Helping Career Coaching and Counseling Clients Make Positive Change through Faith Integration
by Dina Jones & Erica Wright
This article first appeared in January 2018 as an AACC CounselED article.
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Faith integration is an important part of coaching and counseling clients. Research indicates that when a treatment plan takes into consideration the client’s worldview, including spiritual belief systems, the therapeutic alliance is strengthened and other positive outcomes occur (Koenig, 2004; McMinn, 2011). Professionals who can competently assess and address a client’s faith in the career counseling or coaching process will have the advantage of increased speed and accuracy in assessment, intervention planning, and establishing goals. This article will serve to orient readers to the need, process, and facilitation of integrating a client’s faith into career services.
Recent research and statistics demonstrate that for many Americans, decision making is informed by faith or faith related values. A 2013 Gallup poll reports that 90% of Americans hold a belief in God (Newport), yet licensed counseling professionals ascribe to religious belief at a lower rate than the general population (Aten & Leach, 2009; Pargament, 2007). Career counselors and coaches, including but not limited to those who practice under the banner of faith related services, must demonstrate competency in how to assess the meaning and value clients place on faith in their own lives and be equipped with strategies to respond appropriately.
When discussing the role of faith in clients’ career decisions, some may contextualize this as applying to a subset of clients. However, every soul who sits in front of you has faith in something, and for some clients, this is evidenced by their participation in your practice. Coaches specializing in career services often have a high rate of self-referrals. Clients are spending their money- or at least their time- with the hope that the coaching or counseling process is able to help them reach the next level, get unstuck, learn new skills, discover their destiny, or reach new insights.
Besides beliefs related to the efficacy of counseling or coaching, each client usually holds several other healthy and unhealthy beliefs that strongly impact their career decisions. Consider the following scenarios in which clients’ belief systems are central to their presenting problem:
- A client weighing a salary offer– part of his personal belief or value system is that he is always ethically required to give 10% of his earnings to a church.
- A student has decided to change their major from accounting to children’s ministry because they received what they describe as a “higher calling.”
- A student has been turned down for several positions she was highly qualified for, after making it to the top two or three candidates each time. Yet she carries herself with a grace and confidence that you wish you could bottle up and sell to all your other clients- and maybe take some yourself. She attributes her attitude to faith in God’s plan for her life.
Other clients will present with a deep desire to connect their gifts and strengths to an altruistic cause, as they desire to see a very direct link between their profession and benevolence extending from their spiritual beliefs. Gerald Corey discusses Rabbi Harold Kushner’s belief that “encountering God consists in doing the right thing […]we make room in our lives for God when we do things that make us truly human, such as helping the poor, working for social justice, and keeping in check our exaggerated sense of self-importance […] leading a religious life is characterized by action. Acting on our beliefs is what matters” (Corey, pg. 118).
Clients may seek career services due to a discomfort rooted in an inconsistency between their belief about work and their current vocational reality. In a 2013 study by Barna, only about one-third of presently employed Christians surveyed (34%) felt called to the work they currently do. Particularly among Christians, one’s occupation is often talked about in relation to God’s “calling.” And yet, only about one-third of Christians (34%) feel that their current employment is a calling (among those who are presently working).
The Barna study asked employed Christian adults if they believe God is calling them to do something else in terms of work, but they have not been willing to make a change yet because of their current life situation. Overall, about one out of ten working Christians (9%) agreed strongly with that feeling and another quarter(26%) agreed somewhat, totaling one-third of today’s employed Christians (35%) who are experiencing this kind of tension about their calling. Among younger Christians though, nearly half (44%) are feeling this disconnect between their perceived calling from God and the realities of their current employment. As clients come to you for career help, counselors and coaches must be able to recognize and help bridge the frequent disconnect between the client’s perceived calling and vocational goals.
Christians on Leadership, Calling and Career
As a competent career counselor, it is important to have good information about how your clients view vocation. This includes being both ethical and thorough in investigating religious beliefs that impact your client’s career priorities, values, and decisions.
Virtually all counselors and coaches will start with some sort of intake form. Generally, the client or potential client is providing information about their presenting problem, background, and goals. Gathering some basic information this way, on a form that is given to every single client, can normalize the belief system inquiry in a way that benefits clients with and without belief in a higher power.
While the initial form is usually a written form filled out by a client on their own, general best practices are to review the intake with the client. Counseling trainees must heed warnings here that if the helping professional holds negative feelings towards religion, people who ascribe to particular belief systems, or people who lack identified belief systems, the caregiver will need to work through those emotions in order to be a safe person for clients in a discussion about faith and vacation. Negative feelings are more overarching than perspectives like “religion is just a crutch” or similar thoughts; these negative feelings also include any insecurity, longing, or uneasiness the therapist may feel about their own beliefs.
The following is an example of a short intake section on spirituality that includes both open and closed ended questions:
- Do you wish to discuss spiritual issues in your counseling sessions as they pertain to your career development? If not, please disregard the following questions.
- Do you have a religious affiliation that is of importance to you?
- Do you attend a church, synagogue, mosque, or other place of spiritual gathering?
- Are you currently receiving guidance from a spiritual leader who provides insight into your career experiences and goals?
- Is there anything related to your spirituality that has caused you concern in your career exploration/development?
- Are you aware of any spiritual resources or practices in your life that could be used to help you cope with or solve your career related problems?
Some open-ended questions or reflections include:
- If you feel that a higher power provides guidance for your career decisions, what does that look like in your life?
- “Tell me more” about all of the above close ended questions.
Value Sort Cards
An exercise commonly occurring early on in career counseling and coaching sessions is the use of value sort cards. Card sorts are “nonstandardized and subjective assessments commonly used in career counseling to help clients clarify their skills and career interests” (Duffy, Friedman, & Martin, 2008). Career related satisfaction and happiness is enhanced when an individual’s values are well aligned with their work and work environment (Esquibel, Nicholson & Murdock, 2015).
In this type of assessment, clients typically sort between 30 and 40 cards of various themes or ideas into categories as a way to develop personal or career-related priorities and, as they do so, themes tend to emerge. It is preferable for clients to identify patterns within the sorted categories themselves so that the themes are personally relevant to them. Card sorts are sometimes preferable to more standardized assessments because the information gathered therein is done so informally and through client speech. Therefore, clients are actively engaged in the process of self-awareness. Additionally, through this process counselors can see firsthand how clients organize thoughts and ideas, as the success of the exercise is dependent on the client’s ability to engage in the process and recognize and explore patterns or themes (Duffy, Friedman & Martin, 2008, pg. 1421).
Clients often enjoy this exercise but also realize the difficulty of decision-making. Career professionals may consider investing in a set of value sort cards that includes spiritual values, or creating their own card sort system. Regarding counselor-created value sort cards: “While these are not validated or tested for reliability, a positive feature of this approach is that the cards can be tailored to a targeted population” (Osborn, 2010). Examples include “Serving a Higher Purpose” as a “Work Outcome” value or “Life Values” including Spiritual Health, Spiritual Growth, and Church or Religious Community Involvement.
Career Direct and other Career Assessments
The Career Direct assessment describes itself as “an individual, personal growth resource designed to help you maximize your God-given talents and abilities. More than a simple career test, it analyzes four critical areas: personality, interests, skills, and values” (NEEDS DATE AND PAGE). This assessment is one option for clients with a Christian belief system to receive career aptitude feedback that integrates Judeo Christian values into the feedback and results.
Benefits of Faith Integration into Career Services
There is a significant and overarching reason to acknowledge religion in career counseling, writes Larry Cochran in Career Counseling (1997). Cochran discusses the importance of creating a narrative at the beginning of counseling, which helps to create meaning in a person’s life. Cochran emphasizes the importance of creating a narrative at the beginning of a course of career counseling to learn more about the individual and create goals that align with every area of a person’s life, including their faith values. Learning to acknowledge a client’s spirituality and religious beliefs as they relate to their careers can help make people better counselors. According to Cochran (1997, NEEDS PAGE), “True spirituality results in making people calmer, happier, and more peaceful, and it is a mental attitude that can be practiced at any time.” Thus, as counselors practice being more open to a client’s spirituality, understanding it, and applying it to their career goals, a counselor has sharpened their abilities to be more aware and empathetic to all clients’ basic needs.
One benefit of having knowledge of a client’s belief system is the ability to assign homework or reading that may encourage or inspire your client partly due to a shared belief system with the author. Several Christian millennials have been inspired by Christian author and speaker Jon Acuff, who shares motivational career advice centered around protestant Christian principles. “You know who we should fire, that guy who keeps learning how to do his job even better, said no one ever”, writes Acuff in Do Over (NEEDS DATE, p. 109). On the topic of “calling”, a popular but sometimes ambiguous topic in career development for Judeo-Christian clients, Kevin DeYoung writes, “So the end of the matter is this: Live for God. Obey the Scriptures. Think of others before yourself. Be holy. Love Jesus. And as you do these things, do whatever else you like, with whomever you like, wherever you like, and you’ll be walking in the will of God” (2014, p. 122). Authors like Acuff and DeYoung, who offer advice on career and calling through the lens of Christian counseling, can be a powerful homework tool when faith is integrated into career counseling.
One of the greatest concerns that can come from integrating faith with career counseling is the same for many different types of counseling, and it can be summed up in one word: presumptions. Every counselor has the unique task of hearing an individual’s story, values, goals, concerns, and problems without prejudging or projecting an assumption on the individual. A career counselor must listen to a client’s faith values and how they relate to their career goals without prejudging or presuming a negative outcome due to their own differing stances on faith. A counselor or coach must remain objective, listen, and provide clear, nonjudgmental advice to the client on how their career choices can help them meet their personal goals, faith values recognized and included. In a 2009 Counseling Today article, entitled Connecting With Clients of Faith, Scott Young states: “as counselors, we need to be intellectually curious with these clients and open to looking at the strengths their religious beliefs provide. Don’t prejudge their beliefs harshly, and don’t be rigid. If you have a hidden agenda in wanting to change something in somebody, it will never work. It will only sabotage the relationship. This should be a guiding principle against the temptation to subjectively counsel a client of faith.
Acuff, J. (2015). Do over: Rescue money, reinvent your work, and never get stuck. New York, NY: Penguin Publishing Group.
Aten, J. & Leach, M. (Eds). (2009) Spirituality and the therapeutic process: A comprehensive resource from intake to termination. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Cochran, L. (1997) Career counseling: A narrative approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Duffy, R., Friedman, S.,& Martin, P. (2008). Card Sorts. In F. T. Leong, E. M. Altmaier, and B. D. Johnson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Counseling Vol 4: Career Counseling (1421-1423). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2008.
Esquibel, J., Nicholson, B., Murdock, J. (2015). Understanding the impact of career values on career satisfaction: Utilizing card sorts in career counseling. Career Planning and Adult Development Journal, 30(4), 234-246.
Corey, G. (n.d.). Integrating Spirituality in Counseling Practice. In Vistas Online. Retrieved from https://www.counseling.org/docs/default-source/vistas/integrating-spirituality-in-counseling-practice.pdf?sfvrsn=6
DeYoung, K. L., (2014). Just do something: A liberating approach to finding God’s will. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
Koenig, Harold G. (2004). Religion, spirituality, and medicine: Research findings and implications for clinical practice. Southern Medical Journal, 97, 1194-1200.
McMinn, M.R. (2011). Psychology, theology, and spirituality in Christian counseling. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House.
Newport, F. (2013) More than 9 in 10 Americans belief in God. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/147887/americans-continue-believe-god.aspx
Osborn, D. S., & Bethell, D. S. (2010). Using card sorts in career assessment. Career Planning and Adult Development Journal, 25(4), 101-114.
Rollins, J. (2009). Connecting with clients of faith. Counseling Today. Retrieved from http://ct.counseling.org/2009/08/connecting-with-clients-of-faith/