Counselling on empty

There’s no shortage of pain in the world. Until Jesus returns or calls us home, we’re not going to lack brothers and sisters in Christ – or unbelievers down the street – who value our support. And, as people who love Jesus, we want to help as many as we can. We want to stand by those who are hurting because that is what Jesus wants us to do.

Many of us are tempted to push ourselves beyond tiredness, beyond personal comfort to encourage the bereaved, the depressed, the anxious, those facing relationships difficulties and the mentally ill. And to a certain extent that’s right. Any ministry within the church should be a sacrificial ministry. As Philippians reminds us, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-7).

But how do we avoid the situation – whether we are paid counsellors or friends – where we are helping so much, we feel like we’re running on empty? How do we pull back from the point where we feel like we have nothing left to give?

1. Stay rooted in Christ: the quickest route to exhaustion is to try to counsel in our own strength rather than in Jesus’. We fall into this when we try to fix people rather than point them to their Saviour. Remembering that the business of change is his work rather than ours is a liberating truth. Committing ourselves to praying for our counsellees (and our counselling) is a wonderful act of dependence, a profound act of laying burdens at the foot of the cross.

2. Stay confident in God’s sovereignty: God knows what his children (and his children-to-be) need. He’s very good at providing it too! Remembering this gives us the liberty to say “no” sometimes – to trust that God will raise up someone else to provide the support that is needed. This isn’t an excuse to dodge the “uncomfortable” people who we struggle to love but a reminder that we are not the superhero who has to rescue everyone, but merely one of the many instruments in his powerful and loving hand.

3. Stay accountable to someone else: counsellors are people in need. We’re not the fixed ones who can sort out the weak, we’re the fellow-broken-ones who point others to Jesus. So it’s important we stay accountable, be that through having a formal supervisor (essential for paid counsellors), regular meetings with someone from the pastoral team at church or praying and being open with a mature Christian friend who really understands and is committed to praying for the work in which we are involved. It’s important we listen to their counsel. And this includes being willing to reduce our workload – for a while at least – if the pressure is starting to take its toll or our own personal circumstances become more challenging.

4. Stay committed to partnership: different counsellors work in different ways but for all of us one thing is clear – people are designed to change in community not just in 1-to-1 relationships. So, whether we are formal counsellors who meet clients in weekly sessions or friends at church with a heart to care, we need to be making sure that others are involved with the people who are struggling – praying with them, reading the Bible with them, going shopping with them, laughing with them. The call in Hebrews to “spur one another on to love and good works” applies to the church community, not just the individual Christian.

5. Stay passionate about training: it can sometimes feel like a burden but it’s the best long-term strategy a church can have – every counsellor needs to be training up (or encouraging others to get trained up) to counsel. There are far too few skilled biblical counsellors in the church today, the more labourers we can have in this exciting field the better. And keeping our own personal gifts honed is important too – books, conferences, courses can all play their part.

As a wise friend said to me in my early days of ministry, “We want you doing this for 20 years not 20 weeks – be prayerful, be sustainable”. That way we need never counsel on empty.