November 9, 2019

How to Counsel People in the Local Church

There’s lots of chat about counselling in church circles right now. CCEF have done a fine job of pushing it to the fore in many biblically-minded congregations. When I was a young pastor, I knew about the need for counselling, but there was never any clear training on the nuts and bolts of how to counsel those in need. I certainly never received any adequate training from my Bible College. So it has been left for me to learn through painful experience of 20 years in ministry and the copious amounts of reading I have done over the last decade.

I was given this book at a meeting I went to, and once I'd finally read it, I thought it’d be a good one to review. I know Deepak. Well, I say know. I’m acquainted with him. We don’t drink beer and go for long walks together or anything. He’s a little fella I’ve heard speak at a couple of 9Marks weekenders (go on one if you can) and what he says is usually gracious and wise. He’s like a little counselling ninja. A pastoring Yoda (with sound theology of course!).

Anyway, 17 luminaries of differing qualifications have recommended this book. 17! (That’s got to be good for his self-esteem, right?) They say things like, ‘remarkably helpful’; ‘faithful’; and ‘eminently biblical’ (that’s a good one—I need to use that for my next book recommendation thingy). ‘The best primer I’ve read’ is another. ‘A gem’, ‘balanced’, ‘deft’ and ‘hope-giving’. What else could a brother do but read it and give it a cheeky review?

The first thing I notice is how short it is. 148 pages long when we include the (eminently helpful) appendices. It’s broken into three parts: Concept, Process, and Context.

Concept

We discover in chapter 1 (on page 28) that personal ministry involves:

  1. Identifying the weakness and sin of people.
  2. Speaking to God on behalf of people.
  3. Speaking to people on behalf of God.

We read that, “Jesus stands in the muddy waters of his people's weakness, waywardness, and suffering, and he beckons the pastor to come join him there” (30). That’s all this book is trying to do, really. One word describes this book: simple. Maybe another one: beautiful. Beautifully simple. Yeh, that’s it. No razzmatazz. No cleverness. No attempt at theological trickery.

Chapter 2 gets us started, helping us to come to each situation by:

  • Addressing the presenting problem.
  • Displaying the relevance of the gospel.
  • Helping people to grow in Christlikeness.

It talks the counsellor through the initial contacts and first meetings before moving on to the actual how to of the counselling process. Again, we’re reminded of some simple truths in terms of our counselling trajectory.

  1. Listen to the problem.
  2. Consider heart responses.
  3. Speak the truth in love.

We’re encouraged to remember these points while adopting a system of organisation along the following lines (49–50):

  • Circumstances. What is going on? What seems most important to the person?
  • Other people. Who are the most prominent people in this story? How are they treating him/her? How is he/she treating them?
  • Self. What is the posture toward his/her troubles? Does he/she see themselves as a victim, perpetrator, inferior, superior, ignorant, insightful, confused, clear-headed, guilty, or innocent?
  • God. How is the person factoring (or not) God into their troubles? What is their perspective of the Lord’s involvement with their troubles?

Deepak recommends following this system when walking through the counselling trajectory, and then offers some practical considerations for your counselling space, including having tissues for the criers and positioning clocks strategically! A little OCD but then, I suppose, it’s about treating other people well.

Process

The process part of the book starts at chapter 4, which considers the initial meeting with the counsellee. We’re encouraged to “establish a relational connection” from the off as we seek to set “the four most important commodities of any pastoral counselling relationship: trust, mercy, love, and respect” (58–59). We’re advised to make notes, display hope, and set expectations; and there is a helpful set of questions the counsellor should be asking him/herself of the counsellee on page 67. Page 68 includes a list of some great ideas for homework and a gentle reminder that, “through prep work, we teach the person to rely on God’s Word.” (68)

Chapter 5 drills down the ways in which we can ensure counsellees are moving forward through our sessions. After initial meetings we should:

  1. Get an update
  2. Ask about prep work
  3. Continue to explore the concern(s)
  4. Offer redemptive remedies

The bottom of page 71 offers some helpful discussion starters to move the conversation on. The end of this chapter also contains a boxed-off section with some golden questions the counsellor needs to keep in mind when working with the person they’re trying to counsel.

Chapter 6 concerns the ‘final meeting’ and answers the question of how and when to end counselling. Positively, it may be time to end counselling when (1) the counsellee understands their problem and is equipped to handle it and/or (2) another’s care for them becomes more effective. I particularly liked this second point because it takes great maturity to hand over your counsellee to another in the church who may be more gifted or better able to deal with the specifics of a given situation. The strength of this chapter comes in looking at the negative reasons why counselling ought to end.

  • Nothing is changing
  • They don’t want to work at it
  • They don’t trust you
  • They need more help than you can offer

There’s even a little section on personal reflections for why you may have failed the person and what you can learn going forward. The chapter ends with some great review questions on page 98 and discusses how ongoing care should be handled.

Context

Chapter 7 focuses on the issue of discipleship. How can our churches and communities help people through the troubles of life? What are the expectations of members outside the counselling room in the process? This is not a 9Marks book, but it is written by a 9Marks guy so, of course, the importance of membership is discussed. We’re reminded that when we become members of a church, we commit to the spiritual good of one another. Discipline is another key issue. The bottom line, according to the authors, is this: if we want help in our counselling, then we need to start teaching the members to be discipled and to be disciplers.

Chapter 8 deals with the thorny issue of knowing when we need outside help. There are some danger signs:

  • You feel maxed out
  • You’ve tried your best, but it seems to have had little or no positive impact
  • You sense the need for further medical help
  • You have to disclose information that protects others from abuse or harm

When handing a member over to outside care, we must ensure that we maintain a connection with them and that any help they receive is critiqued biblically. There is some good discussion in this chapter on the use of Christian or non-Christian counsellors.

The final part of the book is taken up with some extremely helpful appendices. We have a counselling checklist, a very brief discussion on Christian counselling, a personal background form, and a simple method for taking and organising notes.

I would suggest you buy this bad boy. Not because it’s going to add anything at all to your understanding of counselling. It won’t. But what it will do, where others fail, is show you how to do counselling from the ground up. It’s just so simple, clever, and practical. This is going to help a lot of people help a lot of people better.

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