Guidelines for Spiritual Growth and Religion
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ery few programs meet our standards on this issue and we see no excuse.  Finding programs that do will be difficult. We realize it is difficult to support spiritual growth in clients when there is so much difference and controversy over religious doctrines.  However, we think there are ways to get the job done.  The genuine difficulties do not justify an anti-religion bias.  Avoidance of the the issue gets communicated to students/clients as an anti-religion bias that we believe is unacceptable.   We also have programs with labels associated with various religions that are simply trying to market an inferior program by claiming a religious lable. 

  • The Hill School in Pottstown, PA (a conventional boarding school, not a therapeutic program) is not church affiliated. However every week the students meet in an auditorium, where the program includes one faculty member, a different one each week, standing up and sharing his/her own personal spiritual journey.
  • Family Foundation School near Hancock, NY requires (or recently did requre) all students to participate in religious observances of all faiths represented. They also put great emphasis on religious participation.
  • Many programs promote spirituality as offered in twelve step groups, with the concept of “higher power.”
  • Many programs rely on a Native American observance of spirituality, as it is understood that there is no effort to make this anyone’s religion, but to have a sense of the how it feels to be spiritual.  One problem is that this approach assumes that there will not be students clients from a background of the Native American religion used in this way, possible an assumption demeaning to the Native Americans who practice that religion.  Schools and programs doing this need to do it respectfully and accurately, then consider whether or not they are seriously promoting a religion that may differ from the religion of the students / residents.

These are all sincere attempts to support a recognition of the importance of spiritual health.  We'd like these efforts to go farther in some cases, but these examples make clear that there is a way to do this.


  • A number of programs with privileges tied to a "levels" system make participation in religious activities including attendance at public worship a privilege of advancement in the levels system. 
  • Many programs (not all) that describe themselves as “Christian,” are providing inferior services that hide behind the term “Christian” as vehicle to make money and avoid accountability. Some are truly dedicated ministries.  Many are money making scams.
  • Very few programs support religious milestones such as Bar Mitzvah, and confirmation.
  • Very few programs offer special diet according to religion or permit observance of special days.
  • Some schools and programs with a church affiliation are the worst offenders by reason of how they dilute the spiritual content of what they do and give a message that seems like an apology for their faith based connections.

Spiritual development and religion are two different things, although related. The late H. Stephen Glenn described the foundation of spirituality as perceiving oneself as being a contributing part of something larger than self.

Much of what we are writing targets secular programs, but we welcome faith based programs into the mix.  We do expect that faith based programs will be transparent about what faith the program is based on. We expect that they will invite and encourage participation in religious and faith based activities, they will respect the line that separates encouragement and nurture of faith from religious abuse.  We want faith based programs to be transparent on how they approach a student/client of a different faith if enrolled: do they expect participation in activities of their own faith or encourage participation in activities of the faith of the student's or client's family? Either may be acceptable.  We are raising the issue of transparency. 

We welcome well run faith based sectarian schools and programs whether they serve only populations of the same faith or serve those of a different faith.  However, when encouraging young people of a different faith to participate in the faith of the program, this must have truly informed consent of the parents and be handled in a manner that is not emotionally stressful for the young person.  There can be a very fine line between evangelism and religious abuse. While we know valid accounts of young people experiencing a religious conversion during a stay in a faith based treatment center having a very positive effect on the young person's life, we know more stories of coercive techniques in religious therapeutic or behavior change settings that have been a new source of trauma and that we would consider to be religious abuse.  We have no problem with faith based facilities inviting students to participate in religious activities of the faith sponsoring the facility, but we consider most examples of forced participation to be abusive.

As a starting point for guidelines we suggest:

  • Programs need to recognize that spiritual health is an important part of mental health.  Programs need to explain clearly how they incorporate spiritual health into their program. This is apart from any specific religious observance.
  • Programs should provide means for clients to adhere to expectations of their religion, especially with respect to diet and observance of special days.
  • Programs should not condone a peer pressure to resist religious activities.
  • Tying participation in religious activities and celebrations to levels systems is, in our opinion, while a common practice, is a totally unacceptable interference in a family's right to choose their religious practice. (This does not mean to imply that we object to tying attendance at community religious services to reasonable confidence in the client's ability to participate in religious activities safely and non-disruptively but it is not appropriate to make religious participation an equivalent of  and off campus recreation event when setting privileges.)  Again, spiritual health is necessary to mental health.
  • Programs need to validate and encourage clients to follow the milestones and faith commitments of the religion of their home. Religious neutrality should not support obstruction to religious observance or a peer pressure that obstructs religious observance.
  • Sectarian and faith based programs should be free to follow their own doctrines, including doctrines at which some would take offense, but need to be very clear with students and parents prior to enrollment about practices that derive from religious doctrines that some would find uncomfortable. 
  • Sectarian and faith based programs should not use the time of behavioral or mental health crisis to attempt to force a religious conversion. A sectarian program can be very helpful in using a client’s existing religion as a support for recovery in many cases.  But a student/client is in a program for mental health reasons or for behavioral changes or for emotional growth.   Religion and faith can be useful tools in some situations but they should not become distractions or points of emotional upset.
  • Schools and programs with a religious affiliation need to be very clear about what doctrines they espouse and what they expect of their students / clients.  We are particularly concerned with "Christian" programs being reticent about greater specificity, especially when they say they are "simply Christian."  We believe that to be disingenuous unless they are prepared to support the Christian perspective of all of a very diverse group of people, such as the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Bishop John Shelby Spong,  Pope Benedict XVI, James Dobson, Bishop Eugene Robinson, (LDS) President Thomas S. Monson, and the late Pope John XXIII, for example.  If they are not at least that eclectic within the diversity of Christendom, then some further clarification is necessary. We are not stating that every Christian program needs to endorse the views and practices of all of those individuals; we are saying if they cannot, they need to provide a more specific definition of their religious commitment than simply to describe themselves as "Christian." 
  • We encourage invitation to religious participation; we abhor abusively forcing religious participation.

Last updated April 14, 2009

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