How much patience do you exercise in counseling a person who is not changing?

1 Thessalonians 5:14 says, “Admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” God tells us that patience is required. But we are left to deal with the question of what does patience look like?

Many biblical counselors have taught through the years that counselees who do not do homework, or who are resistant to counsel over a month or so should be dismissed from counseling. The reasons are:

  1. To communicate to counselees that the Scriptures and their walk with Christ is a serious matter. It deserves special attention all the time, but particularly when there are struggles in life.
  2. Others are typically waiting for openings. This means that while one makes very little headway with one person, there are others who are receiving no help at all. It might be that stewardship would demand giving more time to a person willing to listen and work.
  3. To use the counselors time in a wise and effective fashion. The Lord gives us many things to do in life. Choosing what the excellent task is at any given moment (Phil 1:9-11) may warrant giving the time to another counselee or to another task

What I have written is a reasonable rule-of-thumb; however, I believe we should take into consideration several mitigating factors before dismissing a case due to lack of progress.

#1. Counselor failure

Let’s face it. Sometimes we do not do a very good job with a particular person. Maybe the lack of quality homework and the struggle to listen on the counselee’s part is because the counselor is not ministering very well. Maybe the counselor has not listened long enough; maybe the counselor has been tired or grumpy; maybe other things have occupied their minds; or maybe the counselor was not very well equipped for that particular case. My point is this: sometimes we need to exercise patience because we have not done a very good job.

#2. Counselee History

Some counselee’s have a very troubled past. Abuse of various kinds, wickedness on their own part, and the struggle of developing a relationship with trust may all be reasons that your counselee is not making good progress. In our ministry we have changed our expectations. There are some cases that we expect will be done in 3 months or less. There are other cases, however, where 3 months is not nearly long enough to get to the heart issues. Sometimes slow progress occurs because the counselee’s history has been very difficult.

#3.  Type of struggle

This third category is slightly different than the second. In the second category we were emphasizing the history of the person. In this third issue, the point is not that they had a horrible childhood, or that they were never loved by their parents. Instead, the point here is that some types of problems are harder to handle and progress is often much slower. Those struggling with anorexia do not always come from abusive homes. Sometimes those ladies were deeply loved by their parents and taught about God’s great grace. However, some of these girls have travelled down the deep and dark path of anorexia. The road out of the darkness is not an easy road and progress is often slow (all of us walk a bit more slowly and cautiously when we are in darkness).

We admit that knowing when to dismiss a counselee is not an easy issue. While we may believe that dismissal is the best course of action in a particular case, it is also wise for us to think about possible mitigating circumstances. It may be that exercising a bit more patience is what is needed for the counseling case to turn around.

Rob Green
Pastor Rob Green oversees Faith Biblical Counseling Ministries. A seasoned counselor, Rob also teaches others how to counsel--through FBCM's training conferences and Faith Bible Seminary's MABC program.