Ministry Counseling with Purpose
If you are in any sort of ministry, it is a certainty that you have more than a little opportunity for counseling. The needs of people just tend to surface whenever any representative of God is available. And if you are like most ministers, you have some sense of enjoyment of this aspect of your work, as well as some occasional feelings of being overwhelmed with the nature of the task. The sheer numbers of people needing help added to the difficulty of the situations that you face can become a lot to deal with.
But, the good news is that with a few basic principles on your side, you can be an enormous help to many people. In my experience of working with Christians for the last 20 years, having good pastoral counseling in the picture can be an important aspect of many people’s growth and recovery. Let’s take a look at some things to remember.
Decide What You Are Doing First
In seeing a person or a couple for counseling, it is important to decide what your goals are going to be and structure the counseling in that way from the beginning. This is important for a couple of reasons. First, it structures the expectations of the counselee, and secondly it helps define the nature of the work that you are going to do.
Time and Goals: The first structure that you need to communicate is around the expectation of time and goals. Is the purpose of your counseling going to be time limited or ongoing? If it is time limited, what are the limits going to be? Many pastors have a policy that they will see someone one time, or three times, etc., define the problem and refer. Others see people for a longer time and become the primary counselor. Still others have a limited number of sessions to be the primary counselor and then refer if the person needs more help at the end.
Whatever you decide you are going to do, communicate that clearly so that everyone has the same expectations. Also, have a set time limit on you sessions. Meet for an hour, or some pre-determined amount of time that is expected. This helps to keep the counselee working and limits unhelpful dependency. Most situations of problematic dependency and regression could be averted or handled if the boundaries of the counseling are clear and kept.
Rule Out Serious Issues First
Just as you need to know what your goals are from the beginning, you also need to know what your limitations are. There are certain kinds of situations that you are going to need full-time professionals to help with providing what the person needs. I suggest that you find out early on if certain factors are present and bring other resources to the situation if they are. Here is a partial list of things that you would want to rule out as needing professional help:
• Thought disorders or psychoses
• Suicidal Tendencies
• Violence or Abuse
• Significant Character Disorders
• Depression that has become clinical in nature (sleep problems, energy problems, significant weight gain or loss, prolonged lack of motivation, loss of libido, difficulties in concentration, prolonged hopelessness, etc.) Many times this scenario if appropriate for medical help.
• Anxiety states that are overwhelming and interfering with day to day functioning
• Dissociative states and multiple personalities
• Complicated grief reactions that are not resolving with support, time and expression of feelings
• Eating disorders (anorexia or bulimia)
• Medical and physical issues that may be contributing to the problem
Have your referrals ready for people in these situations. This does not mean that you cannot help and continue to be a part of the process! What it does mean is that the person is going to need more than you are probably going to be able to provide. I suggest that every pastor have a ready list and relationships with psychiatrists, psychologists, emergency psychiatric services, and a variety of support groups to refer to.
In addition, after framing the kind of counseling you are doing, what the limits are, and ruling out any significant problems needing referral,
keep the following suggestions in mind as appropriate.
• Utilize empathy and basic listening skills to gain trust
• Clarify what the person is saying and ask questions to make sure you know what he or she means
• Get a clear understanding and agreement on exactly what the problem is
• Get a clear plan for solving the problem
• Make specific goals
• Give specific assignments and hold them accountable
• As best is possible, give a clear spiritual understanding of the problem even if it is only that God is still with them, no matter how bad things are.
• Don’t be afraid to teach and apply helpful biblical passages and understanding
• Don’t be afraid to be honest and tell them the truth about what you see, keeping timing and the person’s ability to hear difficult things in mind
Some Basic Spiritual Issues
The above skills and suggestions can do a lot of good. But past the obvious problems to solve, one of the biggest issues facing pastors in counseling is making the decision about what to work on. Certainly you will have to deal with whatever the presenting problem is that the counselee brings in. He or she wants some immediate relief and you must provide that giving by giving hope and some practical solutions. Frame the problem into workable tasks and follow up on their moving towards those solutions, as mentioned above.
But the spiritual reality is that the problems that the person suffers from do not exist in a vacuum. They exists in a context of who that person is, the broader aspect of his or her character. Most times, the “tree” has something to do with the fruit that they are complaining about. (Matt. 7:18) The real help for most people is in long term spiritual growth that affects their character. With that kind of change, they will be more equipped to face the future and other problems later on. And you would have counseled with the purpose of long-term spiritual growth in mind, not just solving problems.
So, apart from the specific problem that someone wants help with, there are some transcendent spiritual issues that affect most every situation in life that someone seeks help for. In my opinion, if you are helping people to see these spiritual issues and to work on them, you will affect whatever “problem” they brought in for sure. But more than that, you will be helping them with whatever they will face later on as well. Let’s take a look at what they are.
1. How connected is the person?
The most basic issue in life is our sense of connection. All counseling research that has ever been done has reinforced the Bible’s teaching that our greatest need is for relationship with God and other people. In addition, part of the treatment for all conditions is to help the person get a deeper sense of connectedness with a few significant relationships and a community of support. In fact, the Bible teaches that if you can get someone connected deeply to other believers, healing will take place as they love each other. (Eph. 4:16)
Begin by working on your connection with the counselee. Empathize, understand, be warm, and show a lot of grace. Make your relationship a place where they learn that seeking help from others is a good and profitable thing. This will help them to reach out to others, having had a good experience with you of being supported and feeling understood.
It is important to take a diagnosis of “connectedness” in the person’s life as well as in their character. In other words, how many deep, supportive relationships does he or she have, and how able is the person to make use of them? Do not believe that just because someone has a lot of friends that he is “close” to any of them. Find out who knows what is going on with the person and to whom he or she turns to for support and understanding. Take a real inventory with the person of who his or her support system consists of and how he or she is going to increase it. In addition, take a hard look with the person about his or her own abilities to become vulnerable with others and do the things that created connection. Work with the counselee on expressing needs and feelings to others, allowing others to support him or her, expressing pain and vulnerability, etc. Encourage your counselees in the way that Paul encouraged the Corinthians: “Open wide your hearts.” (see 2 Cor. 6:12,13) (See Changes That Heal, Cloud, Zondervan, 1991 for a list of skills to suggest)
2. How much “self-control” does the person possess?
The second issue that is very helpful to look at is the issue of self-control. Often we think of self-control only in terms of impulse control. But in reality, self-control is much more than that. It has to do with the amount of freedom from enslavement that a person has. A great number of counseling issues have to do with the loss of freedom and some sort of enslavement to either internal controlling compulsions, or external controlling people.
Examine how much the person feels controlled from a sense of “should’s” that have nothing to do with reality or God’s law. Also, find out what people in the counselee’s life are able to control him or her as well. To the degree that someone does not feel free to say “no” to either compulsion or pressure from others, there will a whole host of problems both relationally and emotionally. Everything from depression, anxiety and addictions to co-dependency and problems in intimacy has a loss of self-control as a factor. Most relational situations that you will encounter have some lack of “boundaries” at the root of one or more of the parties.
You will go a long way in helping people by taking an inventory with them. Help them to identify the people or the “should’s” that they feel controlled by and help restore freedom. (Gal. 5:1) Then, help them to learn to say “no” and become more honest in those situations. Empower them to confront people who are hurting them, and to stand up to those that are attempting to control them. Work on assertiveness, expression of themselves, and using their support systems to help them to take the stands that are difficult for them to take. (See Boundaries, Cloud and Townsend, Zondervan, 1992) Give them some assignments to say “no” to certain people and situations and follow up on what happened. Teach them to pray for strength and examine the difficulties and fears that they experienced in the assignment. Then, help them try again. Many times a referral to a support group along these lines can be very helpful with issues like co-dependency.
3. How much ability to “face reality with grace” does the person possess?
In a certain sense, what happens to a person is only one part of his or her difficulty. The other part is the person’s ability to process that loss, failure or hurt. God has provided us with his grace and forgiveness to help us deal with whatever loss, hurt or failure that we encounter. But many people are unable to experience His grace in a way that enables them to go through pain and failure successfully to resolution.
Part of the problem is that humans have a tendency to see things in light of their ideal and perfectionistic standards. We judge things, like the Law does, in an “all good” or “all bad” manner. (James 2:10) We look at our performance and the performance of others perfectionistically, and get wrathful when there is failure. We get angry when we or others fail our expectations and sense of how things “should be.”
Humans need the ability to face failure square in the face with truth, but also with enough grace so that they do not feel condemned in the process. Look for your counselee’s tendency to see themselves or the significant others in life as “all bad” when something goes wrong, and the tendency to evoke condemnation and shame in the face of failure. Or, alternately, look for their tendency to deny badness and pain, and see themselves, others, or situations as “all good.” The tendency to see people and life in these sorts of extremes keeps some people from moving through failures and the pain of life.
Help them to examine their “all good” and “all bad” thinking, as well as the ways that they cannot look at failure and badness with acceptance and grace. The Bible’s combination of grace and truth is the cure for processing our failure and pain. Help them to see the badness, failure or pain that they need to see, but help them to receive and give grace in the process. If people can open themselves up to enough grace, no matter what the failure, they can process anything.
4. How equal does the person feel with other people?
Many times problems such as depression, anxiety and relationship struggles have to do with a person’s feeling in a one up or one down position to other people. We were made by God to all be equal siblings (see Matt. 23:8) Even though we might have different roles in different situations, we are equal people.
But, many people do not experience themselves as equal to others. They feel inferior, and somewhat in a child position. They look to other people for approval, judgment, praise, and direction, almost like a child looks to a parent. So, they are perpetually in a state of fearing disapproval, or some other type of judgment. Sometimes, they try to be in the “one up” position and dominate others. But this “solution” to the problem causes more problems than it solves.
Often people like this have never grown up in relation to their own parent figures. Explore how they are still under the thumb of one or both parents, or other parent figures and help them to achieve adulthood. Find out who the people are in their lives who are still playing the parent role to them and keeping them stuck. Look for healthy ways that they can begin to think for themselves and to see others more realistically. As they do this, they will begin to feel like adults and often times many symptoms begin to disappear. Spiritually, they become a true child of God emotionally, instead of God’s grandchild. They give up parental intermediaries and enormous growth takes place.
This does not mean that they stop depending on brothers and sisters to help them in life. Others give us advice, encourage us, validate us and perform many other functions in our lives. But to the extent that they play a parental role, we are functioning as children. As Paul said, there is a time to become an adult. (1 Cor. 13:11)
Spiritual Growth That Heals
In working with many pastors and people in the ministry over the years, I have been encouraged at how much help is available to Christians through these servants of God. That is the way it should be, as the church does it’s work to heal itself. (Eph. 4:16) And what is so exciting to me about the issues mentioned above is that two things are true: These are deeply spiritual issues, and the resolution of them cures a whole host of emotional and relational problems. And that adds up to mean that the spiritual growth that pastors effect in counselees’ lives can go a long way to resolving even long-standing emotional and relational problems.
So, help them to develop their spiritual connection to God and others. Help them to gain control over themselves and to stand up to any sort of enslavement. Help them to face theirs and others’ imperfections with grace and forgiveness. And help them to become equal adults under God. As you do these things, you will also help most any problem that they came in with, and in a deeply spiritual way.
Copyright © 2000 Cloud-Townsend Resources, All rights reserved.
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