The Person’s Spiritual Journey
When a faith leader invites someone to share his/her experiences, religious history and cultural background, the faith leader begins to learn what has formed this person and how the person’s spiritual journey has brought him/her to this particular point. If this is done in a structured way, faith leaders can begin to learn what is troubling the person and if the assistance of a mental health professional is needed. It is essential to have a clear understanding of the person’s faith connection with its social and cultural dimensions. This is key information in making an accurate appraisal of the person’s situation. “The process is similar to asking for a family history, but here one notes the nature of involvement with a religious community. The more knowledge one has of religious traditions, their sociology, practice, key symbols, and unique language, the more one will know what people are talking about” (Dombeck & Karl, p. 193). In this situation the pastor is looking for the very personal meanings that are attached to symbols, rituals, beliefs, and religious figures, including God.
Obtaining a religious history can be done informally, and should fit the faith leader’s personal style. After all, this is not a formal test; it is an informal search for understanding between the faith leader and the person in crisis. The following is an outline that can assist the faith leader in such an interchange.
Basic information: Elicit information about the age of the person, ethnic background, marital status, educational and vocational background. If there is a mental health problem and it has been diagnosed, the diagnosis should be noted. The person should be asked how he/she understands his/her illness (medically, spiritually, etc.). Faith leaders should also ask: what gives the person his/her greatest sense of happiness, fulfillment and/or peace; what are the person’s greatest fears, concerns, worries, etc.; what makes the person angry and why; and to describe the pain resulting from the illness.
Faith connection: Ascertain the person’s religious affiliation; the religious affiliations of the parents; and what kind of religious upbringing the person has had. Furthermore, note any changes in religious affiliations; when the changes took place; what is the level of present involvement; and what is the relationship with the religious leader and community.
Personal meanings attached to symbols, rituals, beliefs and religious and biblical figures: Learn from the person: what religious practices are most meaningful; when and in what ways does the person feel close to God; what does he/she pray about; what gives special strength and meaning; what is the person’s relationship with God; how is God involved in his/her problems; has there ever been a feeling of forgiveness; and what images, concepts, etc., does his/her illness suggest to the person.
Relationship to faith resources: Gather information about: how the person is involved in religious activities; how the person feels about that involvement; what are some of the faith connected turning points in his/her life; and if the person has made any changes in faith affiliation, frequency of attendance at worship or other levels of involvement in the faith community.
When the session is over the faith leader might review what took place looking at the person’s responses. What, for instance, was the level of the person’s interest and involvement in the interview? Was there an attempt to answer the questions openly, or were the responses indicative of denial and concealment? What rapport developed between the faith leader and the person? How verbal, or silent, was he/she? Behavioral characteristics, such as eye contact, level of engagement, and overall body language might also be assessed. Is the person’s religious language private, or is it shared by a faith community?
The strengths and weaknesses of the person’s religious orientation should be noted. This would include such things as how the person’s religious orientation is presently affecting outlook and behavior, and what therapeutic issues have emerged during the course of the interview (Eimer, 236-237).
Dombeck, M., & Karl, J. (1987). “Spiritual issues in mental health care. Journal of Religion and Health,” 26(3), 183–197.
Eimer, K. W. (1985) “The Assessment and Treatment of the Religiously Concerned Psychiatric Patient,” The Journal of Pastoral Care, Vol. XLIII, No. 3, 231-241