Counselors or Spiritual Friends?

I wanted to be a counselor. The term held a certain attraction. If I was a counselor people would respect me. They would maybe even stand in some degree of awe of me as I deftly diagnosed their problems and provided them with biblical solutions. They would walk out of the office amazed at my insights into both people and Scripture. In time I might even gain some hero worship. Worship - deep down that's what I really wanted. 

What's this spiritual friend stuff? That does not sound professional or impressive. It doesn't have any clout and it definitely doesn't communicate any sense of authority or superiority. I did not want to be a spiritual friend. 

That's how I felt as I entered my counseling program. I was far more interested in myself than I was in others, but that was changing even then. It's funny, today I reluctantly use the word counseling and counselor simply because it's what people are familiar with. I'd much prefer the term spiritual friend. I like my friends much more than the professionals I deal with. They tend to be far more valuable to me, and often more helpful as well; Spiritual Friend, soul care provider, even spiritual director - anything but counselor. 

The change in my attitude came about in a funny way.  While I was attending classes for my degree in biblical counseling I often stayed with a friend of mine up in Northern Virginia.  On one occasion, after I had returned to his house from class, we got to talking about something going on in his life.  As we talked I began employing some of the skills that I had been learning throughout my course work.  At one point he stopped and looked at me and said, "are you counseling me?"  I didn't really know what to say.  The truth was, yes, I was counseling him, if by that you mean I was using the things I had learned to seek to assist him in working through this aspect of life. But I wasn't trying to be a counselor, I was honestly just trying to be a good friend - a better friend than I'd ever been before.

I found this same thing happening with Rhonda now and again, and I believe she asked the same thing on at least one occasion.  Again, I wasn't trying to counsel, I was trying to be a better husband by taking an active interest in what she was saying and applying the things I had learned to that point in order to better serve her.  It was at that point that I realized that I'd really rather just be a good friend and husband, since that is what God has called me to in those relationships.

So what's the difference? Does it matter? What's in a name? 

What is a counselor? 

Generally, a counselor has a significant degree of training, usually a master’s degree or higher.  Outside the church counselors are "professionals" and are held to certain ethical standards established by the state or professional agencies.  A counselor usually maintains a certain degree of detachment from the "client" in order to retain professional objectivity.  The counselor is generally only available during business hours and then usually only by appointment.  If a person needs help outside of that time they must have some other support system.  There is also usually some degree of hierarchy to the counselor/counselee relationship.  The client has a problem, the counselor has the answers (at least that's the way it often seems).  The counselor speaks into the counselee's life, but the reverse does not happen, generally.  This is much like a doctor/patient relationship.  This may look somewhat different in a church, but some of these aspects of the counseling relationship will be necessary even there.  If a full time biblical or pastoral counselor were to avail himself of all those he sees at any time day or night he would likely be overwhelmed and if he had a family, would be unable to properly invest in them.  

What is a spiritual friend? 

A spiritual friend is just that, a friend.  That really may not sound impressive or even confidence inspiring, but the fact is it should be.  There have been studies that show that the counsel of friends is just as, if not more effective than that of professionals.  This doesn't mean that the spiritual friend has no training or experience, however.  A spiritual friend could have just as much as or more education and experience than a professional counselor.  If the person is involved in an official ministry of the church they will,  ideally, have at least some training in how to care for others through a church or para-church ministry.  But not all spiritual friends will be part of established ministries.  They may be Sunday school or small group members; they may be a next door neighbor or a best friend.  What probably most distinguishes a spiritual friend from a counselor is the relationship.  This isn't a one-up relationship.  It is two peers sharing life together.  The spiritual friend will share her own experiences, without turning attention onto themselves, if it will help the relationship or the other person grow.  (If you didn't catch it, I demonstrated spiritual friendship at the beginning of this post by disclosing my own struggles with pride and desiring human affirmation which initially surrounded my decision to get into counseling.)  The spiritual friend will probably be available at odd hours and without an appointment.  You may have their number or email address.  In fact, the entire relationship could flip-flop in just a few months or years if circumstances are reversed.  In a perfect world, spiritual friendship would be a characteristic of each and every member of the church as we engage in genuine one-another ministry.

What does the Bible call us to?

So, does all this mean spiritual friendship is better than counseling?  Not necessarily.  Each has its place.  Maybe a better question is, what does the Bible call us to?  Some in the church will be called to be dedicated counselors (for the record, all counselors will not look the same.  There is greater overlap between the two ideas than the current discussion suggests).  The history of dedicated counselors dates back to the early periods of civilization and even the church.  Examples of this in scripture would include people like David's counselors (Ahithophel, Hushai, and Nathan) and the prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel).

Most Christians will not be called to this kind of ministry, but all are called to spiritual friendship of some sort (as implied earlier, there can be different degrees of spiritual friendship).  Elders (and possibly deacons), for instance, are clearly called to be skilled in spiritual friendship (Ex 18.13-27; Num 11.16-17; Tit 1.9; Jas 5.14).  But other scriptures make it clear that we are all called to be spiritual friends at various times (Rom 12.15; 2Cor 1.3-4; Gal 6.1, 2; 2Tim 2.2).

Final Thoughts

God has provided everything we need in Christ and in his body.  He has blessed his people with various offices or ministries/ministers in order to equip his people.  Among those he has given the church are "shepherds" (Eph 4.11) which would include dedicated counselors.  But he has also joined the body together and gifted each of us with spiritual gifts so that he might, according to Paul, make "the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly," grow "so that it builds itself up in love" (Eph 4.16).  In our next installment we'll consider the two major divisions of biblical counseling/spiritual friendship and how those further break down.  In the meantime, watch for opportunities where you might be able to be a spiritual friend to someone by actively investing in their lives, listening to them or even just practicing the power of presence (just being with someone).

What do you think about the idea of spiritual friendship?  Does it sound attractive to you or do you prefer the traditional "counseling" paradigm?  Does this concept make "counseling" seem more accessible? Have you ever had a good or bad experience with either of these?  

Share your thoughts and experiences.