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Strategies for Counseling Protestant Evangelical

Cary E. Lantz

ABSTRACT: A significant segment of the population--evangelical

Christians--has historically been underrepresented in psychotherapy
and in the treatment literature. Consequently, few guidelines for
therapeutic decision making and intervention have been articulated.
Because the clergy are showing an increasing willingness to refer these
people to human service professionals, it is important that clinicians be
informed about this group of potential clients. Therapeutic strategies
which take into account the unique characteristics of this population
are discussed in light of four stages in the development of the helping

Despite the early promise of James' (1903) pioneering

work, the subject of religious experience has received little
research attention over succeeding decades. In effect, it has
remained one of the taboo topics (Farberow, 1963) of the
psychological literature. No doubt, much of this avoidance
stemmed from the prominence of psychoanalytic theory during
the first half of this century and, more specifically, the far-
reaching impact of Freud's (1928) attack on religion.
The scanty work that is available on clinical applications of
current knowledge regarding religious persons focuses almost
exclusively on the dynamics of faith in the individual (Beit-
Hallahmi, 1975; Bonner, 1964; Pruyser, 1971). Little has been
done to guide the therapist in decision making and problem
solving efforts with religious persons. Even less has been ex-
plored in regard to intervention with religious couples and
*Portions of this paper were presented at the meeting of the American Association of
Marriage and Family Counselors, Philadelphia, October 1976. Dr. Lantz is a staff
psychologist with Klingberg Family Centers, Inc., New Britain, Connecticut, 06052.
Reprint requests should be addressed to Dr. Lantz at 164 B. Brittany Farms Rd., New
Britain, Conn. 06053.

International Journal of family Therapy 1(2) Summer,1979 169

0148-8384/79/1400-0169 $00.95 9 Human Sciences Press


Reiber (1970) underlines the significance of such inatten-

tion to the impact of the religious dimension on family life
asserting, "To study the family in our culture today without
taking into account the religious factor is to ignore one of the
most persistent of all social forces" (p. 294). And, more speci-
fically, evaluating the state of the literature he affirms, "There
appears to be no body of literature in which the family has been
studied specifically from the framework of the Western Christ-
ian belief system" (p. 299).
This paper represents a preliminary attempt to examine this
undeveloped topic. The observations made and the proposals
advanced grow out of clinical experiences with a particular
sample of religious persons. While the methodology is crude and
the proposals modest, the aim of the discussion is bold and far-
reaching, viz., to impact the development and delivery of mental
health services to a segment of the population which numbers
over 50,000,000--evangelical Christians in the United States
("Born Again!, The Year of the Evangelicals" 1976; "Counting
Souls," 1976).


Effective intervention with the evangelical family requires a

sensitive awareness or assessment of its defining parameters.
The characteristics of this somewhat heterogeneous religious
group have been outlined in more detail elsewhere (Larsen, in
press). While evangelicals vary widely on most demographic
characteristics, the one critical unifying dimension is their shared
belief system. Essentially, evangelical faith is typified by: (a) high
regard for Biblical authority; (b) emphasis on the sovereignty of
God in human affairs; (c) acknowledgement of humankind's
fundamentally sinful nature; (d) major emphasis on the central-
ity of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as the sine qua
non of salvation; and, to varying degrees, (e) stress on the
obligation of the Christian to reach out to fellow believers in
love, service, and worship as well as to share the "Good News" of
the Christian message with the "unsaved" world.
An additional tenet, relevant to the present discussion, is
the high value placed on marriage and family life, grounded in
the belief that these institutions are ordained by God. The
importance of the family unit as perceived bythis segment of the


Christian community, can hardly be overstated. Representative

of the evangelical position is the view of one New Testament
scholar who suggests, "If we are to isolate one idea which is more
basic to New Testament ethics than the rest, it will be the idea of
the family" (Grant, 1950, p. 315).


Throughout the discussion which follows, a pervasive con-

sideration, resulting in differential recommendations, is the
religious orientation of the therapist. Few characteristics of the
counselor, it is herein suggested, carry such broad implications
for the therapeutic relationship as does one's personal be-
lief/value base. Evidence for the impact of the therapist's values
on those of the client is widespread. Studies of the effects of
therapist belief systems upon those of their clients are more
For the purposes of this preliminary analysis, therapists will
be grossly categorized as belonging to one of three orientations
as regards the evangelical family. These are the evangelical, the
non-evangelical, and the anti-evangelical. The term "evange-
lical" counselor will be used to specify the individual who
identifies with the evangelical position; the "non-evangelical"
therapist refers to the worker who, while not identifying with this
particular group (nor, perhaps, with any religious affiliation),
wishes to be helpful to them as with any other client, and can
accept them for who they are; and the label "anti-evangelical"
therapist describes the person who is antagonistic to the evange-
lical position, turned off by the beliefs or practices of these
The remainder of this paper will be devoted to issues
confronting evangelical and non-evangelical therapists. The
anti-evangelical therapist will be excluded from further dis-
cussion because it is hoped that representatives of such a biased
orientation comprise a small minority group within the helping
As a minimum standard, professional ethics advocate that
the therapist inform the "prospective client of the important
aspects of the potential relationship that might affect the client's
decision to enter the relationship" (APA, 1967, p. 67). Certainly,
with the evangelical client, the therapist's holding a perspective


which is antagonistic tO the evangelical position ranks as one of

these aspects of the potential relationship about which the
client should be informed.
As a safeguard against mistreatment of clients whose back-
grounds differ significantly from that of the therapist, Tomes
(1976) suggests that the therapist receive supervised training in
dealing with that particular group of clients, under the direction
of a member of that same group. For therapists who find
themselves in conflict with evangelical families, referral may be
the option of choice.



Helping the troubled evangelical family is a task typified by

the seemingly paradoxical tension between the call for help and
the simultaneous erection of obstacles to the helping effort.
While such behavior is certainly not unique to evangelical
Christians, with these people such ambivalence often assumes
certain stereotypic and idiosyncratic patterns of expression.
Particularly at four stages in the therapeutic endeavor, the
attempt to work with evangelical families faces somewhat
unique challenges as well as opportunities. These therapeutic
markers will be labelled the points of entry, translation, mobili-
zation, and exit. The characteristic issues encountered during
these phases, as well as a few suggestive therapeutic options,
will now be considered.

The Brazen Consumers. Most evangelical families who
come into contact with professional counselors do so through
referral by their minister or priest (McCann, 1962). Thus, the
clergy are typically the gatekeepers to evangelicals' use of
mental health services.
Historically, evangelicals have made limited use of profes-
sional human service personnel. The clergy have absorbed the
great majority of the calls for counseling among these people.
With the advent of current movements toward rapprochement
between applied psychology and religion, however, pastors
have become increasingly open to referring their parishioners to
more highly trained counselors than themselves.


It is with considerable trepidation, however, that the more

psychologically naive church member enters into the thera-
peutic marketplace. The subsequent search for trustworthy
resources outside the church often results in a uniquely straight-
forward "credentials check." The initial inquiry may, for ex-
ample, be prefaced by the question, "Are you 'born again'?," "Is
your agency Christian?," or other such bold queries.
Because such direct value inquiries are somewhat rare,
certainly at this preliminary stage of professional contact, and
given the idiosyncratic language employed by many evan-
gelicals, the negatively sensitized therapist may be caught off
guard and respond in such a way as to alienate the potential
client from the outset. In order to survive the initial contact as
well as the subsequent vigilant assessment by the wary con-
sumer (through questions regarding theological stance, lifestyle,
values, etc.), therapists would benefit from an awareness of what
the client is asking and the basis for the underlying concerns.
Unless therapists are aware of their own countertransference
responses to such an approach by the client, they may forfeit the
opportunity to explore further the meaning or intent of the
client's questions.
Due to this early entry into the value arena, therefore, the
client-therapist relationship is quickly elevated to a relatively
intense level of encounter. This intensity may foster a mutual
vigilance which places the behavior of both parties "under the
microscope." An escalation of the tension resulting from such an
"on trial" style of interaction is unlikely to be beneficial.
The Therapist as System Member. What response options
are available to the therapist at this point? On the most obvious
level, whether or not the therapist identifies personally with the
family's religious stance, he may elect to explore the signi-
ficance of the question to the inquirer. The sensitivity, honesty,
and respect shown the client at this point may be the critical
factor in determining the client's willingness to continue treat-
ment with the particular therapist. In this sense, the issue shares
a significance common to the entry explorations of clients on any
matter of concern, i.e., the consideration shown the client is
likely to shape the probability of the individual or family's future
involvement in treatment.
Beyond this preliminary observation, however, different
response alternatives may appeal to the evangelical and non-
evangelical therapist. Considering first the possible responses


specifically available to evangelical workers, it is possible on the

one hand, that they may be able to field the questions directly, in
the terms presented. Such a response respects the client's
inquiry as an expression of appropriately assertive consumerism
and may, or may not involve conscious semantic accommo-
dation on the part of the therapist.
On the other hand, evangelicals may prefer to express their
faith in other language, translating subsequently to the language
of the client, thus remaining congruent and, at the same time,
not accidentally or unnecessarily erecting barriers of distinction
between themselves and the client.
Concerning the non-evangelical therapist (and this group
represents the great majority of workers in the field, cf. Beit-
Hal[ahmi, 1975; Henry, Sims, & Spray, 1971; Szasz & Nemiroff,
1963), whether of a religious or nonreligious bent, the issue may
be approached differently. Differences in beliefs, values, and/or
lifestyle need not result in theological debate or value judg-
ments. To be sidetracked on this level is likely to arouse mutual
defensiveness and lead to diversion from the more basic issue--
whether two parties with divergent views of religious expe-
rience, belief, and/or practice can work together in a healthful,
helpful way.
More promising as an avenue of entry for the non-evan-
gelical "outsider" are the interpersonal "common denomi-
nators" which impact the experience of all persons. Minuchin
(1974) illustrates this strategy:
The therapist is like the family members in all the universals
of the human condition. Therefore, situations will always
arise in which they have common experiences. The therapist
can emphasize these to blend with the family in a mimetic
operation. Communications such as, "1 married a woman
with fire," "1 am a student of the Talmud," "1 know what it
means to be poor," "1 have two adolescent children," and "1
had an aunt like that" increase the sense of kinship, indi-
cating that both therapist and family members are, as Harry
Stack Sullivan put it, more human than otherwise. (p. 128)
Clinical experience validates the effectiveness of reaching
out to these people with empathy, warmth, and congruence, the
triad of factors which aid in the establishment of therapeutic
"common ground," basic to the helping enterprise. Specifically,


these are people who can, like the rest of humankind, respond to
the modeling of self-disclosure by the therapist which admits to
hurting, failure, suffering, alienation, sadness, and loss; the
communication of understanding, despite significant differen-
ces in beliefs, values, or behavior; and the pursuit of an active,
caring acceptance and respect which reaches out despite
differences and shortcomings in the searching subject.
In fact, the experience of these interpersonal events in
therapy bears striking parallels with the components of the basic
experience and content of the evangelical's faith. These pa-
rallels, often not articulated to the therapist, are expressed
within the worshipping community to which the evangelical
belongs by such theological terms as "confession," "forgive-
ness," and "love." It is, in part, because of this prepotent faith
experience of the evangelical that the second stage of treatment
for these persons is labelled one of translation.

Encoding and Decoding. This step in the process of helping
the evangelical family derives from the fact that the core ex-
perience of their lives--variously described as "conversion,"
"salvation," being "born again," or"saved," "meeting the Lord,"
"coming to faith," etc.--often is associated with its own descrip-
tive language which tends to permeate the conversation of many
of these people. Daily life experiences, as well as the meaning of
life itself, come to be filtered or translated through the eye of this
fundamental faith experience. Communication often takes on a
"Scripturese" tone, being flavored with Biblical words, phrases,
or even quotations. Outsiders, upon encountering such people,
may feel as though they had just stepped on foreign soil--yea,
verily, "hallowed ground."
An initial suggestion in respondingto the encoded messages
of the evangelical is that their language be respected as a part of
them, just as idiosyncracies of experience and style in other
clients are respected. This injunction, while appearing, perhaps,
obvious and therefore unnecessary, may be especially relevant
for the potential helper who is offended or put off, or feels the
need to attack such language as being unauthentic.
Lorand (1962) points out that "religious devotees," in


general, "are frequently on the verge of leaving therapy" (p. 53).

With the evangelical, this tenuous attitude toward entering or
continuing in treatment seems, in part, related to the question of
how their way of viewing and talking about life is received. Aside
from feeling understood and remaining in treatment, how
language is received will likely have a strong bearing on whether
these persons will hear, apply, or maintain the use of therapeutic
While it lies beyond the scope of this discussion, it is
acknowledged that language may be used by many clients as a
form of defense or resistance to change. Certainly evangelicals
are no exception to this often-observed phenomenon. In fact,
they may be especially susceptible to this type of barrier to
open, authentic communication.
Whether the language reflects a defensive posture on the
part of the client or not, the first stage of the communication
process between therapist and evangelical involves the family's
presentation of itself in religiously encoded language.
The second stage of the translating process then, involves
the therapist decoding the messages received. This may be a
shared part of the interaction process (e.g., by means of ques-
tions, clarifications, restatements, etc., the therapist's under-
standing of the family's communications is validated) or de-
coding by the therapist may remain covert.
A third stage in communicating with this population, often
of special importance early in the counseling process, involves
the therapist's willingness and ability to "speak their language"
(cf. Erickson, 1959; Erickson & Rossi, 1975; Sechehaye,
1951/1970; Watzlawick, Weakland, & Fisch, 1974), to recode
observations in terms common to their experience and world
view. This step may help the family feel that they are understood
and accepted and that the help available will be relevant to their
Therapists who experience difficulty at any stage of this
communication/translation process may profit from consulta-
tion with clergy. As is the case in dealing with any socio-cultural
differences, being informed is a valuable tool, and consulting
with specialists may compensate for lack of information or
common experience. If neither speaking their language nor
consulting with someone who does is helpful at this critical stage
of treatment, referral may be advisable.
Assessment and Goal Setting. The therapeutic stage during


which this ability to translate assumes central significance is in

the initial assessment and goal-setting period. Effective problem
definition and goal selection derives from the therapist's facility
in translating and negotiating these activities with the family.
And, given the centrality of faith and religious experience in the
lives of these persons, it is essential that this feature of their
experiential ecology be evaluated in order to determine the
weight and impact of its loading within their family system. This
recommendation is especially relevant in light of the obser-
vation noted by Pruyser (1971) that conspicuously absent in
psychiatric case studies is any notation of the role of religion in
the client's life.
Data obtained by Szasz and Nemiroff (1963) provide sug-
gestive evidence that, in general, therapists confronted with an
evangelical family are dealing with a system whose religious
leaning they do not share. Lest this factual, experiential gap
develop into a lacuna, it is especially critical that therapists
address themselves to an understanding of the place of religion
in the life of the individual or family.
Pruyser (1971 ) proposes several transference and counter-
transference explanations for the general failure of diagnostic
case studies to include evaluation of religious data. Spiegel
(1959) extends Pruyser's analysis to include consideration of the
potential influence~f client and therapist religious orientations
on the therapeutic relationship.
However, the major task remains to move beyond these
preliminary considerations concerning the effective assessment
of the role of religion in the life of the individual, toward the
development of approaches for evaluating the im pact of religion
on marital and family systems (cf. Larsen, in press). Individual-
oriented, intrapsychic analyses fail to tap the grander per-
spective which includes the contextual determinants--signals,
supports, and consequences--of religious beliefs and behaviors.
While the task is beyond the scope of this paper, it is
proposed that work in this area might be enhanced by the
behavioral assessment model which includes a functional an-
alysis of adaptive as well as problematic behaviors. The call is for
a consideration of religious data from a systems perspective,
including analysis of the function of religion within the family
and broader ecosystems, as well as its relation to the various
spheres of experience for individual family members.
Transfer and Generalization. A final note under the "Trans-


lation" heading concerns the all-important process of solidifying

gains achieved during treatment. When change is achieved,
frequently the evangelical will interpret the gains as the result of
divine intervention, the working out of God's predetermined
will, etc. While such an interpretation may be metaphysically
veridical, it is often interwoven with the potentially undermining
corollary that clients perceive themselves as passive recipients
of externally-produced change. Such a perception might prove
self-defeating after the termination of treatment, if clients, failing
to internalize their role in altering circumstances, are faced with
new crises. Treatment effects may fail to transfer to the new
situation (Cialdini & Mirels, 1976; Davison & Valins, 1969).
The problem, of course, represents one of the knotty issues
in therapy and is not easily resolved. However, the specific area
of potential breakdown to be noted with this population con-
cerns the role of their particular attribution bias. While it is not
the place of the therapist to criticize or attack the faith of the
client, it does fall within the realm of clinical responsibility to do
all that can be done to "seal in" therapeutic gains. Toward this
end, extra-therapeutic generalization may be enhanced by
translating from the client's supernatural frame of reference to
the level of personal causation.
Accomplishment of this goal ought not be measured merely
semantically. Substitution of psychologioml jargon for a the-
ological vocabulary is an achievement of questionable value.
More valid measures of the degree of generalized learning
achieved are: experiences in problem solving with hypothetical
situations; assisting others in or outside the family in applying
relevant intervention plans to their own settings; behavior
rehearsal or role playing of coping strategies to be used in
problematic situations; or actual intervention on a variety of
behaviors in multiple settings. These and other direct strategies
for promoting as well as measuring generalization provide more
trustworthy criterial for evaluating progress than does language,
although language may represent a crude barometer of change.
Clinicians who speak the language of the evangelical might
go the extra step to facilitate closure in the two-way translation
process. They can help clients make sense of their therapeutic
experience so as to integrate it more fully by interpreting the
changes achieved within the verbal and conceptual framework
of the clients' faith.



The third critical stage in helping evangelicals involves the

mobilization of the general and specific resources available to
them for the purposes of problem solving and growth. The intent
here is not to develop a check list of potential "do's" and
"don'ts" concerning the array of techniques and approaches
appropriate to helping this group of people. While there exists a
plethora of popular writings for the evangelical audience in the
area of counseling and family life, much of which undertakes the
awesome task of prescribing the "Christian" approach to coun-
seling, the impression derived from the literature as a whole is
that it is simplistic, naive, and parochial in nature, failing to
do justice to the complexity of the topic.
It is presumed, rather, that those approaches and strategies
which have received significant empirical support with the
population in general will also work effectively with the evangel-
ical audience. The intent of this section, then, is to increase
awareness of the potential repertoire of additional tools and
resources specifically available for evangelical families.
Resources: Natural and Supernatural. The evan gelical family
has within its grasp a variety of both concrete and spiritual
supports which may be tapped with some guidance, either alone
or in combination with more traditional therapeutic strategies.
For heuristic purposes, these assets will be categorized as
behavioral, emotional, and cognitive.
Among the behavioral resources of the evangelical family
are certain activities and rituals relating to their faith which,
when meaningfully activated, may serve to revive hope and
enhance the family's sense of direction. These resources include
experiences which may be suggested or supported by the
therapist for extratherapeutic application, as well as those which
may be directly shared within the treatment hour. Included in
this list are activities such as prayer, reading of the Bible or other
religious literature, attending worship services or listening to
respected ministers on radio and television. In addition, out-
reach experiences may be encouraged in which the ministry to
others' needs may help some to rise above their own cir-
cumstances as they reap the benefits of serving others.
The example of prayer as a mental health resource is
illustrative. In a federally-funded study of the nation's mental


health needs and resources conducted in the early sixties (Joint

Commission, 1961) one question asked in the comprehensive
survey concerned how people handle day-to-day worries or
periods of unhappiness not seen as requiring professional
assistance. Sixteen percent responded that they prayed as a
means of coping with daily worries; one-third reported praying
in response to critical unhappy periods in their lives. The
percentages were significantly higher among members of the
more evangelical churches.
Emotional outlets, while interwoven throughout the public
and personal aspects of their faith experience are especially
relevant to the therapeutic task in regard to the social supports
to which the evangelical family has access. The worshipping
community with its sharing, celebrating, expressive interper-
sonal functions provides a pool of people and activities with
whom the evangelical family may be relating, or toward which
they may need directing.
Perhaps the most significant single resource in regard to the
therapist's contact with the evangelical family is the clergy. From
the initial referral, to their ongoing support and availability for
consultation, through to aftercare, the clergy remain potentially
fruitful therapeutic colleagues--who have the advantage of
being the "insiders" from the natural environment of the family.
Far too little use is currently being made of the clergy as support
link-ups for the religious family.
Finally, the evangelical family carries within its system,
readily available for immediate tapping at all times, a network of
cognitive and spiritual resources. This spiritual dimension of the
family's experience includes: (a) its cherished faith beliefs and
experiences through which family members derive meaning and
purpose; (b) their values, including the sanctity of marriage and
the high regard for family life and relationships; and, (c) their
Biblical knowledge which provides them with a potential source
of guidance and peace, and serves as a springboard for coping,
decision making, and problem solving.
Thus, as one reviews the system of spiritual resources
available to the evangelical family, it becomes apparent that
they bring with them to treatment--along with the problematic
patterns--a number of potential strengths, supports and coping
avenues with which the clinician should be familiar. Effect-
iveness, efficiency, and long-term maintenance of change may


all be enhanced by the coordinated mobilization of the relevant


The fourth significant stage of treatment in working with
evangelical families is the exit, or termination phase. It will not
be discussed in detail because, in essence, it represents a
recapitulation, in compressed form, of the issues presented by
the preceding three phases. Exit parallels entryto the extent that
it involves linking up with the natural environment of the family.
Often, this will include working out the follow-up support role of
the minister. Translation issues are repeated, as previously
mentioned, as the therapist seeks to help the family integrate
the changes which its members have achieved into their super-
natural world view, with special concern that they have learned
something lasting about their personal role in bringing about
change. And, mobilization of resources for ongoing support is
essential to the maintenance of therapeutic gains.
The therapist who has managed to maintain an effective
working relationship with the evangelical family through the
preceding three stages is likely to experience termination as the
least unique period in the process. Whether this sense of
increasing similarity with non-evangelical families be the result
of the therapist's having learned the "language" of the evangel-
ical and thus feeling an increased sense of kinship and under-
standing of where they are "coming from" (a change in the
therapist's perception of the client), or a consequence of the
family's having "shifted gears," coming to trust the therapist as a
helping resource (a change in the client's perception of the
therapist), is a moot point.
While the evangelical family represents a challenging
system for intervention attempts, the therapist with the open-
ness, energy, and flexibility to take on the challenge stands a
good chance of reaping the satisfaction of an investment well
worth the effort. While the question awaits empirical con-
sideration, personal clinical experience suggests that successful
negotiation of the four stages outlined in this discussion is highly
correlated with low rates of recidivism.
It has been suggested that: (1) the resources to which
evangelical families have access in their daily lives, (2) the


regular contact with an ongoing supportive community through

the church, and (3) the responsive availability of the minister as a
front line intervention agent, heading off problems before they
become severe, may represent key variables responsible for
maintaining successful levels of functioning, following the ter-
mination of treatment. In light of these considerations, special
attention should be directed during the exit stage to the
assessment and activation of such supportive maintenance

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