I have been counseling for many years. And yet, there are always issues in counseling that don’t seem to get any easier with time or experience. Maybe it’s just that I have a hard time learning simple lessons, or that I become emotionally invested with counselees. I think in the case of this short article, it may also be that I have seen God work in people’s lives so much, that I have great hope for those who come to me for help.
One of the struggles that many counselors, especially newer counselors must contend with, is the question “Do I really have a counselee.” The process we encourage sounds simple, “If you don’t have a counselee, then move on, because there is always someone waiting who really does want to change.” And so, we must always evaluate, and reevaluate, our approach and the people who come to us for help. Alistair Groves, CCEF Executive Director, wrote an excellent article years ago on this very subject in the Journal of Biblical Counseling 27:3 (2013). I’ll take snippets directly from his article for the rest of this blog. I’m grateful to Alistair for his excellent work on this topic.
“How do you know when you are done with counseling? What do you look for in a counselee’s life to know that you have done enough? How can you be confident that the changes you’ve worked toward will last?
When you are in the process of deciding if it is time to conclude counseling, orient your thinking and your discussion with your counselee around two simple questions. Both questions remind us that the goal in counseling is to encourage transformation that brings lasting change.
Question 1: Does this person have a good grasp of the path that must be walked?
Good counseling brings greater clarity about how to move forward in the hard situations of life. Knowing the path forward not only means knowing what to do, but also having a wise and fundamentally Christian view of the situation and the solution—a right interpretation of trials and temptations, what constitutes success or failure in God’s eyes, how actions spring from the treasure of our hearts, seeing ways God is active even when he seems absent. When you have succeeded in helping someone chart the way ahead, the most complicated part of counseling is done.
Question 2. Do I have confidence this person will stay on the path?
Seeing the path and walking it faithfully are not the same thing. I’ve worked with many people who could articulate a vision for loving their spouse, avoiding an addiction, or repenting of bitterness, but they were not likely to do so for more than a day or two.
Taken together, these two questions help avoid both a naïve, premature conclusion to counseling as well as a drifting, end-less perpetuation of counseling. They do so by pursuing a steady, Godward life trajectory. If the right trajectory is in place and is gathering momentum, however slowly, counseling has done what it should do. After all, the transformation of a Christian is a lifelong process that is guaranteed to end in glorious righteousness if that person walks in step with the Spirit (Phil 1:6, Gal 5:25)!
One Exception: Hard-heartedness
There is one situation in which the counselor should choose to end counseling with-out accomplishing the two goals described above. That exception is hard-heartedness. You should not continue to counsel someone who steadfastly refuses godly counsel. This is not to say that you should terminate counseling at the first sign of resistance. But if a person continuously rejects your attempts to define and encourage a God-honoring path forward, you can actually cause harm by continuing counseling. You may convey the message that the person’s stance is acceptable, and refusal to submit to the Spirit is okay with you as long as the appointment to see you is kept. In my experience, the hard-hearted come in two categories. The first is those who know that what they are doing is wrong but refuse to change. The second category is those who don’t know what they are doing is wrong and will not hear otherwise.
When you end counseling with the hardened, express your reasons for doing so clearly and specifically. Name the resistance to change and how you see the Lord calling the person to something different. Be straightforward about the urgent danger of turning away from him. But also be emphatic that you are open to resuming counseling if the person has a change of heart. Make it clear that you speak out of personal concern, not animosity or a sense of moral superiority.
Knowing when you are done with counseling is hard. Then, to complicate matters, financial and scheduling concerns often cut counseling short or disrupt it. So while we can articulate a general principle of helping people see and stay on the path of godly obedience, every counseling relationship calls for discernment and prayer. Bringing counseling to an end is not an exact science”