What is a competent counselor?

Today, I begin an introduction to pastoral counseling class for MDiv students with my colleague Jenn. In six short weeks we will expose them to biblical foundations of understanding people and their problems, the basic helping skills, and provide them opportunities to practice on each other.

So, what makes for a competent counselor? There is a famous book on this topic. Jay Adams focuses in his landmark, bulldozing book on the problems of secular psychology and the need for a new understanding of how people change that fits with Scripture and a confidence that all people, especially pastors, are capable of leading others to change.

Important work, but misses some of the nuances that we have now about Christian models of change. For some of my thoughts on a more robust model of counseling that I seek to impart here at Biblical, see this post from several years ago.

But I want to focus here on the talents or capabilities of the counselor. And here I list 7 factors needed to be a competent counselor

1. Spiritual maturity. Not only must the counselor know the bible, its story line, etc., they must also have understood and experienced the Gospel, show a maturing trajectory towards holiness and awareness of the diversity within the Christianity. In the words of one of my theology colleagues, they must know the difference between dogma and doctrine and opinion.

2. Self-awareness/insight. One can be spiritual mature, but not particularly insightful about the self. The competent counselor has a grasp of their own narrative (and how the Gospel story is changing it) and how it impacts past and present relationships. The competent counselor understands strengths and weaknesses and is not defensive.

3. Capable of building trusting relationships. Nothing much good comes from counsel provided by standoffish and stand-above kinds of counselors. The competent counselor is able to build trusting relationships by being interested in individuals (more so than in outcomes), able to walk in another’s shoes, cross cultural lines, and able to empower others more than tell others what to do

4. Flexibility in response styles. The competent counselor understands the need to use a variety of conversational responses depending on the needs of the client. This means sometimes questions are appropriate, other times silence. Other responses include reflections, summarizing, focusing, confronting, joining, problem-solving, self-disclosing. Counselors who only use one or two of these styles will not be able to work well with clients who find those particular styles problematic. The competent counselor is intentional in her or his choices of responses.

5. Assessment and Hypothesis skills. The competent counselor is able to move from their counselees problems and descriptions to a wider view of the person and their situation and back again. This counselor is able to pull multiple pieces of data into a cohesive understanding of the situation. In doing so she forms and tests possible hypotheses that clarify motivation for behavior as well as point to interventions. For example, is the child’s behavior merely rebellious or is it ADD or anxiety based?

6. Observation skills.The competent counselor not only understands people, their needs, solutions, and has the capacity to use multiple response styles, but also is observant regarding their own impact on the counselee. They observe subtle reactions form clients and seek to moderate their counseling style and/or gently explore the meaning of the reaction. Without these skills, the counselor blithely works toward a goal without knowing if the counselee is really following.

7. Ability to care for self. Finally, the competent counselor recognizes personal limits, boundaries and actively seeks to sustain a life of personal care. Far too many counselors confuse sacrificial giving with bypassing appropriate care for one’s own spiritual well-being. Just because one is spiritually mature one day does not mean such maturity is permanent. Neglecting personal care will likely diminish all other counselor competencies over time.


Filed under biblical counseling, christian counseling, christian psychology, Christianity, counseling, counseling skills, education, teaching counseling

4 responses to “What is a competent counselor?

  1. What I hear you saying mirrors a multitude of passages such as 1 Thess. 2:8; Phil. 1:9-11; Gal. 6:1-3; Eph. 4:15; Rom. 15:14; Rom. 12:15; 2 Cor. 1:3-11, and many more. All of these highlight Scripture and soul, truth and love, content and character, competence and relationship. I would love to see some of the exegetical work and biblical passages behind each of the seven areas you discuss in this post–it would strengthen an already intriguing discussion.

  2. Carmella

    I have been thinking about and condsidering this very topic as I continue my education and pursue what God has for me as I seek to be competent in this field. Thank you for this thought-provoking discussion.

    I have come to believe that competency incorporates knowledge, skills, ability to apply skills, connection with Christ, maturity, insight, discernment, and so much more all rolled into one… but my ideas of competency are still developing. Thanks again for these thoughts.

  3. D Stevenson

    When I saw the words “Competent to Counsel” and “Jay Adams” I stiffened with fear. I kept reading and relaxed. If I keep exposing myself to related, but not the same, my emotional/physiological reactions (PTS?) may lessen. Perhaps someday I will even be able to mingle with hard-core Jay Adams proteges and not be triggered.

    Hmm…., sounds a lot like secular Exposure Therapy. Perhaps we can appropriate and benefit even from things that don’t come from Christian souls. 😉

  4. Sarah

    As a Christian Counselor, who struggles to help people heal in a secular world, I agree with your observation of a competent Counselor, however, one thing I might add is the ability to empathize with your client. I have learned in my practice and witnessed in others that a client is able to trust and accept when they know their Counselor has walked in their shoes. I.e. an Addictions Counselor who is a recovering addict or a Family Counselor who is a survivor of abuse. God doesn’t allow us to go through storms in our life unless there’s a purpose to minister or witness to others.

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