Should I insist that this counselee attend a local church?
How much time should our church invest in a counseling ministry?
Should we counsel members of other churches?
If your church has a counseling ministry, you’ve likely faced similar questions when counselees and other people attend your church’s care ministries but are not connected to the church body. The strategies laid out in this article can be applied to your own church lay counseling ministries and any ad hoc care your church offers to people who don’t attend your church.
At The Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship (IBCD), a regional counseling training center located near San Diego, CA, our primary purpose is to equip church leaders to disciple and counsel, but we also offer counseling for professing Christians in our area.1 A major challenge we face is that many of our counselees are not well connected to a local church. Some are irregular in their church attendance. Others are not committed members of a local church. Still others are involved with a church that does not counsel (shepherd) its members.
We have found that, in most of these cases, counselees could be helped significantly if they were committed to a local church.
1. We require our counselees to attend church (ideally, their own).
Some counselees claim to have a personal relationship with God, but they have not been taught to appreciate how God blesses His people through the local church through which they are cared for spiritually. Scripture teaches that we should not forsake assembling together with other believers (Heb. 10:25). In addition to requiring that our counselees attend church, we often give them homework to take notes during the sermon (e.g., write down three ways that God spoke to you through His Word in today’s message). This helps them to develop a habit of listening well to the proclamation of God’s Word. It also indicates what is being taught in their local church. Some counselees are willing to come to their sessions for individual attention, but they are not faithful in attending church. Such an attitude must be confronted. I recently told a counselee that I could not see him again until he had attended church.
2. We help our counselees to commit to a particular local church.
We often have counselees who have not joined or become involved in church beyond weekly attendance at one service. We also encounter people who are intermittently attending two or three churches without being committed to any one in particular. Scripture teaches that we each need to be committed to a particular local church whose leaders will care for our souls (Heb. 13:17). A major agenda point in our counseling is to encourage a nonmember to join and to deepen his commitment to the local church. Counselees who haven’t established a committed relationship with their local church often remain dependent upon the counselor. Under such circumstances it can become almost impossible for them to graduate from counseling.
3. We send our unchurched counselees to solid churches in our area (but not necessarily our church).
When we encounter counselees who are not committed to a local church, we work with them to find a suitable assembly. We have a list of recommended churches in our region in which the gospel is central, the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed, and the shepherds care for the sheep. We also have a booklet, Help! I Need a Church, which explains why every believer needs to be a committed member of a local church and lays out biblical criteria for choosing a local church.
4. We seek to involve the church in each case, ideally from an early stage.
Many of our most successful cases occur when people from the church (i.e., leaders or a mentor couple) come with the counselees and participate in every session. Where this is not possible, we seek to have contact with church leadership throughout the case or at least involve them in the last session or two so that a handoff of responsibility can take place. One issue we often face is that some counselees seek counsel outside of their church because they don’t want their local church to know about their problems. When we become aware of this, we seek to understand why. Sometimes the counselees don’t understand the role their church leaders are to have in caring for them (1 Pet. 5:1ff.). In other cases there has been a loss of trust between the member and the leaders, which becomes an issue that needs to be addressed in addition to the presenting problems.
5. We seek to show respect to other churches by not stealing their sheep.
When a counselee is a member of another evangelical church, we do not ask or encourage him to attend our church. Instead, our goal is that he would build a stronger relationship with his own local church so that he can be cared for by his own leadership. Also, we want other churches in our area to see our ministry as a resource to help them learn how to care for their own sheep, not as a threat that might siphon away their members. On the other hand, when counselees believe that their church is failing to fulfill its responsibilities, our first priority is restoration. We may work with the counselee to humbly and biblically make an appeal to the leadership. We also may offer to assist the church leaders. For example, some leadership boards have never practiced biblical church discipline and are grateful for someone with experience who will walk them through the process.
6. We cautiously help counselees work through the possibility of changing churches.
When we have counselees who are attending churches that are in serious error, we seek to help them to recognize the error from Scripture and then draw their own conclusion that they need to look elsewhere. Sometimes over the course of our sessions a counselee will realize that his church leaders are seriously deficient in fulfilling their responsibilities to feed, shepherd, and discipline the flock and will draw the conclusion that he needs to find a new church that is more faithful to God’s Word. The mini-book Help! I Need a Church, in addition to laying out the criteria for choosing a church, also addresses the issue of when it is right to leave a local church.
7. We seek to work with area churches by offering to equip their leaders to counsel.
Our goal is not to counsel everyone else’s sheep. Instead, our mission is to equip church leaders to care for their own sheep. We do this through conferences, live observation, and our Care and Discipleship Curriculum. Recently we met with a couple in whose lives God’s Word had worked mightily over a period of months. In the final session, one of their church leaders asked us, “What did you do for them that we didn’t do?” Our answer was that while ultimately it was the Spirit of God working through His Word, we would be thrilled to have the privilege of equipping them to better help people with gospel-centered biblical counseling.
8. We make our local church a priority.
A counseling center can be a huge drain on a local church in terms of both money and manpower. While we do our best to care for our counselees, our first calling is to shepherd the sheep in our own local church. In practical terms, this means that each of us can give only so much time to the ministry of the counseling center. Each of us counsels for a limited number of hours per week, and we limit our interaction with counselees outside of their appointments. Because there is a great deal of demand for biblical counseling in our community, we often have an extensive waiting list (and often experience pressure from those who urgently want help). It is hard to make people wait. On the other hand, we are always available to members of our local church when they need pastoral care.
As a counseling center our goal is not to take the place of the ministry of the local church or to compete with churches, but rather to help equip local churches to shepherd the Lord’s sheep and to help the sheep to experience the blessing of being cared for within a faithful local assembly.
We welcome suggestions from you regarding your best practices for running effective lay counseling ministries in your church. Please share!
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- The Institute for Biblical Counseling and Discipleship is a ministry of Grace Bible Church of Escondido, but also includes counselors and leaders from other like-minded churches in our area. The main reason we counsel is so our trainees can observe live counseling. We also welcome the opportunity to come alongside local church leaders to address their difficult cases.