I am a young Kenyan woman who grew up in the United Arab Emirates. I currently live in Washington, D.C., and I counsel women at my local church. As you can imagine, culture is often on my mind as I have experienced life in these different cultures.

As the demographics of the world shift and the world becomes more diverse, biblical counselors will inevitably find themselves counseling individuals who are different than them. Furthermore, for the Biblical Counseling Movement to advance, biblical counselors have an obligation to grow in cultural competency. For our purposes here, “culture” encompasses race, ethnicity, social economic status, disability, etc.

Let us take for example the story of Sarah. During one of her regular counseling sessions, Sarah shared with her counselor that she stopped shopping in upscale retail stores. She often felt as though the attendants followed her and were suspicious that she might be stealing. Sarah felt discriminated against due to her race, and in light of that, she stopped going into these stores. In an attempt to help, Sarah’s counselor tried to correct her thoughts and tell her how typical it is for young people to be followed around in shops and how this might not be unique to her particular race. While this may or may not be true, this response revealed the counselor’s insensitivity to Sarah’s concerns and left her feeling either unheard or misunderstood. In hindsight, the counselor should have acknowledged the differences in their life experiences.[1]

What is cultural competence?

Cultural competence refers to the ability of counselors to readily acknowledge and address the cultural differences between them and their counselees. It includes the recognition that culture plays a large and complex role in counselees’ lives and problems. The counseling relationship is strengthened when a counselor is culturally competent.

Counselors should address complex matters not only with gospel truth, but also with love and thoughtfulness. Thus, cultural competency shows Christlikeness. Christ did not just associate himself with those who were similar to him (e.g., religious types, Jews, or carpenters). Instead, he loved many people who came from very diverse backgrounds. We as counselors have the opportunity to image him in our work with individuals who might be different from us.

Why is cultural competence necessary?

  1. It’s an implication of the gospel

Diversity draws attention to the truth of God’s glory in his plan to create a culturally diverse family of faith. Counselors’ ability to successfully discuss matters related to race and culture within the counseling room points to the gospel that unifies us. Christians can confidently have those discussions, because the foundation of our relationships is Christ. We love others—not because of some personal benefit to us—but because they are made in the image of God. As counselors we are familiar with brokenness and can lean on Christ’s goodness in every situation. Our competence is ultimately not a mark of how skilled we are; rather it is a small shadow of God’s unifying power in the gospel.

  1. It’s important to see the core issue clearly

A counselor who is culturally competent is more likely to address a counselee’s core issue(s) effectively. If we refer back to the case of Sarah, by trying to calm the counselee down immediately, the counselor failed to dig deeper and address the feelings of injustice that Sarah was bringing into the session. A counselor who was more comfortable addressing this issue (despite his or her own race or ethnicity) would have helped Sarah confront some of those uncomfortable feelings of injustice. A counselor who is culturally competent is less likely to miscategorize the problem or to devalue the counselee’s experiences.

How can you cultivate cultural competence?

First, take a humble posture of learning. Actively seek facts about different groups you encounter. For example, you might not know how to get a Braille Bible or other Braille resources, but that would be important for you learn if you have a blind client.

Second, be aware of your own cultural biases that you might bring into the counseling room. Might you assume that a woman in scrubs is a nurse instead of a doctor? Are you likely to direct financial questions to the male partner in a couple? Ask instead of assume!

Finally, grow in methodology and skill. For example, practice broaching. The word “broaching” refers to raising a sensitive or difficult topic for discussion. Broaching is especially valuable when you and your counselee are from different cultures. Broaching not only requires gentleness and wisdom on your part, it also requires you to be comfortable with being uneasy. Broaching happens when a counselee is invited to assess how difficult cultural issues, such as ethnicity, disability, or gender might influence particular counseling concerns. An example of broaching would be: “Since we are from different cultures, I wonder if there are some things that you fear I might not understand?” Or, “I have never experienced life in a wheelchair, so tell me about some assumptions you think I might make. Are there ways I might have made you feel excluded because of your disability?”[2]

As you learn to be bold in these kinds of conversations, you will have opportunities to humbly work on your sensitivity to others. You will have opportunities to grow in trusting the Lord’s work rather than in our own personal skill. It is in these uncomfortable conversations that you can cast the outcome of counseling on the Lord and trust that the Holy Spirit will lead and give wisdom.


What have you learned about addressing cultural differences in your ministry experiences?

[1] Norma L. Day-Vines, et al., “Broaching the Subjects of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture during the Counseling Process,” Journal of Counseling & Development 85.4 (2007): 401-409.

[2] Norma L. Day-Vines, et al., “Broaching the Subjects of Race, Ethnicity, and Culture during the Counseling Process,” Journal of Counseling & Development 85.4 (2007): 401-409.

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