Defining the Ethical Christian Music Therapist

My “I” disclaimer: I have been a Christian most of my life. I have been a music therapist for 10 years. I have seen probably hundreds of clients and patients in my time. I have never overtly or knowingly evangelized to anyone I have worked with as a music therapist. I do pray (outside of therapy time) for my clients when they or their family asks me to and likewise if they asked me not to pray, I would honor their request.  I sing religious songs when they are requested, not only Christian songs, but others as well. Singing songs during therapy from non-Christian religions has never and will never upset or bother me–I am not there for me, but for my client. I am excited to work with anyone, no matter what age, race, gender, or religion. I do enjoy when I see a client with similar views/desires/ethnicity because we have a commonality that may allow me to better serve them with our shared understanding, although I make every attempt to understand clients who hold beliefs and ethnicities different from my own.  I always do my best not to treat my clients differently because of our differences or similarities.  I enjoy learning about other religions, sacraments, ethnicities and cultures. I don’t seek out Christian clients, but many of my clients do consider themselves to be and have disclosed that to me. I have never turned away any potential clients due to their beliefs or lifestyles that have differed from mine. I have no plans to advertise myself as a Christian music therapist online or in my advertisement materials. My Christian values (such as humility, fairness, honesty, love, patience, unconditional treatment toward others) guide my private practice morally and ethically.  I deeply care about all of my clients and patients regardless of their background or current religious practices.

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When I published my blog titled, “Christian Music Therapist or Music Therapist Christian“, I knew it would prompt some controversy, and it did . But on the flip side, I also had many Christian and non-Christian music therapists respond with agreement to what I had written. What I wasn’t prepared for was the rapid questioning that occurred between some of my colleagues that sparked some serious dialogue  about ethics and religion as a therapist. Words like transference, countertransference and projection came up many times. I rather enjoy discussing difficult topics as long as both sides are fair and respectful. The long discussion maintained that spirit with only a few jabs in between. But overall, my colleagues were respectfully questioning the meaning behind some key points of my blog, and I did my best to answer their questions. After a week and over 350 comments later, I am emotionally tired and have stepped away from the online discussion.

I am here writing about the Christian music therapist again because I want to clear up any confusion that is coming from my previous blog. What I did not think about when I wrote it was how my wording would be perceived by readers from various backgrounds, including some who were also Christian. I only looked at it from my point of view, which is deeply rooted in Christianity. So to clarify some points for those who may be inquisitive about a few issues I brought up, I have listed selected portions from the code of ethics we must adhere to as music therapists as well as the topics we agreed upon during the online discussion. The bulleted topics as listed below have always been a part of my private practice as a music therapist. While some of the wording in my previous blog may have been vague and left questions in the minds of my colleagues, my hope is that the statements below will better explain who I am (and try to be) as a therapist. A music therapist always striving to be in line with our code of ethics.

Music Therapy Code of Ethics:

1.6 The MT respects the rights of others to hold values, attitudes, and opinions that differ from his/her own.

1.9 The MT practices with integrity, honesty, fairness, and respect for others.

2.3.1 The MT respects the social and moral expectations of the community in which he/she works. The MT is aware that standards of behavior are a personal matter as they are for other citizens, except as they may concern the fulfillment of professional duties or influence the public attitude and trust towards the profession.

2.3.2 The MT refuses to participate in activities that are illegal or inhumane, that violate the civil rights of others, or that discriminate against individuals based upon race, ethnicity, language, religion, marital status, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, age, ability, socioeconomic status, or political affiliation. In addition, the MT works to eliminate the effect of biases based on these factors on his or her work.

3.3 The MT will not discriminate in relationships with clients/students/research subjects because of race, ethnicity, language, religion, marital status, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, age, ability, socioeconomic status or political affiliation.

3.11 In those emerging areas of practice for which generally recognized standards are not yet defined, the MT will nevertheless utilize cautious judgment and will take reasonable steps to ensure the competence of his/her work, as well as to protect clients, students, and research subjects from harm.

Discussion Topics:

  • It is never ok to project your beliefs onto clients.  Evangelizing can be done inadvertently, so Christians (and other faiths) need to be aware of that tendency and either take this issue to supervision or closely guard how we are perceived by our clients.
  • As therapists, we need to create an atmosphere of openness and honesty to allow our clients to express themselves in a safe environment.
  • When a client asks a therapist about their religious affiliation, the therapist must be aware of the therapeutic value of that question/answer before answering.  Answering that question could affect the client’s level of comfort in therapy. In many instances, answering that question may have nothing to do with treatment and should be diverted without making the client feel slighted . In other instances,  answering that question could make the client more comfortable and support the therapeutic process. In addition, answering that question could be directly correlated with treatment if the goals are spiritually-related.
  • Our focus should ALWAYS be on the client’s thrapy process, not the therapist’s needs/desires.
  • Self-disclosure on the therapist’s part should only be practiced when it serves the client.  When a religious question comes up, invite the client to consider what the question is about for them before deciding to share. We should ask questions like:  Is it safe for my client for me to disclose?
  • It is important to bear in mind that not all people who share the same faith hold the same worldview.
  • SEEK SUPERVISION!  This is of great importance, especially for those music therapists who are in private practice and/or work at a facility as the only music therapist.
  • Tolerance and Acceptance are not the same.
    The definition of the word tolerate is:

    1. Allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.
    2. Accept or endure (someone or something unpleasant or disliked) with forbearance.

    Acceptance is a different animal.  Another word that can be used interchangeably with acceptance is approval, which has a better definition that applies to our topic:

    1. The action of officially agreeing to something or accepting something as satisfactory.
    2. The belief that someone or something is good or acceptable.

    We must be accepting of our clients, knowing that it is not our job to use our beliefs to change them through therapy unless our beliefs happen to be a part of the goal our client is working toward.   This does not mean we should accept everything about our clients, though. They are coming to us with a problem and are wanting to elicit change in a positive direction. Like always, we need to be aware of these dynamics and whether we are tolerating or accepting our clients. In that case, we still need to be mindful, maybe even MORE mindful of the impact of our beliefs. This goes back to the statement made previously: “Our focus should ALWAYS be on the client’s therapy process, not the therapist’s needs/desires.”

  • What we say is who we are perceived to be.  Be careful what you choose to share with other colleagues, clients and the world.
  • What are the implications of this type of self-disclosure (ex., writing a blog about Christianity as a music therapist)?  We have to consider who may read it.  Current clients?  Colleagues?  Potential clients?  After answering that question, we need to individually assess whether this self-disclosure is appropriate for the work we do and whether it is appropriate to disclose our religious affiliation when coupled with our career.

In closing, we as music therapists have an obligation to treat our clients with the utmost respect and acceptance.  They are looking to us for help.  It is our duty to serve these clients without letting our own issues get in the way.  We should always be prepared for uncomfortable questions during therapy.  They do happen often.  When difficult and uncomfortable questions arise (about religion, personal beliefs, personal life), it is our responsibility to take a step back, ask why the answer may be pertinent to the therapeutic experience and then proceed with a professional response applicable to the client’s needs and goals.  Due to the nature of music therapy, our responses will vary.  Our settings, situations, goals and clients are all unique.  This is part of what makes music therapy so interesting.  So go out, be professional and don’t be afraid of questions that are related to religion or alternative lifestyles or politics. . . .your answers will be as unique as your clients.

Excerpt from the online discussion with other music therapists:  “The purpose of my initial blog was to look at another idea within therapy, not to put music therapists in a box. There are many facets and methods and ways to be a music therapist. There are many facets and methods and ways to observe our clients. . . .Observance gives me a slice of their life.”  –Valerie Kocel

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3 thoughts on “Defining the Ethical Christian Music Therapist

  1. I believe that if you are with a client & that person brings it up then you should answer them honestly & if it offends others then maybe they are ashamed of who they are & what they believe , I was always taught honesty is the best policy. I believe it’s not you but them that feel threatened.

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