I have been asked, “How do I know when to end a counseling relationship?” For example, you have been meeting with a woman for a while but aren’t sure if she is ready to graduate. You addressed her initial problem, and now your meetings are beginning to look more like a time of discipleship. You could continue with endless appointments, but other women are asking for your time. You’re unsure about ending because she still has other sins to battle and more need for encouragement.

Below are four criteria to consider when making the decision to end counseling. But first, an important caveat should be noted. The following list doesn’t apply to women in my church. Those counseling meetings fit into a different category. First Corinthians 12 compares assembled believers who worship in the same location to a human body composed of essential discrete members (verses 14, 27). Verse 18 says, “…God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” These people belong to one another and function as a unit for the glory of God. A woman in my church body may initially approach me for counseling about an issue, but I will continue to minister to her, following up when I see her at the worship service, our home group, or Bible Study. I might become aware of new issues and offer to come alongside.

Counseling comes to an end, though, for those who come into a counseling center that ministers to the community. These women are not from your church. They desire to hear the Scripture applied to their problems but have not found help at their own church. They continue to schedule regular appointments, filling up a finite number of meeting times. This potentially creates a waiting list, preventing others who have critical and time-sensitive issues to discuss from meeting with you.

It will help to have a plan to end the counseling process. By planning ahead, future decisions will become easier. The following list can be a starting point for making this choice:

  1. Determine If the Presenting Problem Has Been Addressed. Your counselee should know that her initial motivation to get counseling is important to the counselor. I will often bring out the Personal Data Inventory paperwork and show it to the counselee. I point to her own description of the reason(s) for getting counsel. I ask her to evaluate the current intensity of her problem. Have the underlying issues been revealed, and has Scripture been applied? Her problem might come back, but she has been taught the best way to deal with it.
  2. She Should Attend a Church That Teaches the Bible and Will Reinforce the Tools You Have Given. She needs to continue growing spiritually outside the counseling office. A solid church filled with caring pastors is a means of grace (Heb. 13:7, 17). Hearing good teaching will build her faith and equip her to handle future problems.
  3. Your Counselee Needs a Mentor. She has been depending on you to apply truth to her life. After you have finished your scheduled meetings, she needs a wise person to fill that role. It could be a member of her family or a woman in her church. This need may delay “graduation” from counseling because some churches are weak in one-another care or have few older women familiar with Scripture. She may feel isolated from those who can help. She may not trust anyone else to know about her problem. That is probably why she made an appointment with you in the first place! Several weeks before I end a session, I begin asking my counselee to think of a woman who could disciple her. After she has thought of someone, her homework includes approaching that woman and asking for a mentoring relationship. Ideally, this woman will attend a few meetings with the two of us in order to witness how the Scripture is applied to the problem.
  4. The Counselee Should Understand That Her Objective in Life Is to Glorify God. In other words, her love for the Lord is bigger than her problem. When we struggle, we lose this perspective. Our desire is to get rid of our problem or to take the pain away. I want my counselee to come to the point where she can say, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). Her focus is now on her Savior and His work on her behalf. She is able to say, “To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Eph. 3:21). She has reached an even deeper level of faith when she is able to agree with Psalm 119:67, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep your word.” She has reached maturity when she understands in her heart that “it is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Ps. 119:71).

These four suggestions are a starting point to help you know when to graduate a counselee. The overly-dependent counselee will understand your reasons to end counseling when you explain that these are the markers that led you to that decision. She will be glad to know that you are not rejecting her but are passing her care to someone in her own church who can continue to give wise advice. I also leave my door open for someone to come back for advice if another problem comes up or she needs to look at Scripture afresh for an ongoing struggle.

Questions for Reflection

  1. How do you help the counselee who has made you the substitute for her home church and her own pastor?
  2. What additional methods could you use to encourage your counselee to be willing to find a discipler?
  3. Sometimes a counselee and counselor become so emotionally tied that neither wants to let go. How can you defeat your desire to continue counseling until every problem is solved? How do you prevent interfering with your counselee’s freedom to make her own decisions? How can you battle the desire to make the counselee dependent on your advice?