counseling ministries

Introduction to Counseling Ministries for Churches

​​Churches are a place of community.  Congregations gather to worship, pray, and hear God’s Word together.  While these sacred traditions of seeking the Creator are most obvious, the dynamics of people coming together to form a family are often subtle.  Life’s joyous moments (graduations, marriages, and births), and life’s saddest moments (goodbyes, divorces, and funerals) are frequently encountered within church community.  At times, people feel close support within that community, but at times they feel alone.  

For thousands of years, clergy (and sometimes laypeople designated by clergy) have provided pastoral care for hurting people in their congregations.  Pastoral care has frequently been the ideal support people have needed to heal from emotional and relationship challenges.  While often appropriate, pastoral care is not the right tool for all cases of emotional and relationship problems.  In some situations, other approaches to helping are needed.  This in no way detracts from the important role of clergy in providing care to hurting people — in many situations, clergy are the best at providing care to members of their congregation.

Most pastors who are experienced care providers will be the first to explain that they are not able to help each person they encounter.  Ideally, pastors refer to professional help in caring for individuals that are not best helped by pastoral care.  Some examples of these situations include:

  • Individuals who have severe impairment
    • Can’t hold a job
    • Poor hygiene and self-care
    • Poor grasp of reality
    • Violence towards themselves or others
    • Limited or no social support
  • Some individuals who have significant difficulties with addiction
  • Some couples and families who have complex relationship issues
  • Individuals who are opposed to pastoral care or who have conflict with their church

Describing each situation or need in which pastoral care is not the right tool is impossible.  People are complex and don’t fit neatly into categories.  Pastoral care is a powerful tool to help people, but in some cases, this approach to helping will not properly address the issue and in other cases, the person in need may not be receptive to pastoral care.  While many people will be helped by traditional pastoral care, what about people who require other approaches to caregiving?

The contemporary church is best suited  to meeting the needs of the local community when that church is equipped with counseling resources.  These resources will vary among different churches, depending on church size, local demographics, and resources.  A counseling center would not be an appropriate undertaking for the vast majority of churches due to the tremendous investment that is needed for a counseling center to succeed.  However, for a few churches, operating a counseling center with excellence may be an appropriate ministry goal.  All churches need to make some investment in resources to care for people in need of support.

Understand the Church Context

Determining a plan for a counseling ministry at your church begins with an understanding of your church’s context.  This initial step may be the most difficult.  We often take the familiar for granted and, with time, characteristics of our setting that would be obvious to someone outside our community become hidden to us.  Here are some questions that can serve as a starting point to understanding your setting as it relates to developing a plan to implement a counseling ministry.

  1. What are church leaders’ (and especially the lead pastor’s) attitude towards counseling?
  2. On average, what is the attitude of the congregation towards counseling?
  3. When people request pastoral care from the church, what is the nature of the requests? How frequently is pastoral care requested?
  4. What are the demographics of the local community?
  5. Are the requests for pastoral care similar to requests for help in the local community?
  6. What expertise is present in the congregation to assist with the development of a counseling ministry?
  7. What expertise is present among the pastoral staff to assist with the development of a counseling ministry?
  8. What material resources is the church able to provide to assist with the development of counseling resources?
  9. Have members of the pastoral staff (especially the lead pastor) felt a burden to care for people experiencing emotional and relationship problems?
  10. Have members of the congregation felt a similar burden?
  11. Has the church prayed for God’s wisdom in implanting a plan to develop a counseling ministry?
  12. Does the lead pastor feel that God is calling this congregation to develop a counseling ministry in their church at this time?

An Overview of Mental Health Resources

As you have considered the context of your church as you develop a counseling ministry, it is also necessary to have an understanding of mental health resources in general and also in your particular region.  A counseling ministry will not replace all mental health services.  There will be individuals who request help from your ministry who are in need of resources your church is unable to provide.  Your counseling ministry’s ability to discern these needs and appropriately connect people with the right resources will be one factor that will influence the success of your counseling ministry.

Mental health resources exist on a continuum.  Many mental health services, while different, overlap in the services they provide.  At one end of the continuum are medically based services, such as psychiatric departments in hospitals, outpatient psychiatry practices that are directly affiliated with a hospital, and residential substance abuse treatment (that are properly licensed and accredited).  These services are equipped to serve the broadest range of patients, and often focus on patients who have more severe impairment.  These organizations have a multidisciplinary approach to caring for people and, generally, patients are served by a combination of physicians, nurses, therapists, and case managers..  

In the middle of the continuum are group practices and clinics that include both medical providers and therapists.  These clinics are not always directly affiliated with a hospital., and not all patients are seen by multiple disciplines, but these practices have the capability of serving patients with more severe mental health problems because they have both medical practitioners and therapists on staff.  Counseling practices that do not have medical practitioners on staff are not able to serve as broad a population because their services will be limited to psychotherapy and in cases in which patients are in need of medical services, they will need to collaborate with psychiatrists or other medical providers outside their organization.  

On the other side of the continuum of mental health resources are self-help and volunteer resources.  Examples of these resources would include self-help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous,  self-help books, websites, and community resources that are staffed by volunteers.  Self-help resources are not necessarily inferior in quality to other types of mental health resources.  In fact, research has shown that some individuals can benefit equally well from self-help resources as professional resources.  However, the more severe a mental health problem is, the less likely self-help resources will be appropriate.  Individuals who have significant interruption in their ability to function (for example, they are not able to hold a job or take care of their personal affairs), or individuals who are suicidal will need resources higher on the continuum of mental health resources.  

Types of Counseling Ministries

A wide variety of counseling ministries exist within churches.  Churches with a wider base of volunteers and more funding are more likely to have additional counseling resources than other churches.  Volunteers and funding alone do not guarantee success.  Leadership, calling, adoption by the congregation and local community are examples of factors that are not directly related to funding or volunteer base.  

The following are categories of counseling ministries.  This is not an exhaustive list, but most counseling ministries probably fit into one of the following categories.  

  • Pastoral Care – care provided by ministers to members of the congregation.  For example, an associate pastor visiting a church member who is grieving and providing support.  
  • A Referral Network – A Referral network would include a list of Christian Counselors, medical services, and social services in the local community to help church members who need support beyond pastoral care.  Such a list would ideally include personal recommendations to trusted professionals who are receptive to collaboration with clergy.  
  • Education – This could include seminars presented at the church, books, and other media designed to provide education that would help prevent health problems in the congregation.
  • Support Groups – Support groups are led by lay people and do not require significant training (but do require proper leadership and support by the church).  Examples would include substance abuse recover groups, grief support groups, and groups that focused on a variety of other topics related to mental health.
  • Lay Training Programs – lay training programs would involve the church implementing a formal training and leadership program that would equip lay people to appropriately support members of the congregation in a manner similar to pastoral care.
  • Church-Based Counseling Centers – These are staffed  by licensed counselors.  A number of models exist for church-based counseling centers, ranging from services that are completely free to the congregation (counselors are paid by the church) to counseling centers that bill insurance.  Starting such a ministry is complex and resource intensive, but can also have a major impact on the local community.  

In general, the above list is in order of how common the counseling ministry is typically present among churches and how complex the ministry may be to implement.  Pastoral care provided by ordained ministers is present in some form in nearly all churches, while a counseling center staffed by licensed mental health professionals is relatively rare and very complex to implement.

Conclusion: Implementing a Counseling Ministry

This article was not a manual for developing a counseling ministry, but an introduction to some considerations.  Each congregation is unique in terms of its resources, needs, and local community.  A counseling ministry requires a great deal of investment, but has the potential to make a significant impact, not only on the church congregation, but also that church’s community.

What are your first steps in this process?  The pastoral team, and especially the lead pastor, must have a passion and a vision for the counseling ministry.  The congregation must be open to venues of care beyond traditional pastoral care.  The church must have sufficient resources (both volunteer and financial) to help launch this ministry.  Assuming these components are in place, here are some suggestions for getting started:

  1. The pastoral staff should pray and ask God for vision, wisdom, and provision for the counseling ministry.
  2. The pastoral staff should develop a team of lay leaders who have a passion for helping people.  They do not need to be mental health professionals, but should have some expertise in this area and a willingness to learn.
  3. The counseling ministry team will begin meeting together.  They will pray as the pastoral staff has that God will bless the counseling ministry. 
  4. The counseling ministry team will begin to develop and written plan.
    1. What are the needs of the congregation?
    2. What are the needs of the local community?
    3. What resources does the church currently have to help launch the counseling ministry (be specific)?
    4. Who are some community leaders, or Christian counselors that could be consulted?
    5. What are the goals of the counseling ministry, and how can we measure progress (be specific)?
    6. Are there existing ministry programs that could be part of the counseling ministry?  Examples include:
      1. Celebrate Recovery
      2. Divorce Care
      3. Grief Share
      4. Stephen Ministries

Once you have a team in place and begin developing a counseling ministry at your church, periodically evaluate its progress.  Is your ministry meeting the goals your team set?  Do the goals need to be modified?  Are additional resources warranted and required?  

Piedmont Counseling Center is located in Kernersville, North Carolina.  The founder of Piedmont Counseling Center, Dr. Dave Spriggs, served as the director of a counseling ministry that included a church – based counseling center and a number of lay programs.  If your church is interested in partnering with Christian Counselors, please contact us at Piedmont Counseling Center.  

Recommended Posts