Ground Rules for Helping People

by James Rudy Gray

Ground Rules for Helping People

Most pastors and many lay volunteers engage in counseling. Helping people is a dynamic that goes on continually in the Christian community.

Here are some basic things which all people-helpers need to utilize when involved with counseling others: Maintain confidentiality except in rare cases when criminal activities or the health of people is in jeopardy. Respect the person you are counseling. Be genuine and truthful in your relationship-don't try to fake it. Be open and receptive. Practice good listening skills. Take the counselee seriously. Be an optimistic realist. Avoid behaviors that might suggest other interests in the person. Don't ask questions that are not relevant to the helping process. Open-ended questions are usually the best types of questions to pose. Questions with yes or no answers typically fail to engage the person in working through his or her troubled thoughts and feelings.

Persons who come for counseling need to feel accepted, safe, and understood in the sessions. A counselor must be careful to care genuinely without allowing a relationship to develop that goes beyond the boundaries of counseling.

Eye contact is important and body language or nonverbal communication is significant in the process. Verbal clarification, making comments specifically related to what the other person is saying, is a good way to help a counselee clarify his or her feelings and clear up fuzzy or confusing thinking. Helping individuals to see a way to improved living and coping, through a healthy application of God's Word, is potentially life-changing.

While the Bible is the authoritative basis on which we evaluate values, behavior, etc., we must be careful to be sound without being overly critical. Scripture can and should be used in our counseling but in the context of exhorting, gently correcting, teaching, etc.-not to condemn or alienate the person. A counselor may read a verse and ask the counselee what he or she thinks it means. That could be followed up with a helpful explanation of the passage.

A common and fundamental practice to employ in counseling is to help the person identify problem feelings, problem behaviors, and problem thinking. When he or she is able, with the counselor's help, to see healthy biblical alternatives, hope and confidence increase.

It is important to be able to distinguish between cultural things we do not agree with and sinful behavior or thinking that is clearly delineated in Scripture.

Finally, any lay counselor or pastor must know when to refer a person to a professional. We cannot help every person we see with their problems. Some people need special attention from a trained and skilled counselor. We can do harm instead of helping if we do not refer them when the need calls for it.

There are over 300 different counseling theories. There are a variety of different approaches used by Christians. The counselor needs to be a person anchored in the Word, growing in his relationship with Christ, a good listener, sympathetic, understanding, and kind. He or she cannot take the place of God, but can be an instrument for good in His hand.

James Rudy Gray, who pastors Utica Baptist Church in Seneca, S.C., is certified as a professional counselor by the National Board for Certified Counselors, and is a member of the American Association of Christian Counselors.