GOOD morning, Doc. I came to see if you can help me save my soul." These were the words of a forty-year-old wife as she entered my office for the first of a series of talks about her marriage problems.
Even though blunt, this wife's remark called attention to an important element in marriage counseling by a minister or a Christian physician. Marriage counseling offers a prime opportunity for calling attention to spiritual needs. Whenever problems develop between a husband and wife, someone's soul is at stake.
Counseling can be the means of awakening a husband or wife to the evidences that they have backslidden. It can cause them to realize that the Lord in His mercy has permitted their marriage to come into jeopardy in order to save them, if they will, from the worse tragedy of the loss of eternal life. It can help them to see themselves in a new perspective and to recognize how Satan has caused them to become selfish. It can show them that they have ignored their opportunities to share their faith with those who are in need of salvation.
In some cases marriage counseling does not accomplish the intended result of bringing harmony into the marriage. The techniques of counseling provide no magic by which a human being can be made to do what he does not choose to do. But marriage counseling, conducted by a person of spiritual perspective, can focus on God's way of permitting adversity in order to strengthen character. Counseling may save a soul even though it may not save a marriage.
For you, marriage counseling may not be an easy undertaking. In some cases it may seem that your effort has not produced the good results you had expected. The very fact, however, that you had the privilege of discussing personal problems, spiritual interests, and eternal welfare with a person at a time when he was attentive because he was in distress means that you probably accomplished more good than you realized. Only eternity will reveal the actual outcome.
Some details of the counseling interview will be considered in Part II of this article. We will mention here the attitudes and policies on your part as a minister-counselor that will contribute to your success and will help you to remain courageous in spite of the human frailties of your clients.
Do Not Overestimate Your Ability
There are many personality types, and no one type lends itself to the successful counseling of all persons. The sooner you can recognize that there are some people whom you are not adapted to reach in the context of counseling, the better will be your courage. Even counselors of long experience find it advisable to refer certain of their clients to other counselors. Do not hesitate to transfer a client who does not respond to your efforts to a fellow minister. His personality may be better adapted to meet the needs of this particular individual. When the counseling involves legal problems refer the client to a lawyer rather than concerning yourself with matters for which you are not trained. Similarly, when you feel that there is some physical basis for sexual maladjustment refer the case to a physician.
Protect Your Good Name
Counseling makes a person more vulnerable to criticism than almost any other professional activity. Should you be unwise to the extent of counseling a woman client alone in her own home or at your office when there is no one present in the adjoining room, you are laying yourself open to whatever she may choose to say about you. This is too great a risk for a professional person to take. Should you find that the client insists on "absolute privacy," this is all the more reason why you should be cautious. It is not necessary that another person overhear the interview, but at least there should be someone in the adjoining room.
In some cases husband and wife will want to come together for counseling. This simplifies the problem of providing for propriety when talking to the wife. At the same time it often introduces another complication. When both are together there is the danger that the conversation may get out of hand as they begin to make personal accusations. It is not easy for a person to admit that he has been at fault, particularly when it is his partner in marriage who is telling the story and when it is the minister who is listening. When you see that this kind of tension is building up, make the suggestion that they take turns waiting in the next room while you talk to them one at a time.
Don't Be Arbitrary
The purpose of marriage counseling is not to issue mandates, but to help the persons in trouble to evaluate their problem and thus to clarify the issues. Restrain yourself, then, when you feel that you would like to state what you think is the basic problem and give advice on how to solve it. Your function is not to instruct arbitrarily, but to guide the client's thoughts. The thoughts he thinks will have much more influence on his future than the words you may use in advising him. Encourage him to discover what is really wrong and then participate in devising ways to correct it.
A client is antagonized when the counselor jumps to conclusions. Having already wrestled with his problem for weeks, and months in some cases, it is easy for him to interpret the counselor's ready answers as a reflection on his own intelligence. It is as though the counselor were saying to him, "It is easy to find the trouble. You should have been able to work that out without even coming to me for help." Be patient, therefore, and move along no faster than you are sure the client can follow when you are helping him to see cause-and-effect relationships.
Don't Expect Open Gratitude
The reason persons who have benefited by counseling often appear to be ungrateful is that it is actually painful to them to recall the unpleasant experiences through which they have passed. For them to express gratitude for the help you gave them in time of need is the equivalent of admitting that there was a time when their problems were very large. Be content, then, with the assumption that their circumstances have improved, else they would have come back for additional counseling.
For your own protection and for the value that the records may be to you by way of reference material, keep written records of the counseling sessions that you have. These should give names, dates, and an outline of circumstances. Also you should make notation of the type of counsel you gave and the client's response to this. Make sure that the records are kept safely so that they are not available to any other person. It is better for these records to be made in your own handwriting or by your own use of the typewriter than for them to be prepared by a secretary.
Respect All Privileged Information
The greatest handicap that can come to a marriage counselor is for the opinion to develop that he reports the things that have been told to him in confidence. The only safe course is not to mention the contents of your counseling interviews to anyone, not even to your wife or to a fellow minister. When questions are asked, simply say, "I do not have permission to reveal the facts."
Be careful not to use a case story as an illustration in a sermon in the same community in which the parties live. For reassurance to those who might later seek you out as a counselor, simply say, "This incident occurred several years ago in a community far removed from ours."
When dealing with a husband and wife, make sure that you have the permission of the one you are about to quote before you tell the other what the spouse has said.
Marriage counseling is a rewarding experience. Even though as already mentioned some cases turn out less favorably than you had hoped, the privilege of being close to those who have personal problems is a worthy part of the work of a minister. And the satisfaction that comes from the case in which with the Lord's blessing a marriage is saved appeases the disappointment caused by the case in which the response is unfavorable.
In his counsel to Timothy, the apostle Paul indicated that the work of a minister consists of much more than preaching. The admonition applies as well to ministers of the present generation as to Timothy: "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine" (2 Tim. 4:2).
(To be continued)