressed a particular desire for WAC collaborative scrutiny and dialogue around WIF-based therapy with LGBTQ+ clients, wondering:

Transgender: would that be physical? Would it be about the body or is it about something much deeper about identity? If so, is that more in the spiritual area? You know you’re going to get that knocking on your door.’ 

Self-reflection and professional discourse are encouraged by voices appealing for improvement in therapeutic services to LGBTQ+ clients (Davies & Neal 2000; Webb, 2019). Eliot’s attempts to develop and grow a WIF-practice that engages and thrives with diversity is an important and evidently pressing contemporary concern.

Clarkson’s conviction that ‘integration is an ongoing process in a continual state of development and evolution’ (Clarkson,1992:290), was indicated in participants’ hopes and expectations of future development in practice with the WIF. Looking forward evoked a range of emotions. For Dana, eager expectation was evident in the prospect of setting up an agency where ‘the WIF is quite central… valuing the whole person. Wanting their wholeness, wanting their wellbeing… restoration.

Eliot’s future prospects carried an expectation of isolation. Geographical distance from the academic home of the WIF, and perceived reduced population of practitioners evoked a sense of loneliness and vulnerability:

It’s harder for you if you’re geographically very distant; up North it’s a bit of a Waverley wilderness, really, so there is that kind of sense of you’re a bit cast adrift.’ 

Rønnestad & Skovholt’s findings uphold Eliot’s concerns: continual support and stimulation were ‘crucial’ to growth and development and protected against ‘stagnation and deterioration’ (1992:509–10). Additionally, as an integrative practitioner, Eliot is part of an approach so varied and individual that felt-kinship between practitioners, and the benefits of an associated community, may be more indistinct and less effective at providing the support practitioners need than in single-school approaches. WIF practitioners are a ‘paradigm community’ (Hollanders, 1999:490) with abundant potential to confer, support and develop their own ‘denominational issues’ (ibid).


This study’s findings have explored the life-worlds of participants, through the interpretative lens of the researcher. Wider implications for the field are raised, with suggestions for research and practice contexts.

Assimilating theory 

Incorporating the WIF into therapeutic practice starts at the level of theory. From the outset, exposure to a range of models and techniques prompts a journey of conceptualisation. Learning, selection and integration fashion a tapestry of ideas to create something that feels fit for purpose.


The development of an integrative approach unquestionably poses difficulties for training (Hollanders, 1999; Ginter, 1988; Gold, 2005). Kuhn’s conviction that it is impossible to see the world in more than one way at a time (1970a,1970b) supports participant’s experience of entanglement. Among psychotherapeutic approaches, integrationists are peculiar in facing this incommensurability of paradigms. Robinson et al.’s study of trainee therapists suggests there is a need to ‘normalise the uncertainty which permeates the experience of trainees’ (2019:396).

In this research, participants’ exposure to a wealth of theory was found to produce experiences of confusion and disorientation. These are consonant with Hollanders’ observations of trainees on integrative courses (1999:494), and Lowndes and Hanley’s (2010) study of newly qualified integrative counsellors. In the latter, participants, struggling to tolerate ‘theoretical tension’, underwent ‘an ambiguous and anxious process’ (p169). Participants of Lowndes and Hanley’s study held a different integration approach (Egan’s ‘Skilled Helper’, 1998) preventing exact comparison to this research project but other studies (Robinson, et al., 2019; Rønnestad, et al., 2019) corroberate a compound picture of vulnerability and uncertainty as a common experience among trainee integrative counsellors (Gold, 2005).

Seeking stability 

The method of levels approach (Carey et al., 2015) states that a crisis within one’s standard frame of understanding provokes an equilibrating response (a reorganisation) to bring perception of one’s world back into tolerable margins. For these participants, having experienced the discombobulation of theoretical overload, the WIF appeared to present an organising influence on the conflict, bringing a sense of security and confidence to their attitude towards integrating theory and establishing higher levels of perception. It would be interesting to discover whether studies with students, therapists and trainers in the WIF would produce similar findings (confusion that settles into something more stable). Research of this kind has potential to elucidate the experience for newcomers to the field and inform how trainers support it.

Hansen warns that theory construction is a means of attempting to deny the existential isolation at the subjective heart of human experience. He states:

‘The hidden motive then, cloaked in the false garb of theory construction, has been to avoid confronting the inevitable isolation that subjectivity portends’ (2007:123).

Additionally, Hansen states that ‘people can never be fully known by theory’ (2007:123); but from a Christian worldview, people can fully be known by God. In this sense, God is the definitive ‘attachment figure’ (Bowlby, 1969) by nature: truth, wisdom and love and the ideal ‘secure base’ to venture out from. It is human nature to quest for truth and engage in meaning-making. A Christian stance recognises not only phenomenon, ‘the appearance of things’, but also noumenon, ‘the-thing-in-itself’ (Kant, 2001). The WIF stands on the absolute – I Am – truth of God, while utilising the discovered – I perceive – truth of mankind.

The WIF’s biblical presuppositions hold humankind as equal, experiential agents. The concept of free will supports a phenomenological democracy in the profoundly human search for understanding and meaning, which scripture suggests is found within a realisation of humanity’s role with the divine. As Smith claims: ‘truly effective counselling or psychotherapy depends on the truth derived from both the natural and the supernatural realms’ (1990:180), a counselling approach that maintains an openness to both of these truth sources initiates a truly integrative process.

A spiritually secure base 

The findings indicated participants found a secure identity in the WIF. Perhaps the kind of ‘focal point’ Hollanders suggests is particularly needed for integrative trainees ‘to be able to gain a sense of identity and commitment… where [it] is not a “given” in the same way as in single-school training’ (Hollanders,1999:488-9).

Wittgenstein’s visualisation of one’s ‘world-picture’ (or paradigm) as the hinges of a door, which remain still while the door is free to swing (1972:341), correlates with participant accounts of their life-worlds where the WIF becomes a safe place to remain while scrutiny and absorption of ideas oscillates.

The WIF’s grounding in Christian scripture (Hughes, 2002; Kallmier, 2011; Ashley, 2015) begets a deep philosophy for human design, functioning and purpose. Trainees recognising and rooting themselves within these presuppositions are able to ‘appraise the thinking of the secular theorists who have gone before… carefully listening to them from the perspective of the Christian tradition’ (Jones and Butman, 2017:43). Participants of this study demonstrated an increased facility to engage with other modalities from the position of the WIF.

The establishment of some solid ground at a philosophical level (a certainty and surety on a level of faith and values) can be associated with Bowlby’s ‘secure base’ (1988), which allows cultivation of an ‘internal working model’ for therapist self-concept, and for their concept of others. In practice, operation from a secure base fosters attitudes congruent with both common factors theory (Rozenzweig, 1936; Rogers, 1957; Luborsky, 1975; Frank, 1993), and with the WIF (Hughes, 2002; Kallmier, 2011; Ashley, 2015). Personal stability enables a ‘holding environment’ (Winnicott, 1965), promotes the focus and attunement needed in offering empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard (Rogers, 1957), and increases toleration for working with uncertainty.

Theory in action 

Theory assimilation cannot be divorced from practice as the two are in parallel synthesis during training. Theories of situated cognition (Gibson, (1977) and embodied cognition (Varela & Thompson, 1991; Damasio, 1999) support assimilation within the counselling room where assorted theories, thoughts, feelings, observations and possible therapeutic interventions must tumble together in the mind of the therapist, like so many items in a washing machine.

The methods of level process of crisis and reorganisation (Carey, 2015) is in constant evidence as therapists grapple with all this alongside the maverick variable of the client – each one unique and unpredictable – who are, to some degree subject, partner and leader in the therapist’s cognitive navigations, therapeutic choices and evaluations (De Stefano, et al., 2010). It has been suggested that it is the client who contextualises and is perhaps the ultimate aid to assimilating theory (Rønnestad & Skovholt 1992:512). This must particularly apply to integrative counsellors whose decision-making about use of theory and intervention will necessarily be a responsive effort to create therapy that is ‘collaborative, personal and tailored’ (Lowndes, 2010:167).

The context of practice appears to propagate theory. Participants’ experiences in practice indicated a process of ontogeny involved in incorporating the WIF. A journey rich in ‘perceptual learning’ (Kellman, 2002), which neurobiologists Roeder, et al, (2017) describe as experience corresponding with perception to establish a deeper learning. This study suggests that it is here that skill development flourishes, and a sense of continuity emerges while raising tolerance for change. Toren describes ‘psychological structures that are at once dynamic and stable over time’ as arising from ‘the meaning or knowledge-making process’ (2002:190).

Contextualising theory through practice is a proven method of practitioners developing skill and identity. (Strupp, 1986; Mezirow, 1990; McLeod. J., 2014; Rønnestad et al. 2003; Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2013, 2019; Kolb, 1975). Hansen has stated that: ‘Without guiding theories, counselling could not possibly be effective. On the other hand, without an appreciation for the rich and contradictory nature of subjectivity, attempts to understand clients would be futile’ (2007:123).

Clinical practice was shown here to be an important arena for deep assimilation and discerning application of the WIF. Its incorporation into a personal approach involved conceptualisation, intuition and decisiveness, suggesting many levels of understanding and learning take place within the therapy room. Similar experiences of ‘transformational learning’ (Mezirow, 1990) have been observed in trainees on other courses involving; ‘reflection… awareness, internalisation and self-development’ (Robinson, et al., 2019:397).

Organic not orchestrated

In this study, perceptions of rigidity within training did not appear to correlate to how the WIF feels in practice. Participants observed it became fluid rather than fixed, organic rather than an orchestrated process. Descriptions of thoughtful interaction of the WIF alongside freedom and creative engagement in the process of making choices, selecting ideas and interventions, harmonised with extant literature: ‘When applying the Waverley model to the therapeutic process, many variations of personal style and practical interventions are possible, and also desirable to avoid an overly rigid application’ (Ashley, 2015:147).

This kind of nuance develops once a foundation is laid. The appraisal and critique expressed by participants testifies to their development; the WIF theory they remember as fairly rigid and fixed, has since become a living and learning process; a developed and dynamic skill.

WIF scholars are clear about avoiding ‘ways of being with clients [that] can become habitual for the psychotherapist and, possibly over-constrained by the ways they were taught’ (Hawkins and Ryde, 2020:29). Hughes (in Ashley, 2015:127), Kallmier (2011:73,124,133,136,206) and Ashley (127,128,131,132,140,) have all advised against formulaic application of the Framework. WIF adherents are encouraged to use the ‘framework of principles… creatively applied according to context’ practising it ‘as an ‘art’ not as ‘science’.’ (Ashley, 2015:131). While Kallmier’s triphasic system demonstrates ‘clear and helpful procedure for people beginning counselling’, flexibility and client-specific appropriacy are advised in practice, to avoid the ‘real danger of the steps becoming a formula that must be followed’ (Kallmier, 2011:136).

It is curious therefore, that participants across this study expressed frustration with a sense of taught rigidity that they had made fluid within practice. This attitude has also been perceived anecdotally by the researcher, where fellow trainees with similar criticisms have sometimes deemed the WIF too rigid for practice. No approach is comfortable or desirable for everyone, but perhaps further exploration of WIF teaching and learning experience might expose where confusion or discrepancy might lie and reduce disenchantment with the WIF where it is based on misunderstanding. This kind of research has potential to inform delivery of the WIF and foster a clearer understanding of flexible implementation.

Authentic practitioners 

Participants described feelings of authenticity, freedom and enablement in bringing an approach that incorporated their faith beliefs to a field where it was felt that couldn’t be taken for granted.

Rogers’ direction that a therapist must be ‘a congruent, genuine, integrated person’ (1957:95) resonated strongly with the sense of self that was described. Steele goes further, asserting that a spiritually-attuned therapist presents the most complete version of themselves and has the most to offer others (2014:12). Participants’ subjective identification with the personhood described by the WIF correlates strongly with Steele’s advocation that therapists be spiritually ‘at home’ in themselves: ‘congruent… authentic, real and natural in our relationship with the client … not hiding behind a defensive mask… or a professional role’ (Steele, 2014:149-50).

While a congruent spirituality is a valuable therapeutic resource, it is critical that therapists of faith scrutinise their practice if they are to work with professionalism and integrity (West, 2000; Barnett,& Johnson, 2011; Gonsiorek et al., 2009). Steele reminds ‘it can also be a source of resistance which impedes the therapeutic process and may even sabotage our growth and healing’ (Steele, 2014:180). Careful adherence to ethical frameworks for counselling (BACP, 2018; ACC, 2004) and use of religious and spiritual competency frameworks (Churchill, 2021a; Hathaway, 2013) could mitigate this. A growing discussion exists around spiritual congruency in therapy, (Thorne, 1991; Edwards, 1992; Elkins, 1995; Swinton, 2001; West, 2012; Swinton, 2016) which is beyond the scope of this paper.

Research by Omylinska-Thurston and James, also determined that the practice of congruency requires ‘therapists to have a high level of self-awareness and internal discipline in order not to ‘act-out’ and misuse power in the therapeutic relationships’ (2011:20). Wyatt agrees: ‘When I am clear about my faith and comfortable with it… what I believe… what my values are, or I know that I don’t know. Then, when I am like that, I can listen to clients’ (2002:182).

More than a diagram 

The diagram at the heart of the WIF has three renderings. This research has shown it had a role to play in participant experiences of incorporating the WIF into practice; an anchor-point for the novice seeking synthesis between psychological and theological foundations; a tool to impart to clients their holistic personhood and a therapeutic way of working. Participants also showed enthusiasm about utilising it as a clinical tool. An intervention with multiple uses.

These experiences are supported by Boisvert & Ahmed (2018), instigators of visually enhanced therapy (VET), who argue that the visually-oriented human brain processes seen-stimuli in a way that ‘augment[s] the communication platform and learning environment in psychotherapy’ (p3). Participants’ successful use of the diagram corroborates this researcher’s experiences of its therapeutic potency. Other approaches (notably CBT) use diagrams in more central and interactive ways within therapy. Arguably, the WIF diagram has as much accessibility, with a more holistic application. Engagement with VET in working with the WIF may have potential within this visual age.

A sense of becoming 

As Robinson et al (2019) suggest, the maturity of a therapist is not purely a matter of being clinically competent, it is wholly interrelated with personal development. This study revealed an experience of ‘becoming’ among participants that has strong resonance with the findings already mentioned in Armitage’s study of WIF students (2018). Robinson et al’s study of Australian trainees also reported ‘growth… both personally and professionally… a journey, which included both negative and positive aspects and expectation of future transitions’ (p394). However, both studies sampled single cohorts of counselling trainees so lack close parallel with this study’s qualified and experienced sample.

Williams & Irving (1996) suggest true personal development will go ‘beyond the mere “state of knowing”, implied by self-awareness, to encompass an individual’s whole “way of being”’ (in Donati & Watts 2005:482). Participants in this study described a comparable experience of ‘becoming’ – by its very nature implying an encompassing and ongoing state. By definition, integrative therapists must consistently be inter-weaving learning and experience. Dryden (1991), Clarkson (1992), and Hollanders, (1999) – all veterans in teaching, working and researching within the field – ratify this finding: an integrative approach that feels competent demands considerable time, personal commitment and accumulated experience.

Leaving and returning 

A theme of leaving and returning to the framework emerged, which this researcher has not discovered explicitly within extant literature. However, Rønnestad et al, (2019) found ‘cyclical-sequential’ development trajectories within a meta-study that gathered qualitative and quantative data from a sample of therapists with a diverse range of experience. Similarly, in implementing educational psychologist Perry’s (1970) model of college students’ development, Prochaska (1986:388-411) describes and illustrates phases of therapist progress until finally entering a ‘committed’ stage. It is possible that both sources describe factors within or impacting this ‘leaving and returning’ process; indeed, it is possible these are alternate interpretations of similar experiences.

WIF ontogenesis: A circle of learning 

The participants, all ‘established’ or ‘seasoned’ therapists (Rønnestad et al, 2019:223), appeared settled, comfortable and creative when talking about their present practice. Like a flowering plant, there was a sense of being the thing one is destined to be: well-rooted, somewhat hardy and carrying the potential to proliferate.

Giovazolias found that ‘developing as an integrative practitioner, one needs to draw on these three aspects (theory, research and practice) using the knowledge derived to tailor therapy to the client’s needs’ (2005:162). Through personal reflection on clinical practice he felt able to ‘practise more integratively… [and to] ceaselessly continue to build a practical model based on a combination of theory and technique that fits [his] own values and assumptions’ (2005:165-7). The illustration of a symbiotic and sustaining circle formed by the disciplines of theory, practice and research is pertinent and his reflective method is one that could have future application for WIF research.

Meara et al encourage therapists to ‘recognise[s] the interdependence of theory, research and practice’ (1988:368). If theory finds expression in practice, then its recollection and reflection form an important aspect of research. This can generate an augmenting spiral where mounting experience increases understanding, Hansen observes: ‘the next logical step in the method, in hermeneutic circular fashion, would be for the experiential phenomena revealed by the method to inform subsequent theory construction and so on’ (2007:122).

This study has demonstrated the interactivity and interdependence between the spheres of psychotherapeutic theory, practice and research. Shakow’s ‘scientist–practitioner model’, (or the boulder model) (in Frank, 1984) advocates such intersubjectivity and cumulative understanding. As cross-pollination creates multiple benefits in the natural world, so these disciplines are in need of each other’s participation. Goldfried and Padawer have pronounced that ‘for the researcher and clinician to ignore the contributions that each has to make is to perpetuate a system in which no one wins’ (Goldfried & Padawer, 1982:33). By converse reasoning, there is rich potential for advancement where they co-operate.

Stiles assertion that ‘Practitioners, not researchers, are the main producers of research ideas’ (in Lampropoulos, et al., 2002:1253) is demonstrated in this study. That ‘most approaches [are] practised long before they [are] formally researched’ (ibid) is evidenced in publications about the framework (Hughes, 2002; Kallmier, 2011). This researcher suggests the time is ripe to explore the diverse extant expressions of the framework.

Therapist cumulative and collective experience 

Further studies conducted with integrative practitioners are in demand, from those with trainee status (Robinson, et al., 2019), right through to mature therapists (Lampropoulos, et al., 2002; Rønnestad et al. 2019). The ongoing SPRISTAD study (Society for Psychotherapy Research, 2011) has potential to deliver information on therapist ontogenesis that may inform and enable enhancement of therapist training and development for teachers, students and therapists working with the WIF.

If the shared wisdom of therapists using the framework can be compared to the cross-pollination and fruiting of mature plants, the potential ‘seed’ (e.g., collaboration, dialogue, invigoration, refinement) benefits individual practitioners and the wider WIF community. The rich, diverse experience with the framework is research that informs future theory and practice, with even fallen leaves of failure fertilising the seedbed. Castonguay’s suggestion to establish practice research networks (PRN’s) may be a step towards facilitating this ‘cyclical and reciprocal relationship between therapeutic practice and development’ (Rønnestad, et al., 2019:226).

It is suggested that the triad of theory, practice and research are the life-cycle at the heart of a growing psychotherapeutic community. WIF practitioners have the cumulative experience to consult on practice and learn from research. Gathered around a shared foundational philosophy, they are a ‘paradigm community’ (Hollanders, 1999:490), where identity, commitment and credibility can grow. Working with the Waverley integrative framework: Exploring the experience of counsellors, trained in the Waverley integrative framework (WIF), in incorporating the framework into their therapeutic practice.


As has been stated, the WIF is almost entirely unresearched. Consequently these suggestions are a fraction of what is conceivable.

The three themes produced in this study each have potential to be subjected to deeper study alone. Reflexive suggestions arising from these include: consideration of the WIF diagram within the counselling room; attentiveness to how the framework is taught, rehearsed and applied; exploration of the appetite for continuing professional development (CPD) with the framework, including the focused hopes and ideas arising directly from this sample (such as integration with modalities, supervision, spiritual support, therapist refreshment of the framework and working with LGBTQ+ clients).

Looking beyond IPA, it is suggested that a combination of research methods might ideally provide a richer base of knowledge. Lampropoulos et al., advocate for the benefits of case studies (2002:1245), and Parrow, et al., (2019) encourage the collection of practice-based evidence. Feedback from clients who have experienced WIF-informed practice would likely be enlightening.

Integrative counsellors appear to benefit enormously from reflective practice (Giovazolias, 2005; Finlay, 2016). This researcher believes that the reflective writing of WIF trainees (already a curricular requirement), and from practitioners would be valuable to the framework’s community of practitioners, particularly, as has been shown, in informing every stage of therapist ontogenesis. The British Journal of Psychotherapy Integration consistently carries self-articulated accounts of therapists evolving personal approaches – a practice that might have potential in aiding therapists working with the WIF. Possible potential may also lie in something akin to Castonguay’s proposed PRN’s (in Lampropoulos et al., 2002:1253).


This research responds to the invitations of Kallmier, (2011:205), Ashley, (2015:127-128) and Armitage, (2018:67) for further investigation and development of the WIF. The journey towards maturity has been described here as a process of ontogenesis; begun in perplexity and brought to embodiment. In the mind of the researcher, an emergent visual accompaniment to this study has compared the WIF to soil that nurtures a germinating seed, supports its growth and sustains the mature plant rooted deeply within it. This researcher has come to believe that therapists hold the framework and the framework holds them.

Reference list 

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Armitage, S. (2018) What is the Impact of the Waverley integrative framework on First Year Counselling students? (unpublished thesis).

Ashley, O. (2015) The Bible, Wisdom and Human Nature: Developing the Waverley Model of Counselling. Farnham: CWR.

Ashley, O. (2017) ‘What’s in a Model? The Bible, Wisdom and Human Nature: Developing the Waverley Model of Counselling’, in Accord, 96, (Autumn), pp. 16-19.

Association of Christian Counsellors, (ACC) 2004. Ethics and Practice. [Online] Available at: https://www.acc-uk.org/public/docs/page-pdfs/EandPractice.pdf [Accessed 16th April 2020].

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About the author 

Charlotte Wears BA (Hons), MA, Counsellor and Psychotherapist, MBACP 

Charlotte is an integrative counsellor and psychotherapist. She has worked for 13 years with young people in schools and has her own private practice, working with adults and young people. Charlotte has just completed her MA at Waverley Abbey College and this article is drawn from her final research project dissertation. With a background in the arts, Charlotte is interested in creative exploration of the self, the world and others, and among other things uses wordcraft, walk-and-talk and the Waverley integrative framework to facilitate this.

Contact: charlotte@whitmoorcounselling Tel: 07596 393483 Website: www.whitmoorcounselling.co.uk


Copyright 2021 Charlotte Wears

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