Imagine, if you will, a couple with an already difficult marriage that will now spend days on end with each other because one or both of them have to work from home. Picture a difficult or outright rebellious teenager who is stuck at home during hours when s/he would ordinarily be at school, and how that affects family dynamics. Consider people who may be struggling with discouragement or depression, and now find themselves alone, 24/7, day after day, and for how long? No one knows.
If you’re a biblical counselor in a local church, I’d be willing to bet you pictured actual names and faces with each of those scenarios. They’re not hypothetical. They’re actual people who need hope and help from God’s Word that you can give as a counselor. But, for the first time, we find ourselves in a situation where the best thing to do is not meet until the novel coronavirus pandemic is no more.
While we find ourselves in the most uncertain of times, biblical counseling is needed perhaps now more than ever. Although counselors can’t meet with counselees as we always have, in God’s kindness and providence, we live in a day and age that allows us to have face-to-face meetings without meeting in person.
The first time I did virtual counseling was a premarital counseling case with a couple I was to marry. I live and work in northern KY, just outside of Cincinnati, OH. The bride was a former student of mine in New York City. Her fiancé lived in Scotland. Back then, the platform we used allowed for video with two people but was audio-only if the call involved 3 or more persons. It wasn’t easy. It was a mixture of time zones, cultures, backgrounds, and we couldn’t even see each other. Still, God used it, and they were prepared for the life they would soon begin together.
My wife and I counseled a couple in Asia. Coronavirus or not, they had no access to biblical counselors anywhere in their country. A member of our church met them and asked if we’d be willing to counsel them, and we did. The most challenging thing in this situation was the significant time difference. It wasn’t easy, but I think it was effective, and God honored the time we spent with them.
Between Zoom, Google Hangouts Meet, Skype, FaceTime and more, COVID-19 should provide little-to-no barriers to biblical counselors. It may not be your favorite way to counsel (it certainly isn’t mine), but it works. In fact, the more you do it, the more you’ll see it works fairly well.
Like anything new, it takes some getting used to. For those of us who loathe change, it may take a little longer to get used to. However, most people get used to it fairly quickly, and are grateful for the ability to provide hope and help for people from God’s Word, particularly and especially during these very uncertain times.
Here are some tips from things I’ve learned over the years. I share them hoping they can give you a better running start than I had as I learned these things on my own:
1. Pick a platform. Most of the time, I use Google Hangouts Meet. Not only is it free, but there’s no time limit on the meetings (some platforms only allow 40 minutes or something in the free version to encourage you to upgrade to a paid version). When it comes to counseling, assuming there will be 2-5 parties involved, it offers just about everything a paid platform would offer for that size meeting. But look around, try some out, and pick one that works for you (and remember…FaceTime only works if everyone involved has an Apple product).
2. Take a bit of time to get used to virtual meeting first. If you’re not used to virtually meeting, you should take a little bit of time to get used to it. Ask a friend, a family member, or a coworker if they could take anywhere from 5-15 minutes to allow you to virtually meet with them. I would suggest doing this 2-3 times if you’re not used to virtual meetings. If possible, engage someone else who is used to it (maybe they do it for their job, or communicate with family that way), and they can give you some of their tips and show you around. It’s important to be as comfortable and as relaxed as possible when you meet with your counselee. This will help them feel similarly.
3. Schedule a test meeting with your counselee(s). Internet service, a counselee’s familiarity (or lack thereof) with technology, the lighting, sound, etc., all play a part in the meeting. Ask your counselee(s) to meet with you for 5 minutes a few days before your meeting. This will enable everyone involved to see and hear what it will be like before it counts.
4. Use headphones with a mic instead of the built-in devices on your computer. You usually will hear better and sound better with a pair of headphones and mic, but that’s not the primary reason I recommend this. It’s for privacy and confidentiality. A counselee doesn’t know your setup, but they do wonder, “Can I be heard from the other room by other family members?” They don’t know how high or low you have the volume set. Get a pair of headphones, plug them in, and the sound goes to you and only you. Plus, it probably will sound better to everyone involved.
5. Mute yourself when you’re not talking. This is standard etiquette for any virtual meeting (and is especially important with three or more persons). Your mic can pick up more background noise than you realize. Someone walking down the hall, or a child playing or talking to a sibling can be a distraction to others in the call, so mute the mic if you’re not speaking. Your counselee will be more focused and more at ease, and you’ll all likely experience better sound quality. (Some platforms allow you to mute and unmute yourself using the spacebar or a simple keystroke, but all make it easy with a simple click of the mouse or trackpad.)
6. Practice screen-sharing. If you’re a diagrammer, a drawer, or a heavy whiteboard user, you have a few options. You can still use a whiteboard or a piece of paper and show it through your camera. However, you can also pull it up in a different window, and project your screen to the counselee. They won’t see you when you do this, but they can see the screen and your mouse if you want to point and refer to different things. If there are a few diagrams you reference often, you can have them sitting in a separate window, ready to use if you need them.
7. Use Google Forms whenever possible for homework assignments. Even before the coronavirus, I’ve started converting the usual homework assignments and forms I use to digital forms for counselees. There are many advantages to this, but I only need to mention one; pandemics make it difficult to give hard copies of anything to people. Having digital versions of homework assignments, cards, diagrams and the like will help us continue in counseling even when we can’t meet face to face.
Jesus says the gates of hell would not prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18). Although we’re scattered, we’re not shattered. May God continue to give us wisdom, courage and grace to persevere in ministry now and long after this pandemic becomes a thing of the past.