Counseling Individuals Through a Crisis of Faith
Counseling Individuals Through a Crisis of Faith
Dr. Samuel Shannon, MFT
Tamala discovered that several points of religious doctrine she had always believed to be true were disputed by historical and scientific evidence. Ricky, a devout follower of his faith, was informed his father was diagnosed with cancer. As a result, Ricky started to doubt his faith in God. While these examples are fictional, situations like this might lead to a “crisis of faith” or a faith transition for individuals as they grapple with religious and/or spiritual beliefs and practices. Counseling can help those in a faith crisis come to terms with feelings of confusion and angst. Valuing and validating this spiritual/religious confusion can help clients address and work through these very real crises and life transitions.
The Association for Spiritual, Ethical, and Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC) competencies (2009), endorsed by the American Counseling Association (ACA), maintains that client beliefs about religion/spirituality are “central to [their] worldview and can influence psychosocial functioning (Standard 2)” and that counselors need to respond to their clients with “acceptance and sensitivity (Standard 7).” A crisis of faith might be a crisis of spiritual beliefs/ practices, of religious beliefs or practices, or of both (Standard 1). A faith crisis may or may not involve a change in beliefs and practices, and also may include an existential crisis with clients questioning their existence and purpose in life.
A recent Pew Research study reported that 22% of Americans described their religious faith as “unaffiliated” which includes none, atheist, and agnostic (Pew Research, 2018). This statistic is higher than past reports and indicates a major shift in religious practices of the US population. Some of these individuals may have experienced a crisis of faith during their personal religious shifts.
What Leads to a Crisis of Faith for our Clients?
A crisis of faith experience will vary per individual. Fowler (1981) stated that dissonance about faith could be a normal stage in experienced post 20’s. Life-changing events such as potential or experienced loss of a loved one, job loss, relationship dissolution, or financial/natural disasters might lead to questioning religious and/or spiritual beliefs. Another reason might be finding information contradicting former beliefs, such as historical/scientific evidence counter to religious doctrines or tenants. Others may question the social policies or values their church may have such as attitudes and policies toward LGBTQ+, women, or other minorities. Another reason for a crisis of faith can occur when someone finds their leader’s or congregant’s actions in disharmony with church teachings.
What is a Crisis of Faith Like for Clients?
A crisis of faith can be emotionally painful and confusing. Clients may describe feeling alone, scared, misunderstood, hurt, judged, confused, angry, conflicted, isolated, alienated, embarrassed, traumatized, terrified, duped, sad, and depressed. These powerful and often conflicting emotions can be difficult for clients to work through. In addition, a crisis of faith may be connected to either a potential or an actual loss of resources, as clients may distance themselves from their support groups, or feel they cannot express concerns to their support groups for fear of rejection from their religious support group. A third factor to consider is that a crisis of faith may be connected to some outside event or trauma, such as the death of a loved one or loss of a job. An additional trauma could compound with the issues arising from the crisis of faith. Some individuals may describe going through a crisis of faith like going through stages of grief: shock and numbness, yearning and searching, despair and disorganization, and then reorganization and recovery (Bowlby, 1961; KublerRoss, 1969). Clients experiencing these powerful feelings and experiences can benefit from compassionate and non-judgmental counseling.
What Should Counselors NOT Do?
The ACA Code of Ethics (2014) specifically states that counselors need to avoid imposing their own values on their clients (Code A.4.b). Counselors need to ensure that they are not avoiding the topic of spirituality and religiosity. However, in an effort to be comforting, a counselor may potentially disrupt or invalidate the confusing faith crisis of some clients. It is essential that counselors allow clients to work through their own crisis in their own timeframe. Some strategies that may NOT be helpful to clients include assuring that a crisis will pass, suggesting the client emulate the characteristics of some popular or religious figure that had a similar experience, testifying to clients about the counselor’s own beliefs/truths, or inviting clients to engage in practices or a group that aligns with the counselor’s beliefs. Counselors need to be aware of their own personal religious and spiritual beliefs (ASERVIC Competency #3) and avoid counseling clients based on their own religious beliefs (ACA Code A.4.b). Another possible pitfall counselors need to avoid is encouraging spiritual bypassing, that is encouraging clients to misuse spiritual tools in order to avoid dealing with psychological, behavioral, and relational issues such as anxiety, depression, fear, shame, etc. (Cashwell, 2011).
What Can Counselors Do to Help Individuals Work Through a Crisis of Faith?
First and foremost counselors need to normalize and validate client concerns, take a nonjudgmental stance, and actively listen to client concerns. Counselors can help clients explore noncounseling and counseling possibilities of working through the faith crisis, such as talking directly to religious leaders, talking through doctrines with clients, or helping clients investigate alternative religious practices or spiritual beliefs. Counselors can help clients learn to trust themselves in determining what works best for them. Helping clients understand their own grieving process and giving space to work through the grief of their faith crisis, along with other traumas or loss clients may be experiencing, could be helpful for clients. For instance, continuing the earlier example, Tamala worked through many doctrines taught to her throughout her life and decided her church did not reflect her beliefs. Tamala’s counselor utilized the stages of grief as a guide to working through the shock, bargaining behaviors, anger, and depression that Tamala experienced through her changing belief structure. The counselor helped her transition to a new reality including connecting with support groups and individuals, working through creating new interaction patterns with family members, and finding a new meaning of faith and spirituality.
Each client is different as they explore their own crisis of faith. Counselors need to understand that clients may not end up in the same religious or spiritual place where they started. Clients may find new spiritual beliefs, may seek out new religious practices, may deepen connection with current beliefs and practices, or they may find they no longer have faith in a higher power. There are many potential paths that come from a crisis of faith that can lead to spiritual and/or religious changes. A counselor can help clients explore paths and determine what option is most authentic to their experience. It is not our role as counselors to decide what road our clients take on their journey – it is only our role to support them on their path, whatever road that may be.
American Counseling Association. (2014). ACA Code of Ethics. Alexandria, VA: Author.
Association for Spiritual, Ethical and Religious Values in Counseling. (2009). Spiritual competencies: Competencies for addressing spiritual and religious issues in counseling. Retrieved from http://www.aservic.org/
Bowlby, J. (1961). Processes of mourning. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 42, 317-339.
Cashwell, C. S., Glosoff, H. L., & Hammonds, C. (2011). Spiritual Bypass: A Preliminary Investigation. Counseling and Values, 54, 162-174.
Fowler, J. W. (1981). Stages of faith. Harper & Row.
Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York, NY: Macmillan.
Pew Research Study (2018). Religious landscape study. Retrieved from https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/
Reprinted with permission. The original article was published in Interaction, XXIX(3), 2019, pp. 9-10, and it can be found here: http://www.aservic.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/ASERVIC-Spring-2019-Final.pdf. Interaction is the newsletter of the Association for Spiritual, Ethical, & Religious Values in Counseling (ASERVIC), a branch of the American Counseling Association.