T4L: For those of you who read our other articles in this issue, we are interviewing Dr. Bob Kellemen on his other biblical counseling book, Gospel-Centered Family Counseling: An Equipping Guide for Pastors and Counselors. We previously spoke with him about the marriage counseling book, which you can read in this issue as well.
Dr. Kellemen, thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview with Theology for Life Magazine. For those that haven’t read our last interview, can you tell us a bit about your life, marriage, and ministry?
Dr. Kellemen: Thanks for inviting me, Dave. Well, two years ago my wife (Shirley) and I moved from Indiana to the Pacific Northwest, where we live now between Tacoma and Seattle.
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: That’s great! I’m originally from Seattle area as well. It’s a great place to live! As you know, we’re discussing the topic of biblical counseling in this issue of Theology for Life, so tell us about your book, Gospel-Centered Family 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 Family Counseling, I had taught marriage and family counseling for a quarter-century. I had provided marriage and family counseling for three decades. So, Gospel-Centered Family 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 family counselor.
That was my personal motivation for writing the book. I also had a broader motivation related to how we typically train family counselors. If you look at the landscape of Christian publishing, we have tons of books on a theology of family life. But we have next to nothing about how to do family counseling. And if you look at a typical Bible college or seminary curriculum in counseling, we have training in individual counseling, but next to no training in the how-to of family counseling. Here’s what I’ve seen time after time as I’ve supervised counselors. Their family counseling basically becomes teaching at families. Now, teaching is great, but counseling is more than just teaching.
The second result I’ve noticed is that counselors view family counseling as individual counseling with an audience. In other words, they counsel the parents while the children listen. They counsel the children while the parents listen. But they invite very little interaction between the family members. Here’s the end result. Counselees become very counselor dependent. And counseling becomes giving people a fish instead of teaching families how to fish the Scriptures together.
So, my goal in Gospel-Centered Family Counseling is to equip the counselor to equip the family members—especially the parents—to be their own best biblical counselors. In our presence during counseling, we want to equip family members to talk to each other and to talk together about how they can apply God’s sufficient and relevant Word to their unique family situation. In this model, we disciple parents to disciple their children.
T4L: In Gospel-Centered Family Counseling, you emphasize that family counselors don’t replace parents; they empower parents. Can you develop that concept further for us?
Dr. Kellemen: This highlights the idea I just shared about: the counselor equips the parents be their children’s best biblical counselors. In Gospel-Centered Family Counseling, we’re trained to do this in the four areas of family—sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding.
Family counseling empowers parents to sustain their children—to empathize with them. Family counseling also empowers parents to bring biblical healing to their children—to encourage them to hope in God. Third, we empower parents to reconcile with family members—asking God for forgiveness, asking each other for forgiveness, and granting forgiveness. Fourth, we also empower parents to guide their families biblically—to learn how to turn to God’s Word together for biblical wisdom for their family relationship.
Picture a mom and dad with a discouraged and distant teen. They’re all upset and frustrated with each other; they’re all hurt by each other. Now imagine that over time you could help those hurting parents to look at the hurt in their teen’s heart, look at the log in their own eye, and to say with compassion and conviction: “We’re sorry for the hurt we’ve been causing you, son. We’re beginning to understand some of the discouragement you’re feeling that we’ve been responsible for. The Bible says not to embitter and discourage you’re children, but we’ve been doing that to you. Please forgive us…”
And, over time—perhaps a good deal of time—imagine that their teen son begins to sense the sincerity in his parents’ hearts and begins to soften to them and to God. And he says to his parents: “It’s not only you guys. I’m starting to see how I’ve hurt both of you with my angry attitude. I don’t like how I’ve been. I don’t like how we’ve been. I’m not sure how I change or how we change, but I want things to be different…”
Getting to this point of “mutual empathy” and “mutual ownership” is never easy. That’s why I’ve written a whole book on it. But once a family starts on this healthy and holy path, then real family change is possible. Parents are equipped to keep the change going and growing long after they’ve wrapped up counseling with you. You’ve empowered each family member—especially the parents—to be family disciple-makers. You don’t replace the parents; you empower them.
T4L: This is great information! 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?
Dr. Kellemen: As I crafted Gospel-Centered Family 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 family counseling, it was likely a course on a theology of family and not on how to do family counseling. These pastors face more and more difficult family situations. I want this book to increase their confidence in their competence in Christ to help the families in their churches.
Next, I pictured counselors. 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 anyone who cares about families can be further equipped to provide biblical family soul care.
I also wrote this equipping guide for professors and students at Bible colleges, Christian colleges, Christian graduate schools and seminaries—to provide them a how-to training manual in family counseling.
Finally, I wrote this book for parents. The book begins with several practical chapters that paint a biblical portrait of a healthy family. Those chapters are the flashing neon lights showing 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 parents. So, the audience is broad while the focus of the book is specific.
T4L: I’m sure every audience will find it helpful. So, in your expert opinion, what does it look like practically to parent with grace and truth?
Dr. Kellemen: As I mentioned, the book starts with several chapters on gospel-centered parenting. I’ll try to boil those chapters down into a paragraph response.
I use an acrostic that spells the word GRACE. “G” is for “God-dependent Parents”. That means that if you want to parent with grace, you have to grasp your own desperate need for the Father’s grace. “R” is for “Revelation-based parental wisdom”. This means that if you want to parent with truth, you have to scour God’s Word to apply His wisdom to your family situation—that’s the role of the biblical family counselor—to equip parents to skillfully applying God’s truth to family life. The “A” in the GRACE acrostic is for “Accepting and affirming grace relationships”. This focuses on how to communicate grace-love, unfailing love, loyal love to our children in a way they can understand. The “C” is for “Care-fronting our children’s hearts”—learning to discipline in humility and love. The “E” is for “Equipping our children for the race of life”.
This is parental discipleship—which is not something that happens just in the counseling office, but happens in the home, in the car, at the playground—24/7. This “GRACE” acrostic is a memory device for parenting with grace and truth.
T4L: Alright, so that explains the parents’ roles and tools. But, what role can the local church have in family counseling?
Dr. Kellemen: The local church can and should play a huge role. We need to think about biblical family counseling simply as a subset of local church family discipleship.
We can and should equip every member as a one-another minister. This means that in our small groups we’re encouraging and equipping one another as parents to be godly parents. In our youth groups, we’re equipping teens to honor their parents and to grow in their own walk with God. This also involves church-based mentoring—younger families hanging out with mature families and seeing how they handle a moody teen, how they enjoy one another, how they encourage one another.
We want to be a church not just with biblical counseling, but a church of family biblical counseling—where biblical principles of empowering families saturate every ministry.
T4L: Excellent points, Bob! What are some of the best ways counselors can help families to work together towards better communication with each other?
Dr. Kellemen: A central way is to get the family members talking to each other right in the counseling session. Even as counselors, we’re often afraid to do this because it’s scary and messy! Ask a frustrated parent to talk to a sullen teen 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 in the counseling session.
First, how can we, as the counselor, provide relevant counsel if we haven’t really witnessed—first-hand—the family members’ relational struggles? 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?
Once you invite such face-to-face conversations, what’s next? I’ll often ask a family, “Is what I just heard pretty typically of how your conversations go at home?” They’ll often say, “Yes, but we’re worse 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 family 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 change at the heart level (guiding).
Yes, inviting messed up families to talk to each other is messy. But it’s the best way counselors can help family members to grow in loving communication—by talking to each other right in our family counseling meetings.
T4L: Thank you for that insight! 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 for the family counselor is that we should seek to work our way out of a job. We get the family members talking to each other. Then, we equip the family members—especially the parents—to sustain, heal, reconcile, and guide each other by equipping them to apply God’s Word to their lives. The parents learn to depend on the Divine Counselor through God’s Word and His people, rather than becoming dependent on the human counselor. We shepherd parents to shepherd their children.
Also, one unique aspect of Gospel-Centered Family Counseling that we haven’t highlighted is how it’s really a workbook. The sub-title of the book communicates this uniqueness: 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. As I said, I like to think of the book as a workbook—a how-to training manual for family counselors.
The book also includes scores of counseling vignettes—stories of families 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 family members to richly and relevantly apply God’s Word to their lives and relationships. The biggest takeaway: Gospel-Centered Family Counseling seeks to shepherd counselors to shepherd parents to shepherd their children.
T4L: Well, I’m sure those that read this book will find it just as helpful as I have. Thanks again for your time and most excellent advice, Dr. Kellemen!