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TIL 218 | Engaging Reluctant Counselees

Dale Johnson: Joining me this week on the podcast is Rush Witt, one of the pastors at Paramount Church, a church plant in Bexley, Ohio. He is also the acquisitions editor over the counseling department at P&R. He’s been certified at ACBC for quite some time and he’s in the process of becoming a Fellow with our organization. Rush, we’re so grateful that you’re here to talk about this topic today.

Rush Witt: Glad to be with you.

Dale Johnson: Your church does counseling ministry not just to people in the church, but you also offer counseling in the surrounding communities. What a great way to think about missions and reaching and caring for your community. In the process of doing that I am certain that you see a wide variety of counselees. Some may want to come while others are pushed to come to counseling. How do you guys deal with the variety of the different types of counselees that you get in the office?

Rush Witt: We have found biblical counseling to be one of the most helpful tools in ministry, not only to our immediate church congregation but also to our local community. It gives us an opportunity to minister the gospel to the lives of many different kinds of people and it does so by giving us a real entry gate into their lives rather than simply trying to share the gospel with a stranger or someone we meet in our community. It gives us an inroad, a way to enter into their world and understand their need and then to bring them Christ and His answers, which is what we’re focused on within our counseling ministry.

Today, when I was on a plane, I happened to be sitting next to a woman that, as we were taking off, I noticed that she was gripping the armrests of the chair as tightly as she could. She had her head back and her eyes closed and she was really focused on trying to take some deep breaths. She was clearly very nervous and I was trying to find a good way to talk with her. I asked her if she enjoyed flying and where she was from. She told me she does not enjoy flying, that she was very scared, and that it was kind of a new thing for her. She wasn’t sure why she was so anxious. She hadn’t been that way before. That’s a great example of how biblical counseling gives us an opportunity to share the gospel. I’m not always successful at it, but ordinarily I would try to find a way to share the gospel with that person. That’s not always an easy thing to do, especially on an airplane with someone that you don’t know, but right there her trouble with that anxiety on that flight gave us a prime opportunity to talk with her.

We do find a diversity of people that biblical counseling has given us ways to connect with. There are people who have no relationship with Christ in our community and biblical counseling has given us many, many opportunities to show the riches of the gospel on the backdrop of their lives as an evangelistic tool. We have met with people who have no healthy church, and it’s a good opportunity to introduce them to a local church that desires to care for them in meaningful ways. Some people are from healthy churches, but they don’t have any biblical counseling available in their churches, and then we have an opportunity to influence their pastors as well. In the course of our church planting, as we were preparing and wanting to plant a church with a biblical counseling mindset and commitment, one of the things I continued to hear over and over again was this caution that you can’t build a church on people who need counseling. We’ve found that to be completely untrue because we don’t know any people who don’t need counseling. Biblical counseling has given us many different avenues to connect with people in our community that we otherwise would have many challenges in reaching.

Dale Johnson: I’m excited about the possibilities of utilizing counseling as one of your primary ways to think through the process of church planting. What a great way to reach out to your community and to offer biblical care to people in your community. Counseling is always a lot of fun when you have people who want to come to counseling. They see the issues that are at hand, they’re hungry for the things of God, you’re walking them through homework, they come back excited that they’ve completed the homework, and they’re seeing God move in their life. Those moments are so much fun to be involved in, to see God working in a person. But we all know that’s not the reality every time. We know that there are counselees who come to us who are quite reluctant to do so. What are some of the big reasons why certain counselees might be reluctant to seek help from a pastor, church, or biblical counselor?

Rush Witt: There are so many factors that can be at play in someone’s life that could provoke them to some kind of reluctance over finding or seeking help. At the center of that answer must be a clear understanding of what we call biblical anthropology, understanding what people are as God has created them, as well as how the fall has influenced and changed all of us. While many people have experiences or circumstances in their lives which make receiving counseling difficult, our faithful biblical anthropology reminds us again and again that the ultimate source of that reluctance is in the heart. It’s not outside of them and their circumstances or in their experiences, though those are important. Ultimately, it’s in their hearts.

Some people are hindered by their desires, by the things that they want, or the things that they don’t want. Some people will say, “I don’t want to be viewed as one of the weak ones,” “I don’t want my life to change,” “I don’t want God’s help,” or, “I want counseling that doesn’t use the Bible.” We’ve heard all of these answers given as to why someone is not very interested or is reluctant about biblical counseling. Reaching the reluctant will then require that we’re prepared to wisely, winsomely, and patiently interact with them on the level of belief and desire to comfort and convince according to God’s will. This is one of the points at which biblical counseling is similar to apologetics, especially presuppositional apologetics. Our reluctant counselees have ultimate commitments or presuppositions of beliefs and desires. We need to learn to lovingly minister the truth on this level.

Dale Johnson: You’re describing people that I’ve sat in front of and I’ve heard all those questions that you mentioned and so many more from people who want to see things happen differently in their life. Maybe they’re not willing to do some of the things they need to do, or they’re tired and maybe they’ve been burned in the past by different counseling. We’re all going to have opportunities to minister to someone who’s reluctant to be there and not really wanting or desiring to be in that situation at that particular moment. As we have opportunity to encourage reluctant counselees toward the benefits of gospel-centered counseling, what are some of the key principles that we should practice and help them think through?

Rush Witt: I come back again and again virtually in all of the counseling and discipleship that I have opportunity to be a part of to a plan for personal ministry. It’s a three-part plan that has been taught to me many, many times and has been useful in my own life as others have counseled me. With every counselee, especially those who are reluctant to come to counseling or participate, we want to be doing three things in this person’s life. First, we want to enter his or her world. We want to really get to know them and establish a real sense of presence in their lives, give them reasons to trust us, and to welcome them into counseling. Counseling can be a very intimidating thought, but as we are faithful in our commitment that we are all sinners and suffers in need of help together, we can enter into the world of others in a unique way, the way that Christ has entered our world.

Second, we need to be prepared through the Word of God to understand this other person’s need. One of the great advantages or provisions we have that comes to us because of Christ is that we have His revealed Word that is sufficient for answering all of these questions and helping us really understand those we want to care for.

Third, we need to bring this person to Christ and His answers. This is at the center of all biblical counseling, that we have such a wonderful opportunity not only to bring people truth but to bring to them a living Savior. This is the ultimate resource for every reluctant counselee. They need to know not only good reasons for biblical counseling or for giving themselves to a season of intensive discipleship, but they need to know Christ who is alive and present. We have such a privilege to bring Christ to them along with His answers.

Dale Johnson: I love hearing plans like that. It really helps to separate and give me categories to think through as I think about counseling an individual. Let’s say we’re putting that plan into practice. At the beginning of our time together, you mentioned a lady that you were sitting next to on the plane and she was dealing with anxiety and fear of flying. How would you implement that in a situation just like that one?

Rush Witt: This is one of those situations where I so very much appreciate having some kind of biblical plan like I just described: enter, understand, bring. I tend to struggle in these spontaneous moments when I want to help someone, but I feel somewhat unprepared. I’m caught off guard by not knowing that I was going to sit with this person and not knowing what would be going on. Over and over again, this three-part plan comes to mind for me. Even as I was sitting on the plane, I began thinking first, “How can I enter her world?” That was simply the point at which I turned to her, introduced myself, and asked for her name. She was clearly anxious as I said before, so I was looking for an opportunity to get to know her and to express real concern and love to let her know that I was present. I was calm and interested in talking with her. I was willing to continue a conversation even in the midst of her anxiety, as opposed to finding out that she was nervous and then clamming up, being silent, and leaving her sitting in her seat by herself. I had an opportunity there to enter her world.

Then as she began to open up and her fear began to decrease somewhat, I began thinking, “How can I understand her need?” I started thinking about beliefs and desires and the different things that we know from God’s Word that are behind fear, worry, anxiety, and panic. I began trying to see her through the lens of Scripture, asking God to give me everything that I need in order to think well about her and give her truth that was going to land and make sense to her in that moment. That was a real challenge because of how anxious she was.

Then it was my desire to bring her Christ and His answers. While there’s much more that I would like to have said to this person, what I was able to do was to share with her a little bit about the role of beliefs and desires, some examples from my life of when I have been fearful or anxious, and how God’s Word helped me. I was also able to encourage her with a few other resources that she could read. I recommended a few books and a booklet. I actually had a book in my bag that I gave to her and she was encouraged to read those. I don’t know if I will see or hear from her again. She lives not too far from our church, so I hope that somehow God will connect our paths again. She has everything that she needs to contact us. That’s a real example of the reason that I’m grateful for having this three-part plan ready in my mind that I can follow even in that difficult moment of ministering to someone in need spontaneously.

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