Academic Exchange Quarterly     Fall    2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 10, Issue 3

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements or   text lay-out and pagination.



Divinity and Femininity Issues in Counseling



Darline Hunter, University of Houston Clear Lake

Rhonda Moore, University of Houston Clear Lake


Hunter, Ed. D., is Assistant Professor of Counseling and Moore is a graduate counseling student at the University of Houston Clear Lake.




A survey of 80 Christian women, on the effects of patriarchal Christianity on female role stereotypes, was conducted as part of a Spirituality in Counseling class.  Results of that survey and the journal entries of Christian women indicated that, even though some women’s attitudes and beliefs are not reflected in the traditional patriarchal church structure, language, and images, many women are experiencing difficulty imaging God as anything other than masculine.  Effective cross-cultural counseling involves understanding an individual’s worldview.  Worldview is shaped by a number of interconnected parts including individual beliefs, which are often based on religious tenets and built around religious practice, including language and divine imagery.  Understanding how religious culture influences self-image can be a powerful and necessary tool in effective cross-cultural counseling.





The need to be an effective cross-cultural counselor grows exponentially every year. Harper and McFadden (2003, p. XV) state:

    …increased prevalence [of culture-centered counseling] has been driven

    mainly by the requirements of (1) counselor training accreditation groups,

    (2) counselor certification boards, and (3) a multicultural counseling

    competence movement as presently reflected in standards of professional



Increasing cultural consideration requires diligence on the part of those who desire to practice counseling competently and ethically. Even for those clients who are the “same” as their counselor culturally, understanding  an individual’s worldview will help the professional enlist the most functional treatments on a case-by-case basis.


Worldview is shaped by a number of interconnected parts including individual beliefs, experiences, and personality. The origins of most cultures are based on religious tenets and are built around religious practice including language, divine imagery, church government, and ceremonial expression (Stone, 1978). According to Harper and McFadden (2003, p. 188), “current recommendations for multicultural counseling competencies ask counselors to be able to understand the concept of ‘worldview’ of the client, and, in many instances, this worldview may include qualities of spirituality, religion, and the transpersonal.”   Understanding how culture and spirituality influence the client can be a powerful and necessary tool in the counseling process.


Most of the major religions practiced today are patriarchal and favor the male gender over the female gender (Stone, 1978).  A male-identified deity that is directly imaged by men through Jesus is typically at the core of Christian experience.  Many women are struggling to find spiritual support in the patriarchal models of Christianity. As society progresses and changes, these models are less relevant to roles and needs of some women.  Some women are beginning to look beyond the male-oriented past to a more feminine understanding of God.  Other women experience difficulty imaging their God, as anything other than masculine, even though their needs are not being met in the traditional patriarchal church structure, language, and images (see The Survey).


Counselors addressing the spiritual issues of women must be aware of the complications arising from the mixture of culture, class and ethnicity which make the religious identification of women difficult and conflicted. There may be a need for the counselor to address client ambivalence between being committed to some, or even most, aspects of her religion, while also experiencing discomfort with doctrines that interfere with her self-image or relational functioning.  Women are impacted by patriarchal religions. Religion helps define gender roles and the family unit and support, the male hierarchy in both the family and the church (Siegel, et al., 1995).  Miller (2003, p.50) states

 ……….patriarchal religions teach women to be silent, to be economically

 dependent, to avoid identification with the divine in a feminine, to be

 cooperative or to exhibit a peaceful manner, to prevent alliances with women

 different from themselves, to create negative stereotypes of others that are

 not a part of her religion, and to justify the control of her body by society. 


As women become more involved in leadership positions in the workplace, in the home, and in society, it is important that counselors understand how religious symbols, language and ideas affect thinking about self and others.  This is especially true when so much of “god-language” is masculine in nature and self-view is formed by beliefs of how we image our creator. 


These feminine issues of spirituality are being addressed and explored on both a professional and personal level in a graduate counselor education program at the University of Houston Clear Lake in an elective course titled Spirituality in Counseling.  The views and needs of potential future clients are studied, but not before the counseling students struggle with their own definitions of God as masculine or feminine or a blend of the two images. It is interesting to note that in this class, there was less class dissention and passion in reference to the concept that there may be alternatives to the Christian paths to God, than to the concept that the Christian God may be portrayed as something other than masculine  (see The Discussion).  In order to ensure that students graduating from this counselor education program are able to demonstrate respect for clients’ religious or spiritual values by avoiding the imposition of the counselors’ values on to the client, the students are given the opportunity to view the spiritual or religious beliefs of the client, as well as their own spiritual or religious beliefs, as culturally influenced.  Both the counselor and the client bring their religious/spiritual values into the counseling session. Birdsall (2001) indicates that there is the potential for values impositions to be made in obvious ways, such as trying to convert clients, and in indirect ways, such as making judgments or in selective attending.  In order to assess the attitudes and perceptions of counseling students and in order to expand the students’ awareness of how these issues affect clients, a survey was conducted of religious symbols, language and ideas of women in Christian traditions.  The goals of this survey were to identify “god-language” and to gain insight into how personal religious beliefs affect female development and behavior.


The Survey



Eighty-seven responses to the survey were received, helping researchers to begin to characterize women who identify themselves as Christian and their feelings about their personal experiences with God, church, and other Christians. Subjects were randomly chosen and represent a variety of backgrounds based on age, race, denomination, socio-economic status, and marital status.



Leadership – the category of questions reflecting respondent’s attitudes or teachings about women in spiritual leadership positions.

Women – the category of questions reflecting respondent’s views of gender roles.

Naming – the category of questions reflecting respondent’s gender view of God.

Inclusive – the category of questions reflecting respondent’s feelings about the use of inclusive language in religious ceremonies, scripture, and naming God.



A paper survey was divided into 4 sections: (1) demographics; (2) statements with a possible response of strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, or strongly agree; (3) tabulation with calculations of each category; and (4) analysis of the totals which gives a continuum for each category along with explanations for different ranges of numbers. Responses were received from the Anglican, Assembly of God, Baptist, Catholic, Catholic-Carmelite, Roman Catholic, Christian, Unity, Church of Christ, Episcopal, Jehovah’s Witness, Lutheran, Methodist, and non-denominational Christian traditions. All survey respondents were female ranging in age from 14 to 72 years: only one survey was returned per respondent.

Survey Questions

Questions fell into one of four categories: (1) Leadership (2) Women (3) Naming (4) Inclusive. These categories were based on Christian religious structure, community, ritual, and practice.



This category reflected attitudes and/or teachings concerning women in leadership positions in their churches. The lowest average score yielded 90% of respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement, There are no limits to what God might call me to do.  The highest average score yielded 50% of respondents disagreeing or strongly disagreeing to the statement, Women can serve in any capacity in my church including elder, deacon, preacher, and teacher of adults.  Many of the women indicated God could call them to any position in the church but half the women indicated that in their churches some positions are not available to a woman.


Most women indicated they would feel comfortable worshipping in a church with a female pastor or having women serve in leadership positions in their churches. Sixty-five percent of respondents felt a woman could do as good of a job as a man in church leadership and 80% did not feel God would forbid them from seeking leadership positions in their churches. Responses concerning women in church leadership indicate that some respondent’s church practices do not reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the women in attendance. Sixty-seven percent of respondents indicated that women serve in some type of leadership capacity in their churches.



This category indicated levels of gender stereotypes among the women surveyed. It also provided insight into how the respondents felt about themselves as women, especially in relation to men. Forty-six percent of respondents indicated that Christian men are the spiritual head of the house and 33% of the respondents indicated that their husbands are the spiritual head of their own home. Forty-three percent of respondents indicated a belief that man was made from God and woman was made from man. However, 90% of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that men represent a more perfect image of God than women.



This category indicated gender views of God and comfort levels with imaging God as feminine, as well as masculine. The averages in this category indicated a general ambivalence to imaging and referring to God in feminine terms and a persistence among respondents to hold to tradition when it comes to their views of God as male. Twenty-eight percent of respondents image God in feminine terms while 40% indicated they were uncomfortable thinking of God as “mother.” It is noteworthy that 43% indicated that they have taught their children to refer to God in masculine terms only.



This category reflected attitudes and feelings concerning the use of inclusive language in religious services, readings. Overall, this category received the highest averages of all the categories in the survey, indicating marked opposition among respondents to using inclusive language in their churches and sacred texts. Thirty-three percent agreed or strongly agreed that they would prefer scriptural interpretation of the Bible that used inclusive language. This statement had the lowest average of all the statements in this category.



Significance of Results

Survey results indicated a dichotomy between women’s beliefs, attitudes, and practices outside of church and their religious experience in their church communities. Based on demographic information, many of the women surveyed hold positions of leadership in their communities and employment and are significant wage earners in their household; however, they are limited in the positions they may hold in their church communities. Although women enjoy greater equality in their social, political, and professional lives, often their church communities continue to limit them in leadership roles.


Limitations of Survey

 This survey was limited in scope due to the restricted geographic area of respondents and due to the “Christian-only” nature of the survey. Future surveys would seek, not only more respondents, but also a greater diversity of respondents from other religious traditions. Sampling women from a range of cultures and backgrounds would give an expanded view of patriarchal religion and how it affects women psychologically.



The results of this initial survey provide insight into how language about God and how religious customs are practiced affects women personally and socially. More research into this subject is needed to better understand the numerous and diverse issues involved.


Personal Responses

Twenty respondents to this survey kept journals during the survey period. In addition to filling out the survey, these respondents participated in a class in which feminine imagery and language about God was explored. Many of these students indicated that they felt they had a gender-neutral view of God; however, they expressed discomfort with feminine imagery when referring to God. All the students used exclusively masculine language for God in their writings. One student wrote, I am sitting here reflecting on what (the speaker) was talking about in class today about picturing God as a woman. That was so hard for me to do. I have always pictured God as a man… when (the speaker) would say the word woman or she, talking about God, I would picture God as a woman for about two seconds and then I would automatically turn her into a man in my mind. When the speaker shared a scenario of a church where exclusively feminine language was used for God and for congregation members, several of the students voiced negative feelings about that scenario. One said she felt sorry for the little boys in the scenario. Another said that if her husband were in a church like that, he would be out of there.  Another student said that she felt she could handle the exclusion better than a man could tolerate being excluded.


Several of the students indicated very strong feelings against feminine imagery for God. One student wrote in her journal, Its funny how at the beginning of class we all agreed that our background was Christian, but within an hour we had so much division.  I was surprised by the rigidity of my classmates’ views regarding religion. For others, however, there was an awakening and a meaningful connection to an exercise in which feminine imagery was used for God. One writer expressed, I have always referred to God in masculine terms, but in my mind and heart I usually attributed female qualities to him.  This meditation experience was so spiritual for me and it left me feeling loved, calm, and protected.


Ethical Concerns

Given the wide range of responses from the survey, the counseling students had the opportunity to see how the spiritual/religious culture of their future clients and of themselves has the potential to impact the counseling relationship and focus of treatment.  Their ethical concerns echoed that of Sparks and Park (2000, p. 212).


  If a clinical decision is made to support the client’s wish to adhere to her

  or his indigenous cultural beliefs, practitioners may feel that they are

  violating feminist principles by not actively addressing the oppression

  sanctioned within the client’s culture.  However, if practitioners decide

  to confront and challenge the client’s cultural values and norms,

  practitioners may feel that this also constitutes a violation of feminist

  principles because they are not supporting the woman’s values and beliefs.


Miller (2003, p. 180) makes recommendations to counselors in “sorting out these complex ethical dilemmas” as follows: 

  • Understand the context of the culture
  • Be aware of the history of oppression
  • Be aware of yourself
  • Be flexible in problem solving


It is these four specific recommendations, which guided the development of the Spirituality in Counseling class, in general, and the presentation of the Patriarchal Christianity and Women segment, specifically. Emphasis was given to the development of awareness of self through class discussion, individual and communal exercises, out of class experiences with unfamiliar religious rituals and practices, and journaling activities.  The goal was to provide the counseling students with the opportunity to develop an awareness of their own spiritual/religious values in relation to their perceptions of the masculine/feminine qualities of God in order to impede counter transference that might negatively affect the therapeutic process.  Harper and McFadden (2003, p. 189) conclude that the mirror of multiculturalism provides a way to see oneself in contrast with others, and, in this way, one’s identity can be strengthened and expanded as one both differentiates and connects with others who may believe differently.   There is room for much more study and research on this subject as the search continues for improved methods to teach counselors to address the spiritual issues of their clients.




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