Churches often contact CCEF asking how to establish a counseling ministry. Frequently they want a manual or step-by-step guide. But a wise answer to the “how to” question calls for a number of orienting conversations that precede the implementation of any program for offering counseling. “Ten Questions to Help You Establish Biblical Counseling Ministries in Your Church” is a talk I give for pastors and other ministry leaders. The ten questions are designed to help churches gain a better understanding of themselves and their context. When the answers are clear, then a counseling ministry can emerge that fits organically with who you are and who needs help.
Here are three of the ten questions that church leaders can ask themselves and discuss together before beginning a formal counseling ministry.
1. Do you live out the lifelong dynamics of the Christian life?
This question is crucial. Wise counseling embodies the candor and flexible wisdom that arise out of personal experience of ongoing need for God’s mercies. You cannot give away what you do not know firsthand. Theoretical answers are not helpful. A pat answer, quick fix, or panacea is not helpful. If we aren’t living the rhythms of the Christian life, our answers will skim over the need. Your opportunities to counsel—to meaningfully impact, help, and hearten another person—will be wasted.
But when you are living out a daily, dependent relationship with the living God, then you become a person who combines patience and clarity. You gain instinctive compassion for others. You understand where people get stuck—because you know where you get stuck. This helps you to be patient. And yet you know what is right and true. You are experiencing God’s help, and so you clearly, confidently, and directly point others to the God who is faithful. Clear thinking and a kind heart don’t usually go together—but when wisdom lives in you, you become capable of both.
Before starting a counseling ministry, do some self-evaluation. Do you, church leader, live what Scripture teaches? Are you and your people living the honesty of the psalms and the practicality of the proverbs? Is your need for help from outside yourself a daily reality?
2. Do you really love, identify with, and hang in there with struggling people?
Biblical ministry is not “The perfectly healthy minister to the sick.” It is not “People who have it all together minister to people who struggle with problems.” We are all in this together.
This second question is a sober one. Before you initiate any action plan to meet counseling needs, remember that those “counseling needs” are people. A troubled person is a person to love, not a problem to fix. And people often change slowly, struggle deeply, and are troublesome to others. Do you actually love strugglers? Do you identify with them? Can you say, “I am more like that person than different”? Can you say, “We are in this together”? There is a reason that God places “love is patient” first in his queue. He is patient. Christ really loves, identifies with, and hangs in there with people amid their troubles.
Sanctification is not a personal self-improvement project. One essential ingredient in Christian love is realizing “I don’t arrive until we all arrive.” It is we who arrive together. That is Ephesians 4, and 1 John 3:1–3, and 1 Corinthians 12–13. Personal growth equips you to tie yourself to the challenges and struggles—some of them lifelong—of other people. Your growth is not an end to itself. Your growth is to build Christ’s whole church, not just help you get it together. Any step of genuine growth for you makes you identify more fully with others.
3. What problem areas do you want church members to be growing in personally?
The prequel to counseling is equipping every person in your church to face, fight, and flourish within the basic problems common to us all. Then wise one-anothering begins to happen organically. Choose three or four key issues and equip everyone through a sermon series, or a Sunday school series, or in small groups. Get people talking about real issues. Get them praying for each other in meaningful ways.
In our current time and place, here are the three areas that I’d choose. But consider where God has you and what issues are most relevant for your particular people.
Equip people to deal with their own anxieties, stresses, preoccupation, worry, and sense of feeling overwhelmed. Worry is a universal human problem. Scripture speaks about anxiety in rich ways. “Do not be afraid” is the most frequent command in the Bible. If everyone in your church becomes aware of their temptations to be anxious, and is finding the grace of God in the struggle, then you have an important base for counseling in your church. People can start to give away to others the comfort they are receiving for themselves.
Equip people to address anger, grumbling, bitterness, self-righteousness, complaining, judgmentalism, and conflict. If every person learns to identify these sin-struggles in themselves, then they awaken to the needs of others. Everything that you learn about yourself and how the mercies of God meet you becomes counsel that you can communicate helpfully to others.
Equip people to identify escapism, pleasure-seeking, and addictions. Our culture offers us ten thousand ways to check out of reality! Opportunities to tune out and disconnect are as close as the cell phone in your pocket. But God’s people can become aware of their escapist tendencies and can learn to stay connected to a broken world with a God who is on scene. They will be able to help others face hardships and resist the allure of escape. God is our refuge and immediate help in the midst of hardship—the divine alternative to all the other places people turn.
Each of these issues touches couples, singles, parents, and children. These are not culturally bound. Our struggles and temptations are more alike than different. An elderly man facing a health crisis is tempted to worry in ways similar to the high school senior waiting for the answer to her college application. Our circumstances can be vastly different, but the human heart tends to respond to hard things with anxiety, irritation, and pleasure-seeking. It is in those places we learn to cry out for mercy to the living God who hears and is near.
As you think about where to go from here, start with these three questions. They can reshape your conversations, your preaching, your teaching, your praying, and your planning.
“Biblical counseling” is first and always a lifestyle of wisdom and love, though there is a place to formalize your care for strugglers into a counseling ministry. You will discover how best to do that as you lay a careful foundation of asking good questions, thinking hard, talking honestly, and praying pointedly.
An expanded version of this article appears in the Journal of Biblical Counseling volume 29:1 and is titled, "Ten Questions to Ask before Starting a Counseling Ministry in Your Church." You can read it for free here.