How Do I Begin a Counseling Ministry at My Church?

How Do I Begin a Counseling Ministry at My Church

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Biff wants to begin a counseling ministry in his local church. The leadership is aware of the church’s sanctification needs; they want help and humbly acknowledge this need. They asked Biff to propose a plan. He asked me how to go about this new endeavor. What are the critical details for starting and sustaining a counseling ministry in a local church? Here is what I told Biff.

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Identify Your Leader

The most crucial step, in the beginning, is to identify the person who you want to lead this valuable church ministry. Not every church has someone with the gift mix for this type of endeavor. The church counseling ministry will rise or fall on the leadership of the individual at the top of the hierarchy. Here are eight things that should influence your decision-making.

  1. Your counseling ministry leader should be male.
  2. He doesn’t need to be a pastor, though there are benefits if he were.
  3. He must be well-grounded in theology; a degree in theology is ideal.
  4. He should have a practical working knowledge of counseling.
  5. He should be able to envision and equip others to do counseling.
  6. He should be a leader of leaders; people want to hear what he has to say.
  7. His tail can’t wag the dog: counseling is a subset of the church, not the main thing.
  8. His first job will be to cast a vision for the church.

Should Be Male

I’m aware that this worldview will raise the hairs on the back of some people’s necks. Unfortunately, we have drifted so far from biblical norms in certain Christian circles that too many of our brothers and sisters perceive biblical standards as abnormal. The counseling leader being a man is not about inferiority or superiority.

The abuses of biblical structures do not mean we should tear them down; it’s our call to demonstrate the biblical way. There should be no tension here, any more than the fact that a husband should be the head of his household. All people are equal before God, which is not debatable, but there has to be a hierarchy within systems for those systems to work.

This concept is common sense for every human at some level. For example, I submit to any police officer on duty because he (or she) is part of a system that requires my humble submission. I have also counseled several police officers in my career. In that context, I respect them but expect them to submit to my counsel if they want me to serve them through their situational difficulty. Submitting to others is a wise and biblical idea.

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More Than Counseling

The person leading a counseling ministry is the point man for that ministry. He will be the one doing the primary training and counseling—at least in the beginning. He will be envisioning the congregation, other churches, the community, and potentially the blogosphere.

A counseling ministry is not a corner office job but a church-wide philosophy of ministry that you must work into every member’s mind as well as the community. A large load of his training and counseling will be leading men—husbands, pastors, and small group leaders regarding how to shepherd their wives, lead a church, or care for their small group. This role should be for a man.

An ideal situation would be for the counseling point person to have key females on his counseling team to assist in female-only counseling and training situations. It has never been my practice to counsel women privately or long-term. Having a competent woman who can equip and counsel others is critical.

Should He Be a Pastor?

He does not have to be part of the pastoral team. Whether he is a pastor or not is not the most vital thing. You want a person who can dedicate himself to the training and counseling of the congregation. A church should never put that role on a lead pastor. (Small churches need creative ways to delegate growing counseling requests.)

The pastor has too many responsibilities. To add to his duty, the intimate, detailed, and comprehensive sanctification needs of a few people would not be helpful for the church’s overall health. It would segregate him to a few people while cutting him off from the whole flock—the ones for which he will give an account (Hebrews 13:17).

If the church were large enough to have a pastoral team where one person could lead the counseling ministry, which was his primary job, then being part of the pastoral team would work. But if there are only two or three pastors, the whole church needs these pastors’ full-time care, not just those who come to counseling.

Sound Theology

He should be well-grounded in theology. Counseling is the application of theology, pure and simple. We are Christian counselors—people who counsel the Word of God. If he has not had substantial and sound theological training, he will not be able to counsel well. If the educational choices were theology or counseling, he should choose theology because it’s foundational to everything he will do.

Not knowing the Bible is the biggest failure in our local churches, as well as our country. Christians must be theologians, first and foremost. Ideally, he will have theological and counseling degrees, but if he can only have one, you want someone who has the training in God’s Word.

Theology is analogous to an individual dipping a bucket of water into a well. The water is the theology that refreshes the soul. The deeper the well and the colder the water, the better the satisfying refreshment of the soul. You will not be able to envision and train others if you do not have a deep well. This person must be a “Word-smith,” a master of the Word.

Counseling Knowledge

My intent is not to downplay counseling knowledge but to exalt theology. The individual leading this valuable ministry must have a working knowledge of counseling. The teacher must know more than the student if he is going to counsel and train well. Here are three of the initial assessments you want to make to discern his counseling qualifications.

  1. He’s mature. He has worked through most of his life’s junk. Though we’re always a work-in-progress, this person has to be farther down the road than the average believer.
  2. His marriage—he should be married ideally—should be a stable and growing picture of Christ and His church. His wife is his primary disciple. How has he been doing in caring for her soul?
  3. Beyond the effect of his counseling ability on himself and his wife and children, you want to know how he’s been discipling others. What proof do you have that he knows how to counsel others?

It is not unusual for a person to have a “burden” for counseling. They want to help others, which is commendable, right, and godly. But leading a counseling ministry is both a “burden and gifting.” A burden is excellent, but that does not qualify a person to do formalized counseling and equipping. Desire and ability are not always equal. It would be like me trying out for the choir. Though I love to sing, it would not serve the choir or the congregation to turn me loose on Sunday morning.

A Trainer of Others

He should be able to train, envision, and counsel other people. Does he have to be an expert in biblical counseling? No, he does not. I’m not sure what that question means. I’m still learning how to counsel people. With each person I meet, and each week that passes, I have grown in my counseling ability. What you’re looking for is not perfection but present ability: can this person counsel others?

The point person in a counseling ministry will engage every possible flaw, failure, and sin known to humanity. Every sin, abuse, crime, and injustice could walk into his office. He will have to understand how to help these broken people and train those who are part of his counseling team. This opportunity is not for the weakhearted, but it is a passion that includes expertise that comes with seasoning.

His counseling prowess is similar to the theology query you want to make. Should the counselor be a world-renowned Bible scholar? No, but he should be a respectable theologian before he embarks on such a massive task as building a counseling ministry in a local church. And he must know how to counsel and train others.

A Leader of Leaders

His primary responsibility will be equipping people, not counseling them. He will want to build a counseling team because he can only do so much counseling. Having a team of qualified counselors is essential. The counseling team consists of leaders and other people who can lead individuals—namely counselees. According to Paul’s model in 2 Timothy 2:2, your point person is entrusting sound teaching and training to “faithful men” who will teach others.

And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Timothy 2:2).

  1. The point person’s first job is to envision and train other leaders, his counseling team.
  2. These well-trained leaders will do the bulk of the counseling—entrusting to others what they have learned.
  3. There is an expectation of counselees growing in their faith and practice to do the same—teach others, e.g., their spouses, children, and friends. The counselee’s “job” is not primarily to “get better.” His job is to get better to go out and make disciples.

Summary – The point person leads men and women to counsel men and women, so these “former counselee men and women” can go and disciple other men and women. This practical plan makes the “point person” a crucial player in a church’s counseling structure, which is why it’s a full-time job that you can’t expect a pastor to do—unless it’s all the pastor did.

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No Dog Wagging

One of the bigger cautions that you want to avoid is the notion that sanctification only takes place “in the corner office” of the building where the counselor hangs out. When you begin a counseling ministry, some folks may unwittingly think that sanctification is “for the professionals.” If that happens, you’ll have an unwanted two-tier system in your church—”the haves and the have-nots.”

In the old days, it went like this when someone was close to becoming a Christian: “Hey, you want to get saved? Come see my preacher. With the uptick of counseling over the past fifty years, we have slightly modified it to something like, “Hey, you want some help? Come see one of our counselors.”

What you want every person in your local church to say is, “Hey, you want some help? Let’s sit down and talk.” Part of this problem is the word “counseling.” It’s not the best term for sanctification. The better name is discipleship, which every Christian should be doing according to their God-given gifting. You don’t want the tail wagging the dog—the counseling ministry as the place where folks find help. If you create that kind of vision, you will unintentionally demotivate some of your people from working within their God-given soul-care abilities.

Cast a Vision

Once you have identified the lead person and have the vision in place for what you want him to do, you want to take it to the church. When I began building a counseling ministry in a local church in 1997, I held a series of church-wide meetings for our local church, mainly introducing biblical counseling to the people.

I taught the entire church what biblical counseling was, how to do it, and my expectation regarding sanctification for the whole church. It was a fantastic experience. When I told them that they could counsel too, they were excited and willing to learn more. Some folks believe that if they ask people to do something, it will be a burden to them. It was quite the opposite.

We released our congregation from this unbiblical notion that only certain people could help others. After I finished the initial meetings, I gave out a feedback card asking several things about their interest level in more training. I had approximately fifty people ask if they could get additional training. Out of that training, about fifteen persevered with even more training. Today, some of the original “15” is still serving that local body.

Call to Action

  1. What is your church’s view of counseling? If you’re not sure, will you ask a leader? Perhaps you can share this article with them.
  2. Are you actively helping others in their sanctification? If not, why not?
  3. Would you like to go through an in-depth counselor training program? If so, click the link to learn more.
  4. If you would like me to do some counseling training at your local church, all you have to do is ask.
  5. If your counseling organization needs some expert input, will you ask?

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