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TIL 208 | How to Build a Church Counseling Ministry

Dale Johnson: This week, one of our training center directors, Tony Anderson, is joining us on the podcast. Tony has served as an elder at Christian Family Chapel since 2007. Along with being a director of one of our training centers, of course, he is a certified member with ACBC as well. Tony oversees the Hope Center, which is the biblical counseling ministry of Christian Family Chapel, where they serve as one of our certified training centers. Tony is married to Lisa, who is also a certified counselor, and today our Marketing and Exhibiting Coordinator, Taron Defevers is talking with Tony on this subject about how to build a counseling ministry. This is a very important subject for us to be discussing as we receive this question so often from many of you who are out there serving in local churches. You’re wondering, “How in the world do we get this thing started?” Taron was able to sit down with Tony to get some insight on his experience, his process, his progress, and the things that he’s learned along the way. Taron, we look forward to hearing your discussion with Tony.

Taron Defevers: Tony, we’re thankful that you’re here, and I know that you’re someone who loves biblical counseling and is devoted to biblical counseling in the local church. You’re someone who has a training center at your church, which you started with a small team of people from the ground up. You’ve had many years of experience of developing a counseling ministry at your church. We want to learn from your wisdom and experiences there. I know it’s a huge task to take on a counseling ministry, so could you help us think through what it looks like for a person to get something like that going?

Tony Anderson: It is a huge task, so you definitely want to begin with prayer, then pray, and then pray some more. You want to ask God to raise up some like-minded people who will go down this journey with you. It’s very helpful, but it’s also very important to have your senior leadership on board from the beginning to make sure that you’re not out there alone or rowing upstream.

When we started pursuing biblical counseling, our entire elder team decided that what they wanted to do was get some CDs from other training, listen to the truth that would be taught if we brought people in to equip our people, and to make sure that they could embrace it, make sure it would be consistent with what our body would hear on Sunday morning from the pulpit. After we did that, they were on board and said, “Yes, we can endorse this wholeheartedly.” As we got started, we were blessed to have the endorsement of an entire elder team. In fact, I had just come on the elder team at that time. Once they made that decision we decided, “Let’s equip our staff,” so they made the financial investment to send many of our staff away to training.

In the early days, most of us got our training at Faith Lafayette at the week-long training conference. The senior leadership was on board, and then they invested in pastoral staff to go and hear and be trained so that our plan was to bring ACBC, then NANC, to our campus for training. Our staff had been trained about six or seven months ahead of time, so as questions came they could speak intelligently about some of the training they were going to hear and receive. Then it was very important that our pastor teacher from the front was promoting this training saying, “This is a strategic decision our church is making to be equipped in biblical counseling and pursue that.”

Senior leadership was very important, and then we moved from there to really trying to talk it up constantly, talk about it in various settings, and it wasn’t just counseling. Twelve years ago, people thinking of being trained in counseling might have not been something that they were rallying around, but when we cast it in the truth of intensive discipleship and individually how people can grow and change—progressive sanctification, becoming more like Christ—that resonated with people. Most churches, if you look at their mission statement or goals, there is an aspect of becoming more like Christ. Training biblical counseling fits that perfectly.

We also recognized the way that we could cast a vision for our community. I don’t know if everyone’s community is like this, but as we looked around our neighborhoods, there were already para-church ministries or organizations that helped the poor, helped the needy with clothes and things of that nature. But we realized what our community needed was reconciliation with broken relationships. That was something unique that wasn’t being provided, so it really was a major emphasis of outreach. This is a way that we could definitely impact our community. That is something to consider as you’re thinking about starting it: think broader, think not only how it will grow your own people, but what a blessing you can be to your community. That gets people excited and it’s a biblical response to our community.

Then as we were growing slow—a few of us getting started—we really were encouraging people to remove whatever stigma there was of counseling. Like, “Oh, I have to go to counseling,” because it was intensive discipleship. Over the years, we’ve now seen that people almost expect that at some point you’re going to be in intensive discipleship, because we all need help to grow and change. Now it’s more the norm that if they are members or attenders of our church, they almost readily share, “Yeah, I’ve been through counseling,” because we’ve been up front about it, encouraged people to do this. This is a good thing to fulfill your call to become more like Christ.

Taron Defevers: That’s great. So begin with prayer: we’re dependent on the Lord. Then it’s good for the senior staff to be in unity. No one’s going in different directions, but we all understand we are doing intensive discipleship as a church. We want to cultivate, develop that ministry in our church. We want the whole staff to be on board. What about the rest of the church? How do you start to cultivate people who want to move towards this type of ministry more at your church? How do they participate as a part of that?

Tony Anderson: Great question. As our pastor or elders get up front and say, “This is a course of action, consider this,” but you have to move from that. We did the “one-on-one ask.” You evaluate who are the spiritually mature women and men in your body that you could see have this gift of that one-on-one discipling, and then set up opportunities to go and ask, “Would you consider this?’ It’s incremental. You ask them, “Would you go to the training?” Then once the training is done ask, “Would you consider the next step of pursuing the exams?” or whatever is the next step for them.

What we’ve experienced, and one of the things I didn’t realize even from other wisdom we gathered, is that sometimes you have to release your leaders. If you want spiritually mature men and women to counsel, they’re probably already busy. I won’t say it’s impossible, but it’s difficult to do biblical counseling as an add-on. We encourage men and women by saying, “I know you’ve got a fruitful ministry, but would you consider stepping away from that to pursue this important ministry that we want to start?” I’m an example of that. At the time, I was regularly teaching in some of the Sunday morning fellowships. I enjoyed it, thought I was decent at it, and our pastor-teacher came to me and said, “You know, at this point we can probably find someone else to teach, but we don’t have a lot of people who have a passion right now to pursue this. I’m asking you to give that up to pursue this ministry.” He said, “The person who replaces you may not be as good as you,” but then he laughed and said, “Actually, they may end up being better than you.” That was a humbling moment. But releasing your leaders is very important so that they can have the time to prepare and then take on this ministry.

Then you have to make a financial investment in them. If you’re on staff, as a few of us were, we have continuing education dollars or budgets, so it’s easy to get away for some training. But for a lot of people, they have to take vacation time, they have to pay for their own expenses. I would really encourage you to make a financial investment in them. Going forward, if the Lord’s blessed you and the church is able, I would encourage you to pay those on-going training fees, pay the certification fees that are involved, pay the annual dues, because if you think about it, there’s not a lot of ministries where you have to pay to participate. We don’t require praise team members to pay to be part of the praise team ministry. If you can, soften the load on that, because they’re providing a very important service.

I do want to say as an aside, setting up a counseling ministry, you need some seed money up front, but once that’s established—maybe you’ve invested some money and some resources that you will then use to hand to counselees—the counseling ministry doesn’t require a lot of ongoing funds to operate. There’s a great return on investment. If you have some dollars for counseling, I would use it for your people.

Connected to that is, don’t go to any conferences alone. If you see something that’s good, take either one of your existing counselors or someone that you think might have an interest. Let them see what it’s like, let them get with like-minded people, and then when you come back do the follow-up. Don’t let the excitement of the moment leave.

I think one final pieces is you have layers of leadership. You have your elder team. But show other leaders what it looks like in person. There are opportunities to show some of the counseling observation DVDs. That’s helpful. We borrowed something from Brad Bigney. He has an exercise called “What-Ifs.” In some of our leadership meetings, we just posed a hypothetical that is very real. Someone comes up and approaches you about a pornography problem, an adultery problem, and then we say, “In 5 minutes, how are you going to respond?” And you have to have a passage of Scripture to support your answer. It can’t be, “Well I think…” If you do that enough, pretty soon people realize, “You know what, I’d like to be better equipped to use my Bible to help people.” We show the need in outward circles to expand that net and say, “This is what we want. There’s a need for you to get better equipped, and then we’re going to invest in you to do that.”

Taron Defevers: That’s really helpful. It’s good to have a mindset of “I’m always thinking about not only my own training and my own growth, but as a pastor or even senior counselor, I want to be training up other people to be doing this ministry,” even offloading that to others equipping others to be doing that. You mention the importance of investing money and training for people who are in this this ministry. Counseling often deals with very difficult, challenging discipleship. It’s what’s often known as intensive discipleship. So how do you make sure that those who are participating in this ministry have a level of skill and competency with the Scriptures when they’re participating in this ministry in your church?

Tony Anderson: That’s a question that we really wanted to tackle up front, because we know that God’s Word is perfect and sufficient, but the individual counselors may not be. We always want to make sure that we are growing in that area. Our elders made a decision early on that if we’re going to help our people and we’re going to put a counselor with a counselee behind closed doors with many problems of life, that we were going to require our counselors to be certified by ACBC. That may be a wisdom issue that not everyone follows, but we believed that it was important that when someone was going to meet with someone, that they had received the classroom training, the reading, they had gone through the exams, and then had been observed by a supervisor of ACBC for a minimum of 50 hours. We do allow people to counsel while they’re under supervision. Once they’re in that third phase, they’re counseling. But we thought it was very important that we require certification before people counseled. In the early stages, that may not be possible. When we first started, there were only two or three of us, but we were already pastoral staff, so we were already counseling anyway. As we grew, we required that certification.

Another thing that we have to be aware of—I know in my role as the pastor of counseling and director of the training center, I have to transition from a direct counselor. I still counsel, but not as many cases because now I have to be a multiplier. I spend some more time now getting with our counselors trying to observe them, trying to sit in with them to co-counsel. It requires me to transition the ministry, which can be harder work because now I have to juggle three calendars: the counselee’s, the other counselor’s, and my schedule so that we can all meet together. But multiplying does bear much fruit, so I definitely would encourage people to do that.

Then, we as a counseling ministry require ongoing education. We just established something called the Investments in Excellence. Every year, we ask our counselors to attend or listen to at least six workshops or teachings on biblical counseling issues. This can be satisfied by attending the annual conference here. We require a minimum of 300 pages of reading from a new biblical counseling book or text. Then we require them to either co-counsel with someone that they have not co-counseled within the last 12 months, or to observe and then be observed by someone else to get feedback so they can learn and continue to be growing. If they do that, then our investment in them is to continue to pay for ongoing membership fees and training opportunities.

Taron Defevers: That’s great, a continual pursuit of excellence.

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