I received the following question from one of our students today. This is a condensed paraphrase:
We have covered so much information that I am afraid I will not recall what I need to when I encounter specific counseling situations. How do I remember where to begin?
The question brought back memories of my early training and counseling experiences. I remember well the “drinking from a firehose” feeling I had when I attended one of the first February conferences at Faith Baptist over 30 years ago. I went home knowing I needed to be a counselor for my church and community, but fearful about my limited abilities.
God was gracious to me in that I had a resource then that you do not have. I could pick up the phone and call Bill Goode, and he would take my call! During the last 20 years, I could drive out to rural Enoree, SC, sit down with Jay Adams himself, and ask questions.
Today, however, you have resources I did not have. In those days, all the biblical counseling books I owned (and I owned most that were available) fit on less than two linear feet of shelf space. Now I have an entire wall of shelves filled with help. But books on a shelf, and mentors one can call, do not help in that moment in the counseling room when you are groping for biblical answers for your counselor’s problems. Let me encourage you with several things to remember.
- God is good, gracious, and sovereign—not only in your counselee’s life and circumstance, but in yours as well. God will not bring situations to you that are too much for you. Often you will be tempted to think that is the case, but you should view the difficult counseling situation before you as God’s gracious appointment to help you grow and take the next step in your progress as a counselor.
- Learn how to conduct a first counseling session well. Know what you want to accomplish. Ask good questions. Maintain control of the session. Keep it moving in a purposeful direction. Get a clear picture of the problem. Take good notes. Assign good data gathering homework. Above all, give hope. If you do all these things well in that first session, you will not have time to tackle the fundamentals of the problem presented anyway. Assure your counselee you will get to the problem next week. If you need help with learning how to conduct a first session well, get a copy of Jay Adams’ book Critical Stages in Biblical Counseling and read the first section carefully.
- If you conduct that first session well, you will know how to study for the next session. Happily, you have a full week to do so. While you cannot call Bill Goode or sit down with Jay Adams as I could, you can do even better. You can glean wisdom on the topics your counselee presented to you from Jay Adams, Wayne Mack, Lou Priolo, John Street, Martha Peace, Heath Lambert, Daniel Berger, Stuart Scott, Steve Viars, and, well, the list is long. God has given you homework for the week. Accept it as an assignment from Him, and be prepared for that next session.
- You have now gained valuable experience. I do not remember all the marriages I have counseled over the years, but I remember vividly the first. That husband and wife spat poison at each other, in the presence of their pastor no less, in the words they used to describe their marriage. I lost control of the session after the first five minutes. The things you learned in your training about the problem your counselee presented to you will become fixed in your thinking as you work through the problem with your counselee. You will not soon forget it. While your next counselee will be quite different from the last one, you will remember how working through Philippians 4 with a worried counselee gave both hope and help. The experience will serve you well the next time you counsel a worrier.
- Be careful as you study for that next session. The hundreds of books available now to the biblical counselor are both a blessing and a curse. Tares have grown up among the wheat. Even good authors you have grown to trust and appreciate can produce a clunker from time to time. Be discerning.
- Finally, keep learning. If you had thought that completing a training course, or even becoming certified, would adequately prepare you for this task, you have certainly discovered otherwise by now. A three-weekend course or a one-week conference can be a good start, but it is only that, a start. One friend refers to these training venues as the “GED” of counseling training. Read voraciously, most useful books can be purchased for about what you would spend on a pizza tonight. Attend as many conferences as you are able, sit in on counseling sessions conducted by seasoned counselors. Do not settle for the minimum amount of training required by a certifying organization.
So you see, you do not have to remember everything about all counseling situations to begin counseling. You simply have to prepare yourself well for the next one. When things arise in that session that you are not prepared to handle, make a note, promise your counselee that you will come back to that issue later, and do your best to keep to the agenda you had prepared.