Posted On October 31, 2020

Interview of Dr. Bob Kellemen Gospel-Centered Marriage Counseling An Equipping Guide for Pastors and Counselors

by | Oct 31, 2020 | Biblical Counseling: What Is It and Why Is It Important?

Interview of Dr. Bob Kellemen Gospel-Centered Marriage Counseling An Equipping Guide for Pastors and Counselors 1

T4L: Today we are interviewing Dr. Bob Kellemen. Thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview with Theology for Life Magazine, Dr. Kellemen. Can you tell us a bit about your life, marriage, and ministry?

Dr. Kellemen: Thanks for inviting me, Dave. I have great memories of connecting with you, not only on the podcast, but also when we enjoyed time together in person, as we shared a meal and encouraged each other. What’s new? Well, two years ago my wife (Shirley) and I moved from Indiana to the Pacific Northwest, where we live now between Tacoma and Seattle. We moved here to be near our daughter, our son, our daughter-in-law, and our three granddaughters. We love grandparenting.

I continue to work at Faith Bible Seminary in Lafayette, IN as Academic Dean, Dean of Students, and Professor of Biblical Counseling. And we’re active members at a great church—Christ’s Church in Federal Way, WA—which has excellent preaching, a vibrant biblical counseling ministry, and an active life group ministry.

T4L: Sounds like you’ve kept very busy lately! As you already know, we’re covering the topic of Biblical Counseling in this issue of Theology for Life Magazine. And you’ve written quite a bit on this subject. So, tell us about your book, Gospel-Centered Marriage Counseling: An Equipping Guide for Pastors and Counselors. What motivated you to write the book; how do you hope it will be received?

Dr. Kellemen: Prior to deciding to write Gospel-Centered Marriage Counseling, I had taught marriage counseling for a quarter-century. I had provided marriage counseling for over three decades. Then, one of the pastors at a church where I was serving was moving toward retirement and he wanted to transition some of his marriage counseling to me. I remember the scene vividly. He reaches across his desk, hands me three very thick file folders, and says, “In my thirty-five years of ministry, these are the most difficult cases I have ever worked with.”

First, I’m thinking, “Thanks a lot for giving them to me!” Second, and more arrogantly, I was thinking, “Well, I’ve done this stuff and taught this stuff for decades. They won’t be that difficult for me…” Well, you know where I’m headed next. Once I took on these counseling cases, I found them to be the most complex marriage/family situations I had ever worked with. I found myself often repeating the biblical principle that we are not competent in ourselves, but our competency is in Christ (2nd Corinthians 3:4-5). I also found myself scouring the Scriptures from cover-to-cover, “re-studying” the Bible’s teaching on marriage ministry. So, Gospel-Centered Marriage Counseling not only comes out of 30+ years of ministry and teaching, but the book was born out of my intense desire to keep growing as a biblical marriage counselor.

That was my personal motivation for writing the book. I also had a broader motivation related to how we typically train marriage counselors. If you look at the landscape of Christian publishing, we have tons of books on a theology of marriage and on married life. But we have next to nothing about how to do marriage counseling. And if you look at a typical Bible college or seminary curriculum in counseling, we have some training in individual counseling, but next to no training in the how-to of marriage counseling. So, here’s what I’ve seen, time after time, as I’ve supervised counselors. Their marriage counseling basically becomes teaching at couples. Now, teaching is great, but counseling is more than just teaching.

The second result I’ve noticed is that our counselors view marriage counseling as individual counseling with an audience. In other words, they counsel the husband while the wife listens. They counsel the wife while the husband listens. But they invite very little interaction between the couple. And here’s the end result. Counselees become very counselor dependent. And counseling becomes giving people a fish instead of teaching couples how to fish the Scriptures together.

So, my goal in Gospel-Centered Marriage Counseling is to equip the counselor to equip the couple to be their own best biblical counselors. In our presence during counseling, we want to equip couples to talk to each other and to talk together about how they can apply God’s sufficient and relevant Word to their unique marriage situation. In this model, we disciple couples to disciple one another.

T4L: That’s a lot of equipping. How do you go about that? What’s different or unique about the way you crafted Gospel-Centered Marriage Counseling?

Dr. Kellemen: The sub-title of the book communicates the difference: An Equipping Guide for Pastors and Counselors. The original sub-title was perhaps even more pointed: A How-To Training Manual for Pastors and Counselors. I designed the book not just for readers, but for participants. The book equips counselors in twenty-two marriage counseling competencies. Each chapter presents three-to-five of these marriage counseling skills. Then after each skill section, readers—or participants—find four or five practical application questions/assignments/activities designed to help them develop those skills. So, by the time a reader—participant—has completed the book, they’ve worked through over 250 skill-building questions or exercises. In fact, I like to think of the book as a work-book—a how-to training manual for marriage counselors. The book also includes scores of counseling vignettes—stories of couples with complex struggles. I use their stories to illustrate how to put into practice each of the counseling skills. In addition, the book has hundreds of counseling dialogues: sample scriptural explorations and spiritual conversations illustrating how counselors can empower couples to richly and relevantly apply God’s Word to their lives and relationships.

T4L: The title of your book includes “Gospel-Centered.” In your experience, what does a gospel-centered marriage look like and what are some helpful strategies for newly married couples, on up to seasoned couples, to grow?

Dr. Kellemen: Though the book is centered on the counselor, it includes three initial chapters that explain the essence of a “gospel-centered” marriage. So, let me summarize three chapters into a one-paragraph answer! Most of us, when we think of marriage, turn in our Bibles to Ephesians 5:21-33.

But I point out in Gospel-Centered Marriage Counseling that the Apostle Paul doesn’t start Ephesians with chapter 5 and the roles of husbands and wives. In Ephesians, Paul presents what I call a “4G” model of a gospel-centered marriage.

In Ephesians 1, the “G” is “Glorifying God.” We are to do everything to the praise of God’s glorious grace. This shifts the focus of a couple—marriage is not about my happiness, our marriage is about bringing God glory as people see our Christ-like love for each other.

In Ephesians 2, Paul introduces the “G” of “Guilty before God.” Marriage is not about some human strategy for fixing my spouse. A gospel-centered marriage requires my humble repentance of my sinful self-sufficiency and self-centeredness (repenting of the log in my own eye).

Ephesians 2 also provides our third “G”: “Grace from God for salvation and sanctification.” Marriage is not a self-improvement project done in “my” strength for “my” benefit. Our new biblical marital narrative insists that marital health begins with saving grace. Marital growth continues with God empowering us to put off the old self-focused ways and to put on the new death-to-self ways. 

The final “G” is “Growth through God’s Spirit.” Right before Ephesians 5:21-33, Paul talks about being filled with the Spirit. Then in Ephesians 6, Paul talks about being empowered by the Lord. So a gospel-centered marriage moves away from the old lie that “the solutions to our marital problems are within our own strength.” It takes on the new marital narrative saying, “The ‘soul-u-tions’ to our marital problems are God-dependent; they require the filling of the Spirit and the mighty power of the Lord.” So, in a sentence, a gospel-centered marriage is God-glorifying, Christ-dependent, and Spirit-empowered.

T4L: Very well (and succinctly) put, Dr. Kellemen. The subtitle of your book is “An Equipping Guide for Pastors and Counselors”. Would those two groups—pastors and counselors—be your primary audience, or do you have other readers in view also?

Dr. Kellemen: As I crafted Gospel-Centered Marriage Counseling, I had several audiences in mind. First, pastors—who likely had, at most, one course on counseling. And, if they had any course on marriage counseling, it was really a course on a theology of marriage and not on how to do marriage counseling. These pastors increasingly face more and more difficult marriage situations. I want this book to increase their level of confidence in their competence in Christ to help the couples in their churches.

Next, I pictured counselors. But when I use the word “counselor” I’m not just picturing professional Christian counselors or biblical counselors with a degree. In the biblical counseling world, we have thousands and thousands of trained lay counselors. Also, in our biblical counseling world, we believe that each one of us is called to be a “one-another” minister. So, I wrote this training manual in a user-friendly way, so that anyone who cares about marriages can be further equipped to provide biblical marital soul care.

I also wrote this equipping guide for professors and students at Bible colleges, Christian colleges, Christian graduate schools, and seminaries. As I’ve mentioned, we have few-to-no books in the biblical counseling world on the “how-to” of marriage counseling. Gospel-Centered Marriage Counseling fills that void.

Finally, I wrote the book for couples. As I mentioned, the book begins with several practical chapters that paint a biblical portrait of a healthy marriage. Those chapters are the flashing neon lights indicating the beautiful biblical goal we’re moving toward in the rest of the book. Some readers of advanced copies have even graciously said that those initial chapters are “worth the price of the book” and could be a stand-alone book for couples. So, the audience is broad while the focus of the book is specific.

T4L: That’s excellent! What are some marriage counseling strategies for couples to grow in trust and friendship?

Dr. Kellemen: In Gospel-Centered Marriage Counseling, I equip counselors to help the couple to sustain, heal, reconcile, and guide each other. First, let me outline what sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding look like in individual counseling. Then we’ll see what that looks like in marriage counseling and in marriages.

Sustaining and healing focus on bringing biblical help and hope to someone who’s suffering. Sustaining says, “It’s normal to hurt.” In sustaining, I empathize with my suffering counselees as I direct them to the Father of compassion and God of all comfort.

In healing, which communicates, “It’s possible to hope,” I encourage my counselees to find their hope in our God of resurrection power.

Reconciling and guiding seek to bring biblical help to someone struggling against a besetting sin. In reconciling, we help people to face their sin, face-to-face with Christ, seeking and finding His gracious forgiveness. In guiding, we help a repentant person to tap into Christ’s resurrection power to put off the old way of living and to put on their new way of living—in and through Christ.

Now in marriage counseling, we use the same four road maps or compass points, but in a very different way. Let me illustrate with the idea of sustaining in marriage counseling. If I empathize with a hurting wife while her husband listens in, here’s what he’s likely to hear when they get home. “Why can’t you be understanding like Pastor Kellemen!” So, while I will empathize with individual spouses, I really want to encourage and empower a husband to empathize with his wife, and a wife with her husband. Think about the power of that. They’ve come to you hurt by each other and focused only on the hurt their spouse is causing them. If they can take a humble step back, look at life through their spouse’s eyes and soul, and communicate, “Wow! I’ve really been hurtful to you. I’ve been so focused on my own pain, that I’ve totally missed how much pain I’m causing you. Can you forgive me…?” If/when we help a couple get to this point, then most of our work is done.

This is what I mean by helping couples become each other’s best biblical counselor. They learn to sustain each other by empathizing with each other’s hurt. They learn to implement biblical healing by encouraging each other to cling to God’s hope. They learn to reconcile with each other by seeking and granting forgiveness. They learn to guide and disciple each other by learning together how to apply God’s truth to their marriage relationship. That creates gospel-centered trust, and friendship built upon mutual gospel conversations with each other—not just in the counseling room, but in their home.

T4L: That sounds like a very helpful way of looking at things. For biblical counselors, what are some of the challenges of engaging in marriage counseling, and what advice would you give to counselors either as they begin to engage in marriage counseling with others (or even if they’ve been involved in it for a while)?       

Dr. Kellemen: As I mentioned earlier, the biggest challenge is the mistake of treating marriage counseling just like individual counseling. So one central component of marriage counseling is to move away from talking at each spouse and move to having the couple talk to each other in the session.

Now, we’re often afraid to do that because it’s scary and messy! Ask a hurting husband and wife to talk to each other and you’re going to invite some real and raw conversation. It’s safer for us, as the counselor, to do all the talking. But there are a couple of problems with avoiding honest conversation. First, how can we, as the counselor, provide timely counsel if we haven’t really witnessed—first-hand, the couple’s struggle?

Second, they’re going to have these messy conversations with or without us. Wouldn’t it be better to invite them to have these conversations in our presence so we then can coach them in how to face the heart issues behind their angry words and how to change the pattern of unhelpful interactions? So, once you invite such face-to-face conversations, what’s next? I’ll often ask, “Is what I just heard pretty typically of how your conversations go at home?” They’ll often say, “Yes, but they’re worst at home. We’re trying to be on our best behavior in front of you.” (And I’m thinking, “If this is their best behavior, then…wow…!”) So then we talk about their talking. We help them to hear each other and begin to care about each other’s hurts (sustaining). We begin to help them infuse hope in one another that God can resurrect their relationship (healing). We help them to take the log out of their own eye, confessing their sins and forgiving each other (reconciling). We then empower them to work together in Christ’s power to make specific relational changes at the heart level (guiding).

Yes, inviting messed up couples to talk to each other is messy. But God changes people—husbands and wives. So, my advice to marriage counselors: enter marriage messes right in the counseling room. Then, in the middle of the mess, empower couples—who are now seeing how desperate they are—to tap into the power of God’s Word to change them for His glory.

T4L: There’s a lot we haven’t covered in the course of this interview about this topic, Bob. As we wrap up this conversation, can you give us a few takeaways?

Dr. Kellemen: The biggest takeaway is that marriage counselors should work ourselves out of a job. The couple learns to depend on the Divine Counselor through God’s Word, rather than becoming dependent on the human counselor. Remember the show Name That Tune? People would say, “I can name that tune in 4 notes!” Well, I can name Gospel-Centered Marriage Counseling in 4 words—all starting with an “E”.

First E—we equip the couple to empathize with each other—to see the very hurt they’re causing.

Second E—we equip the couple to encourage each other in Christ—to see the hope they have as they depend on the God who raises dead things, including seemingly dead marriages.

Third E—we equip each spouse to explore the sin in their own heart—they take the log out of their eye, ask forgiveness of each other, and grant forgiveness to each other.

The fourth and final E—we equip the couple to empower each other by being each other’s best biblical counselor. That’s how we work ourselves out of a job!

T4L: Dr. Kellemen, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with us today! We really appreciate your expert advice in this area!

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