Counseling the Weary Counselor – The Counselor’s Ethos (Part 3)

As I asked the LORD to give me an example of what is sustaining empathy in counseling weary counselors, which is what this blog will explore, the story of our oldest daughter came to mind. She was home from college during the 1st semester of her senior year. In her degree program, she got hands-on experience working as a project lead on a real contract for a real company. As she gained valuable lessons in leading in most of the project areas, she also experienced all the weight of working with various types of people. She was managing people and getting into the nitty-gritty of the differences in personalities, life experiences, perspectives, and priorities. Our daughter came home from that experience emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausted. She wanted to please the LORD in her work with the other students. She also wanted to keep the project on track, but in a fallen world, people drop out for various reasons, and teachers and overseers are not responsive to problems. There are deadlines, and someone has to be accountable. Our daughter was discouraged and weary, with no way to change her circumstances.

I sat down with my daughter in our kitchen and listened to her tell her side of the story. I could see she felt the pressure of being 1 of only 2 Christians on the project, and she was the senior leader. She wanted to reflect Christ to her unbelieving classmates and co-laborers while keeping everything on track. As the layers of emotions and thoughts unraveled, I asked my husband to come upstairs to listen and offer his perspective on leadership and counsel. Soon she was in tears and her dad, before giving in to his papa bear nature of trying to fix everything, just held her. She wept, and there was this sense of the burden she felt being transferred to my husband’s shoulders. Our daughter was doing a good work and even bearing other burdens. When it became heavy, she sought help and did not find the needed support from co-workers or supervisors. We all sat in silence as she let the pressure, fear, anxiety, and emotion be expressed in the safety of our kitchen, with her loving father receiving it all as if it were his to bear.

Weary counselors experience fatigue and burnout often based on the job requirements and sometimes they need to reverse roles and become the counselee. The approach to counseling this type of counselee needs to be steeped in patient love and slow to give counsel (1 Thes. 5:14).  Although my daughter was not a weary counselor, my husband’s slow and compassionate response gives the image of the principle and practice of sustaining empathy which is to be the counselor ethos or philosophy, especially when counseling the weary counselor.

The Counselor’s Ethos

There is a uniqueness in the suffering of the weary counselor. They know the truths of God’s Word, as they are counseling others and are aware of the pitfalls of pride and sin. When listening and gathering data from a weary counsel, there needs to be an assumption that they have been doing self-counsel but now may need someone outside of their ministry to give them perspective, both in their suffering and blind spots of sin.  As the counselor sits across the table from the weary counselor who is a saint and a sister/brother in Christ, the counselor would be wise to consider their philosophy of how they will minister to this person, listening not for patterns of sin but listening with sustaining empathy. In a previous blog, I researched counselor fatigue in-depth and found the biblical term: the afflicted minister of the Word. Therefore, compassion and empathy for the uniqueness of the dear friend’s suffering is essential. This biblical counseling philosophy will be anchored to the principles of what Robert Kellemen characterizes as sustaining empathy in his book Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ.[1]

Sustaining Empathy Slows Down the Counsel

Sustaining soul care takes time and loving patience that points to the kindness of a long-suffering God (Rom. 2:4; 1 Thess. 5:14; 1 Cor. 13:4). There is no rush to solve a problem or get to teaching a lesson. Drawing out the counselee takes time and empathy (Prov. 20:5). In his book Weep with Me, author Mark Vroegop gives another picture of empathy.

Empathy means that we take the burdens, the sorrows, the concerns of our neighbors upon ourselves to the point of crying tears with them. …We think about their children as if they were our children. We think about their concerns as if they were our personal concerns, and we cry tears with them.[2]

Empathy is intentionally listening and entering into the counselee’s story, imagining what it is like for them to suffer and experience their circumstance.

Climbing in the Casket

In counseling the weary counselor, sustaining empathy is characterized by listening to how they are suffering. It involves sharing in their feelings of being overwhelmed by their workload, physical exhaustion, church leadership expectations, and the impact of counseling suffering people. In addition, the weary counselor may feel burdened by family responsibilities and concerns. Sustaining counsel will enter into their suffering by what Kellemen calls “climbing in the casket.”[3] In part, this can involve expressing and acknowledging how it feels to the counselor to hear of the weary counselor’s suffering. The counselor may encourage the weary counselor with Scripture that helps them see they are not alone in their suffering. In a timely and fitting opportunity, the counselor might point to Paul in 2 Corinthians 1:8 when he was burdened excessively, beyond strength, so that he despaired even of life. Paul was burdened heavily by outside circumstances, which may be similar for the weary counselor. Paul was real about his suffering, not trying to push it away but acknowledging that he was beyond what he could handle on his own. A counselee need not attempt to push their suffering away as even Jesus, in the garden of Gethsemane, prayed to have his trial removed, yet sought God’s will, not his own will. The counselee is not suffering alone as the counselor’s sustaining empathy and Scriptural examples give the sense of allied friendship in walking through their suffering.

Counseling the weary counselor starts with a philosophy that influences the counselor’s choice from how to listen, what to listen for, and the timing of compassionate counsel based on truth and love. To serve our brother/sister in Christ with love, the counselor must slow down and start with sustaining empathy and continue it throughout the counsel. Sustaining empathy absorbs the suffering and pain the counselee is experiencing and expresses to the counselee what it feels like to them. This grace is an example of the metaphor of climbing in the casket with the suffering saint. The goal is to let the counselee know they are no longer alone in their suffering.

Where does the compassionate counselor go from here? The next step can be a biblical lament, which I will explore in my next blog.

[1] Robert W. Kellemen, Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ, Equipping Biblical Counselors (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 123.

[2] Mark Vroegop, Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reciliation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 81.

[3] Kellemen, Gospel Conversations, 111.

Photo by Molnár Bálint on Unsplash

Kathy Hutton
Kathy Hutton serves with Faith Biblical Counseling Ministry and as a part of Faith Community Ministries. Kathy was certified as a Biblical Counselor in 2019 and received her Masters in Biblical Counseling through Faith Bible Seminary in 2022. She and her husband, Rod, live in Lafayette and have 5 children.