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Directing a Counseling Ministry 

Truth In Love 428

How do you go about establishing a counseling ministry at your local church?

Aug 21, 2023

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I have with me a dear friend, Ernie Baker. So grateful for this brother. Ernie’s been married to Rose and the Lord has blessed them with six wonderful children, 11 grandchildren. He had the privilege of serving the Lord at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida as the pastor of counseling supervision and equipping. In addition, he has the privilege of chairing the online undergraduate degree in Biblical Counseling at The Master’s University, serving as an adjunct in the graduate program in counseling, and as director of training for Overseas Instruction in Counseling. He’s the author of Marry Wisely, Marry Well. Also a booklet, HELP! I’m in a Conflict and Help! Disability Pressures Our Marriage. He’s also contributed chapters to five other books and written a lot of journals and magazine articles as well. Ernie’s certified with us here at ACBC. He’s also a Fellow and a conciliator with the Institute for Christian Conciliation. Brother, thank you for being here and having a conversation about counseling ministry.

Ernie Baker: Thanks Dale. It’s always a blessing.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, looking forward to this. I think this is going to be very practical, very helpful for those who are either in the position of directing counseling ministry or thinking of doing something, just like that. So let’s talk on that level, if we can, Ernie, what have been your overall goals in establishing the counseling ministry?

Ernie Baker: So a little bit of history, I was minding my own business seven or eight years ago when Heath Lambert called me, and I was actually giving a final exam at the Master’s when I saw that Heath was calling, I walked out onto the patio there from the classroom at while my students were suffering, and Heath said, “I’ll get right to the point. I need you in Jacksonville, would you help me?” And so, Rose and I had already been praying about how could we go to a local church and help a local church to do what we were teaching in theory in the classroom at Master’s. So that was a main motivation for going and helping people at First Baptist and when we went the church had been integration counseling ministry and so we were really establishing a Biblical Counseling ministry from the ground up and the goal was always not just to have a counseling center, which we do, but how do we equip the saints to do the work of the ministry, and have shepherding care spread throughout the whole congregation and not just a referral, internal-referral model, the church had been operating under an external referral model referring out to psychologists and then had a psychologist and others on staff, but we really wanted to have a vision of what do we do to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry, and how do we get one-anothering happening in the body? So those have been the overall goals over the last six years. 

Dale Johnson: I think as people hear that, most people would say and that’s exactly what I want and sometimes they may jump into counseling ministry and they try to achieve those things, but there are some necessary portions that have to be done in order to make all of that run well, there are some logistical things that have to happen. We have to think through the process of how does a person get from out there to in here for us to be able to care for them? There’s a way in which that happens and some of the ways that you set up a counseling ministry is through proper policies and procedures and those sorts of things. So talk for just a second about how you’ve used policies, procedures, protocols in a significant role in your training and organization.

Ernie Baker: We’ve been really concerned about making sure what we do well, because of the model that we wanted to be for our family is Southern Baptist (SBC), we want to really be a model for doing things well, and plus the days we’re living in are really serious days with counseling issues. So, it became really obvious to me that we just can’t fly really early on, we can’t fly by the seat of our pants and we can’t just let everybody do what’s right in their own eyes. Every staff member handles issues different from one another. So, we put a lot of effort into writing a policy manual, and policies procedures. We have 16-17 basic statements on common counseling issues. What do we believe about divorce and remarriage? What do we believe about counseling minors? And trying to get the whole staff and our lay counselors unified on why we think the way we do, and then even more serious issues like crisis marriages or domestic abuse, we come up with protocols to get the whole team unify. What forms need to be filled out? We live in a litigious culture so we want to make sure we’re protecting you, not only we love people but we love the ministry so we have to protect people in the proper ways and we have to protect the ministry in proper ways. So loving people and loving the organization at First Baptist Church, so that meant we had to get it organized. So we have a whole policy procedures manual that we ask all of our counselors to read and we’re happy to share it. 

Dale Johnson: Well,I’m going to ask you for that address. I’ve read through some of these and I’m just telling you, I think that they’re very very helpful. You guys have thought through a lot of these. Some of the policies have been encouraged by cases that you had to work through and think through biblically. I think this would be a huge help for them, so where can they find those things Ernie?

Ernie Baker: Well, we don’t have it online. I don’t want to maybe in the show notes we can put an email address or something. 

Dale Johnson: We can definitely do that. I do think they would be helpful. It is just in categories for people to think through that. Maybe they have not encountered a case like this or like that whatever that might be. And I think those things would be very helpful. 

Ernie Baker: We also have state laws in there, just some of the common Florida state laws and Georgia because we’ve had overlap between Florida and Georgia. We’ve had some of the most common things that our counselors need to know about legally. We have that included in there as well.

Dale Johnson: That’s great. Now we also have to remember doing ministry is pouring ourselves out. You think of Jesus in the description of Him in Philippians 2 and what we’re called to be as we live selflessly for the sake of others, preferring others, counselors do that. How do you think about caring for your counselors well, and then how do you do oversight with so many cases that may come through a counseling ministry like that?

Ernie Baker: So the Lord has blessed us, by the grace of God alone, I think, when we first went there we had something like in the high 20s of a caseload. And we had a backlog, three months of basis. We’re now running, I have to check the recent, but it wouldn’t be unusual to have 100 to 120 active cases and not all of them are coming through the counseling ministry and we now have 40-some people counseling. So what that means practically is I can’t keep up with all those cases. So we’ve structured the ministry so that every three to five counselors have what we call an advisor. And then I meet with the advisors to hear, to keep up with what’s going on the cases.

One of the questions I always ask the advisors is. How are they going spiritually? How are they doing emotionally? We try to be careful with the caseload too of how many are managing, which is an interesting question and how many cases any individual counselor can handle at a time. So I try to check in with them spiritually. And then I ask them to be checking in with their counselors, just to see how they’re doing because it is a draining, draining ministry. And I speak from experience of just what the early years there and being one of the only certified counselors in there and the intensity of the cases it was having definitely was having a residual effect. So, I want to make sure we’re taking care of our counselors well, and managing how many cases they actually have.

Dale Johnson: I think that’s so wise Ernie because in our eagerness to do ministry we can find ourselves spreading ourselves too thin and I think that so wise. Let’s think about this in relation not just to the counselors that have been trained, maybe they’re certified for ACBC, they’re working with you guys but you have other ministry staff so you’re not encouraging just counselors to do this, you’re encouraging your ministry staff to do this. So what role do the other ministry staff play in the overall counseling ministry? How does that work? 

Ernie Baker: So because of that, what we believe about pastors being shepherds, we believe every shepherd should be involved in counseling ministry. So it would be an oxymoron to say that there’s a pastor who’s not doing soul care, just doesn’t make sense biblically or philosophically. So, we have all pastors involved with soul care, which means we want to make sure they’re really equipped. So, every pastor on our staff has finished ACBC certification or is in process of finishing ACBC certification. And in fact, every ministry staff member, so we have some female full-time ministry staff members and they have all become ACBC certified, and thank the Lord not all cases now are having to come through the counseling center because these other pastors have become equipped, they’re handling within their departments. They’re handling their own counseling now. So it used to be an internal referral model, which somebody had a marriage case within the adult education department of the church. It got referred to the counseling center. Well, that’s not happening as much now because the pastor is shepherding their own people within their ministry and we are training the lay leaders within those ministries how to do lower-level care so that it doesn’t fester and become a counseling center issue.

Dale Johnson: Man, that’s so great a multiplied ministry and I love how you breaking it down into different spheres. You’re going to touch more people that way as well. Now I can see this happening Ernie where people are listening, they’re excited about what they’re hearing from First Baptist Jacksonville. They get on your website. They look. They see, man, this place is massive, is such a big church, they have so many resources. Of course, they can run something like this and be really organized and all that. What about us folks who are in much smaller churches? So, how would you take some of these same principles and apply them in smaller churches? 

Ernie Baker: So, I would say to my brothers who are pastoring the typical American church, which is my background by the way. This is the largest church I’ve ever been part of. Same things that we’re doing at a larger level. The same principles apply, if it’s a church of 100 or 150 and I would say to my brothers who are pastoring the smaller church, I know you have a hard time imagining doing this, but you’ve got to take the time to equip the saints to do the work of the ministry, and not just be doing it all yourself, and be praying for people that you can pour your life into and equip. Especially if you’re a solo pastor, you’d need female counselors trained, and for a lot of reasons, one is to protect your integrity, you’ve got to get some women trained in the church, but pour yourself into some people and start bringing them to conferences. Pray for people to become interested in the ACBC process. And I believe that the Lord will help you with that. We’ve structured our ministry, we have we called the pyramid of care and we have four levels of care with four being the most intense and we’ve defined them. What is a level 1, level 2, level 3, level 4 issue. And we’re training every Sunday school teacher and care group leader in our church to be able to handle level one and two issues, and then certified counselors and pastors handle the level three or four issues.

So, the same philosophy could work in a small church of, I’ve got to get lay people trained to handle the level one and level two issues. And it can be as simple as learning how to use some of the little counseling booklets we pretty much exclusively use the shepherd press series “HELP mini books.” And the reason I like those is because in the back of every book there are questions, and you don’t even have to be a trained counselor, you can sit down and read through the corporate and somebody in your Sunday school class on their marriage or conflict or addictions, whatever it is. And then you can work through the questions in the back without anyone having to be a full-blown counselor. So we’re training all of our lay people how to use those booklets and what I keep saying to them is, maybe if you have that conversation now, five years from now, they’re not going to be at the counseling center because the issue has rested. So I would just urge my brothers who are pastoring smaller churches to think in the same way and that there’s wisdom in investing in a few people to help carry the load in ministry. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I think you’ll be doing yourself a favor, you’re paying it forward, so to speak, and the health of your church overall will benefit. Well said, Ernie. Very, very good. And you’re too modest to do this but I don’t mind doing it. You can find training if you’re in North Florida, South Georgia, anywhere in that area First Baptist Church there, Grace Counseling Center, you can find some of the events that they do, I would encourage you take your people there and be encouraged they’re a training center of ACBC, all of that counts toward certification. So enjoy what the Lord is doing there through some of their training and participate, take some folks there, I think that would be helpful. Thank you brother so much for your help here.

Ernie Baker: Thanks. Great to be with you.

Helpful Resources:

Click here to review the FBC Jax Policy and Procedures.

Click here for more information about ACBC’s training events here.