W&J faculty members launch study into faith-based therapy

by Angela Roberts
August 19, 2018


Two Washington & Jefferson College faculty members from the Department of Psychology launched research this August into the efficacy of a faith-based therapy technique called Gestalt Pastoral Care.

GPC practitioners, a conglomeration of licensed therapists and Christian ministers, combine gestalt psychological theory – which emphasizes the treatment of the whole individual rather than aspects in isolation – with spiritual strategies such as prayer and personal faith rituals to guide clients on a path of healing.

Professor Michael Crabtree serves as principal investigator in this study, which will span nine months and look at the impact of GPC strategies on as many as 500 subjects across Pennsylvania and in New York and New Jersey. Assistant professor Benjamin Seltzer will help with data analysis.

Ultimately, the duo hope to determine whether GPC is “all smoke and mirrors,” or if it is “something that produces effects,” Crabtree said.

After introducing retreats that integrated faith with gestalt healing practices in the 1970s, Rev. Tilda Norberg shared her techniques with a small group of clergy and therapists in 1984. This initial class evolved into a formal training course, which includes an internship program and results in certification in the practices. Today, more than 300 people have completed the course to become certified GPC ministers.

David Janvier, a therapist in the Greater Pittsburgh Area, is one of the nine practitioners involved in Crabtree’s study. While he always incorporated elements of faith in his practice, he has used GPC strategies for eight years.

“We know that it works, but it’s hard to quantify (its results) and show that there’s science behind it, as well,” Janvier said. “We’re trying to bring credence to it through research.”

GPC Associates, the organization that offers training in GPC strategies, became involved in the study after Janvier got wind of a research grant offered by Brigham Young University and funded by the Templeton Foundation to groups experimenting with faith-based psychological practices. Norberg’s organization was one of 22 around the world to receive funding from this grant, which was open to groups practicing a variety of spiritualities.

Crabtree recognized that the study is not ideal, as there is no “control group,” or sample of individuals who are not impacted by GPC strategies. All subjects involved will receive care from GPC ministers, whether it be through retreats or through regular appointments with a therapist.

Before beginning treatment, the subjects will rank their level of agreement to a series of statements, which will gauge their level of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and spirituality. Throughout their experience, individuals will revisit these statements. Crabtree and Seltzer will assess how their responses change throughout treatment.

The Rev. Clarejean Haury of Washington was first introduced to GPC strategies in 2003 and now speaks at retreats as a GPC minister. She said the study, of which she is a part, will be helpful to GPC practitioners, as it will inform them of the efficacy of their work.

Haury compared the body to a jigsaw puzzle. In her experience, gestalt pastoral strategies have helped people who are suffering access “pieces of their puzzle that they have been suppressing.”

“God is in our lives and wants us to be as healthy and whole as possible,” Haury said.


Photo courtesy of the Rev. Betty VoigtGestalt Pastoral Care practitioners the Rev. Betty Voigt, left, and the Rev. Clarejean Haury, right, stand with the practice’s founder, the Rev. Tilda Norberg.