Wright, N. & Hallervorden, N. (2004) ‘A Cord of Three Strands’, Christian Counsellor, January-March, Issue 20, pp10-13.
We presented a series of articles throughout 2003 that described different aspects of a new development model for counselling and supervision. We believe that the 3-dimensional nature of this model accounts for its strength. Interestingly, this reflects the notion in Ecclesiastes 4:12 that a ‘cord of three strands is not quickly broken’.[i] In this final article, we will draw together key points from the series and summarise our action recommendations.
The ‘Paradigm’ model, drawing together development issues, insights and practice at counsellor, supervisor and (by analogy) church/agency levels, was introduced in Issue 16 of the Christian Counsellor (Jan-Mar 03)[ii]. We proposed that three separate yet inter-twined areas of development are worth exploring: spiritual, personal and professional. We also proposed that development in each of these areas can be achieved at each level. Positive transformation can be achieved through an integrated approach.
We have noticed in our own practice that issues and experiences encountered at different levels of this model are sometimes more than coincidental. Dynamics at any one level may not only mirror but actually precipitate dynamics at the others. It is quite possible, for instance, for concerns to be both projected and introjected between levels, creating system-wide emotional resonance. For example, concerns raised by a quality review of a counselling agency may resonate with counsellors’ anxiety about the quality of their own counselling practice, thus amplifying anxiety at both levels.[iii]
The results of this phenomenon are two-fold. On the one hand, it can be very difficult to locate the primary source of a particular issue within the agency ‘system’. This makes it difficult to know how to address the problem. In the above example, does the counsellor need help with their personal issues about competence or does the agency itself unintentionally convey doubts about the competence of their counsellors?
On the other hand, issues that don’t seem to make sense at one level (e.g. a reaction that seems all out of proportion to an actual event) can sometimes be understood by exploring what’s happening at other levels also. Try switching between levels when analysing a situation in order to test this idea in practice.[iv] External supervision can help, too, since it may be difficult to spot such dynamics from the inside. Agencies may wish to make use of independent consultants to help assess organisational dynamics and their impact on the counselling provided.
Spiritual development was introduced in Issue 17 of the Christian Counsellor (Apr-Jun 03). It is difficult in practice to separate spiritual development from other aspects of development because true spirituality is all-pervasive. We noted, however, that spiritual development in Christian counselling terms is identifiable by certain key characteristics:
It promotes saving faith.
It increases understanding of the Christian faith.
It recognises the need for Super-natural gifting and power.
It provokes, challenges and encourages a life of faith.
In Christian counselling practice, we highlighted the particular importance of growth in: (a) spiritual awareness and discernment, (b) knowledge and relationship with God and (c) maturity and committed discipleship.
Spiritual awareness and discernment can be nurtured through a variety of means including prayer, fellowship and Bible study. We have found two approaches to using the Bible particularly helpful. These are (a) applied theology and (b) theological reflection.
The first of these approaches involves studying the Bible in order to discern God’s truth in the form of, for instance, important principles and themes. These are then applied to counselling issues and experiences. For example, the counsellor may study ‘forgiveness’ in the Bible and then decide how this principle should be incorporated into his or her future counselling practice. Conversely, the second approach involves starting with case study material, unearthing and exploring the different issues raised and then asking what the Bible might have to say about those issues.
Knowledge and relationship with God is the highest goal of spiritual development and Christian counselling. ‘Knowing’ in this context transcends simple ‘knowing about’ in a rational sense, although this aspect is retained. It is concerned with a personal intimacy with God that both inspires and informs counselling practice. There is a very real sense in which the Christian counsellor mediates the living presence of God to the client and so this dimension is critical.
Maturity and committed discipleship are the basis of, result of and means by which effective Christian counselling is achieved.
Whilst there is no universally accepted definition of Christian counselling, counselling is nevertheless deeply concerned with personal growth and development. Since this is true for the counsellor’s work with clients, we believe that the same principle holds true for the counsellor, supervisor and church/agency too. Certain aspects of personal development are particularly significant in the counselling context and we identified these in Issue 18 of the Christian Counsellor (Jul-Sep 03) as:
An understanding of one’s own personality preferences.
An awareness of one’s unique pattern of reacting and responding to ‘triggers’.
An awareness of one’s own value systems and life-priorities.
We hold the view that understanding one’s own preferences (or biases) is important in order to understand how they might potentially influence one’s counselling style, choice of intervention strategy etc. It is, however, equally important to consider the corresponding preferences of individual clients in order to help ensure that, insofar as possible, the approach chosen is the one most helpful for the client.
There are many tools available today by which personality preferences can be tested; for example, Honey & Mumford, Myers-Briggs, Taylor-Johnson, Firo-B. Profiles provided by such tests will provide indicators of personal preferences, distinctive personality traits and likely default responses to certain situations. We don’t necessarily recommend that counsellors offer clients such tests as part of the counselling process but simply that insights revealed are borne in mind.
The counsellor’s typical reactions to specific triggers (e.g. ‘hot buttons’) is another important area for self-awareness. Reactions are often based on transference of feelings from past experiences and can sometimes feel overwhelming and unexpected. In order to avoid inappropriate feelings, prejudices and behaviours towards the client, the counsellor needs to learn to identify his or her triggers and to manage them in such a way that does not interfere unhelpfully with the counselling process.
Similarly, the counsellor needs to consider how his or her work complements other aspects of his or her life and to highlight any possible tensions that arise in order to deal with them effectively. Common tensions include working in a counselling agency that doesn’t recognise Christian counselling or struggling to find residual emotional energy for life and relationships outside of work.
We have found that supervision from another counsellor or within a counselling team is a particularly helpful way of growing in awareness and managing each of the areas described above. Counsellors involved in counselling Christians often prefer supervision from a practising Christian in order to adequately address the spiritual aspects of their work. Details of Christian counselling supervisors practising in your own area may be obtained from the Association of Christian Counsellors (www.acc-uk.org).
If you are unable to find a Christian supervisor, you may wish to consider seeking supplementary additional input from a mature Christian who understands at least the basic theory and dynamics of your counselling approach.
In Issue 19 of the Christian Counsellor (Oct-Dec 03), we proposed that, whilst recognising Christian counselling has its own distinctive beliefs, aims and values, there are dimensions of ‘professionalism’ that are consistent with Biblical values. Furthermore, we believe that growth in Christian professionalism can add credibility to our work in wider care and community arenas and that it can, too, enhance the quality of our work with hurting people.
We identified six key characteristics of a Christian professional counsellor that are distinct from, say, natural talent, technical competence, personal experience or spiritual gifting alone. These were summarised as:
Active engagement in studies and training in counselling and theology.
Active membership of an independent, national/international body (e.g. BACP/ACC) that is committed to establishing, maintaining and developing guidelines for good practice in counselling.
Active commitment to representing, upholding and outworking the values and standards of the counselling profession, insofar as they coincide with Biblical values, in the role and place of work in which the counsellor is employed.
Active commitment to the development of knowledge, capability and good practice within the counselling profession by contributing ideas, expertise and learning to others engaged in counselling on the basis of Biblical understanding.
Active commitment to working under supervision with openness, integrity and transparency.
Active commitment to prayer, fellowship and on-going learning and development in order to continually enhance relationship with God, professional knowledge, capabilities and value to others.
We recognise that a significant number of Christian counsellors may struggle to fulfil all of these requirements in practice, owing to time and other constraints. In light of this, the ‘six pillars’ outlined above may best be regarded as goals or aspirations rather than hard-and-fast evaluative criteria. The important principle is to keep moving forward in terms of one’s own development in order to avoid falling into complacency or unconscious incompetence.
As we end this series, we would like to offer the following key recommendations for student counsellors, aspiring professionals and experienced practitioners in this field:
1. Ensure that your own development plans include spiritual, personal and professional dimensions.
2. Compare and contrast issues and experiences at client, counsellor, supervisor and church/agency levels, highlighting patterns and parallels.
3. Link up with others as part of your development strategy in order to ensure appropriate support and accountability.