The Counseling Process

--Donald W. Welch Ph.D., LMFT

Dr. Welch left his full-time teaching post to move his family and Enriching Relationships, Inc. to California where he currently serves as Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Enriching Relationships™.


Christian counseling is a reconciliation process: a person seeking healing needs to be fully reconciled to God and others. Gary Collins describes it as “a long-term, in-depth helping process that attempts to bring fundamental changes in the counselee’s personality, spiritual values, and ways of thinking.”11 Although there are a myriad of areas important to the counseling process, there are three areas essential to successful Christian counseling: establishing confidentiality, building relationship, and creating awareness. 

The first area is confidentiality. The exchange of information shared during the counseling session must remain confidential, or the counselee may never feel secure enough to openly work through the presenting issues. Confidentiality produces confidence towards the minister or counselor. Confidentiality also serves to turn the counseling area into a secure and safe haven; the dark secrets will remain inside the walls. Unless the information is life threatening to the counselee or to someone else, the counselor must maintain a strict code of confidentiality.

One method to assist in the area of confidentiality is to provide an intake form describing the counselor’s mode of operation. On this form, the counselor would describe his or her counseling expertise, including degrees, ordination, licensure (including the state in which he or she received it), and years of counseling. Also included on this form would be the scope of the counselor’s limitations, meaning that the work with the counselee will need to operate within the counselor’s skill-level and area of expertise. For instance, if a person in the congregation with schizophrenia seeks out the pastor’s counsel, it would be well for the pastor to advise the person that his skill level precludes him from assisting with the disorder; however, he could assist the person with spiritual issues related to the disorder. A referral would take place depending upon the severity of the counselee’s problem. Assisting the person(s) under your care to know your skill-level limits will help him or her know the specific ways in which you may assist. The intake form should also include a description of the counselee’s understanding of the counselor’s role as a mandated reporter, meaning that a report to the local authorities would occur if the counselee is believed to be harmful to self or others or to have committed certain crimes. The counselee’s signature on this form, giving the counselor the privilege to provide counseling, is essential for establishing clear boundaries. 

A second area essential to the counseling process is relationship. Those in counseling need to know that they are not being judged or condemned. The counselee needs to sense early on that the counselor is an unbiased therapeutic listener. This is necessary to a healthy relationship. Michael Nichols says, “The real issue in listening isn’t whether we do or don’t give advice but whether or not our response is focused on reading and responding to the other person’s feelings or is simply a way of dealing with our own.”12 Focused listening has been referred to as “mirroring” or “attending.” Deciphering eye contact, hand gestures, and the differences between a closed or open stance on the part of the counselee may reveal nonverbal communication. This interpretation skill is a continual process as the counselor seeks to understand the developmental, social, environmental, economic, and overall functioning of the counselee. 

Ideally, the counselor should not attempt to counsel someone when he or she is also dealing with personal issues similar to those of the counselee (s). A professor of pastoral counseling illustrated this by saying, “If you are moving through some difficult times in your marriage, it is important to remember that you should not be attempting to help those who are also moving through a similar and difficult time in their marriage.” 13 It would be impossible to differentiate between the difficulties in your own marriage and those in the counselee’s marriage. This can produce “countertransference,” where the listener becomes the subject rather than the objective listener.14

Although listening is essential to providing an atmosphere whereby the counselee can feel safe and is able to work through life challenges, building rapport is also very critical. A person experiencing trauma is tentative and prone to withdraw. Determining the types of questions that probe the sensitive areas without being threatening will usually begin to soften the clenched heart. Permitting God’s compassion to flow through counseling is a tremendous gift to the person searching for health and wholeness. Martin Buber expressed this best by saying, “Relation is reciprocity.”15

If a person believes the counselor is sincerely interested, reciprocity will occur. And if a person feels cared for, hope may open the way for healing. As one put it, “The greatest gift I ever received was another person who believed in me.” Viktor Frankl learned a prevailing truth that revealed itself through his experiences in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Dachau: “The truth— that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire.”16 Since love is God’s greatest command, a Christian counselor will only be effective as his or her love relationship with God is extended to others in need. 

Awareness is a third area essential to Christian counseling. It is a catalyst for the healing process to begin. Viktor Frankl quotes Spinoza as saying: “Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.”17 Another way to look at this is to consider that we cannot change something of which we are not aware. In Mark 10:51 Jesus looked past the blind man’s eyes and into the man’s heart when he asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” This question revealed that there was more than just a physical need—there was a spiritual need as well. Until this question was asked, the blind man may have been unaware of the great chasm inside his heart. Jesus was giving him the opportunity for this realization. 

An ultimate concern for the counselor is helping people recognize the source of their personal pain. Once a counselee recognizes and embraces the pain, Christian counseling provides a safe place where the counselee can discover and implement more useful ways for confronting and dealing with the source of the pain. Defenses can often disable a person from facing threatening challenges. Henry Cloud suggests, “If people can’t admit their faults, they can’t bring their real self into a confessional relationship with God and others. They can never resolve their critical conscience, and they can never emotionally reach the state of ‘no condemnation.’”