Anne Lamott has a wonderful book about prayer titled Help, Thanks, Wow. The name alone expresses much about the reasons people pray: to ask for help, to say thanks, and to express wonder. Some people pray regularly, others occasionally, and some not at all. Some pray with a particular deity in mind, some to their ancestors, some to the Earth itself, or to the Universe. Some pray words they have memorized, some pray their own words, some pray in utter silence. Others pray with their hands, with their feet, or with music.
In all its diverse forms, for all its diverse motivations, prayer is a spiritual resource for many clients. And we can integrate prayer into psychotherapy in a variety of ways.
Most easily, we can suggest prayer as an out-of-session intervention. For clients who report prayer as one of their spiritual resources, we can encourage them to deepen their connection with prayer: to talk with spiritual leaders or friends about prayer, to ask others to pray for them, to pray at regular times of the day, to pray at moments in which they don’t usually think about praying, and to explore different ways to pray (writing their prayers, reading prayers others have written, doing more listening than talking, and the like).
We therapists can also pray for our clients: outside of session; silently, in the middle of session; and aloud, in session.
Praying aloud with clients in session is an intervention some therapists are open to using, even enjoy using, and some are not. Either way is fine. But if you do pray aloud with clients, it’s important to recognize that this is an intervention in which we are most likely to impose our own spiritual beliefs and practices on our clients, and we should proceed with great care. Several authors have written helpfully on this topic,1–5 and if you are considering praying aloud with your clients, or if you already do, I encourage you to read these works and take them to heart.
While you have this book in hand, though, let me offer several thoughts about using in-session, out-loud prayer as an intervention. First, there are many good therapeutic reasons to pray in session with clients. Here are eight, borrowed with some adaptation from the work of Peter Gubi:1
- To build rapport and trust
- To help with emotional regulation
- To deepen a client’s connection to emotion or somatic experience
- To deepen a client’s capacity for honesty and reduce self-deception
- To deepen a person’s connection to God or his spiritual experience
- To strengthen a client’s capacity to ask for help
- To validate an already expressed thought or feeling
- To gently lead a client toward understanding or articulating a previously unrecognized thought or feeling.
Can you think of others?
If you do take the prayer plunge, I hope you will keep several thoughts in mind:
Never pray to proselytize. There are honorable professions where proselytization is expected and permissible, eg rabbi, pastor, imam, etc. Therapist is not one of them.
Pray aloud only if you have a clear sense of who your client is spiritually, what language they speak, whether prayer is meaningful to them, and how they pray.
Pray aloud only in the language that is native to your client, and only if that language has integrity for you.
Pray aloud only if it is something you can do with authenticity. Only pray in a way that feels real for you (the style of prayer), and only for things you are comfortable praying for (the content of prayer).
If you’re not comfortable praying aloud, don’t. If your client asks you to pray and you don’t want to – not with him, in particular, or not with anyone, ever – just say that prayer is a private practice for you, and not something you want to do aloud. Then ask him how your response lands with him. And offer to listen to his prayer.
Pray aloud only with your client’s consent. Sometimes your client might ask you to pray for her or with her. Sometimes you might offer to pray for your client or with her. But never just start praying.
Be very careful about initiating prayer with clients who have trouble setting boundaries or who are prone to please you or follow your every suggestion.
Be careful that praying with you is not creating an easy out for your client. For some clients, prayer is a way to avoid seeking truth and being challenged. Ask yourself if praying with you will weaken the client’s resolve to change – by implying that there’s an outside fixer who can take care of this issue for the client, just the way the client wants it – without the client having to stretch himself.
Be careful that praying with the client is not creating an easy out for you. Therapists can be tempted to pray when we find it hard to continue listening to our client, when we want to escape the pain or helplessness of being with her and her difficulty, when we want to speed the client through grief or pain, or when we are uncomfortable with her feelings and want to tidy them up. Will offering to pray give us an escape but leave our client feeling abandoned?
Pray aloud only if you have considered how it might affect the transference. Will praying aloud create any subtle pressure for the client to think, feel, or act like you?
Also consider the countertransference. Are you feeling pressured to pray? Will you feel performance anxiety? Are you feeling overexposed and more vulnerable than you want?
Connect with your heart before you speak a word, and whatever you say, keep it short and simple
Russell Siler Jones is director of the Residency in Psychotherapy and Spirituality at CareNet/Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, WinstonSalem, North Carolina, and a psychotherapist in private practice. He is a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Columbia Theological Seminary. This article is an extract from Spirit in session: working with your client’s spirituality (and your own) in psychotherapy, by Russell Siler Jones, published by Templeton Press, 2019. Reproduced here with kind permission from the publisher.
1. Gubi PM. Prayer in counselling and psychotherapy: exploring a hidden meaningful dimension. London: Jessica Kingsley Publications; 2008.
2. Magaletta PR. Prayer in Psychotherapy: a model for its use, ethical considerations, and guidelines for practice. Journal of Psychology and Theology 1998; 26(4): 322–330.
3. La Torre MA. Prayer in psychotherapy: an important perspective. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care 2004; 40(1): 2-40.
4. Rossiter-Thornton J. Prayer in psychotherapy. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 2000; 6(1): 125–128. 5. Richards PS, Bergin AE. A spiritual strategy for counselling and psychotherapy (2nd edn). Washington DC: American Psychological Association; 2005.