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Practical Steps for Counseling Ministries in the Church

One of the most frequent conversations I have with pastors and leaders in the church is how to practically provide counseling to their congregation members. Here are some steps churches have taken to build their counseling ministry.

1. Counseling ministry in the church.

All pastors encounter counseling needs as they minister to their congregants, but churches that want to establish a counseling ministry designate a specific position whose primary role is to provide counseling. These roles/titles are often called: pastor of community life, small group coordinator, spiritual formation pastor, or family life director. A counseling ministry in the church designates a clear pastoral role distinct from the roles of teaching, preaching, vision casting, and leading. A counseling ministry provides the structure of personnel and resources for members when they have counseling needs. This may begin with one pastor providing all the counseling to the congregation. This may evolve to training up a team of lay leaders to counsel as well. Counseling ministry can equip other ministries throughout the church by providing counseling training to missions, worship, children, youth, discipleship, small group, education, and outreach ministries.

2. Church leaders can connect church members to professional counselors when needed.

Due to limited time and training, pastors are not able to counsel every member in every circumstance. Particularly in more severe situations (i.e., major depression, suicidal ideation, debilitating anxiety, trauma/assault, domestic violence, ADHD, bipolar, psychosis), the pastor cannot assume all the counseling responsibility. It would be helpful for churches to have a clear delineation of when to refer their members to a professional counselor. Pastors should have professional counselors they know and trust to refer their members to when the situation calls for it. Meet and interview local counselors. Create a directory of professional counselors to refer church members to.

3. Church allocates funds to pay for a percentage of their church members’ counseling fees.

Since professional counseling costs money, it may be helpful for church members to have part of the counseling fee paid for by church funds. Assisting in counseling fees may help church members to get the help they need. You can frame the goal of professional counseling as addressing the specific issue by providing the appropriate resources.

4. Host counseling workshops in the church.

Pastors and counselors have specific training to address mental health problems. Counselors can provide counseling workshops to its leaders, elders/deacons, ministry/small group leaders, parents, and the general congregation. Workshop ideas: Parenting, communication skills, marriage, emotional health, addictions, anxiety/depression, conflict resolution, forgiveness, career/vocational calling, identity formation, and grief/loss.

5. Provide counseling resources for marriages.

Premarital and marriage counseling is an important responsibility for pastors to uphold the institution of marriage. Pastors are entrusted with officiating weddings and to prepare couples for marriage. Professional counselors have marriage counseling training and can provide resources to help improve marital relationships in the church. Counseling ministries can uphold a strong view of marriage by equipping and helping couples have healthy marriages.

6. Provide counseling resources for families.

Families are important, if not the most important relationships in the church. Counseling ministries can develop programs and resources to equip parents to raise their children through each life stage (singles, dating, marriage, pregnancy, postpartum, newborns/infants, nursery, toddler, preschool, elementary, middle, high school, college, young adult, mid-life, older adults).

7. Provide counseling to pastoral staff and leaders.

Pastors have a special calling with unique occupational hazards. Counseling for pastors provides them a safe place to address issues that they may not be able to deal with in any other setting. Some churches have taken the preventative step to provide counseling to their staff even when there is no crisis.

8. Training pastors in seminary.

In many seminaries, the counseling department has little connection to the bible/theology departments. Masters of Divinity programs typically require around 90 to 100 credits for graduation, and typically only 2-6 credits (1 or 2 classes) of those are required in counseling. Oftentimes, the professors teaching counseling skills in seminary are professional counselors and may not have any theological training or formal pastoral experience. I believe there is a need for seminaries to equip pastors to navigate the intersection of mental health and the church to be able to counsel the churches that they serve. It may be helpful to encourage seminarians to take more counseling classes.

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