During the COVID-19 pandemic and the reality of social distancing, a lot of ministry is moving from physically present to online. Biblical counseling is no exception.
But can we really offer effective biblical counseling via video platform? Can video conferencing systems really bridge the distance created by the pandemic?
When you talk about counseling via video, you hear a lot of opinions. Some think it’s unusual. Some thinks it’s awkward. Some think it’s necessary for now, but serves as a second-best option. And some think it’s downright wrong!
I think differently about video counseling, because I’ve been doing it for over five years. I love the opportunity to counsel via video.
Whether or not you love this digital form of counseling, for the short term you’re either going to need to adapt to it or you’re likely going to have to suspend your biblical counseling ministry for the time being. And no one knows how long this season will linger.
In light of this new reality, here are six tips or best practices for biblical counseling via video conferencing from my five plus years of providing counseling in this way.
Tip #1: Relax—It’s Biblical
In the Bible and in church history, people have practiced soul care from a distance. (For more detail about this, see the blog post: Practicing Spiritual Connecting While Social Distancing.)
In that post, I noted that the apostle Paul ministered from a distance: “For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face” (Colossians 2:1 ESV).
What’s the context for this ministry? It’s biblical—even nouthetic—ministry. Here Paul is proclaiming Christ through teaching and admonition from a distance (Colossians 1:28–29). Paul provided long-distance nouthetic biblical counseling in the form of an epistle—a letter.
We see this concept repeated at other times in history as well. Martin Luther counseled from a distance, penning over 3,000 letters of spiritual counsel.
Tip #2: Use Video, Not Just Audio
While we can use many means of communication to offer distanced biblical counseling, I’m a big proponent of video over audio.
I believe that body language is incredibly important for a counselor to observe—and you can’t pick that up via audio-only communication. I can often detect moods even more readily with video counseling than physically-present counseling. Why? Because I don’t have anywhere else to look other than directly at the person. In several recent sessions, from the moment the video call began, I could quickly read the mindset, attitude, or mood of the person, because I could observe their facial expression and body language.
Additionally, in our multitasking world, I find that audio call sessions leave both the counselee and the counselor much more tempted to distraction. Counseling, by nature, is a focused relational endeavor. I don’t want my counselee scrolling their emails while they’re talking to me. And I don’t want to be putting away dishes while I’m (supposed to be) talking to them.
Tip #3: Just Do It. It Really Is Like Physically-Present Counseling
It’s easy to contrast video counseling with in-person counseling. But think about it—I am still “in-person” with someone when I see and hear and talk and interact with a counselee via video.
People often object that video counseling is much less personal than in-person counseling. In my experience, I cry with counselees on video. We laugh. We support. We comfort. We encourage. We challenge. We read Scripture. We pray. We relate. These are all the marks of effective, personal ministry.
If Paul and Luther could provide rich, loving, involved soul care by letter, why do we think we can’t provide rich, loving, involved soul care by video—where we’re seeing and hearing and relating together?
My model or approach to counseling does not change between video counseling and physically-present counseling. I’ve used both methods with the same counselee, and they’ll often note, “Our time together in counseling was just the same whether we did video or we were both in your office.”
Tip #4: Try It—You’ll Like It. It’s Easy.
“Don’t I need some special training?” you may ask. Well, if you’re not very tech-savvy (and I am not), then you might need an hour or so to get used to whatever platform or system you will use. But they’re really not very complicated.
Which system should you use? I hesitate to even name any because new platforms are being added weekly. A few of the many current options include: Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Facetime, and Vidyo. Most of these can be used either on your phone, computer, tablet, or smart TV.
Once you get used to a system, you can do a lot with it. On Zoom, for instance, you can share your screen, which means you can share documents, whether that’s a favorite chart or a summary of what you’re hearing from your counselee.
Tip #5: Enjoy It. Video Counseling Has Some Advantages
There are actually some advantages to using video counseling. First, it is confidential. If you walk into Pastor Bob’s office, then people suspect that you’re going for counseling. Some counselees don’t mind this at all. Some, especially at first, are a little uncomfortable walking past strangers—or friends—into the counselor’s office.
Second, it’s convenient. No commute time or traffic means you’ve saved your counselee (and yourself) a lot of time. This has led to a drastic reduction in canceled appointments in my practice.
Third, it addresses geographical constraints. I started ministry-by-video when overseas missionaries requested that I mentor, supervise, or counsel them. These days I do a good deal of counseling with pastors and their families from around the country and the world. For those who do not have solid biblical counseling available in their area, video counseling offers a helpful means of connection.
Tip #6: Address Potential Disadvantages
One issue briefly mentioned above was the potential for distraction. Yes, a person can face many distractions and interruptions from home, but this is actually also a challenge to overcome in physically-present counseling. People walk past my office. The counselee is concerned about fighting traffic on the way home. The counselor is thinking about heading to the grocery store right after the session. The distractions that come from video counseling are similar challenges that can be addressed head-on.
Proactively address distractions. Encourage the counselee (and yourself) to set up their phone, tablet, or computer in a private place in the house or workplace, and to shut off notifications of incoming messages and calls.
Reactively address (and even use) distractions. Recently, a family member interrupted the counselee. I was able to observe the interaction. Let’s just say that it was instructive and illuminating of the relational dynamics in the counseling situation. This interruption gave me insight I may not have had in my counseling office.
Another concern is the potential unreliability of technology. Yes, technology can be “buggy,” calls can drop, and the video can freeze. Because I’ve been video counseling for several years now, I can also attest to the advancement of video conference performance.
Proactively plan for the possibility of a dropped call, telling your counselee you will call right back in the event this interruption happens. Tell them if for some reason you can’t reconnect, you will email or call them to work out a plan. In my own practice, however, I experience these sorts of interruptions very infrequently.
One more concern I hear is related to legal issues related to video counseling. I’m no lawyer—that should be understood upfront—but my practice for video counseling is to keep in place all best practices I use for in-office counseling.
Do you use a disclosure statement stating the nature of the care you are offering? Then use the same in video counseling. Do you explain and have people sign a confidentiality statement? Then have them e-sign the same for video counseling. Do you counsel under the supervision and auspices of a local church? Then make plain that your video counseling—whether done at your home or at your church—is under the authority of your church. (Note: In my particular practice, I always offer counseling for free, always explaining that I am not offering professional/licensed therapy and always indicating that I am providing biblical counseling through historic Christian soul care. If your counseling fits other parameters, then other legal issues could apply.)
As you consider the many ministry challenges that have stemmed from this pandemic season, I hope that you are encouraged that video counseling does not equal second-rate care. While this is an unprecedented era and specialists of all types are laboring diligently to care for people in new ways, take heart that you can still offer a listening ear, a personal connection, and a biblical word of hope to counselees under your care. As you are challenged to begin new avenues of ministry under new physical constraints, my prayer is that you would find this season of outreach to be the most fruitful yet, remembering that God’s Word is not bound even when we are constrained (2 Timothy 2:9).
COUNSELING UNDER THE CROSS: HOW MARTIN LUTHER APPLIED THE GOSPEL TO DAILY LIFE
In Counseling Under the Cross, biblical counselor and noted author Bob Kellemen mines the riches of Luther’s letters of spiritual counsel to give readers a new understanding of how Luther engaged in the personal ministry of the gospel.