As we begin, let’s use our imagination as we explore the concerns that make starting a counseling ministry seem administratively and emotionally overwhelming. These are legitimate concerns and need to be thought through carefully.
A Counseling Ministry: Take One
Most often, when a church imagines starting a counseling ministry, they envision a pseudo-professional model where members of their church go through some type of training and begin meeting with members of the congregation and community. These meetings happen by appointment, use intake forms, and take case notes that must be stored and managed.
Imagine what the process of launching a ministry of this nature would entail. First, a church is going to select its most mature and capable lay leaders. Intuitively, we realize that a counseling ministry is too weighty to be led by those lacking maturity or the capacity to navigate emotionally-relationally intense situations. This means, to start a counseling ministry, a church is going to devote its best leaders to this task.
But we realize that maturity alone does not equip someone to be a lay counselor; at least, to promote what these individuals do as “counseling” on the church website and pair them with strangers seeking help for specific life challenges (more on this artificial pairing in the next chapter). That means, to start a counseling ministry, a church must take its best leaders and ask them to commit to a season of training. Depending on the training organization chosen, this training usually lasts for 12-18 months.
Now, at the end of that training, these leaders probably have a capacity to take on 2-4 counseling cases at one time. If these individuals have full-time work or family responsibilities (which they inevitably do), then to take on more cases than this would put them on a path to burnout.
Actually, it gets worse, these 2-4 cases typically have an extended duration. It is rare for a hardship that merits counseling to be resolved in a few weekly meetings with a counselor. This means that these best leaders of your church will take on 2-4 cases that each will last for multiple months.
But there’s more. Counselees don’t graduate counseling and become counselors. Churches are used to ministries that replicate from within. Someone joins a small group, learns what the church desires small groups to do, becomes a co-leader of the group, and then launches their own small group as growth requires. Almost every church-based ministry operates in this kind of ecosystem. But a counseling ministry doesn’t. That means every new lay counselor – whether required by attrition of existing counselors or the demand or more counselees – must start at the beginning of this journey.
Whether a given church can articulate this dilemma or not, there is an intuitive sense that it exists, and it makes the aspiration of starting a counseling ministry seem unachievable. The model recommended in this webinar series will take these challenges into account. You will notice that the design advocated for intentionally seeks to avoid getting caught in these impasses.
Important point: The church cannot privatize discipleship. Whatever we aspire to do in creating a counseling ministry, we cannot create a system within which every person gets their own private counselor. This would be unsustainable and would not be faithful to God’s design for the church. The majority of care and the enduring care of their church will always be conveyed through friendships. When a church creates a counseling ministry, it will be a time-limited ministry; meaning the counseling ministry cannot replace the ongoing discipleship ministries of the church.
A church’s counseling ministry will also only be able to care for those areas of struggle that a given church has the people with the experience-passion-willingness to lead. You may want to start groups to address addiction at, but for this to be viable, you will need a leader with the experience-passion-willingness to lead this group. The human resources of the church will determine what counseling needs it can effectively address.
Corresponding point: A church’s counseling ministry must be compatible with how a church functions to be sustainable. As we just illustrated, the pseudo-professional model of lay counseling doesn’t match the training and replication protocols for how most ministries in a church operate. Only the pastoral staff go through a comparable level of training to what we described. To expect that for a lay ministry is not something that is viable for most churches.
For a counseling ministry to be sustainable it needs to have a shorter training process, allow people to utilize their life experiences as part of their qualifications, and have a leadership cultivation plan that allows participants to mature into leaders via their participation in the counseling ministry.
With these two points in mind, let’s re-envision how a counseling ministry might look using the support group and mentoring models.
A Counseling Ministry: Take Two
In this model, “counselors” are “facilitators” who use their life experience and a guided curriculum to care for people in their area of passion. These lay counselors are perceived as more than a “just a friend” but less than an “expert” by those receiving care. Because the leaders are facilitators or a specific and are not being asked to be general practitioners of counseling, the duration of their training is much less.
The leaders in this ministry don’t just “hang out at a coffee shop” with anyone who is hurting. If this was their perceived role in the church, they would burn out. They also don’t try to care for anyone struggling with anything. They have an area of care and meet with a group of people at a set time and at a set place.
These leaders don’t respond to requests like, “Would you go talk to my uncle? He’s an alcoholic but doesn’t want to admit it. Here’s his number. Will you call him?” Instead, people are welcome to come to these groups, but the counselors do not go to those who are unwilling to seek the care of a group.
Once several groups get started at the church, these leaders begin to provide encouragement for one another. As group the group forms, members within the group can provide accountability for one another, so that role doesn’t fall exclusively on the leader. As some members mature, they can begin to take on the role of co-leader. As the group grows, these co-leaders can launch a new group so that the size of the group remains optimal of the growth of members in the group. These new leaders get their curriculum training and much of their group leadership training from participating in and observing the group.
Doubtless you have a dozen “how” questions popping in your mind? That’s good. It means you’re excited and have a growing passion for the possibilities ahead. We have some more foundation to lay before we get more in-depth about the launching process. If you can articulate how support groups and mentoring allows a counseling ministry to fit more naturally into the ecosystem of a local church, you have gotten everything we set out to achieve in this reflection.What if starting a counseling ministry in your church didn't look like counseling-center-in-miniature? What other possibilities exist? Click To Tweet
Free Webinar Series
This Spring, from January through May, I will be leading a free 8-part webinar series on “Mobilizing Church-Based Counseling.” This article is an excerpt from that series. You can RSVP for all 8 webinars here. You can overview the dates and topics at bradhambrick.com/webinars2022spring. I hope you’ll join us as we consider how to launch a counseling ministry that is (a) church-compatible, (b) liability-wise, and (c) relationally-sustainable.