As a pastor or counselor, how do you know when to stop counseling? As you try to decide whether or not to end counseling, you will probably be aware, with some uneasiness, that not every problem has been solved. You will sense the need for more growth or the person’s desire that counseling continue regularly. But these are not adequate reasons to perpetuate counseling. When to end counseling is always a judgment call that requires a lot of wisdom. The decision to bring the counseling process to a close is sometimes clear, but often not.

It’s best to think through the decision to end counseling with some clear criteria. Consider two positive indicators, and four less pleasant ones.

  1. The person understands his problem and is equipped to handle it.

The best indicator for ending counseling is when the person has been adequately equipped to respond in faith to his troubles and is showing a consistent pattern of doing so. The symptoms have lightened: the depression isn’t as bad as it was; the husband and wife have reconciled and have rebuilt their trust; the young man hooked on pornography has had a considerable reprieve from his sexual sin. The pressure of the original problem is no longer wreaking havoc on their life. And suddenly, they don’t feel the need to meet with you anymore. And, as much as you love them, you don’t feel the need to meet with them either.

  1. In the course of your care for them, another person’s care emerges as more effective.

If you are counseling in the context of the local church, you will be utilizing other couples or individuals to come alongside a counselee. Often, these other individuals become more effective than you in addressing the issues of this person’s heart. This is not a threat to your position as pastor or counselor, but rather a mark of how the church should work. It should thrill you that others demonstrate a skill or have an insight that you didn’t. If you recognize this as the case, it may be best to transition them to the care of others.

Sadly, not all counseling ends with a positive conclusion. Sometimes other reasons compel a transition to other counselors or other types of care.

  1. Things don’t seem to be changing at all.

You have tried to help for a while, and things just don’t seem to be going anywhere. They have, at least apparently, been striving to make changes, but the same problem they started with is still plaguing them. Maybe it’s even gotten worse. This may be from a lack of insight or skill on your part, or it may be from hard-heartedness, ignorance, or other factors on their part. Usually it’s a bit of both. But the point is, nothing seems to be making a difference. That’s a good time to consider making a shift to someone else.

  1. They aren’t interested in working.

You will be in counseling situations when counselees will basically use meeting time to gripe, gossip, and complain. But when it comes to the hard work of studying Scripture, thinking through heart motives, confronting sin, or facing their own misgivings, they just don’t want to do it. These folks expect you to do the heavy lifting in the sessions. But we don’t serve our people by indulging their sense of “doing something” about the problem by coming to counseling when they refuse to actually do something. Do not let people deceive themselves into thinking they’re putting forth effort when they’re not. If they do not do the homework and are uninterested in answering the questions you lay out, the counseling needs to end for their sake.

  1. They don’t trust you.

There will also be situations where your mistakes are painfully evident. Maybe you messed up by speaking into a matter without understanding it or by responding to them in plain frustration. You’ve forgotten appointments or been unable to fit them in your schedule with reasonable turnover. Two things you know are true of yourself: you are a sinner and you are a human. The point is, they have lost trust in you — whether through your fault or their unrealistic expectations. Regardless, people will not follow your guidance if they don’t trust you, and it’s time to end counseling. If they are unwilling to trust counsel from anyone else in the church, it may also be time for them to consider moving on to another church.

  1. They need more help than you can offer.

Their problem is intense enough to need more time or expertise than you can offer. You wish you had more time to spend with them, but fulfilling your other responsibilities would become impossible since they would need more than just a one-hour-a-week conversation. For instance, drug addiction can become so out-of-control that strugglers need daily interventions. You wish you had more skill to know the contours of a particular problem, but you don’t have the insight, skill, or time needed to sort through the complexity. Now, keep in mind, the threshold of what you can handle is higher than you might realize. But we also want to recognize that certain troubles have become so spiritually complex or physiologically engrained that you should seek someone with greater skill. The goal is not to pass them off; rather, it’s to get them the help they need.

Don’t feel like a failure if you have to refer them to someone else in the church (another pastor or another mature believer) or someone outside of the church (a counselor or doctor in your community). Sometimes the best way to care for them is not to continue the work yourself, but point them in the right direction — to someone who can give them the adequate time and attention that is needed.

If any of these indicators apply to your situation, it’s probably time to end counseling by asking for a final meeting. Some folks will be more than happy that counseling is over. Others will be quite alarmed. For the latter, a final meeting is a killer for them. They want counseling to go on much longer than is needed, perhaps even arguing with you about how they need more help. If you, in your wisdom (and not your impatience), have concluded that things should wind down, then be gracious and stay the course in bringing things to a conclusion. Don’t let the pitfalls and pressures of overly needy people set the pace of your counseling. Humbly listen to their concerns; pray about it; and then you determine what is best.

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju’s book The Pastor and Counseling: The Basics of Shepherding Members in Need (Crossway). It is reprinted here from the 9Marks site.