What does it mean for a church to have a “counseling ministry”? It is one thing to say “we all do counseling every day when we hear each other’s struggles and seek to offer comfort or guidance from the Bible” and another thing to say “our church has a counseling ministry and we would be happy to help you schedule an appointment with a member of our counseling team.”

Most churches and pastors can intuitively sense a difference in these two statements, but have a hard time articulating the difference… and an even harder time understanding the implications. This is a primary reason why churches most often avoid doing anything that is called “counseling.”

A significant transition does occur when we move from one-another ministry to formal counseling. One another ministry happens organic, helping conversations emerging from a naturally-paired relationship.

  • People get to know one another because they are in the same small group, serve on the same ministry team, or have kids the same age.
  • Conversation begins with the day-to-day events of life and moves towards confiding the struggles of life.
  • Trust is established on the basis of shared-life and respect for how each other approaches life.

Formal counseling, by contrast, occurs as a result of an “artificial pairing.” A struggle in life causes an individual to seek out a helper with particular qualifications. Key markers for a church to be aware of (both for liability and good member-care reasons) about this change are:

  • A request for counseling is made by the helpee.
  • The church assigns or recommends a helper who would not otherwise be a part of the helpees life.
  • The helpee comes to the helper with the expectation that counsel will be provided on the basis of helper’s training, role, or experience.

When a church facilitates a counseling-related artificial pairing it has a responsibility to both the helper and the helpee. To the helper (those they enlist as volunteer lay counselors or those they refer to for professional counseling) the church should ensure:

(1) there is a reasonable opportunity for success on the part of the helper and

(2) that the helpee comes with accurate expectations of type of help being provided.

A church should know the scope of care possible by a given ministry or individual and only refer individuals to that ministry who are a good-fit for what that ministry provides.

To the helpee the church should provide clear information about:

(1) the type of care a given ministry or counselor provides;

(2) the level of training a counselor or ministry leader has completed;

(3) the type of curriculum or activity that will be involved in the counseling process; and

(4) an estimate of the duration of the helping relationship.

When these ministries are provided through the church, this requires clear information on a church’s website, a well-informed receptionist who fields call about counseling inquiries, and quality intake forms.

The question could be raised, “If one-another ministry is counseling, then why treat formal counseling more stringently?” A parallel with missions is helpful. Every Christian should live missionally by seeking opportunities to share the gospel and advance the cause of Christ. However, almost every church or missions agency screens formal missionary candidates to make sure they are a good fit and properly equipped before sending them to do mid-term or career mission work.

In this sense, the words of Stephen Neil about missions would be applicable to counseling, “When everything is mission, nothing is mission.”[i] Passing out communion or being a positive influence in a community sports league is different from taking the gospel to an unreached people group.

Similarly, when everything is counseling, nothing is counseling; the word “counseling” loses any meaning as an activity distinct from “doing life together.” The immensely beneficial interaction of a small group to provide an experience of safe relationships is different from someone understanding how to guide another through the traumatic effects of childhood sexual abuse. A friend listening to the chaos of a marital argument is different from guiding a couple through a decision about separation during an ongoing affair when children are “taking sides” in order not to lose contact with the less involved parent.

But that does not in any way downplay that essential nature of one-another ministry. The sexual abuse survivor needs a small group in which to experience healthy relationships while learning how to cultivate them. The couple recovering from adultery needs friends to call when they’re discouraged, tempted, or confused. However, without the training and formality of higher levels of competence, these situations could overwhelm the small group and friends to the point that the one-another ministers withdraw.

When counseling does involve an artificial pairing, the counselor should seek to return or involve care from natural pairings as early as possible. An excellent model to allow for this is the advocate system developed by Garret Higbee.[ii] When this is not possible, then part of “graduating” to formal counseling should be a discussion of how to best involve the counselee’s one-another relationships to solidify the progress made in counseling.

More information to help your church mobilize an effective counseling ministry will be available at the following conference:

Understanding the Liabilities & Possibilities of Lay Care Ministries
Date: Friday February 19, 2016
Time: 9am to 5pm
Location: The Summit Church, Brier Creek Campus
Address: 2335 Presidential Drive; Durham, NC 27703
Cost: $99 / person (lunch provided)
RSVP  Here


[i]Stephen Neill, Creative Tension: The Duff Lectures, 1958 (London: Edinburgh House, 1959), 81.

[ii]Excellent resource to help churches pair formal care with informal care to allow for this transition is Garrett Higbee, Uncommon Community (available at www.store.harvestbiblechapel.org) .