What is Christian Counseling Really, Anyway?

“Counseling is indeed an ambiguous enterprise. It is done by persons who can’t agree on what to call themselves, what credentials are necessary to practice, or even what the best way is to practice—whether to deal with feelings, thoughts, or behaviors; whether to be primarily supportive or confrontational; whether to focus on the past or the present. Further, the consumers of counseling services can’t exactly articulate what their concerns are, what counseling can and can’t do for them, or what they want when it’s over.” (Kottler & Brown, 1996)

What is Counseling Actually? Here are a few different definitions:

· “Counseling is the artful application of scientifically derived psychological knowledge and techniques for the purpose of changing human behavior” (Burke, 1989).

· “Counseling is a helping relationship that includes someone seeking help and someone willing to give help who is trained to help in a setting that permits help to be given and received” (Cormier & Hackney, 1987).

· “Counseling consists of whatever ethical activities a counselor undertakes in an effort to help the client engage in those types of behavior that will lead to a resolution of the client’s problems” (Krumboltz, 1965).

· “[Counseling is] an activity . . . for working with relatively normal functioning individuals who are experiencing developmental or adjustment problems” (Kottler & Brown, 1996).

My goal in this chapter is to give you a perspective that might be different from what you may have had before this. Also, to provide you, the Christian Counselor, with a working a theory that is a clear model or foundation from which you can conduct your counseling/ministerial service.

Training and Discernment

Christian Counseling requires two (2) very important things to be successful. One is the determination and commitment of the counselor in seeking more knowledge and training. The other, and very much more necessary, is the ability or learned skill of discerning.

Training and knowledge are readily available through many sources. A rich source of information is the internet. While there are many sources of training materials that charge money, there as many, if not more, sources which do not. Often these are in the form of written works from other counselors or counseling centers that make their materials readily and freely available.

In these cases, the counselor can garnish great amounts of learning and usable materials for improving their counseling skills. One suggestion is to print many of these materials and create binders that can be referred to, when needed. As well, you can create folders on your computer in which you keep resources and materials useful for counseling. Even if copyrighted, but the counselor may be surprised to find that many of the sources will authorize your use of the materials if you will just email them and ask permission. Additionally, there are many printed books (as well as many e-books on the internet) which may be purchased that will help challenge your present level of knowledge and help expand your foundation of tools and resources for use in counseling. At the end of this chapter, we included a list of many books we found useful for counseling.

One way to make the best use of any written material, especially a book is:

• First read the book entirely, taking your time to consider points as you go along.

• Reread the book, but this time, write down (or type into your computer word processing program) the main points, as you see them.

• Afterwards, take each point and write an explanation to yourself about how you could use that point during counseling.

• Think up an example you could use to help the client see your point better than just telling him or her the point, and write it down.

• List the main points in an order which you can refer to later, and using a binder, create your own “Counselor’s Manual.”

• In this “manual,” you can include additional materials as you get and prepare them.

• Since you will not be using this “manual” for distribution, you do not need anyone’s approval or permission to keep a copy of the materials for personal use, even copyrighted materials.

Seminars and conferences which are organized with the focal point being something related to relationships, and counseling specifically, can be of great benefit as well. Often these type meetings will provide the attender with materials and resources usually not readily available to the public.

My recommendation is for you not to write onto the materials (even if they ask you to), use blank sheets to write on. This is because later on you may want to use the materials again and will not be able to do so. This could cause you to have to recreate the form again, when it was easier not use the form clean in the first place. Often you will also get CDs and other audio/video materials. You can include these in your “manual” as well and refer to them when needed. Whichever way you choose, even if you choose all of the above, you still need to work on your discernment.


What you will not learn through reading a book is the natural (God-given) ability to discern, you can learn a skill that will become invaluable during counseling. To accomplish that, I offer the following:

The skill is extrapolation. This comes from the word extrapolate (a verb):

1. Extend the application of (a method, conclusion, etc.) to different or larger groups.

2. Extend (a graph) by inferring unknown values from trends in the known data.

In either of these two definitions, there is one idea; you can get more information out of a statement than what was obvious. For example, if I say that “the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy hen.” You could extrapolate several other bits of information from the statement that are not actually stated:

1. The fox could have run before jumping.

2. The hen had probably been lazy for quite a while before the jumping occurred.

3. The hen was probably laying around, or at least has some qualities that may indicate that it is lazy.

4. The fox must have been in good shape, or at least behaved in such a way that it seemed to be in good shape, therefore “quick.”

5. Maybe the fox also enjoyed jumping other animals.

6. And so on.

The point here is not to be precise and without error. It is to search for as much information as possible to help with the counseling. Clients will tell you much about whatever they believe to be the actual problem(s) for which they came to counsel. The bigger problem is that their explanation of the problem(s), will be affected by their emotional status at the time of the explanation. If they are angry, for example, they may just tell you how bad the other person (or life) is, without referring to anything they may have done to cause or contribute to the problem themselves.

Your job will be to extrapolate from their explanations additional information necessary to help them get to a working solution. If you only concentrate on what they say, you will be working with little to no real practical information. Remember, the problem they explain to you will rarely actually be the real problem they are dealing with.

Extrapolation will help you arrive at the root problem the client is confronting. It is this “root problem” that requires attention. It is this “root problem” that most affects the client’s life and circumstances. It is this “root problem” that is the REAL problem. This “root problem” needs to be resolved. In addition, it is YOUR job to identify the root problem and find the answers for the client.

Root Problems

After years of training counselors, the one common mistake I have noticed is that the counselee’s complaints often distract them (the counselors). I see this as sort of laziness on the part of the counselor. To expect the client to just open up and give us all the correct answers is ludicrous. People who come for counseling are unable to explain their circumstance and situation in a clear manner. Theirs is often a life of dealing with self-defeating thoughts, confused thinking, fear and/or anger, and other emotional conflicts. The probability that they will actually see their circumstances from a levelheaded, analytical, and practical perspective is almost non-existent.

Getting to the root problem is the most crucial and important aspect of counseling. Until you identify the real circumstances, you will not be able to start working on the real answers. It will be like handing out aspirins for headaches. You may have some minimal effect on the immediate and more obvious aspects of the situation, but all of that will only distract you from finding the real problem.

In addition, just because you have a married person come in complaining about their circumstances involving their spouse it does not mean they are experiencing marital problems. In most cases, what you facing is individual problems that are hurting the marital situation. For example, the wife may come in complaining about her husband’s anger. She tells you that she thinks that she is the problem. She adds that she feels this way because she notices that she will often do things that bother her husband, and then he starts yelling at her. At first, you may feel that the answer is that she needs to stop doing whatever she is doing that causes her husband to react negatively to her.

The real (or root) problem may be different. The real problem may be that your client grew up in a home where the father was very strict and controlling. It may be that the dad imposed a very strong hold on his daughters. He may have controlled their ability to express their feelings, probably because he just did not know how to deal with them. Your client probably learns that she should always try to do only the “right” things around her dad, and avoid the “wrong” things to keep him from getting angry at her. She probably learned the lie that she actually could control whether her dad got mad or not. Therefore, with her husband, she tries to behave in the same way. Not being her father, the husband starts to resent her and reacts negatively toward her. His actions are not her fault, but her problem is not a marital issue, it is a personal issue, and until the personal issue (an individual problem) is resolved, you will not be able to “fix” the marriage.

Even though it may seem like there is a martial problem going on many times the problems are actually individual problems.

Individual Problems

Each person in a conflict brings his or her own personal fears, failures, hopes, and dreams. Any or all of these can cloud the client’s judgment. Now, let us consider that many persons come into a marriage with much baggage. Much of this baggage comes from past events and traumas.

Failed marriages, abuses and molestations, absent fathers, rape, family violence, drugs and alcohol, over-eating, and countless other maladies visit people throughout their lives. Any of these alone can produce the worst in any person. Any combination of the above can produce long-lasting, detrimental, and life-destroying behavior.

Most people get married without the slightest concept of what it means to be married. Mostly they have some obscure notion based on feelings, other people’s opinions, and personal fantasies. None of these can even begin to prepare the person for marriage. Compounding the problem is that after they get married, these troubled people start to try to shape the other person into their own image. This “shaping” causes many problems in the marriage.

As an example, let us look at a client who when he was 9 years old, his father died. Then at 14, his mother died in a vehicular accident. He develops an attitude of fear of abandonment and anger at God for the deaths of his parents. His fear leads him to believe that to protect himself and avoid abandonment; he needs to control those in his life. This need to control then becomes an obsession. His obsession leads him to become abusive with his family. The abuse produces fear in them and starts alienating them from him. The more they alienate from him, the more he panics. His panic makes matters worse and worse.

This client’s marriage will look almost perfect, from the outside. However, to his wife and kids, it could be a nightmare. He will have his wife and kids so fearful of doing anything that will result in an emotional explosion, that they will live strained and tense lives. On the surface, you may think that there is not any serious problem. Especially when the family may refuse to divulge any useful information about any problems. Why you may ask, would they hide and keep secret any abuse? Because of the fear they live with, the threat of possible pain or injury, and in many cases, shame.

The wife, in this case, will tend to be a loner. She will limit herself as to the number and quality of friendships and relationships outside the marriage. She will see her life as one long sad experience and wonder what she did to deserve this. She will both, love and hate her husband. She will endure the bad times because of the “good” times. She will on rare occasions express anger and actually take some action hoping that things will change, but will inevitably give in and things will go back to the way they have always been.

Now, let us look at this carefully, is this a marital problem, or is it an individual problem of the marriage. My argument is that it is the latter.

Ask yourself this question: “How many parents actually sit down with their children and train them to be good and healthy husbands and wives?” It is rare. Most people start learning about marriage only after they get married, and even then only that which they confront. What actually drives most newly married persons is some fantasy of what things are supposed to be like. While young women are dreaming of how much this guy is going to love them, cherish, and adore them, and so on, the young men are thinking about how much sex they will be getting without having to work hard for it. Oh, yeah, and have a live-in maid to take care of the rest of the stuff, too.

Women and men both respond emotionally to events in their lives, the difference is that women will (on the average) try to talk their way through these events, and men will (on the average) try to deal with these events by specific behavior. The saying goes like this, “Women say, and men do.” Neither is best, necessarily, and both can be wrong.

What we find here is that each spouse will tend to react to events within the marriage by resorting to emotional thinking that comes from past dysfunctional circumstances. So, until a person deals with a past trauma or event, they will continue to react to present stimuli based on those things. Any present-day conflict will bring to surface past fears and anger which will both, cloud and worsen the circumstances.

You can try to get them to work together (a married couple) by asking them to do things like “loving” each other, “dating” each other, “respecting” each other or many other things like that. The problem you will run into is that they each have very different ideas of what those words mean. These definitions will be based on their past.

The fact that each spouse has a different past will mean that each will see things, at times, in contradiction to the other. To resolve many present day “marital problems,” it most often becomes necessary to resolve past issues that each spouse brought into the marriage, before confronting the present complaints.

Counseling persons separately

Many times, the person you are counseling will not open up and divulge specific and/or intimate information while someone else is in the room. This brings up another problem, Should a counselor counsel someone of the opposite sex alone? Benefits and possible negative consequences exist on both sides of the argument. If you are a male counselor and you are counseling a couple, and you feel that they need individual counseling, you now have a dilemma. If you call in a female counselor to counsel the female counselee, you may deal with the possibility that she may not want to counsel with another female. All counselors, at one time or another, will encounter this issue. Do you as a male counselor (against your “better judgment) counsel her alone? On the other hand, do you deprive her of counseling with you because she will not counsel with a female?

Everyone should have the privilege of selecting his or her own counselors. The first rule in any Ethics Code is, “do no harm.” If the counselor realizes the need to counsel a couple separately, but then refuses to provide counseling to one of his clients who want only him to counsel them, that counselor may very well be in violation of that first ethical rule.

You will find that once a client begins counseling with you, they will rarely want to counsel with someone else while there is the chance they can counsel with you. Additionally, many persons find it exhausting to have to repeat themselves by having to start over with another counselor, especially when the probability of returning to that counselor exists.

So then, do you counsel alone with someone of the opposite sex? That is a decision you will have to make for yourself. Regardless of your decision, there will be benefits and consequences.

Returning to the question of counseling a couple separately, you would want to do this only with the intention of helping them resolve their separate issues so that they can then come together to deal with any remaining marital concerns.

One of the advantages of counseling couples separately is that you will probably get more truth out of them, or see the lies and self-deceptions more clearly. This will help you get to the root problem quicker. You will not have to deal with one person interfering with the others statements or claims. You will not have to referee two or more arguing persons. You will be able to concentrate on one issue at a time. Your client will be able to tell you private things that they may never share while their spouse is present.

As an example, the wife may admit to an affair that the husband is not aware. This will serve to help you counsel her more adequately because you are aware of an event in her life that has negatively defined her. Even if the husband is not aware of the affair, the wife will receive assistance in her effort to become a better wife, by being accountable to someone who knows her secret. Whether the husband should be told (by the wife) of the affair will depend very specifically on whether that will serve the best interest of the marriage. In some cases informing the husband may only serve to further damage the already weakened relationship. It has happened, where a wife withheld such information from her husband, but, on the other hand, remained faithful from that day forward and caused no other damage to her marriage. The same is true of some men.

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