There are various types of counseling relationships and each is incredibly valuable in its own right. We counsel one another in friendship and marriage. We counsel informally in discipling relationships or mentoring scenarios. We counsel formally in requested consultation and conflict resolution. In the last of these categories I have found formal paperwork to be an invaluable tool. Formal paperwork allows counselors to personalize problems, prepare for counsel, and protect the ministry.
I have not always used good paperwork. Early on in my career as a counselor I simply scheduled appointments, met with people, and began counseling. This works, but I have found it does not best help me or the counselee. At Cornerstone Counseling Ministry we now have an entire packet we send a potential counselee, which they are required to fill-out and return to us before the formal counseling process begins. The paperwork takes us a few days to process, but that time is valuable and most counselees interested in real help are willing to fill it out. The Intake Packet, as we call it, includes several key documents:
- Personal Data Information (PDI) – This is the basic personal information of the counselee. It includes name, address, email, phone number, and age. We also ask for basic medical history, marital status, and religious background. These are significant details that help us to know the person better.
- The Problem Identification Form – This document is a series of questions asking the potential counselee to write out their understanding of their problem, what they’ve attempted to do to address it, and what their expectations of counseling are. With this form we get a better sense of what is going on, how we can plan to be helpful, and what clarifications about our counseling approach need to be given.
- Hold Harmless & Consent Form – This paperwork allows us to do two things at once: (1) Clarify what kind of counseling we offer and help the counselee know what to expect from us; (2) protect ourselves from certain kinds of legal action. Because we offer Biblical Counseling it is important that a potential counselee know what they are getting into, and what we offer that is different from other types of counseling. It also allows us to clarify what potential grounds for termination of counseling may be, and what commitments are expected of the counselee. This is an important document both for our protection as a formal ministry and for the protection of the counselee.
The paperwork helps us to do three things better: personalize, prepare, and protect. A quick look at each may encourage you to develop the necessary paperwork in your formal counseling process. Obviously, if you don’t do formal counseling the paperwork is not necessary, but I recommend it to all formal programs and ministries.
Good paperwork helps us to personalize problems. In our training and equipping seminars I always tell my students that we do not treat problems, we care for people. This means that when someone seeks counseling for a specific issue we need to take into consideration the individual. The temptation is to begin to think about problems in the abstract and develop a strategic plan that treats the problem in a sort of programmatic way. Good paperwork helps us to know some important contextual issues related to the individual. If someone writes that they are experiencing “depression” we ought to consult their PDI and see if there are any significant life issues that might be contributing to it. Perhaps a recent loss, grief, or set-back has recently impacted their life. Such information will help us plan to contextualize their suffering. Perhaps marital conflict will become more clear when we see the Problem Identification Paperwork which reveals a mixed-family dynamic. The paperwork helps us to consider an individual, not just a problem and this is vital to effective, compassionate, and comprehensive counseling.
Good paperwork also helps us to prepare for the counseling session. It’s hard to know how to plan for an initial session with a new counselee. Most initial cases will be taken up with collecting basic information, and this can feel discouraging to the cousnelee who is in need of some real hope and help. If we can collect information ahead of time then we can spend more time focused on listening and counseling the specific presenting problem. You can plan ahead and think about Scriptures, tools, resources, and homework assignments that may be helpful to the counselee. There is no way, of course, to plan for every detail of a future counseling case, and attempting to do so will not serve the unique individual well. Counselors must be able to adapt in session, but coming to a session with no plan at all will be counterproductive to the counselee and waste too much time. Good paperwork allows us to plan ahead.
Finally, good paperwork allows us to protect. When individuals know what to expect, what will be expected of them, and what the requirements of our counseling are they can give informed consent to the process. We will call out sin, we will require study of the Scriptures, we will not deal in medication, etc. all these details need to be clearly articulated. We ask for and require counselees to initial and sign a series of statements that grant us permission to counsel them, relinquish their rights to legal action against us in cases where they don’t like the counsel, and more. This serves to allow us as counselors to speak freely and directly. It allows us to operate under Biblical mandates and gospel care. It also protects the counselee from walking into Biblical counseling without a realization that it is not psychotherapy, psychology, or psychiatric care. We want to be clear about what we do so that they can make an informed decision about whether they want to come or not. This kind of protection prolongs the ministry and cares for the counselee.
I encourage everyone involved in formal counseling to develop good paperwork that covers these three uses. It can be time-consuming at first, and counselees may not like it initially, but in the long-run it will help everyone better. Good paperwork serves formal counseling well.