You are excited about Biblical counseling! Perhaps you were exposed to Biblical counseling at a conference you attended. Perhaps you or a loved one received Biblical counseling and found peace, hope, and joy through the careful study and application of God’s word. However it happened, you are fired up about getting Biblical counseling started in your church. But what do you do? How do you get started? It is my hope that this article can provide some practical steps to help you establish a Biblical counseling ministry—from scratch.
I currently serve as the Pastor of Counseling, as well as the Executive Pastor, at Christian Family Chapel (CFC) in Jacksonville, FL. In that role I also oversee the Hope Center, which is our Biblical counseling ministry. I came on staff in 2013, but have served as an elder at CFC since 2007. When I joined the Elder team, I was tasked with starting a Biblical counseling ministry “from scratch”. As of July 2020, the Hope Center has 33 Biblical counselors. 25 are certified by the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC) and 8 are in the final phase of certification. Let me be clear. The fruit of this ministry is 100% a work of the Lord. And there is more than one way to establish a ministry. But I want to share with you the steps we took in seeking to be faithful to establish and sustain a biblical counseling ministry.
First and foremost. PRAY, PRAY, PRAY. The psalmist in Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” You will need the Lord to grant you wisdom and discernment. You most likely will need the Lord to work in the heart of your church leaders. Frankly you will need the Lord to do more than you can ask or think! So do not overlook or minimize this powerful resource. Pray for the Lord to establish a biblical counseling ministry, founded on His Word, and ask others to join you in prayer.
Next, select a “seed team”. A seed team is a core group that shares your vision and will work with you in this process. There is no magic number, but I would suggest a minimum of 3 to 4 spiritually mature believers from your church.
If at all possible, seek to have a pastor or elder as part of your seed team. There are 2 good reasons for this. First, there is the reality that, as a pastor, I receive countless “suggestions” of what the church should do. There is simply not enough time or resources (money or people) to implement all the suggestions. However, if a pastor or elder is part of your seed team, he can have those peer-to-peer discussions with the other leaders of the church to elevate the need to establish a counseling ministry. Second, when you have one or more pastors or elders on the team it allows for top down leadership (in a good way) as contemplated in Ephesians 4:12.
They are in a position to encourage members of the church to become equipped to do the work of the ministry. Members of a healthy church are (or should be) responsive to their leaders when they are encouraged to get equipped for ministry. Of course, you may have to do some work to recruit one of your pastors or elders to your seed team. Make this a matter of prayer and then schedule a meeting with a pastor or elder to share your testimony, your heart and your vision. Have some good resources (audio and print) that he can review to better understand biblical counseling and its role in the church. Keep the resources short. Don’t overwhelm your pastor with your entire library. Ask him what you can do to help him understand your vision. By the way, one of my greatest joys is to have phone conversations with pastors about how Biblical counseling has blessed CFC and our surrounding community. I would love to talk to your pastor.
Obviously if you want your church to provide Biblical counseling you have to have people trained to do Biblical counseling. I would strongly recommend that you pursue certification as a Biblical counselor through ACBC (to find out more about certification visit https://biblicalcounseling.com/). At CFC, we now require all of our counselors to either be certified by ACBC or in the final phase of certification. Of course, when you are first starting that might not be possible. Whether your leadership requires your counselors to be certified or not, you will need to find ways to have your seed team trained in the fundamentals of Biblical counseling. Our team was initially trained at the annual Biblical Counseling and Discipleship Conference at Faith Church in Lafayette, IN (https://www.faithlafayette.org/counseling/training). This conference is a one-week forum where you and your team can get immersed in Biblical counseling away from the distractions of your normal routine. It was life changing for me. There are other sources for training as well. The Hope Center at CFC is now an ACBC certified training center. We offer annual training in Jacksonville, as well traveling to other cities and churches to offer training over a series of weekends; one weekend per month for 4 months (see: http://cfcjax.com/hopecenter/request-counseling-training-2-2/).
As you receive training you will discover hundreds of great Biblical counseling resources. Encourage your seed team to read those resources. When I was training I was challenged to read an average of 10 pages a day from a biblical counseling resource. You would be surprised how much you can read when you do that. Plus, I found that reading only fueled my desire to learn more. If you are looking for a good list of resources to read, I would recommend the reading list ACBC has on its website for certification.
Of course it is helpful to see what biblical counseling looks like in action. If you live near a biblical counselor see if you can sit in some sessions and observe. ACBC actually requires a person to observe 10 hours of counseling by an ACBC certified counselor in order to be certified. Not everyone will have access to an ACBC counselor to observe counseling “live and in person”. If that is your case, there are two 2 organizations, Faith Church in Lafayette and The Institute for Biblical Counseling & Discipleship (IBCD), that sell counseling observation videos that can be used to satisfy the observation requirement for ACBC certification. Purchasing these observations videos for your church would be a good investment.
Finally, you should actually counsel someone. Don’t wait until you think you know it all before you counsel. That will never occur, and if you think you know it all, then you need counseling. So, in prayerful dependence on the Lord, jump in and learn from the doing. My ACBC supervisor told me that so long as I lovingly stick with the Bible I won’t “hurt anyone”. I will get better as a counselor as I go, but sharing God’s word with grace and love will not hurt your counselee.
Simultaneous with the above, meet with your senior church leadership to obtain buy-in and support. In our case it was helpful to show how establishing a biblical counseling ministry could play a huge part in our strategic plan to reach our community. I know every community is different, but in our community there were several great organizations providing for the physical and material needs of the people. What we saw was that our community was suffering from broken relationships. People had broken relationships with God, broken marriages and family relationships, as well as depression, anger, anxiety etc. A biblical counseling ministry was a way to touch the community in a unique way. As an aside, once we started our ministry we have always had a wait list of people seeking counseling. The only advertising we have done is a sign on our counseling building and page on our church website. People are hurting and will seek you out!
But of course, a biblical counseling ministry also helps you disciple and shepherd your own sheep—your own members and attendees. As church leaders we know that we will give an account to the Lord for the souls we are to keep watch over (Hebrews 13:17). Equipping spiritually mature people in your church to help real people with real problems, using the Bible, is good shepherding and good leadership. If a person who attends your church on Sunday needs help with a parenting problem or a marriage problem on Tuesday, and you refer them out to the world and its philosophies, it will not be very long before that person starts discounting what you teach on Sunday.
Here is also an unexpected benefit we discovered. A biblical counseling ministry in your church can fuel evangelism. We saw that there were men and women in the church who had claimed to be Christians for many years but rarely, if ever, invited others to church, let alone shared the gospel with unchurched friends, neighbors, or co-workers. However, once they were blessed to study God’s Word and have it radically impact their lives to the point of redeeming relationships and finding real joy, despite hard circumstances, these people had a passion to share the source of their joy and hope with others. So, when a co-worker shared he was having “marriage issues”, a former counselee was eager to share how he found hope through the biblical counseling ministry at CFC, and he should check it out. We have numerous stories like that.
I am aware that there is a reality that some church leaders may have a misconception about biblical counseling. In our case, some of my fellow elders were aware that there was a distinction between biblical counseling and “Christian counseling” or “Integrationist” counseling, and that a few people in our church body had concerns with our church establishing a biblical counseling philosophy for soul care. In our case, the elders were willing to listen to recordings of biblical counseling workshops on those topics that might be considered controversial. I will always remain grateful for the time commitment these men put in to do that. After listening to the workshops they understood that what our counselors would be trained to teach was consistent with what they would hear from the pulpit on Sunday. So, proactively address any concerns with your leadership and offer resources.
We also know in our current world that there are legal issues and insurance matters that need to be addressed. In fact, I am aware that these “hurdles” sometimes seemingly turn in to impenetrable barriers with some church leaders. However, if the Lord calls His church to shepherd His people we can’t “not” provide care because a fallen world makes it hard. I think you will also find that with a little due diligence you can address any liability concerns. I once heard a speaker say that a church runs more risk having an active youth group than a counseling ministry. I believe it too. I love our youth pastors and I love our youth ministry, but they do some crazy fun stuff to engage our students!
Here are 5 areas you should evaluate and address from a legal or insurance standpoint.
- Part of the Church or Separate Entity?
You will need to determine if your counseling ministry will operate as part of the church or will the counseling ministry be set up as a separate not for profit entity. I encourage you to consult an attorney on this issue. Based upon our insurance situation (see below), we decided to keep our counseling ministry as part of the church (which is established as a not-for-profit corporation). In our current political climate, where we see states trying to put restrictions on Christians and religious organizations on teaching and counseling based upon what God’s Word says about marriage, gender, and sexuality, we determined that the formal “church” offered the most legal protection to our counselors and our counseling philosophy.
- Does Insurance Cover It?
You will need to verify that your counseling ministry and your counselors will be covered under your Church’s liability insurance. With our insurance carrier, if our counselors are counseling under the authority of the elders, our counselors are covered under the provisions for pastoral counseling. We have learned that most claims against churches based upon counseling is not because of how they counseled or what they taught in the counseling sessions. Most claims arise out of inappropriate relationships between counselor and counselee. Therefore we have established policies and practices to guard against that.
- Be Aware of the “Duty to Report” Statutes in Your State
You will also need to educate yourself and your counselors on the “Duty to Report” statutes in your state. In most states, your counselors will be mandatory reporters if they have reason to believe child abuse has occurred. In some states there may be a duty, even if the child is now an adult.
- Establish Good Forms and Reporting Systems
You will need to establish good forms and reporting systems. Such forms should include the form of application a person completes to request counseling. This is what most ACBC certified counselors refer to as the Personal Data Inventory. You should also develop a “Consent to Counsel Form” that spells out important disclosures such as confidentiality and limits to such confidentiality. Additional disclosures should include that your ministry is providing biblical counsel and that you are not licensed health care providers. At our church we benefitted from the work done by churches that have gone before us in the biblical counseling movement. These churches have freely allowed us to adapt their forms for our use. Many such forms can be found online.
- Have a Legal Team to Advise Your Ministry
Finally, we have found it very helpful to have 1 or 2 attorneys who have been willing to advise us on legal issues that may arise as part of the counseling ministry. Needing to consult with an attorney is not an everyday occurrence by any means, but I am grateful for the people I have been able to call on when the need arises.
Once your leadership team is on board and you have addressed your legal and insurance issues, it’s time to roll out the establishment of the counseling ministry to your church body. Meetings with deacons and key ministry leaders is a great place to share the vision and answer any questions these leaders may have. The desire is they will catch the vision also and be advocates for the ministry when it is rolled out to the entire body.
When it is time to introduce the counseling ministry to the church body, I believe the absolute most effective way is to have your pastor announce the launch in your main worship service. There he can communicate the decision of the leadership to make the counseling ministry a key ministry of the church, and share the desire that the counseling ministry not only provide intense discipleship to those in the church, but also to be used as a key element in reaching the lost and hurting in your community. Such an announcement can even help remove any stigma of seeking counseling that may exist in your church body.
It is possible that a few in your church may have objections to the establishment of a biblical counseling ministry. One of the most important lessons I learned is that every objection is an opportunity to learn and teach. Many have questions about biblical counseling or do not fully understand the distinctions between various philosophies of counseling. Use those opportunities to educate your members. There may be some who disagree, but we should strive for unity as far as it depends on us.
As the ministry is growing, there will be a need to expand your team from the initial seed team. You may have some people who express interest just from hearing about the counseling ministry. However, you should not rely solely on that. It is more effective to do the “one on one” ask with a proven mature believer. Have lunch or coffee with the men and women you think have the spiritual maturity to be good counselors, and who have shown a gift and willingness to disciple others. Ask them to prayerfully consider joining you in this fruitful ministry. If your senior leadership would approach individuals for this purpose it can be extremely helpful.
An important lesson we learned is that, in order to grow your counseling team, your church must be willing to “release” its leaders. The counseling ministry is fruitful and rewarding, but it is a hard ministry at times. Most spiritually mature men and women in our churches are already busy, and it is hard to “add” the counseling ministry to what they are already doing. We have seen many spiritually mature men and women get excited about the counseling ministry, but when they attempt to begin the training and counseling without releasing other responsibilities, they lose steam. Communicate to those men and women that you and your leadership think they would be good counselors and that it is okay for them to let go of other ministries to pursue the counseling ministry. Explain to them that you believe they have unique gifts that will benefit the counseling ministry that others may not have. Plus, if they step aside from other ministries, it provides opportunity to raise up new leaders in those areas as well.
As you launch your counseling ministry there are other practical matters that you will need to address that space does not allow me to address here. You will need to establish a counseling budget for resources and on-going training of your counselors. You will need to identify the facilities where the counseling will take place (classrooms, separate areas, etc.). You want to be sure you have an appropriate level of privacy. You will need leadership to administer the day-to-day needs of the ministry (such as monitoring the waitlist and assigning cases to counselors). Finally, you will want to determine how you want to “market” the ministry. Where will it be featured on your webpage? Is signage available on your campus? Can you offer biblical counseling resources for sale on Sunday? However, if your experience is like ours, your greatest marketing will come from men and women who will be blessed by the counseling ministry.
I want to leave you with this: if you desire to establish a counseling ministry—GO FOR IT! That is a great goal. But also enjoy the journey and see how the Lord changes you and provides for you.