Guest Post: A New Sourcebook for Counseling Pagan Clients

Guest Contributor —  April 25, 2014 — 8 Comments

[The following is a guest post from Michael Reeder. Michael Reeder LCPC is a psychotherapist in private practice in Baltimore, MD.  He holds a certificate in Spiritual & Existential Counseling from Johns Hopkins University, and is a graduate of Gryphons Grove School of Shamanism.  He has been affiliated with several local Pagan organizations and presented at conferences including Sacred Space, Free Spirit Gathering, Ecumenicon, and Pagan Pride Day events.  He can be reached at michael@hygeiacounseling.com and www.hygeiacounseling.com]

Spiritual_Guidance_Across_ReligionsI am pleased to announce that Spiritual Guidance Across Religions: A Sourcebook for Spiritual Directors and Other Professionals Providing Counsel to People of Differing Faith Traditions has just been published by Skylight Paths Publishing.  I’d like to talk a bit about this book, developing Pagan counseling efforts, and the role of a recently deceased Pagan elder.

This book contains a 19 page chapter on Neo-Paganism – as much text as is devoted to most of the other faith traditions.  Our inclusion here is a big deal so I want to dwell on it for a brief moment.  Up to now, there have been the very rare and occasional professional journal articles on Wicca or Paganism for mental health counselors.  There are also a few books teaching pastoral counseling skills to Pagan clergy or presenting Pagan versions of AA 12-Step.  Even books on world spirituality have tended to leave us out or give us a few pages lumped in with miscellaneous odd topics at the end.  I am unaware of other college-level textbooks providing professional instruction on spiritual counseling for Pagans.

This book offers exactly what the title suggests — help for psychotherapists, counselors, spiritual directors, clergy, and other helpers to understand a bit about the faith tradition of the clients in front of them and some guidance on how to appropriately help them from the perspective of their tradition.  (The full list of faith traditions includes Evangelical Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Judaism, Reformed Christianity, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Spiritual Eclecticism, Unitarian Universalism, Neo-Paganism, Bahá’í Faith, Sikhism, Shinto, Humanism,  New Thought, Zoroastrianism, Native American Religion, African Diaspora Spirituality, Daoism, Jainism, & Confucianism.)  Each chapter gives you an overview of the tradition, methods for spiritual guidance honored in that tradition, common spiritual problems encountered by people of that tradition, tips & techniques & practices, and helpful resources for further learning.

This opportunity came to me through the quiet good graces of Judy Harrow and an open-minded editor willing to trust her and myself.  Although a known Pagan elder, many are unaware of all the good work Judy did as both a mental health counselor and an interfaith goodwill ambassador. Judy was a past president of New Jersey ASERVIC (Association for Spiritual, Ethical, & Religious Values in Counseling – an American Counseling Association division) and active on the AAPC (American Association of Pastoral Counselors) Yahoo Group. Both ASERVIC and AAPC are very mainstream, slightly conservative counseling organizations with LOTS of ordained Christian ministers. The fact she was so respected there speaks volumes.  Judy was a former Chair of the Pastoral Care and Counseling Department at Cherry Hill Seminary (where I took a wonderful online class which taught me exercises I still use with clients).

Judy taught a class on pastoral counseling skills for Pagan clergy for some years with the Pagan Leadership Skills Conference.  I was honored to co-teach it with her a few times.  She was also instrumental in gathering Pagan counseling heavyweights to join the Pagan Professional Counseling Yahoo Group that is now well over 100+ members strong, and a place where licensed professionals can converse about the intersection of Pagan spirituality and counseling.  She wrote a recommended book entitled Spiritual Mentoring: A Pagan Guide that I’m pleased to see now has a Kindle edition available.  Buy a copy.

I mention all this both to discuss the significant contributions of Judy, and to outline a large portion of the work on Pagan counseling to-date.  Along the way I have also created a www.pagantherapy.com website I occasionally update and is currently somewhat shabby, a now ancient training slideshow for hospital chaplains, an in-service training for psychotherapists on Paganism, and even a rather rough video for Pagan therapy clients on how to discuss Paganism with their counselor (very long load time!).  Several years ago the Pagan-Centered Podcast did podcasts on mental health topics I was involved with located here (Paganism and psychology) and here (trauma, depression, and anxiety topics).

I’m sure I am missing out on a lot of the work by my more academic colleagues and I believe much of the work regarding Pagans in the military overlaps with counseling topics.  My apology – work as a full-time psychotherapist makes it hard to keep up sometimes.

The few paragraphs above serve both as a partial resource guide to Pagan counseling, and as evidence of how rudimentary efforts in this area still are.

Michael Reeder LCPC

Michael Reeder LCPC

Years ago I naively thought that there would be lots of interest in the topic of Paganism and counseling from the mundane world.  At first I worried that other mental health counselors would be judgmental.  This proved largely not the case, and I even was a student member of AAPC for a time and an associate at a pastoral counseling center in Washington, DC.  Later I thought other counselors would be interested in learning about Paganism or refer Pagan clients my way.  This has sadly proven to be mostly untrue also.  Most therapists don’t think they need any special knowledge or training about Pagans.

In 2007 I sent an unsolicited manuscript on counseling Pagan clients into an ASERVIC monograph project.  ASERVIC had called for papers on how to assist clients from a variety of spiritual backgrounds, and not asked for any information on Paganism.  This ASERVIC project stalled for many years and I finally ended up significantly rewriting and expanding the monograph into a chapter for the book that was just published.  I figure I’ve put 4-6 weeks of time into writing the chapter.

Writing about Paganism and counseling for a mainstream audience presents several challenges.  My first goal was to lay out a convincing case that Paganism promotes mental health.  Pagan readers of my chapter may be a bit uncomfortable with how much emphasis I place on how useful Paganism is, and how to tell the difference between “odd” Pagan beliefs versus mental illness.  I also do some similarity comparisons between Pagan rituals, counseling, and hypnosis procedures.  The idea here was not to convince the (mostly Christian) audience that Pagan spirituality is real, but rather to convince them that it is a good healthy thing regardless.

Another challenge was writing about Pagan religion in one chapter.  We of course have at least dozens of different religions under the Pagan umbrella.  (Although I do subscribe to Michael York’s arguments that Paganism broadly should be treated as a world religion too.)  This resulted in quite a mash-up of different religions in our one chapter and an emphasis on their similarities and the more common Wiccan norms.

I also had to follow a discussion outline standardized across all of the chapters that was written with well-intentioned mainstream (mostly Christian) assumptions.  When your clergy are largely trained at home; don’t get the educational benefit of rotations in hospital chaplaincy units; are more conduits of energy than sermonizers and flock shepherds; “lead” groups of priests rather than laity; and can worship potentially any god, goddess, spirit, or ancestor; you’ve got a lot of explaining to do!

I am honored that the chapter on “Spiritual Guidance in the Neo-Pagan Tradition” got passed to me to complete.  I believe this book will be helpful to counselors, spiritual directors, students, and helpers of any type trying to reach a wide variety of spiritual clients.

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  • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

    Sounds great! I’ve been considering this kind of thing for a while. Not for myself, but for the Pagan and Heathen communities. Decent/proper training in counselling seems to be a missing aspect of group leader training.

    • http://www.rendingtheveil.com Christopher

      I agree.

      Half the battle is getting the information out there. The other half is showing its value to those who can benefit most from it.

      Hopefully this post will help with the second part.

  • Kerry

    Wonderful Michael. I’m so glad to see this material, as it’ll open dialogue amongst Pagan and non-Pagan therapists/professionals.
    ~Kerry
    LCPC

  • Jennifer Cox

    WOW! I am so excited!!! I think I got a breath of fresh air! Would you please add me to your book list? I am graduate student of Capella University (CACREP accredited) in the Mental Health Counseling program. I am also a member of the OBOD from Sussex England and High Priestess of a Celtic Pagan Clan, which is based on Geert Hofstede’s masculine/feminine studies and what is known about the ancient Irish Brehon Laws. I will be seeking LPC licensure in Missouri 2018 after completing my clinicals. I’ve been looking for what are considered as peer-reviewed resources that focus on Paganism and the differences between different pantheons and groups for awhile. I know a couple more individuals that are studying in the behavioral sciences whom are also Pagan that will just be fanatic about this book too! Do you plan on writing any more?

    summerschild05@gmail.com

  • Kurt Hunter

    As a counselor who is also a Witch I appreciate dedicated works like this around neo-Paganism in mental health, social work, counseling and addiction treatment. It’s been my experience (perhaps only anecdotally) that this field attracts a disproportionate number of us who want to be able to mix what we practice with what we Practice and still be authentic to both. Thank you! It will go on my short list.

  • TPW

    I wonder how effective a 19-page chapter can be in representing the multiple, unrelated religions which are generally considered Pagan. “Native American” is the only other chapter which tries to cover many religions which share a label, so it’s the only other chapter which likely has similar challenges.

    Did you take an approach which attempts to broadly describe them all? Surely you couldn’t discuss all of their unique aspects, and approaching the spectrum as if it were all Wiccanate has problems of its own. I’d love to know how those issues were addressed.

    • kenofken

      Whatever it is, it’s a great start and a vast improvement over the readily available resources to the counseling profession, which were nothing. Unless the curriculum of mental health professionals is revised to include a whole semester or more of comparative theology, we can’t really expect them to understand all of the nuances of the modern pagan/polytheist movement. Most of them will never grasp the fine differences in interpretation of the Bible among, say, Seventh-Day Adventists, Catholics and the many branches of Lutheran and Anglican churches.

      Even if we undertook to have some of our best pagan scholars write such a master tome, it would be attacked by all sides by people who would insist that everything included about their tradition is wrong, and probably deliberately so via Wiccanate Privilege.

      In any case, I don’t need my shrink to come at me with the encyclopedic knowledge of my tradition I would expect of its elders. I just need him or her to be aware that yes, this is a real thing for me, and to have some general idea of how my sense of the sacred might motivate my life and how it might be harnessed to help me do better. It gives therapists enough knowledge to have a starting place for an intelligent conversation about the patient’s religious beliefs and practices. The patient can fill them in on the fine details if needed.

  • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

    This is wonderful news–thank you, Michael Reeder! I remember how, as a new therapist, I first “came out of the broom closet” at work in response to other therapists’ misconceptions about Paganism coloring their work with a client at my mental health clinic. There had been those who interpreted that client’s religious beliefs as signs of psychosis! Needless to say, it wasn’t the most comfortable coming-out imaginable (though I do think it was helpful to our client, thank goodness).

    Of course there are limits to what any single publication can do, but this kind of slow, steady, professionalism makes all the difference over time. I know that I would have been very grateful to have had a copy of this book to share around the conference table, once upon a time. Then, too, as another friend of Judy Harrow, I’m so pleased that you’ve carried forward this part of her legacy.

    Oh, well done.