By: Dr. Garrett Higbee
July 23rd, 2021
Almost 20 years ago, while I was Director of Soul Care at College Park Church North in Indianapolis, I found that my team and I were unable to keep up with the counseling demands of our church. Also, other churches were sending people our way for help. Out of desperation, I required those coming from other churches to bring a leader or mature Christian with them in an attempt to bring continuity of care and increase equipping opportunities (Eph. 4:11-16). I had no idea just how impactful and effective this requirement would be for the care of the person in need. It revolutionized the whole counseling experience.
I required those coming from other churches to bring a leader or mature Christian with them in an attempt to bring continuity of care and increase equipping opportunities.
From the counseling session to the time between sessions, and even once counseling was finished—having a caring friend involved was a great benefit to the person coming for counseling. Within a year, we decided to add this role to the counseling process wherever possible. That decision led us to strongly recommend that people coming for counseling within our church ask a Christian friend, in other words, an advocate, to come to the sessions and walk alongside them during their care (Prov. 17:17). In retrospect, this addition was the single most effective change we ever made to our counseling process.
I have sat in sessions with hundreds of advocates, and most consider the experience a highlight of their faith walk and are thankful they took the opportunity to participate in this important ministry. Advocacy has also eliminated much of the liability related to church-based counseling, and this has resulted in more churches readily embracing biblical counseling as part of their local ministry. In this article, I want to help those using advocates to better understand the role and those considering this addition to their counseling to be
convinced of its merit.
Defining the Role
We chose the name advocate because we envisioned how the person taking on this role could incarnationally parallel the love of Christ as the Holy Spirit works to bring conviction and comfort (John 16:12-15). We were fully aware that Christ is our one and only advocate and mediator (1 John 2:1-2), and the Holy Spirit is the true Counselor (big “C”) in the room, but we also knew He was calling us to live out the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:9).
Whenever possible, the advocate was someone from the counselee’s small group or circle of influence. Their role was focused on 1) coming alongside the counselee, not over them, 2) standing up for the counselee, but not enabling them, and 3) crying out to Christ on their behalf, but not playing savior. We found that advocates provided insight, context, and intercession that were exceptionally helpful. Their role was particularly beneficial between sessions as they did the homework alongside the counselee and were the main contact between the person in need and the counselor (2 Tim. 2:2).
The advocate's role was focused on 1) coming alongside the counselee, not over them, 2) standing up for the counselee, but not enabling them, and 3) crying out to Christ on their behalf, but not playing savior.
A natural and welcome byproduct of advocacy was that the advocate began to consult with the counselor and get equipped themselves. Additionally, advocates were more likely to pursue soul care equipping in the future.
Who Qualifies to Come Alongside?
Advocacy is not the right fit for everyone. We required a few simple traits to ensure this person would be a help to both the one(s) in need and the counselor:
Demonstration of strong faith in God
Submission to God’s Word and the counseling process
Good standing in their home church
Displaying deep concern and growing compassion for the person(s) in need
We also realized we needed to be wise in considering other factors related to fit: men with men, women with women, couples with couples, and even young adults with teens. We found that most often a relative or someone who might lack objectivity didn’t serve well in this role. We purposely set the bar high regarding their character and low regarding their credentials.
Challenges and Surprises
The main challenge was not fit; it was time. We experienced a major difficulty in trying to get everyone’s schedules to align. This resulted in more late-afternoon and evening counseling sessions. We were also compelled to create a counseling night where we had open hours from 4-9 p.m. just to keep up with scheduling demands.
We purposely set the bar high regarding their character and low regarding their credentials.
Sometimes we did face issues of character. Sometimes people lacked the right understanding of the convictions of biblical counseling. Other advocate candidates required coaching on the front end to get aligned with biblical counseling philosophy and goals. Additionally, some counselees were asked to reconsider who they invited as their advocate because an advocate candidate did not meet the above spiritual criteria.
Another challenge was an understandable, but unbiblical, notion that counseling is meant to be a therapeutic relationship with the counselor, and anyone else is a voyeur, threatening privacy. The result of this misunderstanding was that we often needed to coach not only those being referred to us but also those doing the referring.
Counseling was no longer driven by privacy but offered a place to discreetly share struggles and pains with one’s most trusted friend.
Despite the challenges, the benefits of utilizing an advocate far outweighed the difficulties we had to overcome. Over the next few years, God refined our church’s philosophy of counseling. We underwent a paradigm shift in the way we approached counseling in the local church. Our people began to see counseling as normative in the Christian life, which removed the stigma often associated with counseling. And as we viewed counseling differently, community was valued in the counseling process. Counseling was no longer driven by privacy but offered a place to discreetly share struggles and pains with one’s most trusted friend. It became a place where biblical community was built.
Advocacy as a Bridge and Buffer
The advocate role bridges the missing link between the counseling room and ongoing discipleship, particularly in small groups. The advocate brings much encouragement to the counselee. Of even greater value is the advocate’s incredible power to bridge and transition lessons learned in counseling to real-life situations, allowing the counselee to quickly and more deeply implement what they learn into their everyday life. This additional help, affirmation, and encouragement translated into more lasting results in the life of the counselee after their formal sessions had finished.
The advocacy program evolved even further as I started Twelve Stones Ministries in 2004. Foundational to our intensive counseling retreats is the idea that advocates are required instead of being strongly suggested. Often in intense situations, with emotions high, the advocate helps capture key Scriptures and moments in their notes. They also provide intercessory prayer at crucial times and help unpack homework each evening that often leads to breakthroughs. Advocates continue to be essential to the long-term success of those coming for counseling, as well as a great resource to the church.
Side-by-Side Care is Gaining Ground
The concept of advocacy is by no means a new fad or counseling technique; it is patently biblical (Prov. 27:9; Rom. 15:14; Heb. 3:12-14). While Church history is full of examples of this practice of side-by-side discipleship and care, I don’t think it has been practiced well, especially in the last couple of centuries. Fifteen years ago, I would ask in a biblical counseling workshop who knew what an advocate was. Usually, only a handful of people would have heard of advocacy, and it was primarily through encounters with College Park or Twelve Stones.
While Church history is full of examples of this practice of side-by-side discipleship and care, I don’t think it has been practiced well, especially in the last couple of centuries.
Today, the majority of biblical counselors know of this role. Now, thousands of people have served as advocates, and hundreds of churches have employed this model of care. Others are beginning to write about it and include it in their overall counseling philosophy. And in the past five years, the biblical counseling movement has begun to embrace Christian friendship and small group equipping as part of a more comprehensive care model. I hope that the role of advocates in the counseling process continues to gain ground and is here to stay.
Questions for Reflection
1. Do you see the role of an advocate as a helpful addition to your counseling model?
2. How could including an advocate in counseling help you to be more effective?
3. What makes you hesitate to include this role and how could you overcome obstacles?
Originally published on the Biblical Counseling Coalition website on October 12, 2018 – with a few modifications.