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Practical Steps to Starting a Soul Care Ministry

Truth in Love 314

Scott Mehl shares his experience and provides some practical steps to begin a soul care ministry in the church.

Jun 7, 2021

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast I have with us Pastor Scott Mehl. I love getting to know Scott. Every time that we are around one another, it has just been a privilege, and a pleasure with his laugh and the laughter that we share together is just such a fun thing and even hearing about his experiences there in LA. He is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in West LA. Scott, we have talked several times even throughout this last year and a half on some of the challenges and difficulties that you guys have faced in your location, but then navigating that trying to shepherd the people well, I’ve been encouraged. I know it’s been stressful and difficult, but I’ve been encouraged by hearing some of those stories. I pray that there will be an opportunity for us to share some of those at some point. He’s been a pastor there for 15 years. He is married to his wife Laura, and they have four children. He’s an ACBC member as well. And I just love his heart as a pastor, as a shepherd, loving to just spend time with people.

Today we’re going to talk specifically about this idea of starting a soul care ministry. I have people all over the place, everywhere that I go, asking these types of questions, looking for resources, wanting to know more about, and even getting started in this direction. Scott, I think you’re going to be really helpful to us today to think through some of these. So let’s just start. And some of this is going to be semi-testimonial, and some of it will be just encouragement. I want you to explain for a second: How did the counseling care ministry at your church get started?

Scott Mehl: Yeah, thanks, Dale. It’s always so good to be together. For us, this soul care ministry, or counseling ministry, began just out of the need—seeing people hurting and our pastors wanting to know how we could better help and walk with them. I think sometimes, particularly when people are just starting out, you look at a church with a robust counseling ministry or robust soul care ministry or program, all these things, and think, “Okay, how do I start that?” And really, for us, it just started one at a time. It started by just counseling one person, just caring for the person in front of you, and you care for the person in front of you and the next person in front of you and the next person in front of you. Over time, not only were there pastors and leaders with burdens for people around them, but there were more and more people who had been counseled, who had seen the power of the Spirit of God to transform hearts in the darkest suffering and the deepest sin, and they wanted to help others. And they want to know how to help others, and they want to grow too. It just started piece-by-piece with developing training that fit the people. Developing training that fit where they were at, what they were looking for, and one-by-one in ministry that’s continued to multiply. As people experience the hope of Christ in powerful ways, more and more, they want to help others. For us, it just grew that way organically, far more than programmatically.

Dale Johnson: I love that. One of the things that’s a testimony about your church is, even the way that you guys preach and shepherd your people sort of lends itself in the direction. We see a lot of churches where there’s a hunger for discipleship. There’s a desire for growth. And in that desire, what starts to happen among God’s people is their eyes are open even to see the depth of the needs of people and how deeply people are hurting. So, naturally, for a believer, when we see those things, we are moved with compassion, and we want to do something about it, but it’s one thing to see these needs. It’s one thing to want to help. It’s one thing to want to engage. It’s another thing altogether when you start to put these things into practice. It is taken from the idea and the wonderful idea and the desire into making it work out, what are some of the logistics, that sort of thing. What are some practical steps that people can start to take if they want to begin a soul care ministry in their church?

Scott Mehl: I think the first practical step is to encourage people to do soul care diligently. I think sometimes our eyes get really big, and we want to start at soul care ministry, which starts by just doing it—by caring for those around you. And then seeking to build a culture of discipleship, that, to your point, Dale, cares about people. That sees people in the midst of their pain, that identifies with it. Developing a culture that rejects just flat-out judgmentalism but sees people in their pain in their struggles and whose hearts break with God’s heart for them. Then, I think practically, particularly as leadership, the things we can do then is facilitating equipping for people at every level, wherever they are at. Whether that’s at an entry-level and just asking people to read a book, this is why we developed IBCDs Intro to Discipleship, just a small group curriculum. Let’s just start with eight weeks. There are all sorts of different curriculums along the way.

And then for people that are really involved, this is where the ACBC training, not necessarily to plug all different programs. But that what exists, our resources in the biblical counseling movement to help equip people at every level. I think the practical steps look like meeting people where they’re at. Not trying to put ACBC certification on the first person that says, “Oh, I want to help people!” But meeting them where they’re at. People ask me: How do we equip people? What’s our system? What does it look like? The reality is, Dale, our training and equipping looks different every couple of years. Every couple of years it’s changing, and it’s morphing, because the people are different. We’re just trying to meet them and make it as accessible as possible while also challenging them to go deeper in their relationships with others.

I think that in addition to the equipping is just encouraging people to do it, starting with one or two people supporting those providing soul care. If you’re a member in a church, get your pastor involved, not because you want to make something happen, but simply out of service to him. Say, “I want to love the church; How can I serve you? How can I serve alongside you?” Or if you’re a pastor, get your members involved, and in order to serve them, say, how can I help you? I think that whatever we do, if we think about these kinds of two arms of practice—doing it and equipping, training for it—the two spiral together. Instead of training, training, training, and then doing it three years down the road or practicing, practicing, practicing, but never really getting trained to do it. I think at every step we can just put step-by-step practicing and training, practicing and equipping together. That’s the practical outline, at least that I believe shapes a lot of what we do and what I’ve seen lots of churches do.

Dale Johnson: You made several wonderful points. You’re fleshing out Ephesians 4 in how elders can now equip their people to do this work of the ministry as I minister to other people who are hurting. One of the other things you mentioned, I want to bring some clarity, even from where I sit in my position, you mentioned several curriculums that I think are really important and helpful. I want people to hear me say, ACBC training is wonderful training. Certification is a wonderful thing. It’s something that I love deeply and dearly. I think it’s a wonderful way to vet to see do you really practice biblical counseling? Are you really biblical in the way in which you approach people and their problems? But it’s not the end-all to starting a counseling ministry.

The training that you’re describing is so important to be fostered through the local church. Even the IBCD curriculum that you mentioned or ACBC’s wonderful training that you can get in several different formats, that’s not the end all. There’s going to be still a disconnect from the church to some degree. It’s so important that these things are fostered within the fellowship together. So that people can see, it’s not just training, and it sounds nice from a theoretical perspective, but we’re actually engaging in that practice, and that’s how people learn and grow among the fellowship in among the body. So, I affirm these are wonderful resources, but I don’t want pastors to say, “Well, we’re not for those things.” No, we want you to utilize those things in your fellowship, to be able to train your people to do the work within the body of Christ, which I think leads us to another good question that we should at least consider. As we think about starting soul care ministries, how do we think about this? This is a controversial sort of issue even to some degree but should soul care ministry be started inside or outside the local church?

Scott Mehl: Yeah, you know Dale, I think it can be a complicated question. One of the cool things though, about what God’s doing in the biblical counseling ministers, I don’t think it has to be. I think that the difference is inside or outside of the church, when our ministry sees the local church as the center, as the heart for what we’re doing, both for the ministry and for the training. To your point, if pastors feel like, “Hey, I don’t know how to train people, you know, you’ve got ACBC, but I’m just a pastor in the local church.” Well, you’re a pastor in the local church. You are where it’s happening, and so ACBC and all these other things exist to help strengthen you to help provide you resources, but I think all those resources are actually at their weakest when we in the local church just send somebody and think, “I don’t know, go learn from them and then come back and tell me.” You are in the seminary context, but I think that’s true about seminary too, right? It’s at its weakest when you say, “Okay go learn over there, detached from the local church and then in a few years come back into the local church.” And well, they haven’t actually contextualized it. And I think in the same way, soul care ministries, the local church is the God-designed context for interpersonal discipleship. It’s unarguable in Scripture. This is the context, the organization, the family unit that God has created and given to us.

If soul care ministries exist outside of the local church—and I don’t think it’s wrong for them—but to the extent that they do, they should exist to serve, not replace the local church. And I think that sometimes there are needs, but it’s elders who have been given the responsibility to watch over and care for our souls, right? (Hebrews 13:17). Then external soul care ministries, I guess I would say for my perspective, can be really, really helpful, both in equipping, where the local church just needs some extra help or even providing counseling where the local church needs help as long as they’re designed in ways that strengthen the local church, that work together with the local church, which I think all para churches are at their best when they’ve partnered with the church in that sense. I don’t necessarily think it’s an either-or that they should be only inside the church, or they should be outside the church, but there is a centrality to the life and ministry of the local church. If our ministry is going to be biblical, it can’t just be biblical in the content that we say. We also need to strive for it to be biblical in the context in which ministry takes place.

Dale Johnson: In which we cannot dismiss the local church, as you mentioned, that is God’s design, and we’re not going to improve upon that. Yeah, I think that’s a critical piece that we see the churches as absolutely central and absolutely necessary in the process of soul care. When you think about dealing with somebody who’s hurting, you have to have a place once you get them stable where ongoing care can happen, and that’s the assimilation back into the body as God designed. Counseling becomes this moment of intensive, acute, focused care and normal processes within the body need to take place. We have to be not just loosely associated, but intimately connected with the local church.

This is another question that I get all over the place, and I think it’d be good for you to address here and help people think through this, because this is sort of a touchy subject when we talk about laypeople, they go to training, or they hear about biblical counseling, they get excited about what the Lord could possibly do. They see that even in their little engagement, the ministry of the Word has been really good and profitable, and then they want to talk to their elders, they want to talk to their pastors about this idea, but there comes some tension. We’re supposed to obey our leaders. Hebrews 13:7 affirms that we are supposed to do that. But man, we really want to see this happen. What if the leadership in your local church does not seem to be on board with this idea of starting intentionally some sort of soul care ministry?

Scott Mehl: Yeah, it’s a question I get a lot too. I think in this sense, I want to both empower people to the counseling and soul care ministries that the Lord has called them to while also reaffirming and encouraging the support and love for those pastors. Particularly, right now, whomever your pastor is, wherever he’s ministering, he has been through the wringer for the last 12 to 18 months, and right now, there’s probably more soul care needs than ever in your church and more counseling needs than ever. It can be particularly discouraging if he thinks, “I don’t know, I just can’t do that right now.” But I would encourage you to first approach your pastors and elders with a heart to serve them, to serve the local church. Instead of saying, “I want to start a soul care ministry,” ask “How can I help provide soul care?” To me, that is the question. How can I be a part of the disciple-making? Then work within their structures? Maybe you think it should exist in small groups and they say, “No, we’ve got this counseling ministry, this mentoring program.” Or maybe you’re thinking, “We really should work as an outside ministry or a mentoring program,” and they’re saying, “No, we’re only doing small groups.” Don’t get caught up on the form. Take the structures they have and say, “Okay, how can I provide soul care within that? How can I be a part of strengthening the church within that?” And from that, I’m convinced the Lord’s going to grow the soul caring in your local church, as you provide it, as you pursue it, working together with them.

Now, the reality is, there may be a church context where the leadership simply isn’t committed to discipling or caring for their sheep. They may not be interested because they’re not interested in having responsibility for the soul. Where God gives them responsibility for the souls around them, and they might not be interested in that. And in that—what I would say outlier—situation, you might need to find a different local church where the pastors are committed to caring for people. But I hesitate to say that because I feel like in general, people tend to leave their local churches too quickly in our context. You know, I’m sure there are exceptions to that, and I think that the thing we can do particularly even if leadership is reticent is serve them, love them, pray for them one step at a time, seeking to engage in the soul care the ways that the Lord provides us, and the ways that the Lord opens the door in our particular context. You might have a different answer.

Dale Johnson: No, I think that’s absolutely wise, and actually well-nuanced, Scott. It’s always unhealthy for us to just take a snapshot of a church and start to make a judgment on how healthy we think a church is in a given moment. The church is an organism. Elders often have a trajectory, a plan of what they see happening, where they want their people to be, and how they want them to grow. And there may be the context in which opening an official sort of counseling ministry (and that’s not the end all, okay? I love counseling ministry, but that’s not the end-all?) That’s an overflow of healthy care in the church, but there may need to be some fostering of that, maybe the elders see that they need to build this sort of heart among their people first to establish something foundational.

I think the way you describe this is very healthy and good, and having open conversations with your elders about these things. And you’ll begin to see some of the reasons or some of the rationale and that’s where we have to trust the elders. Then you distinguished, I think very helpfully, about elders who just don’t see their role scripturally as being responsible for care or don’t engage in that themselves. And that’s a point of question that I think is natural and necessary for us to raise, and that would be a different application of the wisdom that you described, and maybe it is at a point where we need to maybe seek other places to flourish in ministry and also be shepherded yourself because that’s a critical piece.

I think it was well done and I pray today really helps us to think more forward about the process. It is a process. It’s not something that you know, “Hey, we want to start the soul care ministry,” and you just flip a switch. It doesn’t work like that. But if you don’t get started today in some form or fashion in the fostering of this type of love of the Word and love of people, you’ll never get to that place where you see it as a culture that cares for people deeply, which has a massive impact on the counties, the towns, the cities, the communities that you live in. Scott, It’s been a wonderful conversation. I really appreciate the time.

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