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Mar 28, 2017

Integrating Spirituality into Counseling

For starters, let’s take a minute to review last week’s post on spirituality in counseling.

  1. It’s hard to define.
  2. It’s hard to research (see point A).

Easy enough to recap, right?

Moving on to the application piece for all of my counselor friends out there. It’s funny to write about this because it seems so much more natural to do at this point. I used to find it intensely overwhelming, but (like with many other things) the more I did it, the easier it became.

There are two key aspects to conceptualizing spirituality into counseling. The first of these principles is based on Hays (1996) and is heretofore referred to as the ADDRESSING model. The second is Pederson’s (1994) three-part model of cultural competence.

Two Models

If we look at the ADDRESSING model first, we see that each letter represents a different aspect of an individual’s identity. Of note, the ADDRESSING model isn’t the end-all-be-all of addressing identities in counseling, but it is a pretty fantastic starting place. And I’d encourage you to google the whole model because I’m only going to focus on the R, which stands for religious/spiritual orientation. The original article (1996) only posited ‘religion,’ but subsequent edits expanded to include spiritual orientation. That’s just a fun little factoid. SO, when I work with clients, I view them through the lens of the ADDRESSING model. It helps to give me a framework understanding the person as full-of-experience, rather than just a presenting issue. And then it also helps me to ascertain what of the identities is related to the presenting issue (if any).

The second model is Pederson’s (1994) three-part model of cultural competence. This is composed of three sequential aspects; awareness, knowledge, and skill. Why am I writing about this? I’ll tell you why. Because if you don’t have a thorough understanding of a client before you start working with them, then you’re doing them a disservice. That’s the simple answer. For each identity of the ADDRESSING model, we approach learning about it by using Pederson’s model. For example, if a client comes in and reports Bahá'í as their religious/spiritual orientation, then I need to do a handful of things.


First of all, related to awareness, I’m going to check my biases and assumptions. It’s a self-awareness thing. Do I have a visceral reaction to hearing my client is Bahá'í? Do I have any sort of resistance? Am I being judgmental because I’ve never heard of it or because the black sheep of the family is also Bahá'í?!

This is an important component. Our profession is pretty firm in the belief that there is no such thing as value-free counseling. We’re as much a part of the process of counseling as our client, and it’s impossible to completely set aside our own experiences and values in working with another. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t strive to do so. It’s up to us to consistently check in with ourselves.


The second piece, knowledge, is related to your ever-expanding understanding/education about (in this case) Bahá'í. We don’t have to know everything about every single religion or spiritual orientation. However, we do want to know some basic philosophical assumptions and/or basic beliefs from said religion/spiritual orientation. And a really important note – it is not up to the client to educate us on the specifics of their religion and/or spiritual orientation. Yes, if they volunteer information and share their specific beliefs, fine. However, do not spend 30 of their 50 minutes asking about the basic beliefs of their religious/spiritual orientation. That’s homework for you to do.


This is arguably the most difficult (for lots of people – not for all). This is where rubber meets road, so to speak. It’s when you stay aware of your own ‘stuff,’ take your newfound knowledge about a specific religion/spiritual orientation, and then work directly with a person. Skills can include:

  • framing questions from their specific religious/spiritual lens and using language specific to Bahá'í (that’s incorporating your knowledge)
  • broaching their belief system and its impact on them (i.e. Tell me what it was like to grow up as Bahá'í. Tell me how being Bahá'í impacts you in your daily life/interactions with people/views of the world)
  • inquiring as to whether their belief system influences their presenting issues
  • addressing whether or not they want to incorporate their belief system into their goals in counseling

The skills listed above are just examples. I’m sure there are various skills, but I’m sure not going to encapsulate them all.

Your Possible Takeaway?

My hope is that this has given you some level of meta-help on how to integrate religion/spirituality into counseling. Sure, we could have focused on the nitty gritty and specifics of ‘exactly’ what to say, but from where I’m standing, that would be doing you a disservice. Then you wouldn’t get the bigger picture of why it would behoove you to understand your clients from a larger perspective, nor would it give you a framework for conceptualizing clients or a model for incorporating new skills. Additionally, focusing on exactly what to say would be akin to teaching you to fish, but opposite of teaching you how to fish. The former is good for a meal, but the latter is good for flourishing. And yes, I’m ashamed I even used that tired adage, but it’s just so ideal for the example. Happy counseling!
Tara Vossenkemper is an Assistant Professor and counselor educator with Central Methodist University, along with the founder and a practicing counselor with The Counseling Hub, LLC (located in Columbia, Mo). Tara specializes in working with relationships (using Gottman Method Couples Therapy), anxiety, existential issues, and spirituality. You can read more about Tara and The Counseling Hub at


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