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Lessons Learned from Starting a Counseling Ministry

Truth in Love 296

Dale Johnson and Ron Allchin provide wisdom in how to start a counseling ministry—with guidance and also warning.

Feb 1, 2021

Dale Johnson: I am delighted to have with us, Ron Allchin. Ron is a familiar face and name and voice around the biblical counseling movement. Ron has been an ACBC member for quite a number of years, and he’s also served on our Board with ACBC for a number of years as well. Ron is the founder of the Biblical Counseling Center in Chicago, and he has also had significant influence at another one of our training centers in Charleston, South Carolina, Lowcountry Biblical Counseling Center.

Ron, I’m delighted that you would be here with us to talk about this subject. We have questions all the time about how to start a counseling ministry, or how should we think as a church to start a ministry like this, or we want to get engaged in this ministry of counseling, we see it as something God is calling us to from the Scriptures. Today, I am excited, you have a lot of experience in dealing with the beginnings of counseling ministries and the sustaining of counseling ministries. So, I’m looking forward to our conversation today, and I want to start with this: If you can, give us some context for why what you’re going to say later is so important. Let’s just start with giving a brief history of the biblical counseling movement and your engagement in that movement. 

Ron Allchin: Well, when I was in seminary in Grand Rapids, I was introduced first to my senior year with a book called Competent to Counsel by Jay Adams. Prior to that, we had pastoral theology that was very seldom connected to the Bible, and that book challenged the class to think differently about counseling. Shortly after graduation, I went to Grace Baptist Church in Gary, Indiana where Bill Goode, Bob Smith, and some others had started the first biblical counseling training center in the country. That’s where I got my feet in on the biblical counseling movement, and the rest is history. I went to a church in Pennsylvania and started the High Point Baptist Counseling Ministry in a Baptist church there, and it was during that time I got my doctorate in biblical counseling from Westminster Seminary. I was approached by two doctors from Chicago to start a biblical counseling training center and counseling clinic in Chicago. That was over 30 years ago my wife and I founded that, and it is still going strong today with five center locations in the Chicago land area. 

Dale Johnson: That’s incredible. Ron is very connected. Everywhere that I go in the U.S. people have been connected to Ron or one of his ministries. So many people, maybe that you’re familiar with, most of you may not know, Ron was very influential in Steve Viars’ life. Many of you have been taught by Steve, and Ron was very influential even in his life. Ron, as we talk about the history, you’ve seen the development, and that’s one of the things that I love sitting down with guys like you to hear about the biblical counseling movement. You bring a lot of experience in different times, places, and cultures to starting biblical counseling ministry. So, talk to us a little bit about the biblical counseling centers that you’re a part of now. I mentioned the BCC Chicago and also Lowcountry, and you’re still very involved in those two centers. Talk about those for a second. 

Ron Allchin: Well, for the Chicago center, my son took over the executive directorship of that about eight years ago. We’d passed the baton through a board decision to my son who was taking the Biblical Counseling Center in Chicago to the next generation. He’s done a phenomenal job of that. About 18 years ago, a friend of mine who I counseled, who went to Masters, and got their degree in biblical counseling said, “Will you give us oversight in starting a center in Charleston, South Carolina?” So, Tim Bryant, who is the executive director there, started that center. I’ve been on the board since its inception. I never thought I would be counseling there, but I am now one of the counselors and teachers there at Lowcountry. So, I work for two Tim’s, Tim Allchin and Tim Bryant, Tim A. and Tim B. in two different centers. 

Dale Johnson: I love it. That’s a good way to keep it separated there. The ministries of both of those are phenomenal, and they’ve been very influential in the cities in which they exist. So, you’ve had tons of experience in every facet of the counseling ministry, and probably the most difficult is not necessarily sustaining it, but starting it. So, let’s talk about that. What are some of the philosophical practices or ways that we begin to think about how to start a counseling ministry? Tell us some of the things that you’ve learned that are absolutely essential in starting a counseling center. 

Ron Allchin: Well, first thing is, counseling has to start from a solid theological foundation. We’re rejecting the pop psychologies that come and go all throughout the years. People have to be secure in the sufficiency of Scripture, a biblical soteriology and progressive sanctification that are the backbone theologies of any counseling ministry and discipleship ministry. Some centers start weak. They start with a psychological base and not a theological one, and we teach our people the theology of the Word. 

Dale Johnson: That’s so important. Now, it’s always the case that we want to start out right, but we have to pay attention to pitfalls in anything that we start. There are, of course, mistakes. Now the benefit, and for my generation that we have, is people like you have tried this before even by trial and error, and you’ve learned from some mistakes. Shame on us if we don’t learn from those mistakes as well. Talk about some of those mistakes that you would warn people against as they start a counseling ministry.

Ron Allchin: Now, sometimes they start with sending some other people to a conference, and their laymen come back from a conference all excited about biblical counseling and wanting to counsel people, but their leadership, their pastors, their elders, or deacons are not really sold on it or maybe they’re just uneducated about it. These people come back frustrated because they really would like to use what they’ve learned in helping disciple people within the church, but their leadership is not sold on it. So, all frontline leaders need to be part of the ministry of biblical counseling from the top down. 

Dale Johnson: I think that’s so right. I’ve seen even potential division that could be caused by excitement among laity, and then the church leadership may or may not be on board. It’s so important to have your church leadership engaged in the ministry. They need to see the something’s not a side standing ministry. They need to see it as something that’s infiltrated into the life of the body even. That brings us to a question I think that’s important, a lot of people ask as well. We talked some about church-based ministry or even parachurch counseling centers. Talk a little bit about the distinction between those two and why both can be important and effective. 

Ron Allchin: Well, both of the centers, BCC Chicago and Lowcountry Biblical Counseling Center, are parachurch counseling centers. They are 501c3s, they’re supported by outside churches and businesses and individuals and that’s great, but the parachurch center has to have a goal—and that’s to teach itself out of existence. We had counseling training with the goal of getting into churches and doing training so that they could launch counseling ministries of their own right within their local church. One of the pitfalls of parachurch organizations is their financial support. I tell people when they call me on this, I try to discourage them a bit on this because I say, “If you don’t have $50,000, $100,000 already in the bank, don’t even think about getting started because you’ll need that much support ahead of time to get things going before your center can be sustaining through counseling, through training, and other income sources.” 

Dale Johnson: Well, I mean, that’s why I think that’s a smart thing as you don’t want to start off on the wrong foot, and you don’t want to compromise the things that you’re doing just because of financial pressure. I think that’s really wise to think about as well. That identifies one of the mistakes certainly that we would call pitfalls and things to watch out for is laity get excited. We don’t want to squelch that excitement. That is an exciting thing, but we also have to work with our church leaders. We don’t want to be divisive in the process. What are some of the other maybe pitfalls or mistakes? 

Ron Allchin: Let me give you five of them. The first one is that people and churches launch too soon. They don’t have other team ready. They have a lot of excited people who want to do discipleship, one another ministry with people within their church, but they’re not properly trained or properly vetted. We find that people that have been trained and that have a certain gift set are really great at shepherding and discipleship within their local church, taking seriously the one another ministry that relates to all of us at different levels.

The second mistake is they launch to slowly. They want all their trained people right away. They want them certified right away. But ACBC has certification that takes about two years if you stick to it, but you don’t have to wait until everyone’s certified either. You can get started, but don’t start too slowly. 

The third thing is choosing the wrong people. Some people have all truth, and they become legalistic in their counseling. Some people have all grace, and they wink too much at some of the sins that people are coming with and troubles that people are coming to be counseled about. 

The fourth thing is churches focus outward before they focus inward. What I mean by that is they want to have a ministry to people outside of the church before they have established an effective ministry to those inside of their church. If they start outside the church too soon, they will have more people than they could ever counsel because when you’re offering solid biblical counseling and your counselors are making a difference, people will come out of the woodwork for counseling at your local church. When we started a center in Pennsylvania, we saw people coming from other churches, and they were getting good solid biblical counseling where in their churches they were getting psychobabble. During that first year there were 10 families that moved from those churches to our church, not to steal sheep, but because they were getting the answers from the Word of God that they really needed. 

There’s a fifth thing and that’s this failing to delegate beyond the staff. Counseling is not a professional thing, well it can be, but the one another ministry of the church is to the whole body, and the staff certainly should be counseled. This counseling can be taken down to every member of the body of Christ. We all have responsibilities, to the third point of the Great Commission, that’s disciple one another and help one another. Galatians 6:1 says those who are spiritual should seek to restore, and that wasn’t just given to the professional church staff—that was given to the entire body.

Dale Johnson: Now, what’s inevitably going to happen, Ron, as people have been listening to us chat about this and your wisdom on how to start a counseling ministry is that people are going to want to know what are some specific resources. I get this question all the time. People wanting to know, “Okay, we’re bought in, we’re sold out to this, and we want to move in the direction of starting a counseling ministry. We think this will be helpful in our church. We think it will be helpful missionally outside of our church to minister to the community. Okay? I’m ready. How in the world do we get started? What are some resources?” Give us some of those ideas as you think about resources. 

Ron Allchin: Resources are the places where our people can go to get training and today, with the internet, training can be done at conferences, it can be done at local churches bringing in ACBC qualified teachers to run a series of teachings on weekends, and it can also be done completely online. Some counseling centers, Biblical Counseling Center of Chicago and Lowcountry Counseling Center, both have courses online that people can go to, and they can sign up for foundations, contemporary issues and video resources and ACBC guidance for taking ACBC Phase 2 exams. There is a plethora of opportunities. If you need to see what those resources are, go to ACBC webpage and there are places that say these are counseling training centers in there all around the United States, whether they be formal educational institutions like seminaries or colleges, or whether they be the many church-based training centers that have all been certified by the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors as a training center that offers the educational requirements for Phase 1 of the certification process. 

There may be some of you who want to start a church-based counseling ministry, and there are resources out there to do that. One I would recommend you check is the biblicalcounselingcenter.org of Chicago. That’s the the web page for the Chicago-based centers, and they have a ministry called Launch. Look for the Launch button, click on the Launch button, and you can get our free tutorial on how to launch a counseling ministry in your local church. 

Dale Johnson: Perfect, Ron, so many people are going to really appreciate not just the history and context of the biblical counseling movement, but your experience in working through this. Again, I have so many people asking this question, and it’s one that we need to continue to offer resources on. So, thank you, brother, for offering your time and your experience and using that for the glory of the Lord. So, thank you, brother for being with us.