Every ministry a church offers adds some burdens. There is no such thing as a ministry that is all perks and no challenges.

Making an informed decision about (a) whether your church develops a formal counseling ministry, (b) what types of formal counseling are added to your church’s offerings, and (c) how these decisions are communicated with your membership requires identifying and understanding the challenges.

These difficulties are not things you can “fix” or “prevent” once you understand them. While there are ways to mitigate the prevalence of these challenges, they are realities which will exist if you have a formal counseling ministry. You must deem the benefits of a formal counseling ministry to be “better” if you pursue this option.

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1. A counseling ministry will not “do everything” so you will still make referrals and say “no” to some requests.

The pastoral leadership must be willing to support these referrals and “no’s.” Otherwise, the struggles a given individual faces will be forced into the categories or techniques of training the counselor has received (resulting in less effective care) and/or the church will incur liability for promising a type of care it is not equipped to provide.

This first point can also create a sense of partiality – helping some people directly and not others – which can result in hurt feelings within a congregation.

Advantage: If administrated and networked well with other resources in the community, a counseling ministry can serve as a connection point for those in need of care to ensure that those who seek help through the church are connected with the best-fit, available resource.

2. A counseling ministry becomes a lightning rod for hard cases and interpersonal conflicts.

Often those challenges that are not resolved in one’s natural relationships either have a level of complexity or non-compliance by key participants which prevent the ideal outcome. When a church has a counseling ministry the leadership can be drawn into more of these cases than they would be otherwise. The church’s authority (by way of membership and fellowship) can be sought as a leveraging point to coerce these changes for matters which do not necessarily warrant church discipline.

Advantage: These situations already exist. Having a counseling ministry does not create them. With a counseling ministry the church has more opportunity to guide its members through the process of determining who bears the personal responsibility for the changes necessary in difficult situations.

3. A counseling ministry will be misrepresented and caricatured by those who dislike the counsel they receive.

No counseling ministry bats 1.000 (for non-baseball readers, that means no counseling ministry helps everyone it sees). Those who do not benefit from counseling are prone to blame the counselor; sometimes rightly, but other times by presenting the counsel they received in a reductionistic way or by minimizing the context to which the counsel was given. Due to the constraints of confidentiality, the counselor and church are severely limited in their ability to defend themselves against these claims.

Advantage: With time, wise counsel is validated. If the church’s counsel was good, then those who hear the misrepresentation will have opportunity to see this. However, this can also be a time of refining for a counselor or a church’s leadership. If the perceived “misrepresentation” proves accurate, then the counselor or church will have gained an opportunity to identify a gap in their approach to pastoral care and counseling.

4. A counseling ministry will attract situations where liability is at the forefront of decision making.

Mandated reporting cases are not the only liability cases a church will face, but they are some of the most significant (because they involve the lives of children) and represent well many of the tensions that lead to other liabilities. So they will be the representative example used here.

When mandated reporting cases are in play, a church can feel like Matthew 18 (internal church discipline process) is in conflict with Romans 13 (honoring the requirements of the state). Also, church members may be tempted to refer mandated reporting cases to the church’s counseling ministry as a way to get around the uncomfortable step of reporting to the appropriate legal authority. This can result in a liability for the church member who did not fulfill their responsibility to report.

Advantage: Having a counseling ministry forces a church to think through issues of liability and mandated reporting prior to a crisis event. This learning process allows church leaders to understand and navigate these incidences much better when they arise in the life of a church (and they will).

5. A counseling ministry will attract situations where your elders may not be the experts.

Decisions regarding the usage of psychotropic medications, the process of restoring a marriage after instances of domestic violence, or when in the process of overcoming a severe addiction it is wise to expect someone to begin engaging more with their child who is failing out of school. These are just a few examples of situations that are regular occurrences in counseling but likely not areas that most elders would speak to with confidence.

Advantage: This is a healthy recognition for church leaders, or any other type of leader. Being a student of life can make one a much better teacher-leader. Navigating these difficult situations can be an excellent way of bringing refinement and tender-humble tones to how difficult subjects are addressed in a church’s preaching-teaching.

Note: The tone of this post (and the workshop from which it is an excerpt) is counseling-toned; meaning it presents the available options with their corresponding advantages and disadvantages, and then invites you to make a decision based upon informed consent.

This is in contrast (not contradiction) to the predominant tone of Christian teaching; which is proclamational – determining what is “best” based upon the teaching of Scripture and persuading people to make that choice.

Behind this approach is the assumption there is no “one” model for counseling, pastoral care, or one another care that is best for all churches. It is not my intent to advocate for a formal counseling ministry in every church. However, the more formal your church’s counseling ministry, the more of this tone will be present.

If this post was beneficial for you, then consider reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on the Church and Counseling” post which address other facets of this subject.