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Knowing When to Graduate Your Counselee

Truth in Love 340

Teach your counselee to find grace—the empowering grace to live the Christian life and to regularly feed from God's Word.

Dec 6, 2021

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast I have a familiar voice with ACBC and that is Pastor Brad Bigney. He’s the pastor of Grace Fellowship, just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, down in Florence Kentucky. He’s been there 26 years as lead pastor. He’s a certified member of ACBC and often a speaker at many of our events. I love this brother. He’s the author of Gospel Treason. Many of you have read that book as well. I’m so grateful for Brad. Every time I’m around Brad I feel uplifted, edified, and encouraged. I just appreciate this brother and this time is no different.

Brad, we’re going to be talking about a breakout session that you recently delivered at our national conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. Listen, this is a topic that we need to address. We need to talk about how to know when is the proper time to graduate a counselee. Brother, I’m so glad that you’re here to talk about this with some of your experience, the things that you’ve learned over time. It’s a good topic for us. 

Brad Bigney: Thank you, Dale. It’s always a joy to spend time with you and I love serving with ACBC and the larger body of Christ. It gets me excited as I have opportunities to be reminded that there’s far more going on in our world besides my one local church. But yeah, this has been a journey for a little bit. I’ve been doing biblical counseling for 30 years now and I’ve changed. And I think it happens a lot to counselors or even—if you’re listening and you’re like, well, I’m no counselor officially—but if you’re a godly man or woman who seeks to disciple and help people, how do you know when it’s time to move on and grab somebody else? If you’re not careful, if you’re just looking for perfection or you see any further need for growth, you may just stay with someone and you’ll only do one or two until Jesus comes. 

Dale Johnson: That’s exactly right, but we want you to be effective in the way in which you minister. But that’s a sensitive topic, right? So I want you to talk a little bit about why you put this workshop together. Do people really struggle in knowing when or how to end a counseling relationship? 

Brad Bigney: Yeah, they struggle on both sides of the table or the kitchen counter, or wherever you’re doing your counseling. It’s not just the person doing the counseling or discipling, it’s the person receiving it that can also be uneasy at the thought of ending. I see it on their faces when I begin to introduce the concept or the awareness to them. That’s one thing I would say. Don’t just spring it on your counselees and end the final session saying, well, I think you’re doing really well. This is it. I’ve enjoyed our time together. Hugs. Kisses. That would really startle them. I just plant the seed and I can see it on their face. But part of the issue is, you only know that you’re done if you know what you were shooting for.

So counseling is about change and you need to know, what is it that we seek to change? How would we know when we’re seeing some of that? So, I just took time to brainstorm and think through, because I’ve had to wrestle with this. Often, we have a waiting list of counselees and you’re having a sense there’s more. There are other people that need help. How do I know when I should go ahead and pray and end this one? So, I just sketched out a few things that I thought, what am I—You know, how sometimes you’ll actually start to be doing something, but you’ve never taken time to think, what is it that I’m looking for? Why do I “feel good” about this person walking on their own now? So some of the things that I thought of, Dale, are—when I see them living for the real aim or goal that the Scriptures gives us, it might sound simple, but it’s radical—most believers are not living with, my aim is to please Him whether present or absent in the body. Even Christians are guilty of wanting to rearrange circumstances. Just reduce suffering. Increase my happiness. I want to feel better. They can even be guilty of thinking, I want to keep doing what I’m doing, but would you help me get better results, different fruit? Life is hard. So, one of my first big orientations for them is, what is the real goal of the Christian life? 2 Corinthians 5:9, “Therefore we make it our aim to please Him.” When I see that they’re beginning to live for that, I’m encouraged.

The other big thing—if you think about it at all, whether you’re a Sunday school teacher, discipler, counselor—is to get people to focus on their own sin. It’s pretty radical. They don’t. It’s much easier to see the sin of others and how you’re being sinned against. So when I see them beginning to own their own sin, even if it’s not all repented of and addressed because we’re sinners, we’re going to continue, but do they—I grabbed this from Dave Harvey, it’s not original to me but his book, When Sinners Say I Do—I got this and I’ve been riding this into the sunset, using it all the time. See your own sin first. See your own sin is worse. See your own sin is what you need to be working on most. Matthew 7:3-5 tells us that. Get the log out of your own eye so that you can see clearly to help your brother or sister with the spec and if you don’t, you’re a hypocrite. Those two big orientations are two things I’m looking for, for sure. 

Dale Johnson: Now, you’ve definitely changed in your maturity as a counselor. You’re much more seasoned now than when you started this whole thing 30 years ago. You know, definitely, the way that you look at counselees radically changes. I mean when people walk in the door, you can see problems and issues and you begin to sort it out much easier and simpler than somebody who’s just starting out. And you talked about, you see things changing differently in a counselee. How has what you’re looking for changed the longer you’ve counseled, thinking about how we’re going to end these counseling sessions well. 

Brad Bigney: For sure. One of the things that probably has changed is, you know, when I was earlier on the front end of this, I was alarmed. I didn’t want them to be telling me how hard this is. To me that wasn’t a good sign. That doesn’t alarm me like it used to. Real change is hard, but as I see them lean in and choose to do it anyway—there was a guy I had last year, you know, 50 years old. Who he was was pretty entrenched. Your typical, “this is just who I am” kind of guy. I’ll never forget—it was one of my favorite counselees—that week after week he would say, oh my goodness, this is hard. This is hard. This is hard. But he would do it and then he would say, I am so different. He changed so much. His wife had left him with three teenage boys, so this was not an easy deal. He changed so much that his wife, who was now his ex-wife, reached out to him and said, why weren’t you the husband I had before? I want you. Now, when you get to see someone at 50 years old change so much that other people recognize it…

So I’m not as alarmed anymore by people pushing back and saying this is hard. Here’s what I’m still troubled by: I can’t. I can’t. I can’t do that. As I’m showing them from Scripture, my favorite thing to say is, there’s only two possibilities here. I’m mostly counseling people who claim to be Christians. Either you’re using the wrong verb or you’re not a Christian and you truly can’t. You may not be born again. I don’t say, I know you’re not, but let’s just consider, if you’re born again, feel free to say, this is hard, but don’t keep telling me you can’t. So the struggle—I think the messy—I’d put it to you that way. I’d frame it, struggle and mess don’t alarm me like it used to. When I was younger I liked everything neat, tied up in a box. I didn’t even like the book of Job. Full confession, I love the book of Job now, It’s a wandering book. It’s a messy book. It’s 42 chapters. Who’s talking? And is what they’re saying right, or wrong? And now I think it captures so well life and even the counseling process. In the midst of mess and struggle, God can be at work and He’s given me more eyes to see grace, to find grace in the midst of mess. 

Dale Johnson: That’s so good because, you know, even as I’m hearing you talking, you’ve helped us understand—we need to clarify the aim. What is our goal here? 2 Corinthians 5:9. That’s absolutely critical you just mentioned that. Sometimes I think early on we sort of expect perfection and then that’s when you get to go free from the counseling room. My goodness, if we’re expecting that, you know, we’re going to be doing this until glorification happens. So yeah, these are really critical. We’re teaching people how to then wrestle appropriately with their sin, as the Bible tells us, to help them to move toward maturity. So, as you’ve grown as a counselor, you’ve even talked about this a little bit, you’ve changed in some of how you see the counselee, how you think about your own counsel in the way in which you engage them. So, in other words, I want you to talk about this a little bit. How have you, as a counselor, perhaps changed what you’re thinking and expecting in the counseling process itself? 

Brad Bigney: Yeah. I’ll tell you one of the biggest ones, and I confess it to them and make sure they know it. All of my counseling now is totally reframed as disciple-making. So I don’t see myself—When I was younger, I was trying to fix a problem. Oh, communication is what brought them in. Addiction to porn brought them in. A parenting problem brought them in. And I fixated on that. Every booklet, every worksheet, every verse had to have the word kid in it. You know what I mean? Now I find myself using passages that don’t have that issue in it, but it would help them because I’m trying to make a disciple. I’m walking along beside them.

So here’s one of the things I’m looking for. Believe it or not—And we’re a church that I think I harp on it continually. You’ve got to read the Bible. You’ve got to spend time at Jesus’ feet. You’ve got to know Him. Yet when I get them in counseling, they don’t. So when I begin to see my counselee form a habit of self-feeding, spiritual self-feeding, I know I’ve got someone that pretty soon I can release because they can go on if they’ll continue to read God’s Word.

So a couple of things I’m looking for, I want to teach them where to find grace. Grace is not just amazing grace that saves us, it’s empowering grace to live the Christian life. So once I see them connected with other believers at close range—often they’re isolated. If they’re in a group or whatever that church function structure looks like connected with believers—1 Peter 4:10 says other believers are stewards of the manifold grace of God. You’re going to get grace connected in a relationship. If I see them regularly feeding on God’s Word—Acts 20:32, Paul said to the Ephesian elders it’s the Word of His grace. I commend you to God and the Word of His grace. If I see them forming a habit of really crying out to God—Hebrews 4:16 says you’re going to the throne of grace to find—you’re praying and you’re getting grace. You’re reading God’s Word and you’re getting grace. You’re connected with believers getting grace.

One of my favorite ways to start it off, and then I’ll come back to it and see how we’re doing, is Tim Keller, and it’s not a counseling book, but his book on prayer. He had this illustration that he said he uses with his counselees with a boat. Are you sailing? Are you rowing? Are you drifting? Are you sinking? And then there are details to flesh that out. And in the first session, I give it as a homework assignment come back and tell me where you think you are, and this is spiritually. So I’ll say, it’s always interesting, well, here’s where you are spiritually. You’re drifting. As we work on this marriage, or this financial, or this parent, I want to see this move forward. So I’m going to be assigning things and I want to see you lean in. How could we get you from drifting to rowing, rowing to sailing. I don’t think we’re ever going to always experience sailing, but it means, you know, just the winds of God’s grace. You ought to experience some of those seasons, but a willingness to row no matter what the day is like—and my go-to verse for this is 1 Corinthians 15:10 where Paul said, by the grace of God, I am what I am. If he stopped, that would have been let go, let God. It’s all Grace. But he says, by the grace of God, I am what I am and his grace towards me was not in vain, but I laboured more abundantly than they all, yet not I but the grace—I like to tell my counselees, our effort is bookended with grace. He starts with grace. He ends with grace, but it is a grace empowered effort. Typically, I find my counselees want to know, which is it, my effort or God’s grace? And I’m like, yes. And when I can teach them to lean in—but not in an all by myself, pull myself up by my bootstraps—I know I’ve got someone I can release soon. Do they understand a grace empowered effort by God’s Spirit that leads to change?

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s right. So up to this point, you’ve helped us to think about, from the counselors perspective, how we see differently, how we’re aiming at certain things, what we’re seeing in the counselees. Now I want you to talk a little bit about your counselees because you mentioned earlier, you start mentioning, I think it’s close to time where you’re doing well and they start to get a little twitchy and maybe a little nervous. They’ve become somewhat dependent on you. So, what about your counselees? Are they thinking the same things that you’re thinking about when to end counseling? How does that process go?

Brad Bigney: I think one of the best things that we could do is—as you can imagine, the person who’s in something is the last person that typically can see any change, because change happens incrementally. It’s not like we were in a dark place and it is just sunshine mountaintop. It’s not. So sometimes I find, as a counselor, one of my most important jobs is to point out to them evidences of grace so they can begin to be encouraged. So it might sound cheesy, but I literally—after we’ve gotten issues up and we’ve begun to reorient it with a repentance plan and new thinking and heart motives, what was driving you to do what you do, I want to stay with someone long enough that—I call it catch yourself. You can do it other ways, but, literally, I just give them a 3 by 5 card that says catch yourself. Then the key areas that they were going off the rails, I say, I want you to come back and give me three examples where this week—because I’m not there. The goal is that they can do this without me by God’s Spirit—I want you to give me three examples of where you were about to say what you normally say, think what you normally think, do what you normally do, and by God’s Spirit and all that we’ve been working on together, it was like, no. And you chose to stop and you did differently. As you begin to help them see, they also celebrate. I can see body language. I’ve got even a situation now that it was visible. I love to have observers because I’m trying to train people now after 30 years of this and my observers noted it when they walked out. They said, did you see the difference in how they—well some sin had come out. Some confession had taken place. Even one I had right before that, we’d done a log list and—hard—based on Matthew 7 where I had them confessing specific sins to each other. They said that took us six hours. That was so hard, but this has helped us so much. They were delighting in where they were and what God had done. So, by the time you do begin to introduce a thought of not meeting with them anymore, there should have been some celebration moments, even if you had to help them see it and celebrate so that they’re not thinking, I don’t know why you think we’re ready to stop because I don’t know anything different.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, there is this element, too, that when you bring that up, you have to help them buy-in where they’re seeing some of the things in themselves that you’re seeing in them. You’re seeing some of that grace really take root, take effect. You know, you’re not asking them to go sail on their own, right? You’re asking them to do that under the power and grace of Christ, by His Word, and now they have understanding to be able to go do that. So, how do you help them to buy in to where you’re going and moving in the proper direction? I even think about it in terms of assimilating them back into the body where those normal graces are taking place. So how do you get them to buy-in? 

Brad Bigney: Yeah, well, part of it is—and this is where, Dale, I think I get so excited about the biblical counseling that we offer connected to a local church versus even if it’s a biblical counseling center, XYZ, and I trust God’s doing a good work there, I want people to hear today, you have an advantage. Don’t ever say, well, I’m just a man or woman in our church doing counseling. If you are in the local church, it’s such a beautiful thing.

As I’m counseling—So this couple gets introduced to one of our groups, like, this is for real what I’m thinking right now, they weren’t in one of course. They love this husband and wife. This husband and wife have been in our church for 15-20 years. They’ve been counseling. They are so real and so raw and so helpful. As they get connected to the normal life of a church and what should have been in their lives, they’re not as scared to end this one hour with you on Tuesday night because they’ve been introduced to far more of what the Christian life is supposed to be that is relational. Whether it’s a testimony from someone else and I can say, hey, would you go talk to so-and-so–and that’s also the beauty of, I would put out there, staying in the same church. I’ve been there 26 years. There are trophies of grace, there are stories, there are so many means of grace and I can tap into it. I rejoice so often. I had one just in the last 18 months—I literally looked at them and said, I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of so many. As I gathered data, it became evident how many other people had already poured into them and had a significant role and now I was just one final voice and I watched it take root. And I got to be the one that saw God put the harvest sickle in, but so many had sown. I went home just rejoicing, thinking, this is what—I know the church right now, there’s been conflict. I know the world is down on the church. Even sometimes Christians are and they’re wrong. The bride of Christ is still one of the best places on Earth to experience grace and real change, and Jesus is still doing his best work through the local church and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. 

Dale Johnson: Amen. Brad, this has been really great. It’s so good to me to hear even seasoned counselors revisit these topics to teach us what the Lord has taught you in how to grow in your counseling. Don’t just, you know, sit in some rut and you sort of move in that same direction your whole life. You’re growing. The Lord is growing you as you engage in counseling. I do pray that our listeners will pay attention. Go back and listen to this one again. There were a lot of things—as Brad and I maybe speak a little quicker—there are a lot of things that you need to engage with as you’re engaging your counselee and in the way that you see them, and how you get them assimilated and how you help them to buy-in. These are important factors.

Brad, I’m so glad that you mentioned the beauty of the local church. We cannot emphasize that enough. That is God’s normal processes by which His grace is implemented and care, true care, really happens. That’s how we see maturity, the building of the church itself up in love. So I appreciate that brother. I love your vision for your church and how you see, not just biblical counseling, but discipleship just infect every aspect of your local church and the beauty of care that happens there. So, thank you, brother, for sharing with us. We appreciate that. 

Brad Bigney: Thank you, Dale. I am so grateful for the partnership with ACBC. They’re still my go-to. As Christians get confused and say, where should I turn to learn how to help real people with real problems, I still say, there’s a lot of acronyms out there. They’re all great, but you’re still my favorite. If you want it on the bottom shelf, what’s those 30 hours of basic, how do you begin to use your Bible to help real people? I couldn’t have come up with that as a local church pastor, so I’m grateful to partner with people like ACBC that can come in and help me train my people to really make an impact in our world. 

Dale Johnson: Well, I’ll respond to that and just say that I appreciate that, brother, and I’ll second that we love working with churches like yours because then I can go to pastors all around the country and say, hey, you go visit Brad Bigney and see what the Lord has done and if you plant your life in a place and you begin to infect it with biblical discipleship what can happen. I love that and we love pointing people in your direction. Thank you brother.