by Anna Mondal
As a fledgling counselor, I put a lot of time, toil, tears, and sweat into session preparation. I devoured every Scripture and supplemental resource on an endless list of topics. I wanted to be prepared for anything. Are you deathly phobic of mayonnaise? I’ve read all about that, I’ve got eighteen biblical steps to help you cling to God, kick this fear, and eat chicken salad at bridal showers.
Session prep is good. But clinging to a definitive master plan can also be restrictive, mechanical, and impersonal. How might an over-dependence on planning distract us from the contours of a real person? How might it tempt us to rely more on our preparedness than on the life-giving power of God (2 Cor. 1:9-11)?
Empty your extrabiblical expectations
It’s helpful to observe experienced counselors and integrate good ideas. But sometimes good ideas can become a straitjacket. You’re constrained by how you should respond, how you should assign homework, how you should graduate counselees after X number of sessions. In the flurry of extrabiblical “shoulds,” you may stop listening to the person you’re counseling, and you may stop listening to the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit promises to guide us into truth for God’s glory (John 16:13-14). This doesn’t mean your Bible will be windswept open to all the right places. It means that the Spirit activates the reservoir of what you have studied, and maybe in unplanned ways. It means that you are primarily dependent on Him, not a 2D outline. In God-dependent counseling, we are humble enough to be baffled, ask unscripted questions, and off-road into to uncharted terrain. 
Todd Stryd writes, “Just as…counseling is not superhuman and otherworldly, it’s also not simplistic or uniform. Different people need different care…[your] stewardship as an instrument includes acting in unique and individualized ways.” 
Be faithful to plan for your session but also be prepared to throw your session plan out the window.  Counseling is less like playing chess, and more like playing jazz. Sometimes the music is richer because of the riff. 
Embrace God’s Word for you
Perhaps the most significant way that we prepare to be present with other people is by first sitting in the presence of God. We confess our own sins, release our own burdens, and renew our own minds. We pray, contemplate, study, and sing not for our counselees first, but for ourselves. “The idea [of counseling] is not that we push and pull on others to get them to change,” writes Diane Langberg, “but rather that we…submit to the work of the Spirit in our lives first.”  What does this look like?
“If I am to help you learn to deal with an addiction, I must ask the Spirit to work with me regarding those things in my life that own me. It means that wherever you need to go, I must be willing to go first in my own life. If I do not, though I may bring skills and techniques that may be helpful, I will not bring them infused with the life of God.” 
Preparedness in counseling organically grows from abiding in Christ’s love, and letting Him produce the fruit (John 15:1-5). From that place of fullness, we can confidently counsel, relying on Christ’s competence, not ours (2 Cor. 3:4-6). As we saturate our souls in His goodness, we may find ourselves unwittingly wafting the aroma of Christ, without even planning on it.
 This flexible posture is enabled by active listening – both to the Spirit and to the person in front of you (instead of driving the session based on your pre-plotted plan). Attentive, heart-centric listening reflects how God cares for His people. His eyes and ears are on us, He’s near to the brokenhearted, and He’s attentive to our prayers (Psa. 34:15-18; 1 Pet. 3:12). We will never perfectly reflect the infinite awareness of God, but our counselees will more easily grasp the idea of an (unseen) God Who Sees (Gen. 16:13) when their (seen) counselor reflects His caring attention.
 Todd Stryd, “God’s Providence and Human Agency in Counseling,” Journal of Biblical Counseling Vol 33 No 3 (Glenside, PA: Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation, 2019), 55.
 Traditional session planning is a great thing. We learn and grow and build an inner wealth of resources. But we’re in danger of doing sloppy, hurtful counseling when we are more committed to our plans than the person in front of us. For example, if you’ve prepared to talk about repentance, but your counselee just got the news that her mom has two weeks to live, that’s probably not a time to stay committed to your session plan. If you’ve prepared to talk about sexuality, but your counselee asks how to know for sure she’s a Christian, please abandon your session plan!
 In music and in life, there is freedom because there is also structure. But the structure isn’t the end goal. David Powlison beautifully said, “Yes, bring the tools of Bible study and theological reflection to bear. But never allow the support disciplines to degenerate into ends themselves.” The goal is not to appreciate “a book containing lyrics, score, and choreographic diagrams,” but rather “sing and dance” the words of the Lord in our own lives, and be changed by them. See David Powlison, Seeing with New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 21-22.
 Diane Mandt Langberg, PhD, In Our Lives First: Meditations for Counselors (Jenkintown, PA: Diane Langberg PhD & Associates, 2014), 48.
 Langberg, In Our Lives First, 48-49.