Archive for the ‘counselor’ Category

Ministry Assessment Program (MAP)

Friday, June 15th, 2012

In addition to my work as a therapist in my own practice, I coordinate the Ministry Assessment Program (MAP) at the Samaritan Counseling Center where I have worked for sixteen years. MAP assists leaders in various religious denominations to discern which candidates seeking ordination have an authentic vocation in ministry and are psychologically and emotionally sound enough to proceed. Our evaluations are just one part of a rigorous vetting and formation process.  It can go on for several years with personal, academic, and theological reviews and tests at different stages along the way.

You can imagine, then, what it feels like to be a candidate coming to a psychologist for an interview about very personal things and to undergo extensive psychological testing—intimidating to say the least.  It is important then, that the evaluator approaches this process with respect and consideration for the feelings and privacy of the candidate.  The fact is that the vast majority of those who come before us are sound psychologically and many are talented and experienced to boot.  We hope, then, to give them something for their trouble— to create  an experience for  them that will help them to better understand themselves and to help them grow while at the same time encouraging  them.

Sometimes candidates have an experience during the process that is not all that different than what clients experience in therapy.  Though the expressed purpose of the process is evaluative not therapeutic, in my experience some of the best assessments turn out to be therapeutic as well. If I listen to the candidate attentively and appreciatively, candidates often find the words to say who they really are and why they are on their particular spiritual journey.

I am reminded of a young man who was surprised to find his eyes filling up with tears when he told me about how deeply affected he was by the hymns in his childhood church. “I had a lot of energy “, he recalled, “was nervous and insecure.  The songs told me that I and other people were important.” I wanted to get across, in the report, the depth of the emotional connection with God and others that he conveyed to me. I wrote, “Music seems tap in to his emotional and spiritual core—the part of his experience that he finds hard to articulate.”  It wasn’t that he felt called to music ministry. He is an energetic advocate for social justice who sees evangelism as creating a sense of community outside the church walls in the inner-city neighborhood of his church.  His high energy, though, could at times be a liability—sometimes leaving him tense and restless. Music was a potentially quieting experience for him and a pathway of his spiritual life.  One of the recommendations I gave was, then, for him to “foster this part of himself, perhaps through using music as a regular practice of prayer.”

I hope that I am getting across that a good assessment captures the “person” not just data—that in the right environment candidates sense it is safe to talk about what’s most important to them.  And as one would expect in this work what is most important is often a meaningful  relationship with God and others, or the sense of being a part of “something larger than oneself”.  As I wrote in a previous post on therapy and spirituality,  I hope to grasp  “something in the client’s voice, cadence or metaphors that suggest something of faith. And with patience and gentleness the therapist, without being intrusive, may welcome the subtle spirit into the session”.  It is not the role of a psychological evaluation to judge a person’s theology or beliefs, but I would fail to know them if I did not come to understand what these things mean to them.

I have learned to take the stance that  James and Melissa Griffith wrote about in their book  Encountering the Sacred in Psychotherapy: How to talk with people about their spiritual lives. They try to “stay in the position of an anthropologist meeting another person in an unknown culture….The skills most helpful for opening therapy to the spiritual and religious domains have been those for preparing our own selves to meet someone not yet known- the fostering within ourselves of curiosity, wonder and openness to the being of the other.”

As the  candidates receive feedback several weeks later and eventually a copy of the final report, we hope to mirror back to them their hopes, fears, gifts as well as the places they may be in  need of healing or growth. When we are successful,  we have done it in a way to preserves their dignity and they feel like we “got them”.





Art and Therapy: expressions of what is not easy to express

Thursday, October 8th, 2009


Find Me in the Hills is a series of works  created by Carol Emerson from the Fall of 2004 onward. Carol’s mixed media collages depict hills, dunes and water primarily in the deserts of the West.

During the period of Hills, Carol was mourning the loss of her partner, David Nutter (see 8/5/09 post). Through this same period she journaled and collected the poetry of others which she explained, “spoke to a depth of expression I could not voice.” For her exhibit she chose bits of poems to accompany each of her pieces. In this way poetry becomes another medium in the mix. The pairing seems to address one of the dilemmas of mourning- loss and despair are so visceral that words are inadequate but “the grief that does not speak”, as Carol drew from Shakespeare, “Whispers the o’er fraught heart and bids it break.”

It is not only the heart that a mourner fears will break, but the very self. I once counseled an adolescent boy whose 45 year old father collapsed on the kitchen floor, one day when he and the boy were working around the house. His father was dead before the paramedics arrived. “I believe we will get through this”, his mother told me one day, “but there are moments when I feel that I will die first”. She felt, as many people do, that grief will kill them.

And then there is the feeling of irretrievable loss. The loved one is lost -and- the self is broken and at risk of being lost for good as well. In one of her largest pieces, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Carol portrays three mountain ridges as sharp as knives rising above a mild stream. With this piece she pairs her own words written soon after David’s death:




I am afraid this pounding, heavy heart will never go away.
I am afraid it will go away.
I am afraid I will never stop crying.
I am afraid I won’t cry enough.
I am afraid I’ll forget how to laugh from my belly.
I am afraid I won’t believe in good things lasting.


Recently Carol and I got to talk about the relationship between art and psychotherapy. It was something that we, like many others, have intuited yet had not really articulated. After all, we are now sitting with our clients in rooms that are also an art gallery. As our clients talk about their lives, their relationships and their losses, they are literally surrounded by art.

It is common for people to remark that doing something creative that they love, whether it be making art, tending orchids or singing with friends, is therapeutic. Yet as Carol thought back on the years of working on Hills , she told me, she never consciously thought of it as therapeutic- though, of course, in retrospect, it was.

The problem may be in the word “therapy”. It is a medical term which means a method for curing or mitigating an illness. So much of what is talked about in therapy is not illness – it is life. There is, after all, no cure for life, for love, or death. These things are experiences, real and tangible. Maybe it is experience that art and therapy have in common. A piece of art depicting a hill somehow captures it, frames it and magnifies it so that we can see the transcendent in it; yet at the same time, the image humbly falls short of the natural beauty of the thing itself, and in that way the hill is honored by the attempt.

A client describing their anxiety, their compulsions or their grief are depicting experiences in the safe and private frame work of the therapy hour somehow captures it from a different vantage point. When the therapist understands the experience – feels it with them- the client feels strengthened and less alone.

Grief is an experience, natural and universal. It is not something to be treated or cured. Being natural does not, however, mean it is not dangerous. Just as in the desert, precipices and the extremes of the elements are natural -but they can kill you. Just as nothing is more a natural part of human existence than the birthing of a child, birthing has been a leading cause of the death of young woman.

Grief, then, as a natural but painful and dangerous experience calls for special ways and places to be experienced: in the artist’s studio, the gardener’s garden, the church sanctuary, the therapy hour. Both art and therapy, then, give grief a way to be framed and experienced in a heightened way, with a different perspective and provide the potential for the grief to be shared.

I caught a glimpse of this the day after Carol’s exhibit was installed in the gallery. I was setting up a wireless printer in the large room of the gallery while our colleague Diane Welsh had a therapy session with a client in the smaller room. Toward the end of the session, Diane led the woman she was seeing through the exhibit. They quietly and reverently traversed the terrains of grief as expressed visually and through the written word. Diane later told me that this was her client’s final session- a woman who came to her weighed down with losses- a newly finalized divorce and a series of deaths. In this way the final moments which Diane spent accompanying her were spent in a silent and shared experience of art and psychotherapy.

How does religion come up in a therapy session?

Monday, May 11th, 2009


Sometimes religion enters psychotherapy the moment the client enters the room. This was the case with Nancy. Her bright face and warm smile changed to an urgency as she sat down. Leaning forward on the edge of the couch she clasped her hands and told me that she no longer knew how to pray. Her son had been an ex patriot in Mexico and his life had been threatened by a corrupt official. She had been in daily contact with him and the embassy arranging for immediate departure. She prayed for his safety as fervently as she pursued embassy officials and knew, from all her past experience with prayer, that he would arrive safely. When she was told of his murder, she sunk into grief and a crisis of faith: her prayer had not been answered despite her belief that it would be. The very faith that had sustained her in past losses was threatened. This left her bereft.

Other times it enters in surprising ways by those who had never discussed experiences in anything but secular ways. Ann, an anthropologist, during an intense moment in telling her story in group therapy one night reached beneath her collar to pull a chain to reveal a medallion of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Ann had long since left her nominal Catholic faith and was drawn more to Buddhism , yet, she explained, the virgin had become her mother long after the death of her own manic depressive mother.

Or the therapist may hear something in the client’s voice, cadence or metaphors that suggest something of faith. And with patience and gentleness the therapist without being intrusive may welcome the subtle spirit into the session.

A reasonable question remains. “How can a therapist open therapy to spiritual concerns a person might bring if the therapist shares no common tradition with the person? This is the core question addressed by James and Melissa Griffith in Encountering the Sacred in Psychotherapy. They have found that they can best do this when they “stay in the position of an anthropologist meeting another person in an unknown culture….The skills most helpful for opening therapy to the spiritual and religious domains have been those for preparing our own selves to meet someone not yet known- the fostering within ourselves of curiosity, wonder and openness to the being of the other.”

Henri Nouwen speaks of creating a “friendly emptiness”. In his book Reaching Out, Nouwen uses various phrases to try to capture the essence of hospitality. The therapist with different beliefs from the client may offer hospitality in the way of “friendship without binding the guest and freedom without leaving him alone. Hospitality”, Nouwen explains, “is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.” “It is not a method of making our God and our way into the criteria of happiness,” he writes, “ but the opening of an opportunity to others to find their God and their way.”

Hospitality and patient listening can provide the necessary sanctuary within which one’s faith will most likely be expressed.

Click on the image of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman to see more work by the artist

East and West: Buddhism and Psychology

Sunday, May 3rd, 2009


Below is a link to an article from the Vancouver Sun on Buddhism and psychology. It describes and gives some historical background on the interest of Western psychotherapists in Eastern religion. Douglas Todd, the article’s author, sees the potential richness in this fusion but also writes of those who caution against superficial treatment of these disciplines.

The risk of any interdisciplinary endeavor, such as the blending of religion and psychotherapy is of diluting both and thus diminishing them. Each is a discipline and practice in it’s own right; and as any serious disciple and practitioner can tell you each is a life long endeavor. Yet, not to seek to draw upon religion because of being committed to psychotherapy would be to ignore a vital source for exploring the interior world. It is best to proceed, but to do so with humility.

Ancient Buddhism and modern psychology