Here's a summary of some general wisdom about counselling. 
In one of his novels Somerset Maugham wrote this epitaph to some of the characters: ‘These folk had done nothing and when they died, it was just as if they had never been.” Christianity has always taught that the good deeds we have not done will damn us as much as the evil deeds we have done. What a waste – to have lived only one short life on this planet and to have lived it uselessly!
The greatest need in our time is not for preaching, nor for service on behalf of justice, nor for the experience of the Spirit’s gifts. The greatest need of our time is for koinonia – to love one another, and to offer our lives for the sake of those in need.
An understanding of Christian concern for others begins with the character of God. Ours is a ‘social God’, relating within the community of the Trinity, and, in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, with the people on this planet. Jesus came with a mandate to preach, liberate and heal (Luke 4:18-19) and commissions his followers to do the same as he did (John 20:21). So the church, the body of Christ, does in its world what Jesus did in his: no more, no less. It adopts Jesus’ stance towards others: that of a servant. And it will be called into account at the Great Judgment relative to the presence or absence of ministries of compassion to those who need what we can give (Matthew 25:31-46).
‘Compassion’ comes from the Latin pati and cum – ‘to suffer with’. The church takes Jesus as its model for compassion. Twelve times in the gospels, Jesus or his Father-God are said to be ‘moved with compassion’ for worried and helpless people (for example Matthew 9:36). Our Lord sends his followers into the world to ‘be compassionate as your Father is compassionate’ (Luke 6:36).
How does compassion work? In the same way as God’s does: Jesus is sent into the world to be with us. He emptied himself and became a servant (Philippians 2). That gives us dignity: we must be worth a lot if he is willing to be our slave! He says to us: ‘I will be with you always until the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:20). We are not alone.
So compassion is more than sympathy – ‘feeling sorry’ for others. It’s not ‘pity’ for someone weak or inferior. Compassion is a ‘doing verb’ – relieving the pain of others, not just emoting about it. But it’s more than ‘helping the less fortunate’ – that’s elitist and paternalistic.
Compassion, says Matthew Fox, is the world’s richest energy source. A few days before his death, Rabbi and scholar Abraham Heschel said, ‘There is an old idea in Judaism that God suffers when we suffer… Even when a criminal is hanged in the gallows, God cries. God identifies himself with the misery on this earth. I can help God by reducing human suffering, human anguish and human misery’.
But there’s so much pain – where do I start? In the Matthew text describing Jesus’ compassion (9:35-38), our Lord then turns to his disciples and says ‘There’s so much to do, and so few do it, pray!’ First, pray! Prayer tunes us in to the heart of God. Prayer helps us focus on others and their needs. Prayer turns frustration and anger into hope. A by-product of prayer is peace, without which we will never act appropriately in an unjust world.
We are called, to use an image of Thomas Merton’s, motivated and empowered by the love of God to be involved in the sufferings of the world because it is the aim of God’s love to reset the broken bones of humanity…
But humanity’s brokenness is almost infinite. If a helper is not careful he or she will be ‘spattered all over the wall of needfulness’ as one therapist puts it. Shakespeare was right (in Measure for Measure): ‘Good counsellors lack no clients.’ An important habit for good counsellors is to find a time and a place each day, each week and each year for varying periods of solitude. Great people-helpers like Mother Teresa or Dom Helder Camara are great because of their disciplined private prayer. Have you ever noticed the remarkable statement in Luke 5:15-16: ‘Many crowds would gather to hear Jesus and be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray’. Imagine that! The greatest healer of them all left people unhealed to get himself together alone in the presence of God. There’s an important lesson there for us.
Now let’s get practical. Here are some golden rules for people-helpers:
A caring friend is worth ten uncaring ‘professionals’: your help will make a difference! (But learn when you have moved beyond your expertise, and need to refer the other to a more skilled helper.)
You won’t ever be an ‘expert’ on people’s problems: a lifetime is too short to understand all that you should know about psychology and counselling.
A Christian counsellor has three roles – listening, befriending and ‘shepherding’. As a listener you hear, deeply, what the other is really saying – especially any agenda ‘behind the words’. As friend, you share your journey and your struggles – but only when you have earned that right and it is appropriate. A shepherd or pastor, with the proper authority and on the right occasion, may share biblical insights. The three roles are expressed as ‘I hear you saying…’, ‘I want to say…’. ‘God says…’ (‘what you think, what I think, what God thinks’). But don’t be ‘trigger-happy’ with Scripture: don’t use Bible texts as weapons (or as magic pills!).
And only rarely (and when you’re more experienced) give advice: you are not God; you might get sued these days if the advice is lethal; and the person must ‘own’ their growth and changes rather than depend on your ‘parenting’ them. Your aim is to encourage the counsellee to stand on his/her own two feet as soon as possible, without your constant support. Some people are actually best helped by being left alone (particularly those who ‘hug their hurts’ and who are constant attention-seekers.)
Feed back words and phrases that indicate you’re tracking with the counsellee: ‘You’re saying that…’ ‘What I hear is…’ ‘So you feel…’
Don’t be judgmental: never be shocked; accept the person totally, even if you can’t accept their behaviour. If something makes you very angry or anxious or fearful, there may be some unfinished business somewhere in your own life.
Watch for ‘transference’ (when someone dumps emotions on you that don’t belong to you) and ‘counter-transference’ (when you respond by getting emotionally ‘hooked’ by the counsellee.) Check with a counselling supervisor.
Beware the ‘redeemer complex’ – getting in deep with others’ problems to satisfy your own needs. Be ‘empathetic’ rather than ‘sympathetic’. Sympathy may be a selfish emotion. If you’re getting too involved emotionally, or if you are sexually attracted to a counsellee you may have to refer to someone else.
What a person tells you in confidence must not be repeated to anyone else (except to an experienced supervisor with the counsellee’s consent.)
In a more formal counselling interview have some sort of understanding/contract/covenant. I sometimes find myself saying to someone who’s never been to a counsellor, ‘Feel free to talk about anything: but you don’t have to if you’re not comfortable. If I ask something you don’t want to explore, you can simply “pass”. I may not be the best person to help: but I’ll tell you when I can’t and when someone else might have different skills or insights’. (Incidentally, after about 20,000 hours of pastoral counselling, this helper can remember only one or two ‘passing’.)
Generally, experienced counsellors find the ‘fifty-minute hour’ best: most of the healing in therapy happens between sessions.
As a general rule, it's best not to counsel someone to whom you might become sexually attracted alone: have someone else ‘around’ (in the next room, or with you as a co-counsellor.)
Pray for (and, if appropriate, with) your friend.
Finish every session on a realistically hopeful note.
Above all, become a whole person yourself. Get in touch with your feelings, your ‘scripting’, your motivations, your sexuality, your besetting sins. Ideally, see a spiritual director regularly. Get to know God. Learn to grow into the sort of spiritual maturity that is less and less affected by praise or blame: the less you expect, the less you’ll be disappointed (saints expect nothing – or anything – and are rarely disappointed.)
One psychotherapist summarises the marks of a ‘therapeutic therapist’ as follows: they have found their own way; possess self-respect and self-appreciation; are able to be powerful; are open to change; are expanding their awareness of self and others; are willing and able to tolerate ambiguity; have an identity; are capable of nonpossessive empathy… They are alive! They are authentic, real, congruent, sincere, and honest; are able to give and receive love; live in the present; make mistakes and are willing to admit them; are able to become deeply involved in their work and their creative projects; are able to reinvent themselves; have the ability to be emotionally present for others; are in the process of making choices that shape their life; challenge unreasonable assumptions rather than submitting to them; and have a sincere interest in the welfare of others. (Gerald Corey, Theory and Practice of Counselling and Psychotherapy, Monterey, California: Brooks/Cole, 1982, pp. 269-71)
May you live – and help others to grow – all the days of your life!