Equipping Counselors in Your Church: Transformational Small Group Labs

August 7, 2012

Bob Kellemen

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Bob Kellemen

Equipping Counselors In The Church Mini Series Part 2

BCC Staff Note: You’re reading Part 2 in a BCC blog mini-series on equipping counselors in the church. Read Part 1: Do You Offer a Lab with Your Instruction?

Transformational Small Group Labs

In Equipping Counselors for Your Church, I emphasize the need for solid biblical content by encouraging trainers not to “dumb down” the theological foundation.

At the same time, I argue that biblical counseling training at times can become a “brain dump.” We wrongly assume that content alone equips people for effective biblical counseling ministry.

Instead, the Apostle Paul instructs us in Romans 15:14 that biblical counseling equipping requires comprehensive training. I call them the “4Cs”:

  • Christlike Character (“full of goodness)
  • Biblical Content (“complete in knowledge”)
  • Counseling Competence (“competent to counsel”)
  • Christian Community (“brothers, one another”).

Two questions help us to organize our thinking about transformational small group lab training.

  • What is the climate or environment we hope to develop and how do we cultivate it?
  • What training methods can we use and how do we implement them?

Transformational Small Group Lab Climate and How to Cultivate It

I use the words “lab,” “small group,” and “small group lab” interchangeably. “Lab” used alone, can have a clinical feel to it. Instead of real life lived together and experiential learning, it might picture artificial, forced connection, and experimental learning.

Saying “small group-oriented training” might cause some to think that we are training people only or primarily to be small group leaders.

Putting together “small group lab” is meant to convey that community is the context for equipping in content, character, and competency. The authentic, intimate small group environment provides the fertile soil in which we nurture competent biblical counselors.

In teaching, if we become overly dependent upon the lecture mode and content communication, we suck the life out of our biblical counseling training. In small group labs, if we become overly dependent on skill development, we suck the air out of the one-another community environment.

The lab as a place only to discuss case studies, or only to observe experts counsel, or only to practice skills through role playing, becomes a sterile environment. Those are essential components of lab work, but they must exist within a genuine, trusting small group community.

So, in lab training, my first goal is to cultivate a climate where we experience biblical counseling together. We grow more like Christ as we receive parakaletic soul care for our suffering and as we receive nouthetic spiritual direction for our struggle against sin. We become more competent biblical counselors as we sustain, heal, reconcile, and guide one another.

How do we do this? It begins with a mindset, with a vision communicated consistently. “We are not a pack of lab rats. We are image bearers. We are here not simply to learn skills, but to minister to one another.”

In my very first seminary small group lab, two of my students had so caught the vision that on the very first day they invited me to open up. One was a pastor’s wife, one was a pastor, and as the lab began they asked me what the transition was like from pastor to professor, and who was building into my life now.

Rather than dismiss their care and concern so I could focus on the lesson plan, I shared openly. The group focused on me. I was on what became affectionately known as “the hot seat.” The hot seat refers to anytime the group shifts its focus from discussing the material to offering sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding to an individual.

By responding to their invitation, I modeled the priority of “presence”—staying in the moment, dealing with what is happening in the room, focusing on the people in the group and the relationships among the group members. Whether in the seminary setting or the local church setting, I have found that you rarely need to role play because when you prioritize presence, you experience and engage in live biblical counseling with one another.

Authentic community is caught and learned by experience more than taught or read. When I consult, churches often bring me on site to lead a small group lab. In a lab we will be talking about a question from Spiritual Friends or dabbling in a role play assignment. I’ll say something like, “Bill, that questions seems like it really hits home for you? Would you like to talk about it a bit more at a personal level?”

After an hour of counseling Bill on “the hot seat,” he’ll say, “Wow! In an instant, we went from talking about counseling to my being counseled. That was amazing and so helpful personally.” And someone else will chime in, “Bill, thank you for your courage to be so vulnerable and open. Not only did it help you personally, but I learned more in one hour of watching you being counseled than I would ever learn in hours of reading about counseling.”

This also illustrates the need to invite intimacy not to force intimacy. While some labs stay clinical forever, I have observed others that are so bent on experiencing deep relationships that people feel guilty if they are not ready to go deep, or feel coerced into going deeper faster than they were ready. Knowing the difference is not always easy, but it begins with creating a safe environment—safe to go deep or safe not to until a person is ready.

Transformational Small Group Lab Methods and How to Implement Them

Don’t think that “the hot seat” is all that you do. That turns a spontaneous, divinely-appointed connection into a method. A grace-oriented community where group members feel safe to speak the truth in love is the context for using a variety of lab-based methods.

Some methods are best used in conjunction with a training manual or book. I will use my biblical counseling training book Spiritual Friends to illustrate some of these methods and how to use them.

  • Trainees come to class having read assigned content sections of Spiritual Friends. I facilitate discussions and respond to questions about principles and methods of biblical counseling. Often these quickly “morph” into real life counseling situations.
  • Before class, trainees complete a series of character development questions. We use this section of Spiritual Friends in several ways. Sometimes students pair up with their encouragement partners to share. Other times we start with a particular question, and the discussion soon morphs into “the hot seat.” Other times I simply invite people to share, “Is there a particular question that raised something in your heart and life that you want us to help you with?” Again, these often shift spontaneously into “hot seat” interactions.
  • Before class, trainees complete questions related to competency development. Some of these require the students to share how they might respond to a person with a particular issue. Others ask students to evaluate or discuss a case study. Still others suggest role-plays that they can practice with their encouragement partner or that we can practice in the group.
  • The important principle to remember with any book or training manual is that it is your servant, not your master. It is a guide to prompt discussion, not a list of questions you must cover in an allotted amount of time. Allow the material to prime the pump and get the discussion going, then use your biblical counseling skills to invite people to go deeper.
  • Hold one another accountable for having read and engaged the material thoroughly before class, then you don’t have to be sure you cover everything in class. You can accomplish this through the honor system, through quizzes covering the material, or through trainees showing you, their encouragement partner, or the group that they have completed the questions in each chapter.

We can categorize additional lab training methods by thinking through increasing levels of on-the-job-training.

  • Discuss Case Studies: Facilitate a discussion of a case study with background information and presenting problem and have the group explore relevant biblical principles (theory) and how they would intervene and interact (methods).
  • Practice “Meta-skills”: Give students specific, brief assignments to practice specific skills such as listening, or spiritual conversations. Often it is helpful to do this in triads: one person is the counselor, one person is the counselee, and the other person provides feedback. Then you rotate so that each person has occupied each role.
  • Use Triad Role-Play Counseling: This combines and goes beyond case studies and meta-skills. Share a prepared case study, then one student plays the counselee, another student plays the counselor, and a third student provides feedback.
  • Use Group Observation Role-Play Counseling: Here, instead of just one person observing, the entire class observes one student role-play counseling another, and then they all provide feedback.
  • Use Observation of Live Counseling by the Trainer: Either a class member, a church member, or a member of the community is counseled live by the trainer while the class observes. After the session ends, the trainer/counselor, the counselee, and the class interact about what they observed and learned, and ask questions for clarification and instruction.
  • Use Live Counseling by the Trainee with the Trainer Sitting In: The class observes while a trainee counsels either another class member, a church member, or a member of the community. The trainer/supervisor is in the room and periodically offers feedback, shares probing questions, and occasionally and briefly counsels and then hands things back to the trainee. Everyone interacts about the counseling afterwards.
  • Use Live Counseling by the Trainee without the Trainer Sitting In: The trainer and the class observe the student counseling someone live and all interact at the end of the session.

Some of the live counseling is pre-planned and may occur in a room with a microphone and a one-way mirror, if your facilities allow for that. At other times, the live counseling occurs spontaneously through “the hot seat” method described previously.

Frequently during the discussion of the live counseling, the trainee/counselor ends up on “the hot seat.” A group member might note, “Barb, you seemed a tad disengaged in the session. Did you sense that at all?” Perhaps Barb acknowledges her disengagement and the group invites Barb to ponder with them what may be happening in her heart that she wants to work on.

Or, going even deeper, perhaps Barb does not acknowledge that she was relationally distant. Other group members express a similar experience of Barb keeping them at arms-length. As the discussion unfolds, Barb disengages from the group. As the leader, you may discern that the timing is not right and you need to address this later. Or, you may invite Barb either to discuss it now with you in front of the group or later in supervision. “Barb, it seems that you may be disengaging a bit with us even while we give you feedback about disengaging. Would you like to talk with me about that now, would you and I like to interact about that later during supervision, or would you like to think about it, ponder it, pray about it, and maybe share with us next week?”

Now your small group lab has gone full circle. You created a safe place to speak the truth in love. Barb spoke the truth in love to her counselee, but it raised issues in Barb’s life. Now you have invited Barb to allow you and the group to enter her life. This is the essence of transformational small group lab-oriented training in biblical counseling.

Join the Conversation

How can we “balance” deep content (“don’t dumb down”) and deep community (“don’t settle for a brain dump”)?

In your experience, has biblical counseling equipping sometimes lacked the relational/community element? If so, how could we better implement equipping in the context of one-another community?

Note: The preceding material was adapted from chapter 10 of Bob Kellemen’s book Equipping Counselors for Your Church.