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This is the second post in a two part series around mistakes new counselors often make. You can read part 1 of this series here.

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.

Lack of proper preparation – Beginning counselors often struggle to spend appropriate time preparing for their counseling sessions. The saying, “Proper Planning Prevents Poor Performance” is very applicable to counseling as in most areas of life and ministry. Counselors need to prepare themselves for sessions in several key areas:

a. Clear counseling goals – Scripture clearly establishes specific goals for Christians, such as glorifying God in all things (1 Cor 10:31) and striving to grow in maturity like Christ (Col 1:28). In counseling, these larger goals must be translated into specific, applicational goals in the counselee’s life. For example, a person struggling with bitterness and unforgiveness must learn that glorifying God means repentance in putting away these ungodly behaviors and turning to Christ in order to begin practicing kindness and forgiveness (Eph 4:31-32).

As a counselor comes to understand the counselee and her needs before the Lord, she must be able to establish clear counseling goals for the counselee based upon a biblical evaluation of her situation. After the first few sessions, the counselor should have a clear direction for the ministry needs of the counselee and clear goals for her. For example, 1) strengthen identity in Christ; 2) clear understanding of repentance and sanctification; 3) addressing bitterness and unforgiveness; 4) responding in godly ways to difficult people.

b. Planned, tentative agendas and homework – Two key elements of biblical counseling include ministering the Word of God and homework assignments (growth projects) that aid the counselee during the week between sessions. Rookie counselors often approach these two major components of counseling with little preparation and thought. Yet Scripture commands the Christian to “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). Planning is needed to “accurately” handle the Word of truth and minister it wisely and helpfully to struggling people. More specifically, the counselor must prepare a specific counseling agenda and specific counseling homework which will aim to accomplish the current ministry goal. However, these agendas must be somewhat “tentative” because the session may always take an unanticipated “turn” and the counselor is called by God to speak “according to the need of the moment” (Eph 4:29). Regardless, planning is needed in these areas for more fruitful and effective counseling. Counselors who give little thought to the session and come unprepared usually end up being much less effective in counseling.

c. Teaching and homework that works in concert – Not only does the counselor need to properly plan a counseling agenda and appropriate homework, she needs to plan for these two elements to serve each other in the counseling session. Many times, beginning counselors do not see that these two facets of counseling are meant to work together. In other words, the skilled counselor strives to develop homework assignments that will remind, strengthen, and aid the application of truths and principles learned during the teaching portion of the session.

For example, if the counselor has taught on repentance and replacement in regard to bitterness and unforgiveness, the homework for that week ought to reflect that agenda. Homework might include: 1) memorize Ephesians 4:31-32; 2) Confess to God and seek his forgiveness when you discover areas of bitterness and unforgiveness (1 John 1:9); 3) Daily pray that God would give you grace to practice kindness toward _______; 4) Read the booklet, Forgiving Others and mark the 10 most importance sentences. Be ready to discuss next time.

In order for the teaching in counseling and the homework given to work in concert, the counselor must prepare for these elements to work together. General homework or homework that is quickly created in the final moments of the counseling session rarely accomplish this goal.

d. Personal preparation – “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work” (2 Tim 2:21). In context, Paul notes in this verse that a Christian must be active in his own sanctification (described as “cleansing” in this verse) if he will be “useful” to the Master in ministry. Counselors must come to the counseling session spiritually prepared in their own hearts. Confession of sin, meditation time in Scripture, personal worship, and spiritual disciplines are ways that a counselor should be regularly walking with God and thus are prerequisites for ministry, including counseling. The counselor who is neglecting his own heart and spiritual life is really not qualified in that moment to engage in personal ministry to others. The Old Testament priest Ezra made it his aim to study the law of God, then to practice it in his own heart and life, and finally to teach and minister the Word to others (Ezra 7:10). This is the proper order. An unsanctified counselor is a poor instrument for the transformation of others.

Homework challenges – All biblical counselors agree that the counselee must be active in her walk with God if change, encouragement, help, and growth are to occur. Christians engaged in more formal discipleship have found that creating a spiritual growth “plan” between formal meetings is a helpful tool that aids in accomplishing the help that counselees seek. Beginning counselors can strengthen their counseling effectiveness by seeking to provide regular, appropriate homework from week to week and avoiding common homework pitfalls.

e. Missing, inadequate or semi-relevant homework – Counselors can fail to facilitate sanctification to a counselee by not having any plan or assignments between meetings. Neglecting counseling “homework” is really a theological problem in nature since the doctrine of sanctification as revealed in Scripture reminds us that sanctification is not magically imparted in a moment of particular ministry but is rather the result of regular, ongoing spiritual practices in dependence on the Lord over time (2 Cor 3:18). This fact means that most change seen in counseling happens as the counselee communes with God each day and actively practices biblical instructions in faith. Homework is a practical vehicle to facilitate this daily communion and obedience.

The best homework assignments are thoughtfully and prayerfully prepared before each session, they are presented in a way where the counselee sees how the assignments will help her grow, they are comprehensive in the sense that they promote the regular spiritual disciplines of Scripture, and they are relevant in that they aim to target the specific areas where the counselee is desiring help. General homework is helpful for general Christian growth, but specific homework is transformative in particular areas where change is desired. For example, reading and meditating on Scripture is a needed (and commanded) biblical practice (Ps 1:2). A counselor may assign a counselee to read one chapter from his Bible each day. This will no doubt help the counselee because God’s Word is powerful (Isa 55:11). But a better assignment would be to assign a particular section or chapter of Scripture that is especially relevant to the counselee’s situation. The counselor should request that the counselee take notes and spend time meditating on how the truths learned from the text ought to impact his current situation. Counselors who assign regular, thoughtful homework of this nature are better assisting their counselees toward change and encouragement.

f. Comprehensive homework – Thorough homework that maximizes biblical change, strengthens the counselee’s walk with God and increases counseling efficiency is comprised of several key components (I am indebted to Randy Patten for his influence regarding these elements)

i. Intentional Bible reading – Intentional reading of the Scriptures in particular places that are relevant to a person’s situation is a staple item of homework for Christian growth. Jesus taught that man does not live on bread alone but on “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). A Christian should view the intentional intake of the Word of God as critical for the spiritual life as intake of food is to physical life.

ii. Purposeful prayer – God communicates to the believer through the Scriptures, and the believer communicates to God through prayer. Believers are called to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thess 5:17). Intake of the Scriptures and particular prayer to God completes the circle of communication with God and are key areas of communion with him. There is no path to Christian growth or encouragement without regular, biblically-informed, heart-engaged communion with God through the intake of his Word and personal prayer.

iii. Regular involvement in the local church – The individual believer is part of a greater “body” of believers called the church. The local church is the regional expression where believers worship, are equipped for ministry, and serve one another toward Christlikeness (Eph 4:11-13). The local church is the main way that God has established for believers to grow, change and be encouraged in their faith. Formal biblical counseling is only one part of God’s overall plan to help struggling believers. The whole church is needed for proper growth to occur (Eph. 4:16).

iv. Specific Scripture memorization – Scripture admonishes believers to “hide” God’s Word in their hearts so that the spiritual benefits of the Word are carried with them and will aid them in spiritual growth (Ps 119:9-11). Transformation in sanctification is energized by the Spirit of God working through the Word of God (John 17:17; Gal 5). Memorization of specific texts are indispensable for Christian growth and personal encouragement (Rom 12:1-2).

v. Utilizing supplemental resources – While the Scriptures alone are the Word of God and fully sufficient for life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3), God has also given believers spiritual gifts which help accomplish his goals in the church (Rom 12:6-8). Some believers have utilized their spiritual gifts to produce resources (books, recordings, blogs, booklets) that aid in the growth and discipleship of others as the Scriptures are explained and applied. The appropriate use of particular and relevant resources in counseling can greatly serve counselees by helping them to better understand and apply Scripture to their situations.

vi. Daily grace-enabled obedience – The specific goal of counseling and the believer’s life in general is transformation into the image of Christ to the praise of his glory (2 Cor 3:18). Sanctification and Christian growth do not happen by education from the Scriptures alone, but by divinely-enabled obedience. The believer must “work out his salvation” [meaning, his sanctification] as God works in him (Phil 2:12-13). Change happens when the believer is an “effective doer” of the Word of God and not a hearer only (Jas 1:23-25).

Counseling homework is incomplete and will ultimately fail in its goal if the counselee is not challenged to put into practice what she is learning from the Word of God. Comprehensive homework that includes multiple spiritual disciplines targeted at specific areas for change facilities the growth of counselees.

g. Handling non-compliance – Homework that aids in sanctification and growth has incredible potential to help counselees to be transformed into the image of Christ. But homework is only effective if it is used properly. A wise counselor will specifically explain the reasons for homework to the counselee during the first session. She will then ask the counselee to commit to doing weekly homework assignments with a desire to change. Finally, the counselor will spend a portion of each session reviewing what was learned or gained through the homework in the previous week. If the counselee fails to complete the assigned homework, the counselor will investigate. Regular completion of the assignments should be seen as a needed component of the counseling. Non-compliance regarding homework should be met with grace and with an insistence that homework needs to be completed. Counselors who do not provide loving accountability regarding homework should expect to see slow and limited growth.

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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