An Exploratory Factor Analysis of the Sexual Orientation Counselor Competency Scale: Examining the Variable of Experience

Shainna Ali, Glenn Lambie, Zachary D. Bloom

The Sexual Orientation Counselor Competency Scale (SOCCS), developed by Bidell in 2005, measures counselors’ levels of skills, awareness, and knowledge in assisting lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB) clients. In an effort to gain an increased understanding of the construct validity of the SOCCS, researchers performed an exploratory factor analysis on the SOCCS with a sample of practicing counselors who were members of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Counseling (ALGBTIC) and counselors-in-training (N = 155) enrolled in four Council for Accreditation of Counseling & Related Educational Programs (CACREP)-accredited counseling programs. The data analyses resulted in a 4-factor model, 28-item assessment that explained 56% of the variance. In acknowledging the loading of the fourth factor, this result highlights the need to focus on involvement and engagement in clinical practice in order to maintain best practice standards. Furthermore, the fourth factor of experience adds a compelling perspective to consider when understanding, improving, and maintaining sexual orientation counselor competence.

Keywords: sexual orientation, counselor competence, exploratory factor analysis, best practice standards, SOCCS

In order for counselors to be ethical and effective professionals, they must be competent in providing services to sexual minority clients (Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Issues in Counseling [ALGBTIC], 2013). The American Counseling Association’s (ACA) 2014 ACA Code of Ethics requires that counselors honor the uniqueness of clients in embracing their worth, potential, and dignity. Additionally, counselors should actively attempt to understand client identity, refrain from discrimination, and utilize caution when assessing diverse clients (ACA, 2014). Furthermore, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) 2009 Standards for Accreditation assert that counselors should understand identity development, develop self-awareness, promote social justice, and strive to eliminate prejudices, oppression, and discrimination. Therefore, it is both ethical and essential to empirically explore competence assessments in order to improve overall counseling competence.

Sexual minority clients are at risk for a myriad of concerns such as shame, depression, risky behaviors, self-harm, abuse, and suicide (Cooper, 2008; Degges-White & Myers, 2005; Human Rights Campaign, 2014; McDermott, Roen, & Scourfield, 2008). In order to align with the intended population of the Sexual Orientation Counselor Competency Scale (SOCCS; Bidell, 2005), sexual minority clients are defined as individuals who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual (LGB). Since the 1970s, researchers have identified the importance of counseling for LGB individuals, as these clients have a higher propensity for suicide and substance abuse as compared to heterosexual populations (Cass, 1983; Cooper, 2008; Degges-White & Myers, 2005; McCarn & Fassinger, 1996; Troiden, 1979, 1989). Furthermore, at the turn of the 21st century, researchers began to note the importance of competence in providing effective counseling services to sexual minority clients (Bidell, 2005; Brooks & Inman, 2013; Graham, Carney, & Kluck, 2012; Grove, 2009; Israel & Selvidge, 2003).

Bidell (2005) developed the SOCCS in an effort to measure counselors’ awareness, skill, and knowledge competencies in assisting LGB clients. Initial research findings supported the criterion, concurrent, and divergent validity, and the internal consistency and test-retest reliability of the SOCCS with the norming population; however, the factor structure (construct validity) of the SOCCS with the norming population was questionable (i.e., 40% of the variance explained by the 29-item SOCCS). Therefore, additional research is warranted to examine the construct validity of the SOCCS with a different sample of counseling professionals, as construct validity provides a central understanding to whether or not the assessment: (a) measures the intended competencies, (b) is adequately explicated by a 3-factor structure, and (c) is best comprised of 29 items (Gall, Gall, & Borg, 2006). Consequently, the purpose of the present study was to examine the factor structure of the SOCCS with a sample of counseling practitioners and counselors-in-training to gain an increased understanding of the construct validity of the SOCCS. The findings of the present study add a new perspective, as the results display a potential 4-factor structure that warrants consideration in the literature.

Sexual Orientation Counselor Competency Scale

The SOCCS (Bidell, 2005) is a 29-item instrument designed to measure counselors’ level of competence in working with clients identifying as LGB. The SOCCS was developed based on the LGB-affirmative counseling and multicultural counseling competencies (Sue, Arredondo, & McDavis, 1992) and included an item pool of 100 items that was reduced to 42 items with 12 items pertaining to skills, 12 items to awareness, and 18 items to knowledge. Bidell (2005) examined the factor structure of the SOCCS using exploratory factor analysis (EFA) with a principal axis factoring (PAF) and an oblique rotation, identifying a 3-factor structure: (a) Factor 1: Skills (11 items, 24.91% of the variance explained), which assesses counseling skills in working with LGB clients; (b) Factor 2: Awareness (10 items; 9.66% of the variance explained), which measures counselors’ awareness of biases and attitudes about LGB individuals; and (c) Factor 3: Knowledge (8 items, 5.41% of the variance explained), which assesses counselors’ understanding about the LGB population.

Factor Analysis

Bidell (2005) also examined the criterion, convergent, and divergent validity of the SOCCS with his sample. Criterion validity of the SOCCS was examined using participants’ education level and self-identified sexual orientation. A positive relationship was identified between the participants’ SOCCS subscale scores and their level of education and sexual orientation. Convergent validity was examined by measuring the relationship between SOCCS subscale scores and participants’ Attitudes Toward Lesbians and Gay Men Scale (Herek, 1998), the knowledge subscale of the Multicultural Counseling Knowledge and Awareness Scale (Ponterotto et al., 1996), and the skills subscale of the Counselor Self-Efficacy Scale (Melchert, Hays, Wiljanen, & Kolocek, 1996). The results of the correlational analyses supported the convergent validity of the SOCCS. Discriminant validity was examined by comparing the mean social desirability scores with the SOCCS subscale scores, and results supported the divergent validity of the SOCCS within the norming sample.

Norming Population of the SOCCS

The norming population for the SOCCS (Bidell, 2005) consisted of 312 mental health students, providers, and educators from across the United States. The majority of the sample was comprised of females (n = 235) and the average age was 31.9 years old. Individuals were recruited from 13 public and three private universities. More than 80% of the population included students: (a) 47 were undergraduates from an undergraduate introduction to counseling course, (b) 154 were master’s- level students in school or community counseling programs accredited by CACREP, (c) 32 were doctoral students from a CACREP-accredited counselor education program, and (d) 30 were from university internship sites approved by the American Psychological Association. The non-student portion of the population was comprised of 49 doctoral-level counselor education supervisors. A majority of the population (85.5%) identified as heterosexual, 12.2% identified as LGB, and 2.5% chose to not identify. Bidell (2005) noted the limited gender variance in the development of the SOCCS, as it is possible that individuals within the 2.5% may identify on the gender continuum. More than half of the norm group (n = 191) identified as European American or White, 41 as Latino, 32 as Asian American, 22 as African American or Black, seven as biracial or mixed, and four as Native American. Fourteen individuals identified as “other,” and this may have been because of rigid racial denominations provided in the demographics.

Interpretation of the SOCCS

The SOCCS (Bidell, 2005) is a criterion-referenced measure consisting of rating scales. The SOCCS provides respondents with a range of seven choices to self-report on the three subscale domains (Skills, Awareness, and Knowledge): from (a) not at all true, to (b) moderately true, and to (c) totally true. Eleven of the 29 SOCCS items (2, 10, 11, 15, 17, 21, 22, 23, 27, 28, and 29) are reverse scored, and overall competence is interpreted by the sum of the items divided by the total number of items (29) to form a percentage score. Bidell (2005) does not provide information on criteria to determine low, moderate, or high competence; however, inferences can be made from interpreting the overall and subscale scores (Farmer, Welfare, & Burge, 2013).

The overall mean SOCCS (Bidell, 2005) score in the norm group was 4.64 (SD = 0.89). Subscale mean SOCCS scores included 2.94 (SD = 1.53) for Skills, 6.49 (SD = 0.79) for Awareness, and 4.66 (SD = 1.05) for Knowledge. Graham, Carney, and Kluck (2012) sampled 234 counseling students and found mean SOCCS averages for competence were 3.88 for Factor 1: Skills, 6.52 for Factor 2: Awareness, 4.67 for Factor 3: Knowledge, and 5.01 for overall SOCCS scores. Follow-up studies continue to support the original theme in which individuals believe they are more aware but less knowledgeable; furthermore, individuals believe they have less skills than knowledge pertaining to sexual minority counselor competencies (Bidell, 2012; Farmer et al., 2013; Grove, 2009; Rutter, Estrada, Ferguson, & Diggs, 2008).

In addition, Graham and colleagues (2012) also assessed for potential differences in SOCCS scores between individuals who have or have not attended a conference presentation, workshop, or training pertaining to LGB issues. No difference in SOCCS scores was identified between participants reporting that they attended a conference presentation with subject matter pertaining to LGB counseling or not; however, individuals who attended a workshop had higher competency scores in Skills, F (1, 225) = 61.03, p < .001; Awareness, F (1, 225) = 4.42, p < .05; and Knowledge, F (1, 225) = 4.34, p < .05. Additionally, individuals who attended a training session had higher scores in the domains of Skills, F (1, 225) = 32.07, p < .001; Awareness, F (1, 225) = 33.62, p < .001; and Knowledge, F (1, 225) = 33.62, p < .001; and when compared to individuals who did not attend similar trainings. Furthermore, more experience with LGB clients yielded higher competency scores. A Tukey’s post hoc analysis identified that individuals who had never provided counseling services to LGB clients had lower SOCCS scores (M = 4.43, SD = 0.72) than individuals who had provided services to one to five LGB clients (M = 4.99, SD = 0.66), six to 10 LGB clients (M = 5.57, SD = 0.55), 11 to 15 LGB clients (M = 5.59, SD = 0.57), or more than 15 LGB-identified clients (M = 5.78, SD = 0.50). Therefore, the differences in SOCCS scores suggest that more exposure and experience with LGB clients could improve sexual minority counseling competence.

Factor Analysis of the Original Instrument

The SOCCS (Bidell, 2005) coefficient alpha for internal consistency reliability was found to be .90. The subscale scores for internal consistency were .91 for Skills, .88 for Awareness, and .71 for Knowledge. A subsection of the sample (n = 101) including students and supervisors was used for test-retest reliability. One-week test-retest reliability was found to be .84 for the overall instrument, .83 for the Skills subscale, .85 for the Awareness subscale, and .84 for the Knowledge subscale (Bidell, 2005). In addition, Bidell (2013) investigated the potential for SOCCS scores to change after implementation of an LGB counseling course six weeks into the program, and identified that the participants’ scores were significantly higher on the overall and subscale scores. Bidell’s (2013) findings identified the ability for education to promote SOCCS scores in counseling students but challenged the test-retest reliability of the SOCCS. No published data was identified related to the inter-rater reliability or alternate forms of the SOCCS.

Additional Factor Analysis of the SOCCS

Carlson, McGeorge, and Toomey (2013) examined the factor structure of the SOCCS with a sample of 248 master’s and doctoral students in couple and family therapy and identified a 2-factor solution: (a) Factor 1: Awareness and (b) Factor 2: Knowledge and Skills. Further, three SOCCS items (i.e., 5, 24, 25) did not load into the combined Knowledge and Skills subscale and were removed. The second examination resulted in an acceptable model fit x2 (df = 8) = 20.65, p < .01; however, it should be noted that five SOCCS item stems (i.e., 3, 4, 7, 8, 19) were altered and the 7-point scale was adapted to a 6-point scale. Therefore, based on the modifications made to the SOCCS, it is difficult to compare the factor structure results to other investigations using the unmodified SOCCS.

Counseling Competency With Sexual Minority Clients

Researchers have utilized the SOCCS in an effort to further their understanding of counseling competencies related to working with sexual minority clients (Brooks & Inman, 2013; Graham et al., 2012; Grove, 2009). Grove (2009) provided counseling students (n = 56) with the SOCCS, and an ANOVA identified that years in training provided a significant difference in scores for Skills (p = .002), Awareness (p = .05), and Knowledge (p = .001). Although analyses were not conducted to determine the differences between subscales, Grove noted high scores in the Awareness subscale. Although individuals have strong, affirmative attitudes, they may lack the knowledge and subsequent skills necessary to effectively aid LGB clients. These SOCCS scores may be interpreted to show a variety of concerns such as inflated confidence, potential lack of training, and low competency. Graham and colleagues (2012) utilized the SOCCS with counselor education and counseling psychology graduate students (n = 234) and yielded similar results to Grove. Participants scored highest on the Awareness subscale, followed by the Knowledge and Skills subscale scores. These research findings identify that counselor trainees may not be receiving the necessary knowledge and skills to become competent counselors in working with sexual minority clients.

Advances have been made in the counseling field regarding the understanding of competency in aiding sexual minority clients (Bidell, 2005; Graham et al., 2012; Grove, 2009); however, additional research is warranted. The commonly utilized SOCCS is a self-report measure; therefore, there is potential for participants to provide socially desirable answers. Further, because the SOCCS was created to measure counselors’ level of confidence (self-efficacy) in providing counseling services to LGB clients, the literature has followed this narrow lead (Bidell, 2013; Carlson et al., 2013; Grove, 2009) . The SOCCS was created prior to ALGBTIC’s (2013) guidelines; therefore, the items may not align with the essential aspects of the guidelines. Considering this potential gap, it is essential to explore the psychometric properties of the SOCCS (Bidell, 2005). Nevertheless, the SOCCS is the most used assessment instrument for examining LGB counselor competence in training and research; hence, it is important to explore the reliability and validity of the instrument in order to support continued exploration of LGB counselor competence. Therefore, we aimed to examine the factor structure of the SOCCS with a sample of counselor trainees and practitioners in order to gain an increased understanding of the psychometric properties of this assessment. The following research questions guided our investigation:

Research Question 1. What is the factor structure of the SOCCS with a sample of practicing counselors and counselors-in-training?

Research Question 2. What is the internal consistency reliability of the SOCCS with a sample of practicing counselors and counselors-in-training?



We aimed to examine the factor structure of the SOCCS with a sample of practicing counselors and counselors-in-training. The data used for this investigation were part of a larger study regarding counselors’ preparedness to assist clients in the coming-out process. Because online surveys tend to have a lower response rate (Shih & Fan, 2009), we decided to use additional intentional data collection methods in our sampling to achieve a sample of counselors-in-training and practicing professionals. The data collection assessments were distributed through ALGBTIC in order to acquire a national sample of counseling professionals and to include individuals who may perceive themselves as competent to work with sexual minority individuals. In addition, the data collection assessments were distributed to counselors-in-training enrolled in four CACREP-accredited counseling programs in four different southeastern states with the assumption that the student population would help to cover the domain of individuals who do not believe they are competent to assist sexual minority clients in counseling. We received a total of 200 responses, which gave us a response rate of 28.41%. However, because of missing data, 45 participants were eliminated, leaving 155 (22.02%) usable cases. Although the response rate was less than the weighted average Van Horn, Green, and Martinussen (2009) noted in their meta-analysis of counseling and clinical psychology journals (49.6%), we decided our response rate was adequate to continue because of the necessity of research on the factor structure of the SOCCS and the potential value of the implications on improving counseling services for sexual minority clients. Additionally, the demographics of the sample mirrored the overall population (i.e., a majority of the participants identified as white and female), which is presented in Table 1 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016).


Our university’s institutional review board approved this study prior to any data collection and recruitment. We implemented the Tailor Design Method (Dillman, Smyth, & Christian, 2009) in our recruitment and data collection (e.g., invitation, survey). We utilized Qualtrics, an electronic survey research tool, to assemble our informed consent, data collection instruments, and demographic questionnaire online. Qualtrics permitted us to collect anonymous data. After data collection, Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (Windows Version 20) was used for data cleaning and analysis.

Data Screening

 Before we analyzed our data, we screened our dataset. First, we needed to remove responses with at least one incomplete item from the overall data set to promote consistency (Warner, 2013). Listwise deletion resulted in the removal of 45 cases, resulting in 155 completed data collection packets for the investigation. SOCCS item scores were converted to standardized z-scores to determine if outliers

Table 1

Participants’ Demographic Characteristics                                                               

Characteristic                                                              n                        Total Percent           


Female                                                             121                              82.9

Male                                                                              24                              16.4

Ethnic Background

African American/African/Black                                  14                                 9.7

Asian/Asian American                                                    6                                 3.9

Biracial/Multiracial                                                          9                                 5.8

Caucasian (Non-Hispanic)                                          105                              67.7

Hispanic/Latina/Latino                                                   7                                 4.5

Other                                                                               2                                 1.3

Chose not to specify                                                       2                                 1.3

Sexual Orientation

Bisexual                                                                          8                                 5.2

Gay                                                                                 5                                 3.2

Heterosexual                                                                 71                              45.8

Lesbian                                                                            7                                 4.5

Other                                                                               3                                 1.9

Professional Status

Student                                                                       102                              61.5

Clinician                                                                        43                              33.3


Accredited                                                                    73                              46.8

Not Accredited                                                             20                              12.8


21–25                                                                            70                              45.2

26–30                                                                            27                              17.4

31–35                                                                            16                              10.3

36–40                                                                            13                                 8.4

41–45                                                                              4                                 2.6

46–50                                                                              7                                 4.5

51–55                                                                              1                                   .6

56–60                                                                              6                                 3.9

61–65                                                                              1                                   .6

            66–70                                                                              1                                   .6

Note. N = 155

existed in the data, and the results identified that no scores were greater than +4 or less than -4; therefore, no outliers were identified (Hair, Black, Babin, Anderson, & Tatham, 2010). Next, we examined the appropriateness of the sample size to conducting an EFA. Smaller sample sizes are suitable for EFA if several solutions have high loading variables (above .80; Tabachnick & Fidell, 2013). In addition, rather than sample size, the ratio of assessment items to participant may be used to determine appropriateness of data for EFA (Dimitrov, 2012; Nunnally, 1978; Tabachnick & Fidell, 2013), with a five participant cases-to-item ratio deemed acceptable. Because there were more than five cases per SOCCS item (5.34:1), we determined this sample size was appropriate for EFA. Our next step was to examine the normality of the data and determine the most appropriate method of extraction. To assess for normality of our data, we checked the univariate normality of each SOCCS item, and if item univariate normality was satisfied, we checked multivariate normality using the Mardia test (Mvududu & Sink, 2013). We identified several SOCCS items that were not normally distributed; therefore, multivariate normality was not examined because univariate normality is a necessary condition of multivariate normality (Mvududu & Sink, 2013). In addition, our histograms, boxplots, and Q-Q Plots results identified that multiple SOCCS items were non-normally distributed; hence, we assumed the data was non-normally distributed, which can occur in social science research (Mvududu & Sink, 2013).

Data Analysis

After screening the dataset for missing data and assessing for normality, we conducted an EFA to examine the factor structure of the SOCCS with our sample of counseling practitioners and counselors-in-training. Because of the non-normality of the data (Costello & Osborne, 2005), PAF was used for extraction with an oblimin rotation with Kaiser Normalization. A significant value (p < .001) was identified for Bartlett’s test of sphericity (Bartlett, 1954), and a value of .83 was obtained for Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin sampling adequacy for the SOCCS. Next, we examined internal consistency reliability of SOCCS using Cronbach’s α, thus assessing the degree of correlation between SOCCS items.


To examine the factor structure of SOCCS, we used EFA, employing PAF analysis. All SOCCS items displayed a factor loading of at least .3 and were initially retained (Floyd & Widaman, 1995; Hair et al., 2010). However, SOCCS items were reduced following classical test theory in order to reduce items with poor measurement properties and to increase internal consistency reliability (Crocker & Algina, 2006; DeVellis, 2003). As noted in Table 2, The PAF results identified the presence of six SOCCS factors with eigenvalues exceeding one, explaining 62% of the variance. However, the first three factors produced eigenvalues of greater than 2.8, whereas the remaining three were all less than 1.5. The three factors accounted for 49% of the variance. As noted in Figure 1, the scree plot, a preferred method for identifying factor solutions in EFA (Hair et al., 2010), identified a steep decline including three factors, a break near the fourth factor, and a significant plateau at the fifth factor, supporting a 3- or 4-factor model solution for the SOCCS with these data. The factor matrix showed loadings of more than .4 for the first three factors, and less than .4 for the fourth through sixth factors. The first three SOCCS factors paralleled Bidell’s conceptually based factors of Skills, Awareness, and Knowledge. In the essence of EFA, we examined the potential construct being measured by the fourth factor and determined that all items (i.e., 4, 7, 8, 12 and 18) pertained to experience. Originally, these SOCCS items were included in the Skills subscale; however, we determined that the presence of these items together shows promise for a fourth SOCCS subscale of Experience. The model with four subscales accounted for 54% of the variance.

The Knowledge subscale was the only subscale that loaded as intended with eight items, accounting for 9.90% of variance as compared to 5.41% of variance in the original analysis (Bidell, 2005). Six SOCCS items loaded onto the Skills subscale, accounting for 27.5% of the variance as compared to 24.91% of variance in the original analysis. The remaining five SOCCS items that did not load onto the Skills subscale loaded together onto the fourth subscale, which is the Experience subscale. The Experience subscale accounted for 5.11% of the variance. Five SOCCS items loaded onto

the Awareness subscale. Of the remaining items, three loaded onto both fifth and sixth factors (i.e., 11, 15, and 17). Unlike the Awareness subscale, which was theoretically justified, a fifth factor was not theoretically justified; therefore, we decided to keep these three items with the Awareness subscale.

Table 2Total Variance Explained

  Initial Eigenvalues

Extraction Sums of

Squared Loadings

Rotation Sums of Squared Loadings a


% of Variance

Cumulative %


% of Variance

Cumulative %














































































































































Note: Extraction Method: Principal Axis Factoring.

a. When factors are correlated, sums of squared loadings cannot be added to obtain a total variance.

Figure 1.

Eigenvalues from 28-item SOCCS Factor Analysis

Because SOCCS items 10 and 23 only loaded onto factors five and six and no other factor, we decided to remove these items for parsimony. Therefore, the Awareness subscale now has eight items, accounting for 13% of the variance. Further information on factor loadings can be seen in Table 3.

Internal Consistency Reliability of the SOCCS

The second research question examined the internal consistency reliability of the SOCCS with a sample of counselors-in-training and practicing counselors. The original 29-item SOCCS displayed a strong reliability score with a Cronbach’s α of .90 (Leech, Onwuegbuzie, & O’Connor, 2011). As a 27-item assessment, the Cronbach’s α for the overall SOCCS was .894; although slightly lower than the original assessment, the reliability of the revised SOCCS displays strong internal consistency (Leech et al., 2011). Original SOCCS subscale reliability scores were .91 for Skills, .88 for Awareness, and .76 for Knowledge. Our item analysis of the SOCCS data identified strong internal consistency reliability with a Cronbach’s α of (a) Total SOCCS scores .893, (b) SOCCS Knowledge subscale scores .807, (c) SOCCS Skills subscale scores .877, (d) SOCCS Awareness subscale scores .814, and (e) SOCCS Experience subscale scores .872 (Ponterotto & Ruckdeschel, 2007).

Table 3
Factor Loadings for a 4-Factor Solution






I have received adequate clinical training and supervision to counsel lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) clients.





I check up on my LGB counseling skills by monitoring my functioning/competency—via consultation, supervision, and continuing education.





I feel competent to assess the mental health needs of a person who is LGB in a therapeutic setting.





I have done a counseling role-play as either the client or counselor involving an LGB issue.





Currently, I do not have the skills or training to do a case presentation or consultation if my client were LGB.





The lifestyle of an LGB client is unnatural or immoral.





I believe that being highly discreet about their sexual orientation is a trait that LGB clients should work toward.





I believe that LGB couples don’t need special rights (domestic partner benefits, or the right to marry) because that would undermine normal and traditional family values.





It would be best if my clients viewed a heterosexual lifestyle as ideal.





I think that my clients should accept some degree of conformity to traditional sexual values.





I believe that LGB clients will benefit most from counseling with a heterosexual counselor who endorses conventional values and norms.





Personally, I think homosexuality is a mental disorder or a sin and can be treated through counseling or spiritual help.





I believe that all LGB clients must be discreet about their sexual orientation around children.





When it comes to homosexuality, I agree with the statement: “You should love the sinner but hate or condemn the sin.”





LGB clients receive less preferred forms of counseling treatment than heterosexual clients.





I am aware some research indicates that LGB clients are more likely to be diagnosed with mental illnesses than are heterosexual clients.





Heterosexist and prejudicial concepts have permeated the mental health professions.





There are different psychological/social issues impacting gay men versus lesbian women.





I am aware of institutional barriers that may inhibit LGB people from using mental health services.





I am aware that counselors frequently impose their values concerning sexuality upon LGB clients.





Being born a heterosexual person in this society carries with it certain advantages.





I feel that sexual orientation differences between counselor and client may serve as an initial barrier to effective counseling of LGB individuals.





At this point in my professional development, I feel competent, skilled, and qualified to counsel LGB clients.





I have experience counseling lesbian or gay couples.





I have experience counseling lesbian clients.





I have been to in-services, conference sessions, or workshops which focused on LGB issues (in Counseling, Psychology, Mental Health).





I have experience counseling bisexual (male or female) clients.






The purpose of this research was to explore the factor structure and reliability of the SOCCS with a sample of counselor trainees and practitioners in the United States. Our results identified a 4-factor SOCCS model, including the subscales of Skills, Awareness, Knowledge, and Experience. The 4-factor SOCCS structure identified with these substantiate the three previous factors of Skills, Awareness, and Knowledge; however, an additional factor is noted. The fourth factor, Experience, echoes Graham and colleagues’ (2012) findings, which note improved competence with practice. Hence, the results of this study should encourage researchers to explore beyond the 3-factor model and promote measurement versatility with counselor trainees and clinicians. Overall, our results identified a 4-factor SOCCS model with strong internal consistency, offering counselor educators and practitioners a sound method for assessing sexual orientation counselor competence.

Implications for Counselors and Counselor Educators

Counselor competency with sexual minority clients is essential in counselor education (ACA, 2014; ALGBTIC, 2013; CACREP, 2009). Our findings support the use of the SOCCS as a valid and reliable measure of sexual orientation counselor competency. Therefore, we suggest that the SOCCS may be implemented in counselor training programs to assess trainees’ levels of competency in providing services to sexual minority clients. Our results identified that in addition to the previously suggested areas of importance in sexual orientation counselor competence (i.e., Skills, Awareness, Knowledge), experience may be an important factor to consider. Counselor educators may consider methods of facilitating experiences within training in order to foster increases in competence. Further, the SOCCS may be used as a pedagogical intervention strategy in counselor education programs. For example, the SOCCS may be given to students to prompt reflection on overall and subscale competence levels regarding counseling sexual minority clients. The SOCCS may also be used beyond counselor education programs to assure that practicing counselors not only have, but also maintain necessary components of competence in order to aid sexual minority clients. Additionally, the results of our study help to further sexual minority counselor competence literature. The SOCCS (Bidell, 2005) is an effective measure for researchers to employ to examine counselors’ self-perceived levels of competence in working with LGB clients; however, the SOCCS also offers educators and practitioners a tool to support best practices in counseling and counselor education. Our SOCCS data yielded a potential fourth factor (i.e., Experience) that was not delineated as an essential component of counselors’ competence in working with LGB clients in prior research. Therefore, this study prompts researchers, counselor educators, and counselors to consider the factor of counselors’ experience in providing services to LGB clients as a necessary domain of counselor competence.

Recommendations for Future Research

The SOCCS is an effective instrument in assessing sexual orientation counselor competence. At this time, there is no indication of cutoff scores that determine appropriate levels of counselor competence (e.g., counselor is competent or not competent to provide services to sexual minority clients). Hence, we recommend that future researchers investigate levels of competence that should be assessed as benchmarks for counselors-in-training prior to graduating from their graduate programs. To our knowledge, other than the SOCCS creator (Bidell, 2005), Carlson and colleagues (2013) are the only researchers to explore the factor structure of the SOCCS. However, Carlson and colleagues altered SOCCS item stems (i.e., 3, 4, 7, 8, and 19) in their investigation and transformed the 7-point scale to a 6-point scale. Their results displayed a 2-factor model that differs from the 3-factor model recommended by Bidell (2005); however, the amendments to the instrument make the SOCCS results difficult to compare to other studies. Further, to our knowledge, we are the only researchers to explore the factor structure of the SOCCS without altering the instrument prior to exploration. Moreover, our 4-factor SOCCS model results accounted for a larger percent of variance (56%) than the original 3-factor SOCCS model (40%; Bidell, 2005). We recommend that future researchers conduct confirmatory factor analyses with their data to determine if the four factors found in our results are consistent with other samples and populations.


We recognize that our study has limitations. The SOCCS is a self-report instrument, making the data vulnerable to social desirability bias (Gall et al., 2006). Our response rate may have contributed to our sampling and data collection methods (e.g., online survey), influencing the external validity of our findings. Because of recruitment from ALGBTIC, it is possible that there may have been bias, as members of this group may not have competence levels that are equivalent to the general counseling population. Additionally, because of an error in the original Qualtrics survey, complete SOCCS answers were not required, thus causing issues in missing data. Furthermore, our sample size was limited, affecting the interpretation of our findings. Nevertheless, our study examined an area warranting further investigation (counselors-in-training’s and counselors’ competency in providing service to sexual minority clients) and offered meaningful findings (e.g., a 4-factor SOCCS model).


The social climate for sexual minorities is changing, and it is imperative for counselors to be competent to serve this population. Because of constant societal change, it is important for measures to be relevant in order to measure sexual minority counselor competence. The SOCCS (Bidell, 2005) is the most current and related instrument to measure sexual minority counselor competence. It fulfills an area of need in counselor training and development. This study provides helpful data to expand on the reliability and validity data of this useful assessment.

Moreover, the findings from the study present the case for a potential fourth subscale of Experience to be considered in addition to Skills, Awareness, and Knowledge. The existence of an additional factor pertaining to involvement and engagement in practice holds considerable implications for counselor training and effective practice with LGB clients.

Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of interest or funding contributions for the development of this manuscript.


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Shainna Ali, NCC, is an instructor at the University of Central Florida. Glenn Lambie is a professor at the University of Central Florida. Zachary D. Bloom is an assistant professor at Northeastern Illinois University. Correspondence can be addressed to Shainna Ali, 4000 Central Florida Blvd., Orlando, FL 32816,

An Examination of Counselors’ Religiosity, Spirituality, and Lesbian-, Gay-, and Bisexual- Affirmative Counselor Competence

Laura Boyd Farmer

Counselors in school and community settings, counselor educators and counseling students (N = 453) participated in a study of self-perceived competence to serve lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) clients. Using the same large data set as Farmer, Welfare, and Burge (2013), the author examined different research questions focused on counselor religiosity and spirituality. Through multiple regression analysis, the following variables predicted LGB-affirmative counseling competence: counselors’ self-identified religiosity, spirituality, education, number of LGB clients counseled and LGB interpersonal contact. Spirituality had a positive relationship with competence, whereas religiosity was negatively related. Further exploration of the intersection of counselor religiosity and spirituality as it relates to LGB-affirmative counseling is warranted.

Keywords: LGB, lesbian, gay, bisexual, religiosity, spirituality, counselor competence

Lesbian-, gay- and bisexual- (LGB-) affirmative counseling encompasses a broad base of knowledge, awareness of attitudes, and skills that affirm and honor the lived experiences of sexual orientation diverse individuals, representing the ethical standard of care for all non-heterosexual clients (Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling, 2012; Israel & Selvidge, 2003). Whitman and Bidell (2014) defined LGB-affirmative counseling as “a practice that adopts a science-based perspective of LGB sexual (or affectional) orientations as normal and healthy expressions of human development, sexuality, relationship, and love” (p. 164). In the last decade, the issue of providing competent, affirming care to clients who identify as lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) has risen to the forefront of professional dialogue for counselors. Two legal cases (Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley, 2011; Ward v. Polite, 2012) inspired meaningful discussion about the intersection of counselors’ religious and spiritual values and ethical counseling practices when working with sexual orientation diverse clients. The American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics (2014) mandates that counselors attend to value conflicts while working with clients to avoid the potentially harmful imposition of personal values (Kaplan, 2014). Still, some counselors are left with the task of integrating conflicting religious values with competent and affirming counseling practices with LGB clients (Herlihy, Hermann, & Greden, 2014; Robertson & Avent, 2016).

The political and social landscape surrounding LGB issues in the United States is in a state of flux. While the historic Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) decision established marriage equality for same-sex couples nationally, there have been conflicting influences on affirmative care. Conscience clause legislation, intended to protect mental health practitioners who deny services based on their own “sincerely held principles” (TN HB1840, 2016), has emerged in several states (e.g., Mississippi, Tennessee) as a response to the revised ACA Code of Ethics (2014). Conversion therapy or reparative therapy remains legal in 45 states despite being discredited and ethically opposed by all major mental health professions, including the ACA (American Psychological Association, 2017; Whitman, Glosoff, Kocet, & Tarvydas, 2013). Specifically, those ascribing to some religious affiliations assume a moral stance against non-heterosexual partnerships which is often rooted in narrow scriptural interpretations and traditional views on what constitutes a marriage (Lalich & McLaren, 2010). Smith and Okech (2016a) further probed professional discourse through their investigation of the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) accreditation status of counseling programs housed within religious institutions that disaffirm or disallow diverse sexual orientations, initiating an exchange of dialogue in the Journal of Counseling & Development (Sells & Hagedorn, 2016; Smith & Okech, 2016b). These authors highlighted incongruencies between the policies and philosophical statements of religiously affiliated institutions and the values espoused by the ACA Code of Ethics. In light of these prominent events and professional dialogue, counselors’ religious beliefs, as they relate to working with LGB clients, have received greater attention (Balkin, Watts, & Ali, 2014; Kaplan, 2014; Whitman & Bidell, 2014).

Spirituality, much like religion, is another complex facet of identity that contributes to counselor values. Although it has been established that counselors’ conservative religious beliefs may impact LGB-affirmative counseling (Balkin et al., 2014; Bidell, 2014), the impact of counselors’ spirituality is less understood. To date, no studies have investigated counselor religiosity and spirituality as potentially different aspects of identity that may relate to LGB-affirmative counselor competence, nor has the religious affiliation of counselors been explored. Therefore, the researcher sought to examine counselors’ self-identified religiosity and spirituality, as they relate to LGB-affirmative counseling competence.

The author conducted a large study of LGB-affirmative counselor competence that found school counselors perceived themselves as having lower competence to serve LGB clients than community-based counselors (Farmer, Welfare, & Burge, 2013).  Using the same data set, the lead author has examined several new variables for the current study, including counselors’ self-identified religiosity, spirituality, education level, experience counseling LGB clients and LGB interpersonal contact.  By examining these variables, new information is offered to the current professional discourse about the relevance of counselors’ religious and spiritual beliefs when counseling LGB clients.


Defining Religiosity and Spirituality

There are diverse opinions regarding definitions of religiosity and spirituality (Zinnbauer, Pargament, & Scott, 1999). The inconsistency in definitions creates a complex problem for researchers of religiosity and spirituality because it is difficult to know what meaning participants attribute to these terms (Zinnbauer et al., 1997). Although religiosity and spirituality have been shown to coincide for some, they are distinctly separate aspects of identity for others (Pargament, Sullivan, Balzer, Van Haitsma, & Raymark, 1995).

Religiosity has been broadly defined as the degree to which individuals subscribe to institution-alized beliefs or doctrines (Vaughan, 1991). Among basic methods of measuring religiosity is the indication of whether or not one identifies with a religious affiliation (Clark & Schellenberg, 2006). The frequency of service attendance and engagement in religious behaviors (e.g., prayer, scripture reading) are other methods of measuring religiosity (Lippman, Michelsen, & Roehlekepartain, 2005; Piedmont, 2001; Whitley, 2009). Self-ratings of religiosity are widely used that involve asking people to identify the importance of religion in their lives (Rainey & Trusty, 2007; Whitley, 2009). Chatters, Levin, and Taylor (1992) proposed a 3-dimensional model of religiosity that included organizational involvement (formal church attendance), nonorganizational involvement (informal activities such as prayer or scriptural study at home), and subjective religiosity (personal beliefs, attitudes and perceived importance of religion in one’s life). Aligning with these models, religiosity is understood in the current study as the degree of importance of religion in one’s life; frequency of service attendance and religious behavior (e.g., prayer, scriptural reading); and identification with a religious affiliation.

Alternately, spirituality is considered to be unique to individuals’ life experience and interpretation (Pargament, 2013). Spirituality is broadly described as an individual’s internal orientation toward a greater transcendent reality that joins “all things into a more unitive harmony” (Piedmont, 1999, p. 988). To develop a definition of spirituality, a “Summit of Spirituality” included 15 ACA members with representatives from a cross-section of ACA divisions who began the process of forming the counseling profession’s Spiritual Competencies (Association for Spiritual, Ethical, and Religious Values in Counseling, 2013). The summit resulted in the following description:

Spirituality is a capacity and tendency that is innate and unique to all persons. The spiritual tendency moves the individual toward knowledge, love, meaning, peace, hope, transcendence, connectedness, compassion, wellness, and wholeness. Spirituality includes one’s capacity for creativity, growth, and the development of a value system. (“Summit Results,” 1995, p. 30)

Pargament claimed “spirituality is the core function of religion” (2013, p. 271). In other words, people become involved in religion as a way to connect to the sacred and support their spirituality. Therefore, spirituality is a distinct motivation and human process that may exist apart from religion (Pargament, 2013). The current study is grounded in this understanding by examining counselors’ religious and spiritual identities as separate constructs (Pargament et al., 1995).


Counselors and Religiosity

Within studies of LGB-affirmative counselor competence, several factors have been shown to

negatively influence counselor competence, such as religiosity, church attendance, political conservatism, and heterosexism (Balkin, Schlosser, & Levitt, 2009; Bidell, 2014; Rainey & Trusty, 2007; Satcher & Schumacker, 2009). Scholars have postulated that the way scriptural references are interpreted may account for this negative influence, specifically interpretations that deem non-heterosexual behavior as immoral and socially deviant (Altemeyer, 2003; Poteat & Mereish, 2012; Whitley, 2009). Alternate views on scriptural references such as these include an understanding of cultural context, analysis of contradictory messages, and consideration of the human lens through which scripture was written (Dewey, Schlosser, Kinney, & Burkard, 2014; Friedman, 2001).

Bidell (2014) explored religious conservatism as it relates to counselor competence with LGB clients in a study of 228 counseling students, counselor educators and counseling supervisors in university settings. Religious conservatism was defined as religious fundamentalism, or “the belief that there is one set of religious teachings that clearly contain the . . . inerrant truth about humanity and deity” (Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 1992, p. 118). Religious conservatism was a significant negative predictor of LGB-affirmative counselor competence (β = -.532), whereas LGB interpersonal contact (β = .299) and LGB-specific training (β = .143) were positive predictors. In the analysis of the Sexual Orientation Counselor Competency Scale (SOCCS) subscales for attitudinal awareness, knowledge and skill, Bidell (2014) found that the attitudinal awareness and skill subscales were significantly related to religious conservatism, whereas knowledge was not. Implications suggest that counselors are influenced by conservative religious beliefs and attitudes toward LGB individuals.

More evidence has emerged concerning counselor religiosity and prejudice toward LGB individuals. Higher frequency of church attendance was a significant predictor of counselors’ negative attitudes toward LGB individuals (Satcher & Schumacker, 2009). Counselors who have more rigid and authoritarian orientations of religious identity exhibit more LGB prejudice (Balkin et al., 2009; Bidell, 2014; Sanabria, 2012). In light of these findings, more scholarly attention is focusing on ways to support “religiously conservative” counselors through the process of negotiating values conflicts (Choudhuri & Kraus, 2014; Fallon et al., 2013; Robertson & Avent, 2016; Whitman & Bidell, 2014).


Counselors and Spirituality

Ample research combines religion and spirituality, assuming these are synonymous aspects of identity or sources of values. However, some key studies have focused on the distinct contributions of spirituality in counselor development. Morrison and Borgen (2010) examined counselor empathy as it relates to and is influenced by counselor spirituality. Using the critical incident technique, 12 counselors with Christian beliefs identified 242 incidents where their spirituality helped their empathy toward clients and 25 incidents where their spirituality hindered empathy. Helping categories included counselors’ empathic connection with clients, the ability to draw on values of compassion and acceptance, and understanding other cultures. Hindering categories included experiences in which the client’s actions were contrary to the counselor’s belief system and having limited empathy due to counselor biases. Implications highlight the important role of spirituality in counselors’ felt empathy as well as the need for counselor training programs to create space for personal reflection on spiritual beliefs.

In a quantitative study, Saslow et al. (2013) sought to clarify meaning in the relationship between counselor spirituality and compassion while controlling for religiosity. Using an online sample from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (n = 149), a nationally representative sample (n = 3,481), and a college undergraduate sample (n = 118), the authors measured global religiosity and spirituality, religious and spiritual practices, religious fundamentalism, self-transcendence, spiritual identity, questing orientation, global positive affect, dispositional compassion, awe, and love. Using principal components analysis, religiosity and spirituality loaded as distinct factors. Spirituality significantly predicted compassion after controlling for religiosity and positive affect. Alternately, religiosity was not a significant predictor of compassion while controlling for spirituality. Implications suggest compassion is central to spirituality.

Although researchers have focused on the relevance of client spirituality in the counseling process (Cashwell & Young, 2011; Parker, 2011), empirical studies investigating the impact of counselor spirituality are lacking. To date, no studies have examined the relationship between counselors’ self-identified spirituality, as differentiated from religiosity, and LGB-affirmative counselor competence. Therefore, the study was guided by the following research questions:

1) What are the relationships between counselors’ (a) self-identified religiosity, (b) self-identified spirituality, (c) education level, (d) counseling experience with LGB clients, (e) LGB interpersonal contact, and (f) LGB-affirmative counselor competence?

2) How do the variables of (a) self-identified religiosity, (b) self-identified spirituality,
(c) education level, (d) counseling experience with LGB clients, and (e) LGB interpersonal contact predict LGB-affirmative counselor competence?

3) Are there differences in counselors’ (a) self-identified religiosity, (b) self-identified spirituality, and (c) LGB-affirmative counselor competence among religious affiliation groups?

The author hypothesized that higher levels of self-identified religiosity would predict lower LGB-affirmative counselor competence, as established in Bidell’s previous study (2014). The author also hypothesized that all variables assessed would help explain the variance in counselors’ LGB-affirmative counselor competence.




The author used the same data set reported in Farmer et al. (2013) using different research questions and examining five new variables. The sample (N = 1,480) consisted of members of a state-level professional counseling association located in the Southeastern United States, including licensed professional counselors, professional school counselors, counselors-in-residence (post-master’s counselors working toward licensure), counseling graduate students and counselor educators. The researcher secured approval from the Institutional Review Board, obtained participant information from the state organization’s membership directory, and sent a recruitment e-mail inviting participation in the anonymous online survey using SurveyMonkey. Two reminder e-mails were sent at five and 10 days after initial contact. There were 556 respondents, yielding a response rate of 37.5%. The final sample included 453 participants following data-cleaning procedures and eliminating those respondents whose practice setting could not be verified.



Of the 453 participants, 212 (46.8%) described their primary practice setting as school, 110 (24.3%) described their practice setting as community, 93 (20.5%) were described as counseling graduate students, and 38 (8.4%) were counselor educators. Participants’ ages ranged from 22 to 75 years, with an average age of 41.5 years (SD = 13.5). Seventy-three participants (16.1%) identified as men and 379 (83.7%) identified as women (one participant omitted this item). With regard to race, 376 participants (83.0%) identified as Caucasian, 55 (12.1%) as African American, eight (1.8%) as Hispanic, eight (1.8%)

as multiracial or other, three (0.7%) as American Indian, one (0.2%) as Asian, and one (0.2%) as Hawaiian or Pacific Islander (one participant omitted this item). Regarding sexual orientation, 425 participants (93.8%) identified as heterosexual, seven (1.5%) as lesbian, five (1.1%) as gay, five (1.1%) as bisexual, one (0.2%) as questioning, and four (0.9%) as other (six participants omitted this item). Participants were also asked to identify their religious affiliation (e.g., Protestant Christian, Catholic, Other Religious Affiliation, No Religious Affiliation). Table 1 displays descriptive data on religious affiliation and SOCCS scores.



Two instruments and an information questionnaire were used to collect data. The SOCCS (Bidell, 2005) was used to assess LGB-affirmative counselor competence. The Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale—Short Form C (MC-C; Reynolds, 1982) assessed the authenticity of participant responses. An information questionnaire gathered demographic and personal background information, including items for counselors to indicate self-identified religiosity and spirituality.


     Sexual Orientation Counselor Competency Scale. This instrument measures participants’ self-perceptions of LGB-affirmative counseling competence including attitudes, knowledge and skills (Bidell, 2005). The SOCCS contains 29 items that are rated on a 1–7 scale (1 = not at all true, 7 = totally true). Ten items measure attitudes (e.g., “The lifestyle of an LGB client is unnatural or immoral”), eight items measure knowledge (e.g., “There are different psychological/social issues impacting gay men versus lesbian women”), and 11 items measure skill (e.g., “I feel competent to assess the mental health needs of a person who is LGB in a therapeutic setting”). Convergent validity was established for each of the three subscales (attitudinal awareness, knowledge and skill) using existing measures of LGB bias, multicultural knowledge and basic counseling skills, respectively. Bidell (2005) reported strong internal consistency for the SOCCS: .90 for the overall score, .76 for Knowledge, .88 for Attitudes, and .91 for Skill. In this sample (N = 453), the coefficient alphas are reasonably comparable: .87 for the overall score, .72 for Knowledge, .87 for Attitudes, and .87 for Skill.

Table 1

Mean Values for SOCCS Total and Subscales by Religious Affiliation

Group N M Attitudes Knowledge Skill
Protestant Christian 237 4.51 6.17 4.04 3.34
Assembly of God 1
Baptist 36
Brethren 4
Christian 82
Church of Christ 1
Disciples of Christ 4
Episcopal 17
Lutheran 9
Mennonite 3
Methodist 48
Morman 2
Non-Denominational 12
Pentecostal 1
Presbyterian 17
Catholic 88 4.70 6.51 4.22 3.41
Roman Catholic 87
Byzantine Catholic 1
Other Religious Affiliation 29 5.25 6.85 4.69 4.19
Buddhist 4
Jewish 9
Native American 1
Religious Soc. Friends 5
Taoist 1
Unitarian 9
No Religious Affiliation 99 4.95 6.74 4.43 3.70
None identified 93
Agnostic 5
Atheist 1
Total 453 4.69 6.41 4.20 3.49


Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale—Short Form C (MC-C). This 13-item self-report instrument measures participants’ tendency to answer questions to portray oneself in favorable ways (e.g., “I am always willing to admit when I make a mistake.”). The items are answered as true or false and then summed for a total score. Higher scores on the MC-C reflect higher levels of social desirability. In this sample, internal consistency of the 13 items in the MC-C was .77 (N = 453), which is comparable to previous tests of the internal consistency of the MC-C (Reynolds, 1982).

Information questionnaire. An information questionnaire was developed to gather basic demographic and background information. In addition to demographic variables of age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, five additional variables were evaluated: (a) self-identified religiosity, (b) self-identified spirituality, (c) education level, (d) counseling experience with LGB clients (the number of LGB clients worked with), and (e) LGB interpersonal contact (the number of friends and relatives who identify as LGB).

A brief, 4-item measure of self-identified religiosity captured the importance of religion in participants’ lives based on previous studies (Rainey & Trusty, 2007; Whitley, 2009) and census methods of measuring religiosity (Clark & Schellenberg, 2006; Lippman et al., 2005). Participants were asked to rate the importance of religion in their lives (0 = not at all, 1 = somewhat, 2 = important, 3 = very important), service attendance (0 = never, 1 = few times a year, 2 = few times a month, 3 = once a week or more), personal practices (0–7 scale = number of days per week spent engaging in religious behavior such as praying, reading scripture), and religious affiliation (open-ended; 0 = no identified religious affiliation, 1 = identified religious affiliation). Item scores were transformed into z-scores and then summed, where higher scores indicate higher levels of religiosity. In this sample, internal consistency of the four items in the religiosity measure was .82.

A brief, 5-item measure of self-identified spirituality was used to assess distinct aspects of spirituality from religiosity. A modified version of the Spiritual Transcendence Index (STI) was used, where spiritual transcendence refers to “a subjective experience of the sacred that affects one’s self-perception, feelings, goals, and ability to transcend difficulties” (Seidlitz et al., 2002, p. 441). The STI demonstrated high consistency and validity across several samples in exploratory studies, including adaptations of the STI such as those employed in this study (Good, Willoughby, & Busseri, 2011; Kim & Seidlitz, 2002; Seidlitz et al., 2002). The modified version of the STI used four items that did not include the term “God.” In this study, it was important that the concept of spirituality not be limited to only theists. For the four items, participants were asked to rate their experience of the following on a 1–6 scale (1 = strongly disagree to 6 = strongly agree): “My spirituality gives me a feeling of fulfillment,” “Even when I experience problems, I can find a spiritual peace within,” “Maintaining my spirituality is a priority for me” and “My spirituality helps me to understand my life’s purpose.” Finally, one question was posed in a similar format to Nelson, Rosenfeld, Breitbart, and Galietta (2002) asking respondents to rate the importance of spirituality in their lives (0 = not at all, 1 = somewhat, 2 = important, 3 = very important), which mirrors the wording of the parallel item in the religiosity measure. Item scores were transformed into z-scores and then summed, where higher scores reflect higher levels of self-identified spirituality. In this sample, internal consistency of the five items in the spirituality measure was .96 (N = 453), reflecting strong scale reliability. Validity of modified versions of the STI also has been established (Good et al., 2011; Kim & Seidlitz, 2002).


Data Cleaning

To ensure quality and rigor, participants who answered less than 70% of the items on the SOCCS or MC-C were eliminated from the sample, based on the methodology of Henke, Carlson, and McGeorge (2009) and Rock, Carlson, and McGeorge (2010). Of the 556 initial respondents, 61 did not complete the required 70% minimum (20 of 29 items) on the SOCCS. The religiosity and spirituality measures included only four and five items, respectively; therefore, if even one item was omitted from either measure, those participants were eliminated from the sample (n = 15). Finally, 27 respondents did not indicate their primary practice setting and were eliminated from the sample because the researcher could not confirm that they were a counselor.

Further data cleaning was necessary for participants who completed more than 70–100% of the SOCCS or MC-C. For those who omitted one to eight items (n = 89) on the SOCCS or one to three items on the MC-C (n = 8), mean imputation accounted for missing items (Montiel-Overall, 2006). Of those 89 cases that were modified using mean imputation for the SOCCS, 61 participants had omitted only one item and 12 omitted only two items. The remaining 16 participants omitted three to seven items.



The purpose of the study was to investigate the following factors as they relate to and predict LGB-affirmative counselor competence: counselor self-identified religiosity, spirituality, education level, counseling experience with LGB clients and LGB interpersonal contact. To answer the research questions, correlational analysis, multiple regression and analysis of variance (ANOVA) were conducted. The researcher completed post-hoc power analyses using G*power at the .05 level of statistical significance. The effect size and achieved power is reported for each analysis.

For Research Question 1, a correlational matrix presents the relationships among all variables in Table 2. There was a significant, although weak, correlation between LGB-affirmative counselor competence and social desirability (r2 = -.15, p < .01). This suggests that the SOCCS results were not significantly inflated by social desirability.


Table 2

Correlation Matrix for Main Study Variables












1. MC-C










2. SOCCS Total









3. Attitudes








4. Knowledge







5. Skill






6. Religiosity





7. Spirituality




8. Education



9. LGB clients


10. LGB interpersonal

Note. MC-C = Marlow Crowne Social Desirability Scale – Short Form C; SOCCS Total = Sexual Orientation Counselor Competency Scale Total score; Attitudes = SOCCS Attitudinal Awareness Subscale; Knowledge = SOCCS Knowledge Subscale; Skill = SOCCS   Skill Subscale; Religiosity = self-identified religiosity measure; Spirituality = self-identified spirituality measure; Education = highest degree earned in counseling; LGB clients = number of LGB clients counseled; LGB interpersonal = number of LGB friends/relatives


Among initial findings, religiosity had a significant negative relationship with SOCCS total scores (r = -.30, p < .01) including significant negative relationships for all three of the SOCCS subscales (Attitudes, r = -.47; Knowledge, r = -.17; and Skill, r = -.11). Spirituality was not related to SOCCS total scores (r = -.04, p > .05), yet spirituality was strongly correlated with religiosity (r = .60, p < .01).

     For Research Question 2, multiple regression analysis was conducted to determine predictors of LGB-affirmative counselor competence. The criterion variable was total score on the SOCCS and the predictors were (a) religiosity, (b) spirituality, (c) education level, (d) counseling experience with LGB clients, and (e) LGB interpersonal contact. The results of the regression indicated that these five predictors explained 31% of variance in SOCCS scores (R2 = .31, F(5, 391) = 35.31, p < .01). All five variables significantly predicted SOCCS scores: religiosity (β = -.40, p < .01), spirituality (β = .13, p < .05), education (β = .23, p < .01), number of LGB clients worked with (β = .28, p < .01), and LGB interpersonal contact (β = .13, p < .01). Notably, there was a negative β value for religiosity, indicating an inverse relationship with SOCCS scores compared to a positive β value for spirituality and SOCCS scores. With a medium effect size of .45 (Cohen, 1992), achieved power for the multiple regression was 1.00.

For Research Question 3, ANOVA was used to examine differences in three variables (religiosity, spirituality, and LGB-affirmative counselor competence) across the following religious affiliation groups: Protestant Christian, Catholic, Other Religious Affiliation, and No Religious Affiliation. Table 1 displays the affiliations included in each group.

     Religious affiliation and religiosity. A one-way, between-subjects ANOVA compared the effect of religious affiliation on religiosity in four groups: Protestant Christian (n = 237), Catholic (n = 88), Other Religious Affiliation (n = 29), and No Religious Affiliation (n = 99). There was a significant effect of religious affiliation on religiosity [F(3, 449) = 156.69, p = .000]. Post-hoc comparisons using Tukey HSD indicated that the mean score for No Religious Affiliation (M = -4.12, SD = 2.30) was significantly lower than Protestant Christian (M = 1.61, SD = 2.20), Catholic (M = .45, SD = 2.39), and Other Religious Affiliation (M = -.73, SD = 2.11). In addition, Protestant Christian (M = 1.61, SD = 2.20) was significantly higher in religiosity than Catholic (M = .45, SD = 2.39) and Other Religious Affiliation (M = -.73, SD = 2.11) groups. With a large effect size of 1.04 (Cohen, 1992), achieved power for the ANOVA was 1.00.

     Religious affiliation and spirituality. A one-way, between-subjects ANOVA compared the effect of religious affiliation on spirituality in four conditions: Protestant Christian, Catholic, Other Religious Affiliation, and No Religious Affiliation. There was a significant effect of religious affiliation on spirituality [F(3, 449) = 16.17, p = .000]. Post-hoc comparisons using Tukey HSD indicated that the mean score for Protestant Christian (M = 1.22, SD = 3.45) was significantly higher than Catholic (M = -.69, SD = 4.29) and No Religious Affiliation (M = -2.31, SD = 6.06) groups. With a medium effect size of .31 (Cohen, 1992), achieved power for the ANOVA was 0.99.

     Religious affiliation and LGB-affirmative counseling competence. A one-way, between-subjects ANOVA compared the effect of religious affiliation on LGB-affirmative counseling competence in four groups: Protestant Christian, Catholic, Other Religious Affiliation, and No Religious Affiliation. There was a significant effect of religious affiliation on LGB-affirmative counseling competence [F(3, 449) = 12.98, p = .000]. Post-hoc comparisons using Tukey HSD indicated that the mean score for Protestant Christian (M = 4.51, SD = .77) was significantly lower than No Religious Affiliation (M = 4.95, SD = .78). Furthermore, the mean score for Other Religious Affiliation (M = 5.25, SD = .78) was significantly higher than Protestant Christian (M = 4.51, SD = .77) and Catholic (M = 4.70, SD = .75). Using G*Power, post-hoc power analysis was conducted. With a small effect size of .23 (Cohen, 1992), achieved power for the ANOVA was .98.



Results of this study indicate that counselor religiosity and spirituality are each significant predictors of LGB-affirmative counselor competence. Counselor religiosity had a negative relationship with LGB-affirmative counselor competence (β = -.40, p < .01), whereas counselor spirituality had a positive relationship with LGB-affirmative counselor competence (β = .13, p < .01). Although counselors’ self-identified spirituality and religiosity were correlated (r = .60, p < .01), the opposing directions of the relationship between counselor religiosity and spirituality with LGB-affirmative counseling competence is intriguing.

The current study examined counselors’ self-identified religiosity as the degree of involvement in their religions, without knowledge of the specific nature of religious beliefs. It is possible that the negative relationship found between religiosity and LGB-affirmative competence is associated with conservative or fundamentalist beliefs, as found in Bidell’s (2014) study. Nonetheless, the significance of counselors’ self-identified spirituality as a positive predictor of LGB-affirmative counseling competence is new and useful information. Spirituality has been linked to empathy (Morrison & Borgen, 2010) and compassion for others (Saslow et al., 2013), which also may be factors related to LGB-affirmative counseling competence. Further empirical investigation of these variables is necessary to draw further conclusions.

The current study substantiates previous findings that education, the number of LGB clients worked with, and LGB interpersonal contact are positive predictors of LGB-affirmative counselor competence (Bidell, 2014). Reviewing the correlations of the SOCCS subscales (Table 2), education was most strongly related to skill (r2 = .34, p < .01), weakly related to knowledge (r2 = .16, p < .01) and unrelated to attitudes (r2 = .08, p > .05). It may be surmised that more education may move the marker on LGB-affirmative knowledge and skill, but is less related to affirming attitudes. Counseling experience with LGB clients was moderately correlated to skill (r2 = .45, p < .01), weakly related to attitudes (r2 = .11, p < .05), and unrelated to knowledge (r2 = .05, p > .05). Considering that counselors perceive themselves to have affirming attitudes toward LGB clients but have lower knowledge and skill (Bidell, 2012, 2014; Farmer et al., 2013; Graham, Carney, & Kluck, 2012), obtaining more counseling experience with LGB clients may be essential to strengthen self-perceived skill.

Finally, the ANOVA results suggest differences between religious affiliation groups in this study. Counselors in the “Protestant Christian” group were significantly lower in LGB-affirmative competence than counselors with “No Religious Affiliation.” Likewise, counselors in the “Other Religious Affiliation” group were significantly higher in LGB-affirmative competence than the “Protestant Christian” and “Catholic” groups. Furthermore, there were no significant differences in spirituality between “Protestant Christian” and “Catholic” groups, yet there was a significant difference in the religiosity of these two groups. These results suggest that the two groups shared similarly high spirituality but did not share the same religiosity as it was measured in this study.

If religion is theorized as a function of spirituality (Pargament, 2013), then results of this study seem to support that counselor spirituality may facilitate LGB-affirmative dispositions. It is possible that only certain religious beliefs interfere with this relationship to negatively affect LGB-affirmative counseling. As further support, there was a significant difference between “Protestant Christian,” “Catholic,” and “Other Religious Affiliation” groups with regard to LGB-affirmative competence. No firm conclusions can be drawn, but these results provide fodder for those in the field of professional counseling to discuss and consider.



When self-report measures are used in a study of multicultural competence, there is a risk that participants may respond more favorably due to the influence of social desirability. Furthermore, self-perceived LGB-affirmative competence was measured using the SOCCS, which may not reflect actual competence with LGB clients. There is a chance of sampling bias due to the possibility that those who had greater interest in the topic of the study self-selected to participate. Finally, the nature of participants’ religious beliefs was not examined; therefore, there may be wide variability in beliefs within each of the religious affiliation groups examined (e.g., Protestant Christian, Catholic, Other Religious Affiliation).



Results of this study suggest that religiosity and spirituality both predict LGB-affirmative counselor competence, but in different ways. Spirituality was a direct, positive predictor of LGB-affirmative counselor competence, while religiosity was a negative predictor. Results align with previous findings that suggest for highly religious counselors, LGB-affirmative counselor competence is most impacted by attitudes as opposed to the development of knowledge and skill (Bidell, 2014).


Considerations for Counselors

Religiosity and spirituality may each provide structure or ideological substance needed to develop one’s sense of values concerning counseling LGB clients. Whereas religion may derive ideological substance from certain doctrines, scriptures or teachings, spirituality is likely to derive ideological substance from more intuitive or nontangible forms of meaning-making that drive human connection (Zinnbauer et al., 1999). Considering this, it seems possible that counselors who identify as both highly religious and spiritual could experience inner conflict related to integrating LGB-affirmative values if their religious doctrines or teachings have been interpreted in such a way as to condemn same-sex relationships (Altemeyer, 2003; Poteat & Mereish, 2012; Whitley, 2009). In this case, such counselors may be trying to negotiate two important ways of knowing and making meaning about the world: one derived from religious teachings and the other from intuitive or heart-centered means. Thus, if a counselor is experiencing a values conflict between their personal religious beliefs and LGB-affirmative practices supported by the ACA Code of Ethics (2014), it may be mutually beneficial to explore the common thread of spirituality to forge empathic connection.

Practical suggestions for counselors include self-reflection on spiritual and religious values and beliefs, peer consultation, supervision, and seeking consult from a variety of religious and spiritual leaders. It may be helpful for counselors to consider values from their religious affiliations that are congruent with LGB-affirmation to encourage integration. Through these activities, counselors may develop a deeper understanding of the complex ideas, beliefs and values that are important to their religious and spiritual selves.


Counselor Educators and Supervisors

Whitman and Bidell (2014) offered recommendations to counselor educators and supervisors for training LGB-affirmative counselors, such as conducting a thorough and honest appraisal of the program’s level of LGB-affirmative counselor education integration, providing clear informed consent to potential students regarding the LGB-affirmative approach infused into the curriculum, and encouraging student exploration of how personal values may affect worldview. As a pedagogical technique for encouraging self-exploration, Fischer and DeBord (2007) recommended evoking conversation with students when conflict is perceived between a student’s religious values and professional obligations. Normalizing these experiences of struggle for students may be helpful, particularly for those whose religious beliefs are salient to their cultural identities (Robertson & Avent, 2016; Scott, Sheperis, Simmons, Rush-Wilson, & Milo, 2016). In these situations, students may be encouraged to explore and question the assumptions and beliefs that are involved in the perceived conflict with professional and ethical values (Whitman & Bidell, 2014). Kocet and Herlihy (2014) also proposed an ethical decision-making model and approach to managing values conflicts for counselors.

Finally, LGB interpersonal contact had a positive impact on LGB-affirmative counseling competence in this study. Learning activities designed to increase contact with LGB individuals, such as panel discussions or immersion experiences (e.g., Pride Festival attendance) may encourage students to consider personal views more deeply and develop new ways of understanding themselves and the world around them. Considering that counselors’ self-perceived skill was correlated to the amount of counseling experience with LGB clients, it may be useful for counselor educators to find ways to diversify client demographics for practicum and internship students, including affectional orientation, to strengthen LGB-affirmative counseling skills.


Future Research

Although this study captured self-identified religiosity and spirituality through brief measures, a more robust and multidimensional measure of religiosity and spirituality is recommended for future studies. Further investigation of the intersection of counselor religiosity and spirituality is recommended because of the strong correlation between these variables, and might be best explored through qualitative studies. The specific nature of religious beliefs held by highly religious counselors was not verified and may be explored. Future researchers should also explore factors, such as developing empathy for clients, that potentially mediate the effect of prejudicial religious beliefs on LGB-affirmative counselor competence.



In this study, counselor spirituality was a direct predictor of LGB-affirmative counselor competence, evoking the question: What might contribute to a counselor’s sense of spirituality, apart from religious doctrine or dogma that might otherwise compromise an affirming disposition toward LGB clients? Spirituality has been described as an innate capacity that moves us toward “knowledge, love, meaning, peace, hope, transcendence, connectedness, compassion, wellness and wholeness” and contributes to our value system (“Summit Results,” 1995, p. 30). Perhaps the spiritual experience of compassion and the desire for connection provides a broader understanding and embodiment of LGB-affirmative counseling practices at the human level. After all, it stands to reason that multicultural counseling competence across diverse populations stems from an inward striving for unconditional acceptance and validation of the unique experiences of others. To nurture these connections in ourselves and in our work is perhaps one of the greatest gratifications of being a professional counselor.


Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure

The authors reported no conflict of interest

or funding contributions for the development

of this manuscript.



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Laura Boyd Farmer is an Assistant Professor at Virginia Tech University. Correspondence can be addressed to Laura Farmer, 1750 Kraft Drive, Suite 2004, Blacksburg, VA 24061,