Over the last three months, I have had the privilege of taking a course at Faith Baptist Theological Seminary entitled “Counseling the Suffering.” Below is my final assignment that I submitted this morning in regards to my strengths and weaknesses of my own personal counseling ministry at Prairie Flower Baptist Church. I trust that this self-evaluation/critique will encourage your hearts and help you as you seek to biblically counsel your own friends and family who are suffering through the most difficult aspects of life.
Counseling an individual in the midst of their suffering has been, and will probably continue to be, one of the most difficult aspects of my pastoral ministry. For this reason, I have almost begun to loathe Christian movies for their straightforward case studies and cliché (oftentimes cheeky) Christian responses to people in difficult situations. The simple fact remains that people are complex, problems are often overwhelming, and God’s grace and strength often appear elusive, or even worse, non-existent.
The course “Counseling the Suffering” was not only my first experience in the world of graduate studies, but it was also profoundly helpful to my life and ministry as a small-town pastor in Washington, IA. Indeed, the town I pastor in may be small, but there are people here with big problems and difficult situations. In the end, I thank God that though people’s sin and suffering may be great, His grace is greater still (Romans 5:20)!
As I analyze my ministry to people in suffering, I have concluded that there are strengths and weaknesses to my counseling approach and methodology. By God’s grace, I will continue to grow in my strengths and improve in my weaknesses. Below is an honest assessment of these strengths and weaknesses:
Strengths in Counseling the Suffering
(1) I have an immense appreciation, respect, and trust of the Word of God as it relates to any counselee in their suffering (2 Tim 3:16-17). I honestly and unapologetically believe that God’s Word offers true insight, hope, and light to all people, but especially those in the midst of difficult life situations. I often find myself scanning different Scripture passages in my mind’s eye as a counselee is describing their situation or painful experience. Indeed, I often turn to the book of Psalms as the words there beautifully speak to us and for us in the midst of our suffering and pain. I am able to offer so much comfort and hope to my counselees as I firmly cling to the truth of the Scriptures.
(2) I also have a profound awareness of the importance of biblical community to a counselee’s growth and development (Heb. 10:23-25). I understand that I am not the fountainhead of all wisdom and knowledge and that my counselees will greatly benefit from the support, accountability, and insight that is offered in the wider community of grace. Thus, I always require my counselees to be involved in the Sunday morning worship service; and I always strongly recommend that they plug themselves into one of our six Growth Groups (i.e. sermon-based, small group Bible studies). Truly, I have seen many of my counselees survive because of my one-on-one time with them, but thrive within the context of biblical community.
(3) I do believe that I provide a healthy balance of journaling, reading, and reflective homework to my counselees. Sometimes I will simply assign a “prayer challenge” to my counselees (i.e. pray about this situation every day for the next two weeks, etc.). However, at times, depending on the situation, I will assign no homework at all. I study my counselees to determine what is best for their unique situation. In the end, I have found that homework assignments increase my ability to “read” a counselee’s interest and progress in counseling while simultaneously giving to them practical resources that will help them in their trouble.
Weaknesses in Counseling the Suffering
(1) Quite simply and plainly, I am impatient with my counselees. After meeting with them for three or four sessions, I desire visible, concrete progress. However, oftentimes, there is a maddening rhythm to my counselees, and their progress is often played in the key of two steps forward, three steps back.
(2) I also have a difficult time truly listening to my counselees. In other words, I often find myself thinking about what to say next or how to respond to what they’re going through, rather than actively listening to the exact details of their dilemma. Indeed, I do more talking than listening in most of my counseling sessions. More often than not, I confuse preaching for counseling and end up simply lecturing my counselees.
Addressing Weaknesses in Counseling the Suffering
Beyond making these weaknesses a matter of prayer, I will, by God’s grace, endeavor to do the following:
(1) As it relates to my impatience, I will build into my counseling routine frequent reviews of past concepts. In other words, if we are meeting for seven or eight sessions, I will only have three or four key concepts to discuss with them and the rest of our sessions will simply be a review of past concepts. Perhaps it will be better to have three or four concepts that are firmly imbedded into my counselee’s life rather than seven or eight communicated concepts with no firm root.
(2) As it relates to my listening issue, I will endeavor to take more notes during my counseling sessions. This will help me to focus more on what my counselee is saying rather than what I am thinking to say next. In fact, note taking will increase the quality of my counsel and advice as I am specifically addressing what the counselee is talking about and not what I think the counselee is talking about.
In the end, I find it a comfort that God, despite all that I am and all that I am not, can and will use me in the life of my counselees to the praise of His glorious grace. And by God’s grace, I will grow in my strengths and improve in my weaknesses; and as I do, I will find it an ever-increasing joy to counsel those in suffering.