I still vividly remember many of my undergraduate courses I took in biblical counseling. In my Problems & Procedures course, we would cover a variety of issues from a biblical perspective that included both a foundation and a methodology to work through. In my Counseling Practicum course, we “practiced” doing counseling on a fellow student, who—no surprise responded quite well to my “counsel” in just three short sessions.
One of the things I don’t remember covering (or perhaps I was absent that day) was what you do when your counseling hits a dead end. While we would all like to think our counseling and care for others follows a wonderfully laid out, upward trajectory of progressive sanctification, the realist in us acknowledges that life rarely plays out like this. The trajectory is more akin to a squiggly line full of potholes, setbacks, and dead ends than a nice, clean storyline.
As a counseling pastor, one of the most frequent questions I receive from our lay counselors and caregivers is what to do when you’ve done all the “right things” and nothing seems to be working. Here are eight recommendations I share with them by way of encouragement even when counseling seems to have hit a dead end.
Prayer on a list like this seems obligatory, perfunctory, and even somewhat pedantic, but it’s for this very reason it needs to be here at the top of the list. A lot of times we view prayer as “Plan X” rather than “Plan A.” We don’t just pray, but we commit ourselves to praying for, during, and after our counseling sessions because we cannot do this alone.
James writes, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5), which in context is directed at wisdom in understanding life’s trials and temptations. When counseling hits a dead end, the first thing I want to engage in is prayerful supplication to God for wisdom on what path to pursue.
2. Reread Notes and Homework
Hopefully as you’ve been meeting and counseling, you’ve been taking notes and collecting homework assignments. I encourage our counselors to go back from the very beginning to reread through what they’ve written. Often, things they have written down have escaped their memory, and the rediscovery provides a new opportunity or angle to engage the counselee with.
Reread their homework assignments. Where do you see growth and change in their writing? Go back to their intake paperwork; what was their initial reason for contacting you? How has that been addressed or not been addressed?
3. Listen More Intently
As counselors, listening should be a skill we are constantly seeking to grow in, and yet I find myself growing a bit lazy in how I listen. In my impatience, I can tend to want the counselee to finish what they’re saying so I can step in with my next pithy quote or Bible verse. Learning to wait patiently after a question is asked can often provide ample opportunities for follow up.
David Powlison often speaks of asking wise questions to our counselees, but also waiting for wise answers. One of the ways we grow in this spiritual discipline is through loving listening (even with our posture).
4. Examine the Counselee’s Network of Care
If we are hitting a dead end in counseling, one of the areas I want to examine is their network of care. Who is in their life? How are they relating and responding to the counselee? Are we properly engaging everyone we can? Are there small group leaders, Bible study facilitators, or church leaders we should be reaching out to for help and encouragement?
At Parkside, we encourage and ask every counselee to come with a biblical advocate designed to help make the transition from counseling to body life happen as smoothly as possible. Many times in counseling, the counselee can be depending on the counselor and the session to provide all the relational needs in their life. Stressing the need to be plugged into the wider body of Christ is something which can help counselees see life with new eyes.
5. Ponder Whether They Are Following through on Their Responsibilities
Many times in counseling, I find that I have grown a bit lax in asking for robust engagement and commitment in the counseling process. One of the questions I ask our counselors is, “Are you putting in more work and effort into the counseling session than your counselee?”
I don’t ask that in a way which negates the need for self-sacrificial love on the part of the counselor, but is the counselee coming into the session unprepared and with an understanding that you are going to change them, rather than the Spirit of God working through the Word of God?
6. Ponder Whether You Like Them
This question is very convicting for the counselor, and one which should be addressed if counseling has hit a dead end. I remember hearing Ed Welch ask the question, “Do you like the person you’re counseling?” It sounds simple enough, but I can honestly say that when I find it hard to relate to a counselee it changes the way I counsel. I find myself being a bit more impatient, abrupt, judgmental, and unloving.
In contrast, when I really enjoy my time of counseling, I find myself giving more grace, asking better questions, and all around being a more patient counselor. Ed goes on to say that those people we find it hard to counsel are probably there for that very reason—that they are hard to like and to love—which is probably why God has placed them in your life.
7. Try a New Angle or a New Question
I cannot tell you how many times a completely new line of inquiry has opened up a new pathway in counseling. Asking some simple questions:
- “What’s your favorite Bible verse?”
- “What’s your favorite hymn?”
- “Where are you growing in Christ?”
- “Why do you think it is happening?”
- “Let’s examine the fruit you currently see, and work our way backward to your heart.”
- “Where can you articulate growth over the past few sessions?
- “Where is God up to good? Where is life hard or bad?”
- “What areas of life have been re-oriented?”
8. Consider Ending Your Meetings and Referring to Another Counselor
While this hopefully isn’t the first instinct when you hit a road block in counseling, it is nonetheless something which should be on the table and done in consultation with other wise counselors or your counseling pastor.
In whatever situation we find ourselves in as counselors, hitting road blocks and dead ends reminds us that we are ultimately not in control. Every session must be submitted to the Holy Spirit who alone can open blind hearts and blind eyes.
There is something very humbling about counseling when we realize who alone can bring about real change and hope. May we continue to point to Him as our only hope even when counseling gets hard and tough!
Join the Conversation
What additional wisdom principles do you recommend when counseling seems to hit a dead end?