This weekend, my wife and I and several others from our church have been enjoying sessions at the National Association of Nouthetic Counseling’s Counseling and Discipleship Training conference. There have been a lot of practical advice given for those just getting started with biblical counseling. Here’s a brief summary of our sessions from last night and this morning, Key Elements in the Process of Counseling:
First, gather information. You’ll never be able to effectively help people if you don’t know what they’re struggling with. Don’t be afraid to probe extensively. Proverbs 18:13 says that a fool addresses a matter before hearing it; if you you don’t listen extensively, you risk giving out bad or ineffective counsel. Even giving biblical counsel before hearing the whole matter is foolishness. Also, be sure to pay attention both to verbal and non-verbal communication. Often how a thing is said (halo data) is more important than what is said.
Discern the problems. This is really about putting a problem up against the Bible. It’s important to use biblical labels when talking about problems. Words are important; using biblical terms to describe behavioral problems actually builds hope because biblical problems have biblical solutions. There are several different levels of problems people face: presentation problems, often emotional; performance problems, often factual; preconditioning problems, often behavioral patterns that have become habits; and heart-level problems, a revelation of a person desires most.
Build involvement. Part of this step is establishing a relationship. Ultimately, you want a person to be comfortable enough in the relationship to not only share their concerns but also to be willing to accept your counsel. This is really a matter of trust, and trust is established several ways. Be compassionate; imagine yourself in their position. Be respectful; don’t patronize and do take their problems seriously. Finally, be sincere; pretending to have it altogether just further discourages those who are struggling.
Give them hope. You cannot promise people that they won’t experience negative consequences from their actions; you can’t give false hopes that infirmities or tribulations will magically disappear. What you can promise is what God has promised: that He will bless those who follow His Word. Think back to the twelve spies who went into Canaan to bring back a report on the land. All twelve saw giants; but ten said they couldn’t take the land and two said with God’s help they could. Interestingly enough, the Bible says that the report the ten spies brought back was evil. Any “report” on our circumstances need to be full of faith and hope or else it’s an evil report.
Give proper instruction. Simply put, present practical solutions that are fitting to their condition. These solutions need to be two-fold: putting off the old and putting on the new. They need to be appropriate: specifically addressing their needs, factoring in their spiritual condition and geared towards their learning style. It’s also important to clearly distinguish between God’s commands and man’s suggestions: don’t let people walk away thinking that the practical suggestions you offer are on the same level as God’s commands.
Assign homework. It may sound trivial, but homework is one of the most effective parts of the counseling process. Nearly everything up to this point has been theory, but the Bible constantly emphasizes doing. Giving people something to do not only reminds them that the responsibility for change lies with them, but it also brings hope and anticipation of change. Talk alone is counter-productive to lasting, biblical change.