Praying with clients

Praying with clients
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When is it appropriate for a health professional to pray with clients? Clinical psychologist ROBERT R. JACOBS shares some practical ideas and his own experience regarding this sensitive topic.


Whether or not to engage in prayer with a client can be an important decision for a therapist. I have faced this issue in my own practice, particularly when my work takes place in a medical setting. Hospitals by their very nature focus on issues that are medically acute, and what is necessary for efficiency in critical care is not always calming. The adjustment associated with any surgery, for example, is formidable for a patient. Quite understandably, patients often face a lot of emotions in the wake of a surgery – sadness and depression, anger, hurt, discouragement and anxiety. They often have basic problems and need psychological support.

One particular patient, Candace, greeted me so cheerfully one afternoon, I had to wonder: what had she figured out? I quickly learned that Candace benefited from three distinct psychological advantages:

  • she felt good about life,
  • she had the support of friends and family, and, deeply religious,
  • she engaged constantly and meaningfully in prayer.

Candace actively reminded herself of her relative security and comfort. “I even have a psychologist here checking on how I’m feeling!” she observed. Looking around, I could not count the number of cards that she had received from loved ones and congregation members, offering their warm regards and support. All of us benefit from knowing that we do not face challenges alone. And since childhood, the act of praying had been a natural part of Candace’s life, woven into her daily experience.

She suggested that we join in prayer.

Reasons abounded for avoiding her request. Since that afternoon, I have consulted with many trusted colleagues for advice. Perhaps it is not surprising that each psychologist with whom I spoke expressed reluctance about praying with a client. One asked me directly, “Would it be absolutely necessary?”, as though prayer was a therapeutic last resort.

Joining in prayer involves a boundary crossing; it is a risky path, but with particular clients, in a particular cultural context, it has a unique and powerful therapeutic value.

Most of my colleagues said that they would join their patient in prayer only under certain circumstances. So what factors would make a situation appropriate, and how would a therapist go about discerning them?

To answer this, we first need to understand why therapists would resist in the first place.

The Principle of Integrity means that a therapist seeks to be honest, just and fair, monitoring professional and personal boundaries in his or her work. For many people who seek therapy, pastoral counseling is an entry point. Others seek therapy in a clinical setting intentionally avoiding anything religious or spiritual. Clients often do not want to feel pressured or directed to make particular changes, nor do they want to feel judged or shamed during their therapy process.

A therapist’s competence is actually dependent on his sensitivity to particular religious beliefs and practices, which are often highly personal. Crossing into this area during therapy may appear risky or presumptuous. Of course, drawing upon a client’s religious or spiritual practices, or discussing them intellectually, differs from participating in prayer during a therapy session.


Prayer provides a unique opportunity
to sooth and comfort,
and at times its particular power might make it worth
the risk in therapeutic circumstances.


It seems to be a matter of degree, according to the various levels of involvement with the actual practice. The first level is to simply acknowledge a client’s religious beliefs and spiritual resources. This was considered by my peers to be unproblematic and none of my colleagues expressed any reluctance. The second level is when the therapist is present in the room, witnessing or supporting the client in prayer. The third level, the focus of this article, is the willingness for a therapist to join with a client in prayer, putting words to the spiritual focus of the moment.

So the question of interest is: will the client find it helpful? Colleagues who said that they would participate in prayer during a therapy session agreed that doing so presented a powerful opportunity to connect with a client and to validate the client’s individual strengths.

Our professional code of ethics states that psychologists must be aware of, and respect, cultural, individual and role differences, including those based on age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, equal orientation, disability, language and socioeconomic status, and psychologists must consider these factors when working with members of such groups.

In the case of Candace, making a decision to pray together certainly would be informed by consideration of and respect for her cultural and religious identity.

Another consideration is whether the request for prayer comes from the client. This is important ethically, as requests to join in prayer from a client do not represent an imposition of a therapist’s personal views or moral code.

Prayer provides a unique opportunity to sooth and comfort, and at times its particular power might make it worth the risk in therapeutic circumstances. Vulnerable moments are no time for judgment or condemnation – instead, they call for a focus on strength, perseverance and meaning.

Toward the conclusion of our meeting, Candace smiled and then surprised me with her directness when she asked, “Would you say a prayer with me?”

It was clearly a point of solidarity, a deeply meaningful moment for her. And so, with Candace’s hand in mine, I prayed.



Article by ROBERT R. JACOBS



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