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The Metrics of Counseling Success (Part 1)

How should we define success in counseling?

Aug 24, 2022

Most biblical counselors know what it is like to feel like a failure. Many of us have struggled with discouragement, anxiety, and even that temptation to quit following a challenging session that didn’t go as planned. But God uses experiences like this to raise an important question: “How should we define counseling success?” Or perhaps a better question is, “How does God define counseling success?”

Many years ago, I came across Kent and Barbara Hughes’ book, Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome. In pastoral ministry, Kent and his wife had gone through a difficult time in ministry, leading them to study the Bible to discover God’s idea of success. Their discovery brought spiritual rejuvenation to their hearts and their ministry. I have often returned to this book over the years as it has helped me define and evaluate the variables of godly achievement in my church. Though the book does not explicitly address biblical counseling, it has helped me realize that Scripture is full of wise counsel and helpful examples that help us know what should and should not define how we measure counseling success. In this article, I want to highlight three specific marks that define godly, biblical achievement in counseling.

Success Is Faithfulness

Kent Hughes writes, “As Barbara and I searched the Scriptures, we found no place where it says that God’s servants are called to be successful. Rather, we discovered our call is to be faithful” (35). The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “It is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 4:2). The word translated as “trustworthy” means to be “faithful.” In other words, God calls His people to be faithful in the work that He has given them to do. Scripture provides many examples that illustrate this point. My mind often goes to the example of Jeremiah. As the prophet of God, he was called to preach to the disobedient Israelites in Judah who had abandoned faithfulness to the Lord. He ministered faithfully for over forty years without much “visible” success. God’s people ridiculed him (Lamentations 3:14), imprisoned him (Jeremiah 32), and even tried to murder him (Jeremiah 26). In the end, the people failed to heed the prophet’s warning, and he spent his final years witnessing God’s judgment through the destruction of Jerusalem and the captivity of his people (Jeremiah 39-52). By all external measures, Jeremiah had utterly failed in ministry. So the question arises, was Jeremiah successful before God?

By the time of Jesus, Jeremiah was so admired as a faithful prophet that some people mistook Jesus for Jeremiah (Matthew 16:14). Hughes observes, “Scripture consistently links success to obedience—our obedience to God’s Word” (37). Success is faithfulness, and Jeremiah had been obedient to his calling.

As we think about counseling success, we should evaluate ourselves regarding faithfulness to God and obedience to His Word. In counseling, are we accurately handling the word of truth? (2 Timothy 2:15). Are we speaking the truth in love? (Ephesians 4:15). Are we pointing others to the sufficiency of Jesus? (2 Peter 1:2-3). It is easy to define our achievement in counseling by our counselee’s perceived progress. But we must begin to make our evaluation by thinking about our faithfulness and obedience to God. 

Success Is Prayerfulness

Kent Hughes writes, “God’s servants fail in their appointed tasks because they do not take time to sharpen their lives in prayer” (72). His words echo the advice of the English Puritan, John Bunyan: “You can do more than pray, after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.” Scripture affirms that prayer should be the regular habit of faithful believers (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Though Jesus was both God and man, he modeled a reliance upon God through His practice of private prayer (Luke 6:12; 9:28). Prayer is a mark of spiritual success because prayer illustrates dependence upon God.

Successful biblical counselors cultivate habits of private prayer during specific times (Matthew 6:6), corporate prayer with other believers (Acts 2:42), and continual, ongoing prayer throughout the day (Proverbs 3:5-6; Psalm 16:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:17). Regarding counseling, believers should pray in particular ways. For example:

  • For God to sanctify and prepare their own hearts to be sanctified and useful vessels (2 Timothy 2:21)
  • For wisdom to navigate the counseling meeting (James 1:5)
  • For God to work in the hearts of counselees (Philippians 2:13)
  • For God’s name to be glorified and for Christ’s work to be magnified (1 Corinthians 10:31)

Counselors are often taught the importance of preparation in counseling. This readying for the discipleship meeting should include seasons of particular prayer. We should also engage in prayer during the session with our counselees. Finally, we should continue to pray for all aspects of our ministry between sessions.

Hughes summarizes the importance of prayer: “As we pray, we bare our souls to the light of God. He further impresses his life into ours, and our wills are drawn to his, thus sharpening the cutting edge of our lives. And this is not just prayer. It is another step on the road toward success” (81). As with all ministry, success in counseling is regularity and persistence in prayer. 

Success Is Loving Well

Kent Hughes writes, “Before all things, even service to God, we must love God with all of our hearts” (58). Loving God is the “greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38; Deuteronomy 6:5). When Jesus sought to restore Peter following his denials of the Lord, He only had one question: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15). In life and ministry, love for God needs to be our greatest priority. Hughes points out that a pastor can enjoy perceived ministerial success, such as preaching effective sermons or having a growing congregation, and yet not love God. Similarly, biblical counselors can observe changed lives, growing marriages, or freedom from addictions in their counselees without true, vibrant love for God.

Our priorities evidence love for God. Jesus’ question to Peter addresses this: “Do you love me more than these?” Where does God rank among our other relationships? Our worship demonstrates love for God. “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Where is our allegiance? Who do we ultimately listen to? What object, person, or desire finally directs our choices and decisions? Our motives and goals reveal love for God: “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him” (2 Corinthians 5:9). “Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men?” (Galatians 1:10).

In counseling, it is easy to let good pursuits replace our most important goals. We desire to help people and see them grow, but love for God must precede these worthy efforts. It is also possible that less-than-godly motives creep in, such as seeking to please the counselee or allowing laziness to inhibit proper preparation. But love for God will assist us in maintaining the right goals and motivate us to do things well out of love for Him.  

Hughes explains that their recommitment to prioritize love for God also brought valuable freedom to ministry. “Barbara and I experienced a new surge of freedom as we refreshed ourselves with this truth. And we committed ourselves to loving God above all things, regardless of whatever happened in the rest of life” (60). In counseling, many dynamics can lead to discouragement: an unteachable counselee, slow progress, regression into old habits, inconsistency in homework, and many other challenging situations. But when we make loving God our highest priority, we are freed from letting these discouraging circumstances weigh us down. Instead, we strive to love and please God and leave the results to Him. 

How Do You Define Success?

This book by Kent and Barbara Hughes has helped me evaluate (and correct) my view of ministerial success. The Bible’s answer is both challenging and refreshing. But if we desire to be genuinely successful in God’s eyes, we must align our own view with His. How about you? How do you define success? Have you let worldly ideas and external realities govern your outlook? In light of biblical teaching, how does your view need to change? May God give us grace to pursue His definition of success as we aim to honor Him in our counseling ministries.

Helpful Resources

This blog was originally posted at Center for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship. View the original post here.