“This article (Using Technology Wisely: When Remote Counseling is the Only Option (Part II) by Marie Notcheva) originally appeared on the Biblical Counseling Coalition website.
In the first part of this series, we looked at some of the limitations of cyber-counseling and how to conduct these sessions most effectively. All else being equal, is cyber-counseling as effective as “the real thing”? With all caveats aside, is it really equal to in-person counseling in the local church? There are varying opinions. Some biblical counselors, like Lucy Ann Moll (lucyannmoll.com), have set up entire ministries around connecting to clients online.
Lucy has done premarital counseling with a Hong Kong real-estate heiress, counseled former gang members in Chicago, and helped numerous women around the world walk more closely with God. While she does encourage women to first seek out a qualified counselor in their area, she believes that biblical counsel can also be effective through video conferencing programs. “It’s convenient, and the Internet has opened doors to many people in nations without access to biblical counseling,” she points out. She has counseled women in Cambodia, Sweden, the UK, Hong Kong, Switzerland and Australia, as well as the US. Others have counseled in the Middle East and even China.
When Cyber-Counsel is the Only Option
There are a number of valid reasons why counseling may be sought remotely. Missionaries serving abroad can benefit from real-time counseling with their home churches (even if they are trained biblical counselors themselves). For example, one American missionary in India benefits from weekly premarital counseling sessions with the pastor at his home church.
In addition, many good churches do not have the resources or sufficiently trained personnel to provide a counseling ministry. A Christian may live too far away from any trained biblical counselor to meet in person. This is especially true for believers outside of the United States. I have counseled many young women with eating disorders in Eastern Europe, for example, and subsequently referred them to doctrinally sound local churches for discipleship.
Connection to a Local Church is Crucial
Where there is a great geographical distance between the counselor and the counselee, the counselee may not take the counseling process very seriously. Thus, an important way to help them be discipled adequately and grow in Christ is to urge attendance at a local church and to be known to their pastor.
One counselee, in Sydney, Australia, resisted her counselor’s advice to attend a local church – claiming that there were none in the area. After a few sessions, it became apparent that the woman just wanted to tell her story of how she had been wronged. She did not follow through with homework (which were to be e-mailed to the counselor prior to the start of each session). Sometimes, the counselor would do the homework with her – during the actual Skype session, if it was an assignment that allowed for it. However, when it became clear that the woman was not willing to initiate godly change in her life, the counselor felt compelled to terminate the sessions. “I wasn’t going to play the self-pity game,” she says.
A Successful Case Study: “Julie’s” Plight
Notwithstanding the challenges, there have been countless stories of people who have been helped and achieved lasting change with the assistance of an online counselor. One dramatic turn-around happened in the life of a West Coast woman, pregnant with three small children, who had to flee from an abusive husband. “Julie” had heard about Lucy through a mutual friend who had counseled in person with her. Lucy first heard Julie’s cry for help over the phone, and soon they began regular telephone counseling sessions. “We had a lot of good conversations, in which I was able to get a lot of details about the abuse from her husband,” Lucy notes. In an emergency situation, Julie reached a point where she had to take the children and flee the home. She went to the Midwest, where she had family – and commenced Skype counseling with Lucy while getting involved in a local church.
The combination of online counseling and involvement in a local church was what greatly aided Julie in applying the Scriptures to her life – and turning it around. When accountability to a church is absent, things often don’t work out so smoothly. “Often counselees who are not in a church have left a church,” Lucy says. “The question then becomes why. Some people, for example, are afraid it would be unsafe to tell anyone in church they are depressed, lest they be ‘judged’.”
A Former Gang Member’s Testimony
The anonymity of the Internet often is exactly what hurting people will use to reach out for help. Often people will not turn to a pastor or small group leader, but will speak to a Skype counselor. Lucy tells the story of “Beth,” a young woman who joined a Chicago gang in college for a sense of belonging. Following a horrific gang initiation (essentially gang-rape), unimaginable violence and sexual abuse followed. Beth would point the camera down, at her feet when she divulged these details to Lucy. Her shame was so great that she would not show her face, even through a computer monitor. At the same time, however, Beth desperately wanted someone to hear her story – and talking to Lucy in this way was the only way to get it out. At the time, she could not tell anyone at her church. The subject was so sensitive that it demanded distance, until Beth was able to work through the issues of neglect and sin that had affected her childhood and adolescence. Beth now attends a gospel-preaching church and has grown greatly there. “I see this as a ‘graduation’ of sorts—seeing counselees plugged into a church body,” Lucy says. She now shares her testimony at church to help point others to the Wonderful Counselor.
Of course, anonymity also makes it easier to retreat, and we looked at the problem of ongoing accountability in Part I. Used wisely, technology can be a great advantage and gift from God that allows us to speak into another person’s life – even for a limited amount of time.
For a fuller discussion of using technology to the glory of God, see Marie Notcheva’s book, Plugged In: Proclaiming Christ in the Internet Age (Pure Water Press).