Do you find your counseling, formally in sit down appointments as well as informally in everyday conversation, to lack the effectiveness that you long for and those you minister to crave? Likely it is not due to a lack sincerity on the part of anybody involved as much as a lack of strategy. While this list is definitely not exhaustive, here are a four non-negotiables that I have repeatedly discovered I must include in every counseling session God allows me to facilitate:
Emphasize the sufficiency of Scripture for EVERY challenge in the human experience.
2 Peter 1:3-4 “According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.”
One of the common concerns leveled at biblical counselors is, “They just use the Bible.” While there are additional physical/psychological factors and medical/therapeutic solutions that may need to be introduced into the life of a counselee, nothing can replace or should run counter to the all-sufficient and authoritative Word of God. (Here’s a great theological article on this subject). One of the best ways to subconsciously convey confidence in the Scriptures is to have an open Bible always positioned on our desks between us and the counselee. May I also encourage you to not just used principle-based, didactic sections of Scriptures like Proverbs and James, but narrative portions such as Old Testament historical books that allow these principles to be fleshed out in real time and space in ways that are often more practical and accessible. Don’t just include Scripture in your session, but also assign Scripture selections between sessions for them to personally read and process (Here’s a great topical resource from Kruis that I use regularly). The Personal Data Inventory form that our ministry has every counseling candidate fill out requires their commitment to attend a Bible-preaching church at least once per week while receiving counseling. These mandatory moves towards God’s Word and others like them are not simply “auxiliary tokens” by vital, core components of Spirit-endued transformation. Far too often counseling provided even by Christians can be clinically informed without being spiritually transformative. Without this emphasis upon the Word of God is every session, we-bluntly put-have abdicated the right to call ourselves biblical counselors.
Take notes of EVERY significant thought that will be/has been discussed.
Ha 2:2 “And the LORD answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.”
An old Chinese proverb asserts, “The faintest ink is more powerful than the strongest memory.” This adage touted regularly by those who document medical records should be adhered to also by those of us who strive to be just as professional and thorough as biblical counselors. These notes serve as both a guide for the counselor in structured questions/instruction as well as a way to accurately record the responses/concerns of the counselee. (Typically, the first few sessions will include many more questions than answers on your part as you strive to accurately gather data.). Without notes, it is next nigh to impossible to maintain a firm schedule (ideal timeframe is 60-75 minutes) and convey serious preparation on your part that inspires the one you are serving to do the same. When I have been at my best in this area of taking notes, many counselees, of their own initiative, begin to take notes themselves of our sessions…and surprise, surprise they are the ones who get the most of their sessions! If this conversation takes place less formally, your notes may have to be compiled after the fact. (As a caveat of balance, here is a podcast on not taking too many notes.) Another vital benefit of these notes is that they provide an established record if any part of our counseling is ever called into question or misrepresented (given enough time it will happen). Truly, as all clinical professionals will attest, “documentation defends patient care.” One final note on this front, be careful to keep your notes in a confidential place for obvious reasons.
Assign homework between EVERY session.
James 1:25 “But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.
For the average counselee, the crux of their problem is not a just a head knowledge issue but an obedience issue. As Stephen Covey puts it, “To know and not do is to not know.” As biblical counselors, we must guard against constantly dispensing additional information on a given subject without regular points of action and accountability for those same actions. Make sure your information doesn’t outpace their application. According to Keith Palmer, “Craft homework that is specific, objective, and measurable in regard to your counseling goals.” These practical assignments can include reading a portion of a book or article while underlining significant statements, doing a worksheet, journaling the ups and downs of the week, initiating a structured conversation with other parties involved, and the list goes on (Homework Manual 1 and Homework Manual 2 by Wayne Mack and other like resources eliminate the burden to constantly create assignments from scratch). The best time to develop an initial strategy for the next week’s homework is right after the current session while even the intangibles are fresh in your mind…with the understanding that it may need to be tweaked during the upcoming session based upon what is discussed. Of those I observe who are most effective with homework, they practice strategic implementation and gracious but firm accountability. Make sure to write out a physical assignment sheet that both you and the counselee have a copy. When homework is inevitably at times not completed, genuinely listen to their reasons and then reassert the value of the assignment and your time in way that moves them to follow through in the next week. Repeat offenders in failed homework will eventually need to be cut loose if there are no improvements. To do otherwise is perpetually handicap who God wants to powerfully help!
ALWAYS communicate a hope-filled perspective.
Ro 15:4, 13 “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope. Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost.“
Those reaching out to us for counseling need to sense in us a better way to not only think about their present problems but TO FEEL about their future prospects. Only we who build our hope upon the eternal Word of God can truly offer this transcendent hope, no matter how dire or convoluted their situation. Often, those who seek us out are so worn down by the grind of their circumstances that we have to, on their behalf, embody a profile of faith-filled hope long before they can. Authentic words like, “I have seen others in this same situation eventually, with enough time and commitment, experience peace, healing, and/or strength” can cause their soul to flood with a fresh dose of belief that has likely eluded their self-medicating existence for years. The thoughts we convey truly matter, but a question of self-evaluation to regularly ask ourselves is, “How is my particular brand of counseling making the counselee FEEL about their problems?” Likely their personal space is filled with self-doubts, discouraging voices in their family life, and even spiritually-fueled negativity swirling all around them. Determine to be the audible vessel through which the God of all hope can encourage and fortify them every time you meet. Ed Welch wisely concludes on this matter, “Hope grows through stages. It has been known to double back to earlier ones, but hope follows a path. The markers on that path help us see the present location of our hope. The ones ahead give us reasons for endurance. And we always aspire to praise, which is reality seen most clearly, humanity settled on the only One who can sustain hope, and life complete, as it was intended to be.” This journey towards hope can rarely be travelled, for even a brief period during troubling times, alone. Hence, the God-ordained need for biblical, hope-filled counselors like us. (Here’s a great list of practical ways to give those you counsel hope, not matter what they are facing.)
By the way, these four qualities of counseling don’t apply to just formal, scheduled kind of counseling. They possess a demonstrative vitality that can transform every in-the-flow-of-life conversation in which you listen to others and then dispense some small nugget of biblically-aligned and Spirit-applied perspective/wisdom. What could God do through our lips and lives if we would be more graciously disciplined in how we advise others?
If you have additional questions or recommendations on how to get better as a counselor, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Great article, thanks for writing this!
Thanks for your encouragement, Travis!