No, Never. According to the ACA Code of Ethics, there are some activities a counselor must never engage in with a client—especially sexual activities. There are some activities that are allowed but only very carefully—such as dual relationships. And there are some activities that are required for being an effective counselor—such as caring and empathy.
Which category does prayer belong to? Unless sex is considered more significant than God, the spiritual dimension (or whatever name you give the transcendent), then one must never engage a client in activities which for them directly call upon the transcendent. Note that it would always involve a dual relationship, if a counselor assumed a spiritual role which can only be done based on their own belief system concerning that which is beyond. Furthermore, if you feel it is a way of showing support and empathy for your client, you reduce the spiritual to merely a matter of projected wish fulfillment or expression of caring (and many psychologists do) and discount a critical aspect of your client. In that case you must, ethically, refer the client to another counselor. If you do not sense the potential force of that which is beyond, then if the beyond is important to your client you should considering transferring your client. If you do have that sense, then you would not transgress that boundary with him or her.
When I started thinking about this blog, I was ambivalent about praying with a client. But the more I thought about it, the more certain I became. If prayer is somehow a connection or communication with that which is beyond, then if a counselor joins a client in prayer that can only mean that the counselor is either trivializing the spiritual realm, reducing it to an aspect of a counseling technique or claims somehow to have special spiritual authority.
There are many activities which I do not consider prayer that others might: guided meditation, meditative breathing, other kinds of meditation, walking a labyrinth, chanting, yoga, Ti Chi, self-affirmations, expressions of good will, expressions of hope, reciting a TM mantra, even massage or exercising, aroma or music therapy; the list is endless. But as long as these activities do not assume a transcendental dimension, I would not consider them prayer but perhaps techniques to access and experience the unconscious.
I’m often confused by those clinical studies that seek to test whether prayer is ‘effective’ or not. The theory seems to be that if a group of individuals think caringly or express healing thoughts and words about an individual who is sick, then that individual will actually get better sooner. That implies there exists a force (like some new electromagnetic waves or the guidance system of monarch butterflies) which we don’t know much about yet which requires further investigation, but it is not spiritual—that is, it is not something that is ‘beyond’.
However, if the theory is that there is a God or an intelligent being or some kind of listening spirit out there that can be enticed to bring about healing someone if we just bring the need of that individual to their attention, that really seems to me like psychological projection. The theory usually assumes that the more individuals doing the praying, the more efficacious their actions will be (something like writing to my congressman).
Certainly prayer trees for churches are a powerful way for individuals belonging to a church to exercise and express their sense of love and caring for each other thereby strengthening their community and good will for each other. And in that context, it is a deeply religious act because it calls upon the God—the transcendent one—that gives that community its very essence. But only within that faith community.
As I suggested in a previous blog, any human activity through which individuals can define who they are by relating to that which is beyond is a spiritual activity. Prayer is a very important such spiritual activity. Prayer has been around, I believe, ever since human beings have used language. It can be such a powerful force in one’s life to help endure the most unbelievable and impossible conditions by experiencing strength and hope from something that is beyond one’s immediate condition. This is also clear when we consider a religious prayer—that is, a prayer within a faith community. Such community prayers are one of the primary ways (along with singing, worshipping and sometimes dancing) that such communities express themselves and experience their sense of unity, identity and meaning. Knowing that one’s faith community is praying for you can have an almost miraculous effect.
And it is precisely because of the sacred power of prayer that I believe that a counselor should never join in prayer with a client—it changes the counseling situation into something other than a counseling situation or it is a sacrilegious technique which trivializes the spiritual aspect of our client.
Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at counselingandcoachingforlife.com.