I have the privilege of training and supervising biblical counselors nearly every week. Working with those who disciple and minister as biblical counselors is a part of my pastoral role of “equipping the saints for the work of service” (Eph 4:15-16). It is one of my favorite parts of ministry.
Like a coach working with new athletes, I’ve learned that beginning counselors tend to struggle in similar ways and in particular areas. Many of these mistakes are areas where I also struggled as a rookie counselor. I’d like to share some of these common trends and themes that I’ve observed in hopes that we can all continue to grow in our counseling skills.
First session blunders
It is essential that counselors start off strong in the first meeting. One of my counseling mentors taught me that how we start the first session often sets the tone for our entire ministry to the counselee. Here are some common ways that beginning counselors can stumble in the first session.
1. Not utilizing intake paperwork – Intake paperwork is a form used to acquire information about the counselee before the first session occurs. This allows the counselor to prepare for the first session in a more informed manner. Counselors who do not use such paperwork or who wait until the first session to acquire this information are likely to have a less productive initial meeting. While paperwork may be inappropriate to use in more informal counseling settings, counselors benefit greatly by having the counselee fill out basic intake paperwork in more formal counseling settings. This information allows the counselor to create a stronger plan for helping care for the person in the first session.
2. Inadequate data gathering – In their basic counselor training, many counselors recall being taught Proverbs 18:13: “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him.” Folly in our counsel and shame in our ministry can be avoided in part by ensuring we have adequately gathered data before we try to respond. Beginning counselors are often so eager to “give an answer” that they do not acquire the necessary information about the counselee in order to care for them properly. James reminds us to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (Jas 1:19). We must listen well first; get to know the person and strive to understand the situation. Then, we can engage in “speaking the truth in love” in ministry care for the person.
3. Spiritual evaluation – A counselee’s greatest need is for Christ himself. Biblical counselors understand that all problems in life are really just symptoms of humanity’s greatest problem: the need for a Savior who can reconcile them to God (Rom 1:18-32; 2 Cor 5:18-21). Thus the starting point in any ministry to hurting people is to help them to trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Since this is true, it is imperative that a counselor rightly evaluate a person’s spiritual condition.
A counselee that is an unbeliever needs Christ. Only a Christian counselee is able to receive, apply and be transformed by the ministry of Scripture since the Holy Spirit is required to grow and change (1 Cor 2:14-16; Rom 8:9; Gal 5:22-23). Beginning counselors often struggle to rightly evaluate a person’s spiritual condition. Other times, counselors may give Christian-specific promises to an unbelieving counselee. For example, the promise of Romans 8:28 that “all things work together for good” is unique to those who “love God” and who have “been called according to his purpose.”
We violate the Word of God and we give inaccurate counsel to a counselee when we do not honor the authorial intent of the passage. And we do not care for people well when we misevaluate or overlook their greatest need for Christ himself in salvation.
Discipling ministry takes on many forms and happens in many contexts. Formal discipleship usually happens in a more structured environment and has more specific goals. When more formal biblical counseling is utilized, session management becomes essential. Beginning counselors often struggle in this area of ministry in several ways:
1. Allowing the counselee to run the session – Ministry that honors Jesus begins by listening well and genuinely loving the person in need. This means that counselors create environments where the counselee will feel comfortable talking and sharing the struggles being faced. However, ministry effectiveness can be diminished if the counselor allows the counselee to set the agenda and run the session. Beginning counselors often struggle to help a counselee who is especially talkative or one that comes with a less-than-biblical agenda (“Counselor, I want you to fix my wife!”). The counselor is in the best position to help evaluate the person’s situation and minister the Word of God to him in wisdom and love. Furthermore, discipling ministry occurs when the counselor is able to encourage, exhort, teach, and instruct by speaking the truth in love (Eph 4:15; 2 Tim 3:16). Thus, the counselor must strive to create an environment with the counselee where these essential facets of ministry can occur.
2. Trying to do too much in one session – Biblical counseling embraces a high-view of Scripture: that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, authoritative and sufficient Word of God (2 Tim 3:16-17; 1 Pet 1:24-25; Ps 19:7-14). Ministry of the Scriptures involves proper interpretation, explanation, and application of Scripture to the unique struggles of the counselee (2 Tim 2:15). But doing so takes time. A counselor committed to “rightly dividing the Word of truth” must allocate a sufficient amount of time in the session to accurately explain and apply a relevant text to the person’s situation, ensuring that the counselee both understands the meaning of the passage and is readily able to be a “doer of the Word” through appropriate application. Of necessity, this limits the number of biblical texts that can be used in a given session. Beginning counselors often try to use too many passages in one meeting. This leads to minimal explanation and application of the text, which results in minimal transformation. Instead, a counselor should carefully and prayerfully choose only a few short texts or perhaps one extended passage such that the Word can be rightly divided and the counselee properly understand and apply the passage in appropriate ways.
3. Moving on too soon – Beginning counselors often set a timeline of ministry goals or counseling topics that will guide their counseling ministry to a struggling person. While planning and goal-setting are wise and helpful, some counselors do not plan appropriate time to help a person to thoroughly learn and apply Scripture in a given area. Scripture teaches that sanctification is progressive and gradual, usually not dramatic and instantaneous (2 Cor 3:18). Counselors should set their agendas with this doctrinal reality in mind.
For example, some counselors will utilize a biblical counseling book as a main source of teaching for a given topic (anger, worry, depression, parenting, etc.). Resources of this nature can be helpful and can provide solid biblical outlines for given counseling needs. However, planning for “one chapter a week” in a counseling agenda is often not realistic because the counselee may need more time to thoroughly understand and regularly apply a give biblical principle to life. Instead, a counselor should adopt the principle: Only move on to a new topic when the counselee is regularly applying the current area of focus. For example, if a counselor is helping a couple to grow in their communication with one another, the counselor should not move on to a new topic (parenting, finances, etc.) until the couple is regularly and consistently practicing Christ-honoring speech with one another.
4. Resisting the temptation to respond to every topic or question – Sometimes new counselors feel the need to speak into every item the counselee expresses to him. Furthermore, beginning counselors can sometimes wrongly conclude that biblical counseling means having to respond to every topic or question the counselee presents with a biblical text. But these are poor examples of discipling ministry. Scripture teaches that the wise man “ponders how to answer” (Prov 15:28). The counselor needs to learn self-control and resist the urge to respond to every need that is expressed. Instead, the counselor needs to listen well, take notes, look for themes, and get to know the counselee and the situation first. Next, the counselor needs to prioritize the ministry needs of the person and craft a wise plan for helping him. Finally, the counselor engages the counselee from the Scriptures with appropriate wisdom and care. Along the way, the counselee may ask lots of questions. The counselor must assess whether or not answering the counselee’s question at that particular time is really the “need of the moment,” (Eph 4:29) or if other prioritizes would better minister to the counselee. If it is not the right time, the counselor learns to respond graciously: “That’s a great question. Let’s hold that for another time. For now, let’s get back to talking about _______.”
Like sanctification itself, learning to be a skilled biblical counselor is progressive and takes time. Let’s strive to avoid these common pitfalls and aim to be “approved workmen” who “rightly divide the Word of Truth” (2 Tim 2:15).
Dr. Keith Palmer is the associate pastor of Grace Bible Church. He oversees all of the counseling training at Grace Bible Institute, and is the director of Grace’s community counseling ministry, Granbury Biblical Counseling. He is also a Fellow (supervisor), grader, and board member of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC, formerly NANC).
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