With the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing, a lot of ministry is moving from physically present to online. Biblical counseling is no exception.
But can we really offer biblical counseling via video—using online video conferencing systems like Skype or Zoom?
When you talk about counseling via video, you hear a lot of opinions. Some think it’s unusual. Some thinks it’s awkward. Some think it’s necessary for now, but second-best. And some think it’s downright wrong!
I think differently about video counseling—because I’ve been doing it for over five years. I love biblical counseling via video.
Whether or not you love it, at least for the short-term you’re either going to adapt to it and adopt it, or you’re going to suspend your biblical counseling ministry for the time being. And who knows how long that may be…?
So, here are seven “tips of the trade” or “best practices” about biblical counseling via video conferencing from my five+ years of providing counseling this way.
Tip #1: Relax; It’s Biblical
In the Bible and in church history, people practiced soul care from a distance. For more detail about this, see my recent blog post: Practicing Spiritual Connecting While Social Distancing.
In that post, I noted that the Apostle Paul ministered from a distance.
“For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face” (Colossians 2:1).
And what’s the context for this ministry? It’s biblical—even nouthetic—ministry. Paul is proclaiming Christ through teaching and admonition (noutheteo) from a distance (Colossians 1:28-29). Paul provided nouthetic biblical counseling from a distance in the form of an epistle—by writing.
So did Martin Luther. In Practicing Spiritual Connecting While Social Distancing, I noted that Luther penned over 3,000 letters of spiritual counsel.
Five years ago when I first thought about offering biblical counseling, ministry mentoring, and counseling supervision via video conferencing, I was a bit hesitant. I didn’t want to do anything unbiblical. But when I saw the example of Paul in the Bible and of Luther in church history, I put my conscience at rest. You can, too.
Tip #2: Use Video, Not Just Audio
We can use any number of means of communication to offer biblical counseling. Paul and Luther used letter writing. You could use email, or even text, or phone.
However, this post is focused on counseling via video. For a couple of reasons, I much prefer video to only audio—to just phone.
First, I believe that body language is important—and you can’t pick that up only via voice. I can detect “moods” even more readily with video counseling than physically-present counseling. Why? Because I’m definitely focused on looking at the person. Several times recently, from the moment the video call began, I knew the “mindset,” “attitude,” or “mood” of the person. I could read their facial expression, their body language. Two sessions were individual counseling, one was marital counseling, and another was family counseling. I could almost instantly discern how the couple or the family were getting along.
Second, in our “multi-tasking” world, I find phone calls leave both the counselee and the counselor open to the temptation to focus their minds and actions elsewhere. Counseling, by nature, is a focused relational endeavor. I don’t want my counselee scrolling their emails while they’re talking to me. And I don’t want to be putting away dishes while I’m (supposed to be) talking to them.
Tip #3: Follow-Up with Additional Means of Connection & Communication
Whether I’m counseling with the person physically present, or counseling via video, almost 100% of the time I send a written follow-up. Sometimes that may be by text. Most times it’s by email.
I often wait at least a day. I find that I do my best counseling after and in-between meetings.
I spend time reflecting on our recent meeting, I pray for the person. I ponder next steps. Then I email a summary, seeking to capture the most important aspects of our meeting. I ask questions for reflection. I encourage. I affirm. I share pertinent biblical passages and scriptural principles. I draw them out and seek to draw them in.
Almost 100% of the time, I receive at least one reply during the week. These interactive email exchanges often become the focus for our next meeting. They often result in collaboratively developed homework—applied throughout the week.
Tip #4: Just Do It; It’s Really Just Like Physically-Present Counseling
Notice how I worded this header: “physically-present counseling.” Sometimes we contrast video counseling with “in-person” counseling. But wait—I am “in-person” with the person when I see and hear and talk and interact with them via video.
People often object, “But it has to be sooooo impersonal compared to ‘in-person’ counseling!” Well…try it. I cry with counselees on video. We laugh. We support. We comfort. We encourage. We “care-front.” We challenge. We read Scripture. We pray. We…relate. We…counsel.
If Paul and Luther could provide rich, loving, involved soul care by letter, why do we think we can’t provide rich, loving, involved soul care by video—where we’re seeing and hearing and relating together?
My “model” or “approach” to counseling does not change between video counseling and physically-present counseling. I’ve used both methods with the same counselee, and they’ll often note, “Our time together in counseling was just the same whether we did video or we were both in your office.”
Tip #5: Try It; You’ll Like It; It’s Easy
“But don’t I need some special training?” Well, if you’re not very tech-savvy (and I am not), then you might need an hour or so to get used to whatever platform/system you will use, load it, and figure it out. But they’re really not very complicated.
“But which system do I use?” I hesitate to even name any because new additions are being added weekly. A few of the many current options include: Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Facetime, Vidyo, etc., etc., etc. Most all of these can be used either on your phone, computer, tablet, or smart TV.
And once you get used to a system, you can do a lot with it. On Zoom, for instance, you can share your screen which means you can share documents. You have a “favorite biblical counseling chart,” share it. You want to summarize the theme of what you’re hearing from your counselee; write it, draw it, share it on the screen.
Tip #6: Enjoy It; Video Counseling Actually Has Some Advantages
In our 7th tip, we’ll look at how to address potential “disadvantages” of video counseling. But first, consider just a few of the potential advantages.
First, it is confidential. If you walk into “Pastor Bob’s office,” then people suspect that you’re going for counseling. Some counselees don’t mind this at all. Some, especially at first, are a little uncomfortable walking past strangers—or friends—into the counselor’s office.
Second, it’s convenient. No traffic. No 90 minutes on the road—45 minutes each way.
Third, it’s cost effective. You save on gas and wear and tear on your vehicle. Plus, time is money.
Fourth, it addresses geographical constraints. I started ministry-by-video when missionaries in other countries requested that I mentor, supervise, or counsel them. These days I do a good deal of counseling with pastors and their families—from around the country and the world. Who counsels the counselor? Who shepherds the shepherd? I can. You can—via video counseling. Of course, I am always moving the person back into connection with the local body of Christ. But sometimes for a period of time it can be helpful for people in ministry to connect with a spiritual friend located outside their area.
Fifth, evidenced-based research is confirming positive outcomes from video counseling. While we never based our conclusion simply on descriptive research, it can be one helpful means of discerning best practices. I’ve yet to see any studies directly related to biblical counseling via video, but I have seen at least half-a-dozen studies related to video-based secular counseling. Here’s one example: Outcomes of 98,609 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Patients Enrolled in Telemental Health Services, 2006–2010.
Tip #7: Addressing Potential Disadvantages
I hear all sorts of reasons not to provide counseling from a distance. This post has already addressed several of those—such as the body language issue and the issue of the level of relational connection.
One additional objection I hear is, “But what about distractions when the person is in their home?” Yep. Distractions come. But they also come in physically-present counseling. People walk past the office. The counselee is concerned about fighting traffic on the way home. The counselor is thinking about heading to the grocery store right after the session, etc.
Proactively address distractions. Encourage the counselee (and the counselor) to be in a private place in the house or workplace, shut off the phone, turn off the email reminders on the computer, etc.
Also, reactively address (and even use) distractions. Recently, a family member interrupted the counselee. I was able to observe the interaction. Let’s just say that it was “instructive,” “illustrative,” “illuminating.” God can use distractions.
Another objection I hear is, “But technology can be ‘buggy,’ calls drop, the video can fade in and out.” Yep, it happens. But over the past five years I’ve witnessed great improvement in video conferencing technology.
Proactively plan for the possibility of a dropped call. “I’ll call back if the video call drops.” “If we can’t reconnect, I’ll email or call you and we’ll work out a plan.” Frankly, I have these sorts of interruptions very infrequently. Plus, I rarely ever have a counselee cancel a video appointment—and there’s no bigger distraction than a canceled appointment.
One more objection I hear is, “But what about any legal issues or ramifications?” I’m no lawyer—that should be understood upfront.
My practice for video counseling is to keep in place all best practices I use for in-office counseling. Do you use a “Disclosure Statement” stating the nature of the care you are offering? Then use the same in video counseling. Do you explain and have people sign a confidentiality statement? Then have them e-sign that for video counseling. Do you counsel under the supervision and auspices of a local church? Then make plane that your video counseling—whether done at your home or at your church—is under the authority of your church. (Note: I always offer counseling for free; always explain that I am not offering professional/licensed therapy; and always indicate that I am providing biblical counseling through historic Christian soul care. If your counseling fits other parameters, than other legal issues could apply.)
Join the Conversation
What do you think, are you open to offering biblical counseling via video?
What additional disadvantages do you see related to counseling via video?
What objections do you have or have you heard related to counseling via video? How could those objections be addressed?
What advantages to you see to video counseling?
What additional tips would you offer related to video counseling?