In biblical counseling, homework refers to assignments that are given to the counselee each week that facilitate growth and biblical encouragement between sessions. Counselors recognize that true change will happen with counselees when they are pursuing God’s solutions throughout the week, not just during the session. Yet, many counselors struggle to craft and implement homework assignments that are effective. This article will explore five specific ways you can improve your homework assignments in counseling.
1. Design your homework around the spiritual disciplines. While Scripture does not teach, “Thou shalt give homework assignments to counselees,” it does command all believers to engage in certain practices, such as the intake of Scripture (Matthew 4:4), prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:17), the memorization of Scripture (Psalm 119:11), corporate worship (Hebrews 10:25), using gifts to serve others (1 Peter 4:10) and being a “doer of the Word” (James 1:22). These practices are sometimes call the “spiritual disciplines.” The spiritual disciplines should make up the basic structure of counseling homework. Since Scripture calls all believers to engage in these practices, the counselor is not asking the counselee to do anything in homework that God has not already commanded him to do. However, there is a difference: Counseling homework that is built around the spiritual disciplines is not general and vague, but is specific and tailored to the unique situation of the counselee.
For example, if the counselee is struggling with sinful fear, a counselor might ask her to read Scripture passages that would address this issue, such as Psalm 27 or Psalm 56. The counselee might memorize Psalm 56:3, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in you.” In this way, the regular spiritual disciplines serve to strengthen the counselee’s faith and communion with God by specifically focusing on the areas of life struggle that have brought her to counseling. The counselor doesn’t need to guess regarding how the basic structure of homework should look. She can simply follow the basic practices given in Scripture regarding the spiritual disciplines. By using the spiritual disciplines as the structure of homework, the counselee is also developing the habit of practicing the disciplines that hopefully will serve the counselee well beyond the conclusion of formal counseling.
2. Plan your homework before the session. As a counseling supervisor, one of the most common weaknesses I see in counseling students is that homework is not planned before the session. Without planned, tentative homework, counselors begin to experience “homework panic” as the counseling session comes to a close and they frantically try to figure out what to give for homework. Waiting to craft the homework until the conclusion of the counseling session usually results in ineffective homework. Instead, the wise counselor will prepare tentative homework as he prepares his tentative agenda for the session.
These plans must be “tentative” as the session may take an unexpected turn and the counselor may need to divert from his agenda to address the “need of the moment” (Ephesians 4:29). However, most often the planned agenda is the best course to follow in the session. Early on, counselors should form a list of topics or needs to address in counseling. From this list, they prioritize which needs to address first. Then they begin to minister the Scriptures to the counselee by working through each topic. Assuming that the counselor has a clear agenda for each session, it is fairly easy to craft appropriate homework that flows out of the session agenda. Counselors struggle to plan homework in advance when they lack a clear agenda for the session.
3. Craft your homework to work with your counseling agenda. Effective homework works in concert with the flow of the session to accomplish the counseling goals. Let’s say a couple is learning how to practice biblical confession and forgiveness in their marriage. If this is the counseling agenda, then the homework should be designed to target the same subject. How would that look? Here is an example:
- Scripture reading – Read Matthew 18, Ephesians 1, Psalm 32, Psalm 51 and journal what you learn about confession and forgiveness (each of these chapters addresses the topic of confession and forgiveness).
- Scripture memorization – Ephesians 4:32
- Prayer – Every day, spend time in prayer with God, praising Him for His patience, grace, and forgiveness toward you; confessing your sin to Him (1 John 1:9) and asking for His help to confess your sin to your spouse and to be ready to forgive your spouse (Psalm 86:5).
- Read the pamphlet “Biblical Peacemaking,” and mark the five most helpful sentences. (This pamphlet provides an overview of biblical confession and forgiveness).
- When you sin against your spouse, humbly practice biblical confession by following the steps of confession we discussed in the session. Grant biblical forgiveness (as we discussed in the session) toward your spouse when he comes in confession. Record any incidents of confession/forgiveness and be ready to discuss at our next session.
Notice that each assignment is specific, objective, and measurable. Specific assignments lead to specific change. Measurable assignments allow you to more accurately track progress. It should be easy to see the connections between the counseling agenda and the homework assignment. A thoughtful homework assignment facilitates biblical sanctification by promoting the God-ordained scriptural practices that lead a counselee to walk with God and to become more like Him in the particular areas of need.
4. Intentionally develop a homework file. Many counselors struggle with what to do for homework because they simply have not been exposed to a variety of different kinds of homework assignments. As early as possible, counselors should begin developing a “homework file,” a list of various homework assignments for particular needs. Whether you choose a traditional paper “file folder” style or opt for a computer-based electronic file, having a catalogue of potential assignments is a valuable resource when it comes to crafting homework. Here are some ideas for starting your own homework file:
Use published materials. Dr. Wayne Mack has developed three different “Homework Manuals” for biblical counselors. As the name implies, these are books that list various different homework assignments. These books are an easy and helpful place to start looking for homework ideas.
Create study guides from books and audio messages. When you read a good Christian book or hear a helpful message on a topic related to counseling, take some time to create a homework assignment from it. For example, you could develop a list of application questions for Jerry Bridges’ book, Trusting God. If your pastor preaches on biblical forgiveness, file away his outline and the audio recording of the message so you can use it in counseling.
Use notes from counseling conferences. There are many solid biblical counseling conferences that occur each year. Most presenters provide homework ideas for various counseling topics as part of their lessons. Make a point to file away the ideas you learn from these sources in your homework folder.
Talk with other counselors. One way that counselors can help one another is by sharing different ideas about homework assignments. So, talk with other biblical counselors in your church and community. Ask permission to collect various homework assignments from other counselors and create a shared, master “file” that counselors in your church can access.
Even if you are just beginning your biblical counseling journey, you’ll be surprised how quickly your homework file will grow if you follow these basic guidelines.
5. Always review homework assignments. Though it may seem a bit odd, counselors will strengthen their homework assignments by regularly reviewing homework each week with counselees. Homework isn’t just busy work, but a key strategy for the counselee’s growth and help. Taking time to review homework each week allows the counselor to evaluate how the counselee is learning and applying Scripture. It helps the counselor see areas of weakness, confusion or points that need to be strengthened.
As you adopt the practice of reviewing homework each week, you will discover ways that you can improve your own assignments. For example, maybe you asked a counselee to “reconcile” with a friend following a recent conflict. As you reviewed the homework with her the following week, you discovered that your counselee didn’t really understand biblical reconciliation. Hopefully that helps you to craft a better homework assignment next time by spelling out what biblical reconciliation actually looks like. As you review the effectiveness of your homework assignments each week, you should see ways to improve your assignments. Over time, this habit will strengthen your homework-crafting skills across the board.