Experiencing God’s Grace One Client at a Time

Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. Matthew 25:40

It might have been my first year in the Pastoral Counseling program at Loyola University Maryland, when a professor asked what type of client we would not want to treat. I thought for a moment, and then proceeded to conjure up the most depraved type I could imagine. Several of us raised our hands to share our opinions. I do not recall any answers being validated, and as the class progressed, it occurred to me that it was a trick question. As counselors we are called to be healers, and it is not our role to determine who might be worthy of counseling. What a valuable lesson I learned that day.

Many other lessons were learned since, some tangible, and some not. Among them was the manifestation of God’s grace in the counseling environment. As a pastoral counselor, I have the added benefit of incorporating spirituality in my work. This is not an alien concept, especially since many clients have a spiritual foundation, even if they are not actively involved in a faith community. In my experience, incorporating spirituality in my work enhances the healing process. It also allows me to experience God’s grace through my clients.

Even as I offer the thought of experiencing God’s grace, I realize the intangible nature of this statement. Grace is a gift that is freely given by God. We cannot earn it, and we cannot claim to deserve it. We also cannot touch it or present it concretely. It manifests as awareness, and I have found it to be present in the therapeutic environment. Each client has her own special manifestation of grace. It might be the hope she feels at the end of a particularly intense session, or it can be a feeling of peace that accompanies sacred silence during counseling. Each manifestation is unique.

I have wondered who benefits from God’s grace during therapy, and I realize that both client and counselor do. God provides what is needed when we acknowledge Him in the counseling environment. He supplies the counselor tools to facilitate healing, and offers the client the ability to receive and integrate the treatment. Loyola’s Pastoral Counseling program encourages and expects its graduates to invite God into the therapy room. In so doing, we should have no reservations about treating all clients with respect and compassion, regardless of who they are, and what their circumstance is.

When the person in the client’s chair is you: Validating the 20-hour personal therapy rule

“I don’t want to be here, but I have no choice.” I have heard similar statements from clients; however, in this instance, those were my unspoken thoughts, as I reacted to Loyola University’s mandatory 20 hours of personal mental health counseling or psychotherapy, for Pastoral Counseling students. In retrospect, that experience as a client has made me a better counselor.

It was difficult sitting in the client’s chair. As much as I theoretically recognized the value of counseling, I was not comfortable. My therapist patiently listened as I selectively shared thoughts without allowing interruption. At the end of the session, she gave me homework which I accepted, but ignored once I left her office. While I am not proud of my behavior, nor do I encourage others to emulate it, it helps me to empathise with the clients who I now serve.

In their work The Practical Counselor (Brooks/Cole Publishing, 1997), Philip Lauver and David R. Harvey stated “you get to practice piano in private and perform when you’re ready, but in counseling, the practice is the performance.” This cannot be a comforting statement for a newly-minted counselor; however, having experience as a client, does help to alleviate some nervousness that new counselors face.

In my situation, I resisted even as my therapist displayed genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and empathy. Eventually she talked me down from the ledge of arrogance and anchored me in the client’s chair. That was when my work began. I learned to reflect the qualities she presented as I released my defenses, recognized my biases, and addressed my fears.

During that time, I realized the importance of trust, not only in the counseling process, but also in myself. And, I finally understood what Irvin Yalom meant when he wrote in The Gift of Therapy, that the therapist’s own self was his/her most valuable instrument, and that valuable instrument had to be well-tuned and kept in good repair, so as to be effective. Sitting in the client’s chair provided me that opportunity.

Today, I have my own clients, many of whom do not volunteer for therapy. They present similar defenses as I did when I was a client, selectively sharing their thoughts without leaving room for interruption, and rarely doing homework. I offer genuineness, unconditional positive regard, and empathy, as I prepare a therapeutic space where healing can begin.

I finally realized the value of the 20 hours of counseling that Loyola requires, reiterating Dr. Yalom’s statement that personal psychotherapy is the most important part of psychotherapy training.  It is also fundamental to ongoing maintenance of that valuable therapeutic instrument, viz. the therapist’s own self.

When the Unthinkable Happens: A Loyola Student’s Amazing Recovery from an Ischemic Stroke

I could only imagine the thoughts that were invading his mind as he lowered himself to the bathroom floor and dialed 911.  My friend/classmate, who I will call Al to respect his privacy, was scheduled to graduate from Loyola University Maryland in four weeks, with a Masters of Science (“MS”) degree in pastoral counseling.  He had taken the National Counselor Examination (“NCE”) that morning, and was still in the building, when tragedy struck.  For the next two months, Al exchanged the classroom for the physical and occupational therapy rooms, as he relearned how to perform basic activities of daily living (“ADLs”), with the goal of regaining his independence. 

Al had suffered a stroke, specifically a right anterior cerebral artery ischemic stroke.  This stroke did not create facial distortions, nor did it affect his mind.  However, his left side was weak, and in addition to an inability to control the affected muscles and limbs, he experienced pain and intermittent muscle spasms.  What the stroke did not affect was his positive attitude and sense of purpose.  And as I read his daily posts on Facebook, and the e-mail updates from his wife, I developed an appreciation for his faith in God and his personal power.  I had no doubt that recovery would occur, and it would happen quickly.

The daily updates were, in essence, progress notes.  Each day offered a reason to celebrate, and on the rare occasion that a relapse occurred, getting back on track was almost immediate.  I knew Al was an active member of his church, and as I followed his progress, I recognized that his relationship with God played a more essential role in his recovery than I had originally imagined.  One evening during a visit, we discussed his faith and how it related to his current situation. 

Al’s faith is rooted in the sovereignty of God.  He is certain that God was responsible for his illness, and he supported his belief with the Biblical teaching that all of our days are written and established before one of them has happened.  Therefore, he accepted the stroke as a marker on the road he was destined to travel.  I suggested a comparison with Job where God allowed the devil to persecute him.  Al did not agree, simply stating “because Christ has ransomed us.”  He said that God’s purpose is to glorify his son, and that God is dedicated to transforming each believer into the image of Christ.  Al also hoped that his illness would benefit someone, and his stroke would not be wasted.  I assured him that he had inspired me, and if I ever were to become ill, I would find a positive role model in him.

After almost 5 weeks, Al transferred to Encore at Turf Valley  to complete his final phase of inpatient rehabilitation.  Encore is located across the street from his church, and he was able to attend Sunday service.  As I sat with him during his last evening at Encore, I wondered what, if anything, in our Pastoral Counseling program could have prepared him to negotiate his life-changing event with such a positive attitude.  Al had acknowledged earlier feelings of despondency, and his fear of being handicapped for the rest of his life.  However, his faith helped him to set aside those thoughts and focus on healing.  And as I looked into his eyes as he spoke, I understood that I had found my answer.  Al’s ability to use his faith to effect healing was pastoral.

Al is at home now, and after two months of being cared for by others, he is testing his independence.  On his first day at home, he posted:  “Today, I am at home.  I made a pot of coffee.  I had breakfast, cleaning up after myself.  I am using a walker around the house, trying to remember to go slowly and to stay safe. But, I’m smiling.”  Al’s sense of purpose, his personal strength, and his faith in God continue to be strong, and have helped him through difficult times.  He still has a way to go to complete his healing, but his prognosis is good.  As I look back on Al’s journey, I am proud to have been his classmate, and to call him my friend.

Life after Loyola |An Interview with Lurlene D. Sweeney, LCPC

LIFE AFTER LOYOLA: 
An Interview with Lurlene D. Sweeney, LCPC

My first-year clinical supervisor, Mrs. Lurlene D. Sweeney, LCPC, is a graduate of Loyola University Maryland’s Pastoral Counseling program.  She is calm, sensitive, compassionate, and understanding, with a strong work ethic.  I was always impressed with the skill and ease that she brought to our supervisory meetings.  Not only did she have excellent clinical skills, but her pastoral presence was very valuable in helping me navigate my new role as a bereavement counselor intern.  Even after our mandatory sessions were over, I would call Mrs. Sweeney whenever I needed therapeutic guidance, and she was always amenable to receiving my calls.  Therefore, as I considered life after Loyola, my mind automatically found Mrs. Sweeney.  What follows is a glimpse of Lurlene D. Sweeney’s life after Loyola.

 

Glenda Laurent Dickonson:  When did you graduate from the Pastoral Counseling program and what degree did you receive?
Lurlene D. Sweeney:  I graduated in 2003 with a Master’s of Science in Pastoral Counseling.

GLD:  What was your first job after graduation, and how easy or difficult was it to attain? 
LDS:  I began working prior to graduation as a consultant.  I had formed a partnership with two other clinicians and we provided behavioral health consultation to a non-profit as a subcontractor for the Department of Health and Human Services from 2002 – 2004. 

GLD:  Did your affiliation with Loyola and/or the Pastoral Counseling program benefit you in finding employment after ending your tenure with Health and Human Services?
LDS:  In 2004 I was employed by Prince George’s Health Department Children and Parents Program (CAP) where I had done both years of my clinical internship.  I worked there as a therapist until 2006.  Actually the director had offered to hire me during my first internship year with CAP, but I declined because I did not want it to interfere with my studies.  So you see the connection with Loyola in terms of obtaining employment.  It is often the case that a student is offered employment at their placement. 

GLD:  You left CAP in 2006, so what is your current position?
LDS:  I am an independent contractor with The Pathfinder Project, Inc., a group practice serving multi-generational, multi-cultural clients with a variety of mental health disorders.  I have chosen, at this time, to work part-time, and this venue suits my needs, allowing me to work 2-3 days per week.  In addition, I provide supervision for graduate students in Loyola’s Pastoral Counseling program (http://www.loyola.edu/pastoralcounseling).  I enjoy staying engaged with the students and staff at Loyola.  My flexibility in my work schedule facilitates my availability for supervision.

GLD:  Did you have a specific goal upon graduation, and if so, have you attained it, or are you on your way?
LDS:  Actually, I did have a goal.  I have not yet attained it, and it’s possible that I will not; but that’s okay because what I am doing is no doubt in line with what God has for my life.  My goal when I began the Pastoral Counseling program, was to develop skills and qualifications to work with organizations, particularly churches in conflict.  I wanted to do conflict resolution within the religious community.  The description provided by Dr. Bob Wicks during open house was that this program was a marriage of theology and psychology, and it sounded like the ideal program to launch the career I wanted.  I had an undergraduate degree in psychology, and had spent decades studying scripture, and I loved both areas.  Therefore, Pastoral Counseling sounded great to me.  By the way, I had never heard of Pastoral Counseling before reading the announcement for the open house in the Washington Post.

GLD:  What was your favorite or most meaningful class that you took at Loyola?
LDS:  The most meaningful class was Group Therapy because of what happened in that class.  I witnessed the power of the process to bring meaningful change in a person’s life.  That class changed me and my classmates in a very profound and lasting way.

GLD:  Is there a professor or staff member who inspired you or who you admired?
LDS:  Dr. Wicks impressed me as to what it means to be a pastoral person.  Dr. Joe Ciarrocchi left an imprint for being demanding but fair; the former Clinical Director was the most encouraging to me personally.

GLD:  Many students come to Pastoral Counseling as a second or even third career.  What about you?  What were you doing prior to Loyola?
LDS:  Prior to Loyola I was a career Civil Servant.  I retired as a Supervisory Safety and Health Manager from the U.S. Coast Guard.  That was a job that required more left-brain activity – thinking rather than feeling, making tough decisions, managing crises, etc.

GLD:  Why Pastoral Counseling?  Was it a calling? 
LDS:  Given the diversion from my goal, I must acknowledge what people like Dr. Allan Tsai said to me early on – that I possess a gift that makes it easy for people to talk to me, and I am able to really hear what they are saying.  I know the gift is from God, and has been there all along, but I was not pursuing the development of the gift.

GLD:  What advice do you have for current PC students?

LDS:  To get the most out of the program, one has to be open to the experience.  It’s not just an education, it is a process of personal change – a journey, first for the learning clinician, and then for those they work with.  As scripture says:  “And hardworking farmers should be the first to enjoy the fruit of their labor.”  2 Tim. 2:6 (NLT).

IT’S NEVER TOO LATE … Especially when dreams are waiting

Quote

Glenda Laurent Dickonson

I had decided that it was already too late.

Too much time had passed and my brain was too old to absorb anything new.

And then I had that conversation with Sr. Roberta, and she mentioned Loyola. My curiosity was in full bloom as I postponed bedtime to find out if what she had described really existed. There it was, nicely detailed under the Pastoral Counseling tab. As I read the description, I became more excited. This was the program I had envisioned, but did not know had existed anywhere. I completed the enrollment form for the next information session, and as I hit the ENTER key, I realized what I had done. I was actually considering returning to college. Ten years after trashing my application to a nearby state university, I was requesting information for a program I had just heard about.

That was 5 years and 73 credits ago. I wish I could say that it was easy or seamless, but it was not. With my financial obligations, there was no way I could quit my job which was located in D.C. near the U.S. Capitol. The commute to Columbia was sometimes a challenge, especially during rush hour, but my car eventually learned to find the way on its own, in spite of gridlock, rude drivers, or those who seemed to have no sense of urgency. Sometimes I would walk into class tired; sometimes my eyelids would grow heavy as I unwound in my chair; but only for a brief period. Eventually I would become re-energized and ready to participate with my classmates.

It is sometimes mind-boggling when I realize how much personal peace I have found in the Pastoral Counseling program. When my friends question my sanity or mention how long it is taking me to graduate, I do worry at times, but then I jokingly tell them that I hope to graduate before I turn 100. The truth is, I believe that whatever age I am when I walk the stage at graduation, it would be the right age for me. There is no turning back now, and I am glad I realized that it is never too late, especially when dreams are waiting.  There may be challenges, but life has a way of working things out, if only you allow yourself to be open to possibilities.