Our hope at The Seattle School is to be led by our alumni and their stories. Mary Jane Wilt, PhD, graduated from The Seattle School, then known as Mars Hill Graduate School, in 2005 with a Master of Arts in Counseling (MAC), now our Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology (MACP) program. In this interview, Mary Jane shares her journey including how she discovered her degree program, her experiences as a student, her additional studies and development as a therapist, and her nonprofit work. Dr. Wilt completed her PhD-MFT in September 2022 and she also presented her research at our Day of Scholarship 2023. Since this interview, the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy has published “Differentiation of Family System Inventory (DoFSI): Development and Content Validation of a New Qualitative Family Intervention and Evaluation Tool,” a distillation of her PhD dissertation. 

How did you find and choose your degree program? And how is it helping you today?

In February of 1995, my first counselor introduced me to The Wounded Heart by Dan Allender. Although I was teaching high school English at the time—which was basically a 24/7 commitment—I devoured Dan’s book and its workbook in eight days. The material resonated with me so deeply that I put everything else aside to consume it. Here I was at age 26 having been raised in the church, a cult actually, but having never been presented with a God who could feel my pain. That material woke up emotions in me that had been shut down for 13 years (my age when I stopped the sexual abuse), and I couldn’t help but surrender to Love itself. The God Dan presented was irresistible.

Though I had desired to be a counselor since I learned at age 9 that there were doctors who helped people with their emotions, I backed away from that dream upon taking Abnormal Psychology as an undergrad. I thought, “I have every pathology in this textbook. I can’t be a counselor!” School had been a survival mechanism for me in a chaotic family environment, so it felt natural to major in teaching instead. My experience with The Wounded Heart, however, re-ignited my desire to follow my heart’s call, so I quit teaching after six years and decided to go back to school. I discovered that Dan had founded a school in Seattle, and suddenly I was within a 3-hour commute from my first-choice school. Another student from the Portland area was considering Mars Hill Graduate School (The Seattle School) as well, and we ended up commuting together over the next three years. Traveling for school was exhausting, at times, but I’ve never regretted that decision. The Mars Hill Graduate School (The Seattle School) program completely changed the trajectory of my life, both personally and professionally.

What are you up to now?

I established my private practice when I was still attending the program, and within a short time, my practice was full. I was incredibly fortunate to fall into the situation in which I found myself. Now, I’m out on my own, practicing out of my own building. A year after graduating from Mars Hill Graduate School (The Seattle School), the family systems perspective came to my attention upon reading Harriet Lerner’s book The Dance of Anger. That book described a bit about Bowen family systems theory, and after studying it on my own for 10 years, I decided it was time to test its concepts in situ. So I moved back to Pennsylvania, the land of my family of origin, after having been away for 30 years. My goal was to increase my level of differentiation in the most challenging context possible. Knowing that major paradigm shifts take about three years to fully integrate, I committed to being in Pennsylvania for at least that long.

It just so happened that being in Pennsylvania put me within a 3-hour commute of the Bowen Center in Washington, DC, so I completed the postgraduate program there. That experience ignited my desire to pursue my doctorate in family systems which I did when I returned to Portland. While in my doctoral program, I developed a nonprofit organization, Family School, to bring free family systems education primarily to socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, similar to my family of origin. The question that drove me was, “If my family had had access to family systems material, would we have done even just a little bit better?” While I’m struggling to get funding for Family School, the initial pilot program, presented at a homeless shelter, was a tremendous success.

I’ve learned that it’s nearly impossible to develop a new business while working full-time, so I’m not sure what will happen to Family School. In my private practice, however, I apply a family systems lens. Also, I’m currently facilitating a group for parents who want to apply a family systems perspective to their parenting approach.

What’s your favorite part(s) about your work?

The transformation that I get to influence and witness with clients is incredibly rewarding. Sometimes I feel like the luckiest person alive because, given my history, I should not be where I am in life doing this work. My own psychotherapy journey has earned me a secure attachment style, which is not only good for me, but for my clients as well. I don’t believe our personal work is ever finished, and working with clients keeps me in my own process. Our clients pay us to get ourselves well so that we can help them get well, too. If we want to be effective, we have to stay humble and active in our own process of emotional development, I believe.

a glimpse into Mary Jane Wilt’s scrapbook pages from her graduate school years

How does your training at Mars Hill Graduate School/The Seattle School inform your work?

Thinking back on my time, one class stands out from all the rest in terms of its impact on my work with folks today. The second time I took “Issues of Abuse” (the first time was so powerful I audited it for a second dose), a volunteer from the class became the subject of live counseling with Dan, simulcast from his office to the classroom. In her time with Dan, our classmate described her abuse experience with complete vulnerability and extraordinary courage. Dan invited her to describe what happened, detail by detail, moment by moment. It was gut-wrenching to see in my mind’s eye what she described, and tears made their way down my cheeks. When she had painted the picture from start to finish, Dan then invited her to freeze-frame the abuser and insert herself into the scene as an adult so that she could bring comfort to her child self who had gotten stuck in that scene. She described holding herself as a child and speaking to her the words she had needed to hear for decades: “I’m so sorry. You didn’t deserve that. It wasn’t your fault.” When our classmate returned to the classroom after that session, she was radiant!

I had been transfixed as I witnessed that transformation. I was then able to transfer that process into my own experiences of abuse, bringing comfort to the child parts of me that had experienced similar harm. Since then, I have used that visualization/guided imagery technique hundreds of times with myself and with clients to help heal old wounds.

I believe it was in the very same class when we were debriefing that counseling session that a student described her role in the legal department of a megachurch where she was dealing with an abuse case. The woman said that it was hard to look at the photographs depicting the injuries of the abused child, and she asked Dan how she could emotionally separate herself from the horror. I’ll never forget Dan’s response: “If you don’t allow yourself to enter the horror, you’ll objectify the child much like the abuser.” He explained that unless we can enter the grief with our clients, we would not be able to help clients grieve for themselves. It’s incredibly difficult work that we do, but what an honor it is to bring personhood to those who have been treated as objects.

While all of that took place in one class period, that’s not to say that the rest of the coursework at Mars Hill Graduate School (The Seattle School) was forgettable! In fact, it was so memorable that in my last semester there, I had the logo of the school tattooed on my ankle! While that logo became defunct when the school changed its name, my precious tat’s a reminder of how powerfully the Mars Hill Graduate School (The Seattle School) experience marked me. Just last week, I photocopied one of my papers from one of my theology classes and gave it to a client. That paper became the foundation for a chapter of a book I published in 2011 titled, Grounds for Marriage, Book & Study Guide: A Fresh Starting Point for Couples in Crisis (published under the pseudonym Jade G. Stone to protect the stories told therein that were still in process at the time).

What else would you like to share with us?

Another passion of mine these days is the psychedele-therapy movement that is beginning to take the field by storm. I’m excited to see what various psychoactive medicines can do to unlock unconscious material bringing it to the surface for processing. Living in Oregon where these conversations are hot topics, I may end up on the front lines of a movement that could revolutionize the field. I’m hopeful about what psychedelics can do with post-traumatic stress symptoms and the devastation they cause within us, between us, across generations, in our culture, and in the world. This may raise theological issues for some, along with the debates in the larger community about risks, rewards, responsibilities, and regulations, but I’m eager to see what the resurgence of these medicines can do for those of us who seek deep healing for ourselves and for brokenness everywhere.