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Ground Rules for Counseling Students

If it hasn’t happened already, it’ll happen soon enough: the late night phone call from a student or parent dropping a bombshell. “Tim, my dad just beat me up. What should I do?” “Tasha, my mom just left my dad, and I don’t know where I should go now.” After lots of years as a counselor (Tasha) and lots of years working with students (Tim), here are our ground rules when it comes to counseling students:

  1. Identify the difference between an “office hours” crisis and a “drop everything” crisis. A crisis is a crisis if the student says it’s a crisis, but not every crisis warrants the same immediacy of response. A “drop everything” moment is rare; it typically involves a life-or-death situation, and the right response is to drop everything and go. An “office hours” moment is serious; it can be addressed initially in a brief phone conversation, and follow-up can be scheduled the next day or so, during office hours. Learning the difference between these two types of crises can make all the difference in your ability to set healthy boundaries in your ministry.
  1. Remember the 80/20 Rule. The 80/20 rule is a common small group bible study strategy where the facilitator speaks 20% of the time and leads the group to speak 80% of the time. The 80/20 rule works in most counseling sessions because it provides the person in crisis an opportunity to unload the weight they’ve been carrying around.
  1. Value presence over brilliance. Even the most seasoned counselor is tempted to try to say something life-changing in every counseling moment, but the gift of presence is more valuable than brilliance. Job’s friends were super-therapeutic…until they opened their mouths. When hurting students talk about your involvement in their crisis, you want them to remember your presence and say, “Darren was there for me.”
  1. NEVER promise to keep a secret. Healthy adults refuse to keep secrets that continue cycles of hurt. Dysfunction keeps secrets, but health seeks resources from the right people. You should also familiarize yourself with the reporting laws in your state; for more information on reporting abuse in your state, go to:
  1. NEVER gossip about a student’s struggle. Everyone feels good when they’re “in-the-know,” but nothing destroys trust in a youth ministry like gossip. Demonstrate to your students that you’re willing to seek outside help when needed, but you’re also able to maintain appropriate confidence as they trust you with their stories.
  1. Establish a rule for the max number of counseling sessions you’ll see someone. Being a youth worker is a tough gig, and you need to set a limit on the number of times you will meet with a student or family in crisis. Whether you’re a “one-and-done” kind of guy or a “three-is-enough” kind of girl, be realistic about the number of hours you can dedicate to counseling each week.
  1. Develop a referral list. Every youth worker must have a vetted list of counselors who work with students. When creating a list of referrals, word-of-mouth is good, but we strongly suggest that you speak with the counselor before making the referral. Questions we ask potential counselors:
  • Are you a Christ-follower?
  • Do you work with students?
  • What are your areas of expertise?
  • Do you take insurance?
  • Do you have a waiting list?
  • Do you work with low-fee/no-fee families?

Ministry is messy because people are broken. And counseling students is a by-product of healthy ministry. As you earn the trust of students and families who invite you into the sacred space of their mess, remember the above ground rules and offer care focused on long-term health.

Thanks for loving students,

Tim & Tasha

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Ground Rules for Counseling Students

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