Dr. Michelle Deering Conducts Religious and Spiritual Workshop at Rutgers


A person may identify himself as religious yet feel distanced from the spiritual world. Another individual may feel spiritually connected yet completely irreligious.

To help her participants begin to understand how religion and spirituality intersect, Rutgers School of Social Work coadjutant Michelle Deering, a licensed psychologist and a therapist, led social workers through a series of interactive exercises on Friday at the 11th annual GSAPP Cultural Conference in the Busch Student Center.

“The point of the presentation was to help practitioners in mental health to understand the context in which they’re working in society as a whole,” Deering said. “ … In order for them to work with their clients one-on-one, they need to understand themselves in terms of where they are in their own personal journey.”

Deering, who earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Brown University before finishing her educational career with a doctorate in counseling psychology at Rutgers, said this workshop was supposed to be two, full-day sessions. She instead ended up with two hours on one day.

In addition to teaching classes, she operates her private practice, Curative Connections LLC, in Watchung, New Jersey.

Deering’s experience in guiding social workers showed through her program, “Spirits In the (Psychological) World: The Spiritual Landscape of Psychotherapy.”

Attendees filled out a family religion genogram and then discussed their religious or spiritual identifications.

The purpose of this exercise was to allow the participants to feel comfortable and express their personalities while sharing their beliefs, Deering said.

Robert Varnay, an outpatient therapist at the Youth Development Clinic in Newark, said this year’s breakout discussion was different from last year’s.

“This was a little more personal, talking about our personal beliefs,” Varnay said. “And the people at the table were very friendly.”

Brian Coleman, a lecturer in the School of Social Work, also participated in this introductory activity.

“I enjoyed talking with the people in the group and hearing about their beliefs and their experiences and sharing mine,” he said. “It was interesting to talk about those ideas with other people.”

The participants were able to convey exactly how significant religion or spirituality was in their everyday lives.

“It gives me the strength and the peace that I need to go into a difficult situation,” Varnay said. “It’s a source of strength.”

Coleman said thinking about God is useful, and spirituality is important to him because it serves as a source of support.

Participants then formed small groups to examine scenarios involving classified cases in which the code of ethics was the focus of the discussion. 

The lesson for therapists here was to not connect with the patient in a way that makes it seem as though the therapist’s own beliefs are being applied to that individual, Deering said.

She recalled an experience in which she acquainted herself with a client too openly and too quickly. The client did not show up for the next therapy session, she said.

“I cannot assume a sense of familiarity with someone … I’m not in their shoes,” she said. “They’re not in mine.”

Deering told the practitioners that if they come across a client who identifies as nonreligious, they should take a slightly different route.

“I would then ask what the client likes to do to relax,” Deering said. “What settles you, grounds you, uplifts you? What reenergizes you?”

The concluding activity was an ephemeral breathing exercise titled, “Touch and Breathe.” The participants used their index fingers to touch and apply minimal pressure at three points on their bodies and then breathe methodically.

Following the exercise, Coleman said he could see its advantages and that he would probably implement the exercise into his teaching on some level. 

“I wanted to hear some different ideas that people had for using spirituality in working with people around different issues that they have,” he said. “And, I felt like I learned that.”

With the presentation delivered and goal of her workshop accomplished, Deering said she was heartened by the curious and respectful audience’s attitude.

“They were engaged in the process and courageously open to look at themselves and then consider the different scenarios that we were bringing forth, as well as consider their colleagues they were sitting across from,” she said.


Elmer Chang

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Targum.