(I have been preparing to give a conference on how to start a biblical counseling ministry at a local church. So I’ve spent the last week writing this. Here is the first draft of one section of that conference):


Our plan will begin with you as an individual member of your local church. And since there is only one of you, it makes little sense to start our instruction with the ways to organize a fifty-member team at a 10,000-person church (although I know someone who is doing that now). We will move from you as an individual and go to describe a counseling ministry which will involve many members of your local church, no matter the size of your congregation. A ministry which will permit you to not only respond to crisis, but develop Christians who are deeply involved in one-another’s life. I want to give you a vision of what a church can be; and what a church should be. I am not going to ask you to change your doctrines, or reorganize your leadership structure. No one is going to take authority away from the pastors in your congregation.
I want you to understand how to utilize the resources you already have inside your own churches.
Imagine you had some money in your pocket. But also imagine that you have a box of rocks at home; rocks you picked up here and there when you were out hiking. You’re having a hard time paying your bills; you are careful with you money; you work hard at your job; but money is always tight. And then one day a friend comes by and you show him your rocks. Your friend, you has different training from you explains that it is not a box of rocks, but it is a box of gem stones: you have sapphires and rubies. You didn’t realize it, but you had great wealth.
That is how I hope to bring you to understand your congregation.

Two Objections

When the question of counseling does come-up, there are two basic deflections or objections to the proposal of a counseling ministry. First, there is the argument of psychological professionalism. Second, there is an argument of preaching.
Psychological professionalism: This argument says that counseling issues, beyond simple issues of be nice to your wife, or “spiritual” issues, about the doctrine of repentance, are simply not properly matters for the Church. I will not deny that there is a great deal of bad and even harmful counsel that comes from well-meaning Christians. Training is a must. Moreover, the question of “psychology” and psychiatry involve a great many things. A full answer to this objection lies well-beyond the scope of this seminar.
The training over the next week will respond to much of this criticism. However, there are some additional issues concerning psychology which I have dealt with a pair of journal articles which we have made available to you.
Preaching: A second argument is that the only counseling which a church needs comes from the pulpit. Some pastors think a counseling ministry is either unnecessary or an attack upon their pulpit. A good example of this is found in J.C. Ryle’s book on Christian leaders in 18th Century England. There was a fine and useful preacher name William Romaine. Of this man, Ryle writes, ““It was not uncommon for him to tell those who came to him with Cases of conscience [a counseling issue] and questions of spiritual concern, that he said all he had to say in the pulpit.” And while Romaine may have eventually said something which answered to that particular person’s concern, I can’t say that Romaine’s decision was correct.
The Apostle Paul in Acts 20 explains that he taught publicly and from house to house. Paul wrote letters of personal encouragement to Philemon, Titus, and Timothy. Paul answered specific questions of the Corinthian church. James 5:16 instructs us to confess our sins to one-another. Colossians 3:16 says that we are to admonish one-another.
It has been the considered counsel of the best pastors to engage in private counsel. Richard Baxter in his work on pastoral ministry, The Reformed Pastor writes:

“We must be ready to give advice to inquirers, who come to us with cases of conscience; especially the great case which the Jews put to Peter, and the gaoler to Paul and Silas, ‘What must we do to be saved?’ A minister is not to be merely a public preacher, but to be known as a counsellor for their souls, as the physician is for their bodies, and the lawyer for their estates: so that each man who is in doubts and straits, may bring his case to him for resolution; as Nicodemus came to Christ, and as it was usual with the people of old to go to the priest, ‘whose lips must keep knowledge, and at whose mouth they must ask the law, because he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.’ But as the people have become unacquainted with this office of the ministry, and with their own duty and necessity in this respect, it belongeth to us to acquaint them with it, and publicly to press them to come to us for advice about the great concerns of their souls. We must not only be willing to take the trouble, but should draw[…]”

I could say far more, but at this point leave it with: private counsel is a necessary element of ministry. There is an element of ministry which cannot be met by means of public preaching –as essential as preaching is. But private and public go together. I have learned that the better the preaching, the greater the need for private counsel. The best preaching cuts the heart, stirs the conscience, creates desire for a knowledge of God and a greater knowledge of God. The Word of God rightly preached stirs up the questions which need answer.
1. Know the Bible
Some counseling will be merely Bible Questions, such as why does God permit Satan to trouble Job. And at this point I give you my first instruction: Know the Bible. I will have a list of instructions below, but this is a point which cannot be overstated: Know the Bible.
The Holy Spirit uses the Word of God to create and form the People of God. If you want a brief defense of Biblical Counseling, here it is:
Galatians 5:22–23 (NASB95)
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

And the argument is as follows: I want you to imagine any counseling trouble. I then want you to image the outflowing of the Fruit of the Spirit in one’s life. What trouble is left?

2. Work With Church Leadership
You will need the cooperation and support of the church leadership. If you are lay member of the congregation do not start a ministry within your church without the knowledge and support of the leadership. You need gain the understanding and confidence of the leadership. First, the counseling ministry exists to help with the overall work of the church. Second, we do not want anyone to think of biblical counseling as a scourge upon the Church. It must be a blessing and support.
But the support must be more than a shrug and go ahead and see what you can do. You will want the full-hearted support of the leadership when trouble arises. And, unfortunately, counseling ministry attract trouble.
Counseling concerns the people in the congregation who are suffering the greatest degree of trouble, of sorrow, and need. When you are dealing with people under enormous stress, with terrible problems, often with financial and legal complications, it is very difficult to avoid trouble. The counselees may respond, with threats, slander, legal action, personal destruction.
If there is any dissension between you and the leadership, you will be hurt when trouble comes. The damage you suffer can be far worse than you can imagine. The congregation may be torn apart. But if the leadership understands your work and has confidence in you and supports the work, you and the congregation can withstand the attacks.
I do know that other counselors are of the opinion that you can begin as long as you have the support of just the pastor (or the senior most pastor) and that you can bring the others along as they see you ministry.
There is no chapter and verse which answers this question: there is only wisdom. If you have authority to go ahead, but there is a conflict in the leadership, be prepared: you very well may find yourself in a very difficult place. I can tell you that conflict within the church can be sinful and nasty in ways that exceed conflict in secular situations. A conflict within a congregation can become like a conflict within a family.
This is not the place to go on about Church conflict. That is a topic to itself. But understand that anything which you can to avoid conflict must be considered.

3. Remain under the authority of your local church
Make sure your counseling ministry is under the authority of your local church. You are not stand-alone independent resources, like a paid clinical psychologist. If counseling is an integral ministry of the Church, then it must operate under the authority of the church.
Counseling, when do correctly, is expositional: it is like a sermon. You take the Word of God, explain the Word of God, apply the Word of God. It is similar to a sermon, only the audience size is smaller. You are seeking to create thought, affections and conduct which flows from and aligns with the Word of God. You are seeking to create Bible-shaped people.
Since this is a teaching ministry, you are delivering doctrine. A teaching ministry must be conducted in accordance with the teaching positions of your church. We have people from different backgrounds here: there are Presbyterians and Baptists here. While we will agree on the matters which we are addressing here as to counseling, there will be other issues which may arise in counseling over which we may differ.
For instance, Jay Adams was an Amillennialist; I am a Pre-millennialist. Adams makes a counseling argument on an issue about the Devil’s work based upon his millennial position. While I agree with much of his argument, I disagree with him on the manner in which he supports that argument. You need to understand these issues and teach in accordance with the doctrinal distinctives of your congregation. If you teach counter to your church’s doctrinal positions, you will at the least create confusion in your counselees.
In addition, the confidence your leadership will have in your work will depend upon your integrity and transparency in counseling.
Your leaders are given to watch over the congregation as a whole. Even though you are in a position to help with that oversight, you must not usurp that oversight.
Finally, you need the oversight. Even if you are the head pastor of your congregation, you need someone who knows what you are doing in your counseling session. While some privacy is necessary; absolutely privacy is dangerous.

4. Training, Mentors, Colleagues
Training: Conference training is good, but it is not enough. The minimal training for an ACBC certification is the bare minimum; but it is not nearly enough to make you proficient in all that you will be called upon to do.
Much of the most difficult counseling I have had to undertake has involved counseling someone who has received poor counseling from another well-meaning Christian. At times, the poor counseling has come from a pastor – who was trained to preach, but did not know how to counsel. The reason, I think, comes from preachers often not understanding how application works. When you counsel, you have to watch how your application works and whether it profits. So, being a counselor makes you a better preacher.
The degree of your training depends upon the nature of your ministry. If your counseling ministry will be you alone with mentors and colleagues. You will need one level of training. If you plain on becoming a counseling center which provides training and development of other counselors, you will need significantly more training. We will discuss that, below.
You will need a mentors and colleagues. There will always be counseling matters which exceed your knowledge and experience. I have often had to work through counseling matters with other men and women who have had more or different experience than me.
Many of you will find yourself as the sole counselor, or perhaps one of two, in your congregation. That means you are going to need to have relationships with counselors who attend other congregations. Take time to meet others; make relationships.

5. Have a Time-Management Plan
There are two time-management issues: (1) Creating a Triage Plan. (2) Creating a plan to limit the time you counsel.
If you have ever been around an emergency room, you know that the hospital staff have a plan on who treat. One comes in with a broken arm, another comes in with a fever, a third comes in with a bleeding wound. If the staff takes the broken arm before the heart attack, someone will die. This is called a triage plan.
While not as time sensitive as an emergency room, your time as a counselor is limited. You will more requests upon your time than you will have time to counsel.
Someone here may be thinking, we have no demand for counseling at all in our congregation. I can’t imagine that we will have more demands for counseling than we can fulfill. Here is my answer: you have an unending demand for counsel.
We human beings need and give counsel to one-another every day. Someone is providing counsel to the members of your congregation. They may very well not be providing and receiving counsel from the Bible or even consistent with the Bible.
Christians do want to live in accordance with the Word of God. Christians want to know God’s will for their lives. But often they do not know what God requires or where to find that will in the Word of God. If they are not told how to use the Bible correctly, they will seek it from problematic sources.
In addition, the Word of God creates a desire for the Word of God. When people in your congregation learn counsel is available, your time will be full.
So who gets your time? Members of your congregation or people from outside your church? Do you give time to from those outside your church if the problem is sufficiently serious? And know, that seeing people who attend other congregations has its own complications.

Time Limitations
You are finite being. You cannot do everything. God does not need your help. The Church survived the death of the Apostles. The Church survived the death of Athanasius and Augustine, Calvin and Luther; the Church will survive you not over-working yourself.
Create limitations on your time before you find someone seeking more time than you can give. You need to decide how much time you will spend a week on counseling.
While a Biblical Counseling session may entail an hour of actual meeting, that hour is not the whole of your counseling. Done properly, you will need to prepare for the counseling studying and praying. You will often have interaction outside of the particular counseling session.
There will also be time need after the counseling for prayer and reflection.
While professional psychological counseling depends upon a “clinical” distance, biblical counseling is very different. The commands which apply to one-another interactions within the church apply to you as a counselor.
You must prefer one-another in love, you must bear one-another’s burdens, contribute to the needs of the saints, rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. You must love the people with whom you are meeting – not merely provide information.
This work is enormously taxing.
It is not merely the time spent in counseling, but the time to process the counseling.
Ten hours of intensively counseling over the course of the week can be enormously taxing; and at times emotionally draining, because you cannot keep a “clinical” distance from the person with whom you are counseling.
In the United States, I am a lawyer. When I give counsel as a lawyer, my involvement begins and ends with providing information. If my client accepts my counsel or does not accept my counsel is up to him. If he does something and suffers or it, I am not supposed to care. If I become emotionally involve, I lose the ability to be objective. You cannot be detached if you are a biblical counselor.
When you initially create rules for your time begin cautiously. Talk with other counselors; consult your experience as to what you can reasonably do (in light of your other time obligations and your ability to bear burdens without burn out).

6. Have an intake system.

Have a clear procedure for how someone in your congregation begins a counseling relationship. If there is a woman in your congregation who is severely depressed and wants to receive biblical counsel, what should she do? Where should she go? Does she come to you, directly? Does she call the office? If there three people at once who seek counsel, who decides who is counseled and who waits?
I know people who had a system and then ignored it for this one particular situation. Ignoring the system resulted in trouble.
You create procedures to protect and sustain the ministry. Ignoring the system results in trouble. Create a system and stick to the system.

7. Use Forms – Have Procedures

We have provided you with two forms and a written policy. The first form is a counseling intake form. There may be cultural aspects of this form which do not translate well into a Chilean context. You may need to adopt it. From what I have seen, Chile and California are not all that different. But there be subtle things about how a question is phrased or how people answer. Feel free to adjust the form as need be.
The purpose of this form is for you to understand the person who is coming in to see you.

[At this point, walk through the form and make observations.]

A bit of practical advice: not everyone tells the whole story when they first enter into counseling. Sometimes the counselee is trying to hide information out of fear or shame. Sometimes the counselee simply does not know the truth.
For the counselee who deliberately keeps back some information, the best way to overcome the problem is to develop a relationship of trust and respect. Someone is giving you very painful, private information. They must know that you can be trusted to use that information to help not hurt. Be someone they can trust and someone they can respect.
The person who does not know the truth present a different problem. Here is an illustration from a friend which I think will help. I want you to imagine a house with a leaking roof. There is a small hole in the roof and the rain finds its way into the structure. But we usually have a structure beneath the roof which holds up the roof. Underneath that structure of crossing beams is a ceiling. So that we look up we see the ceiling and not the cross-beams or the roof to the outside.
When the water comes inside the house it hits the crossbeams and travels along until it seeps out through the ceiling. When you go to discover the hole in the roof, you cannot look straight up from the place you see the water on your ceiling. The water may have traveled several feet from the hole in the roof until it seeps out through the ceiling.
Counseling problems will often be like that. Someone will come for one issue and you will discover that their “real” problem is something else. Someone may come in because of a conflict with a family member and you’ll discover that they have another more fundamental problem which is leading to their conflict.
So use these a form to gain some initial information from you counselee, but do not think it tells the whole story.

Second, use a form to explain the counseling process to the counselee. Conflict happens when one’s expectation conflicts with reality. Let us say that tomorrow you go to a restaurant. The waiter brings you a piece of cake. There is nothing wrong with cake, you might often want to receive cake. But you didn’t order cake; you ordered eggs. You are unhappy because what you received contradicted what you ordered. You expected one thing and got another.
Someone comes into counseling. They are expecting you to be a psychologist who was trained in the manner of Rogers. Rogers would say that human beings are good and the counselor needs to bring that goodness out of the patient. But you start telling the counselee about sin and repentance. You read them from Romans that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. You will have a conflict.
At the very outset we need to make plain what we do, what we will not do, and why we will do so. You need to explain that we are not priests who keep secrets no matter what. I do not know the law here, but in California if counselee tells you that they intend to hurt themselves or someone else, you must tell the authorities.

[walk through the counseling consent form – remove the section on waiver of jury trial, because it irrelevant. Keep the section on waiver of bringing legal action. Even if it is not enforceable in Chile, it is the proper way to resolve disputes according to the Scripture]

8. Have a policy on maintaining records

When you counsel with someone, you will keep some sort of record of your work. You will keep records of what you observed, what homework you gave, et cetera. These notes will often include very private information about someone else. The potential for misusing this information is great.
Because the information is so important, there may be others who want to use the information. I have been involved in situations where someone in a legal action, such as a divorce action, wanted to get copies of the counselor’s notes to use against the counselee.
I do not know how privacy laws work in Chile. In California, a pastor’s notes are not private. In Florida, a pastor’s notes are private. You will need to find out the answer to that question under Chilean law. Then you will need to have a policy about what you will do with notes.
When I oversaw a counseling ministry in a church, we kept the counseling consent form on file in the church office. The counselors kept their own notes. They were kept separate from the church records. I kept very few notes on a counselee and would not keep the notes after the counseling relationship was over, because I knew that I could not maintain privacy for the information if something came up in the future.
But there may be a reason to keep notes after the relationship is over.
So have a policy; make sure your policy is good for both the counselor and the counselee. In addition, make sure that you have exceptions to your general rule.
This a matter of wisdom; be prepared to change your rules as learn more.

9. Have a policy for dealing with allegations of physical and sexual abuse.

We have provided you with a draft of a policy I have worked on. It is based upon both biblical principles and seeks to comport with general law in the United States. You may need to make certain adjustments to this policy to comport with Chilean law.
There are two basic principles which must be in place. First, you must have policies which protect those who are being hurt from further injury. You cannot protect those who are hurting people in your church, because you want to protect a leader in the church or someone who is a friend. We cannot tolerate sin to continue. This is especially true when someone is hurting children.
You have seen the worldwide revulsion against the Roman Catholic church when it was discovered that bishops were protecting priests who were hurting children. It is certainly not confined to Roman Catholics. There was a major story about Baptists churches protecting abusers.
Second, you must have a policy in place to protect against false allegations. There are wildly varying estimates as to the percentage of false allegations. But whether it is 10 percent or 40 percent really does not matter. A false allegation can destroy someone’s life and will tear apart a church.
[walk through the plan]

10. Have a place to counsel
If need be you can be creative. But as a general rule, you should have a regular place to counsel which provides privacy for your counselees. The privacy will be what they have said. But you also want to provide privacy as to the counseling relationship.
Let us say that you are meeting with a married couple. They probably do not want everyone in the congregation knowing that they are coming in for marital counsel.
So you have two levels of privacy: the fact of the counseling relationship and the information conveyed in the counseling.
This means that you probably should not be counseling in a public place. Opening a Bible, discussing deeply personal matters, praying openly: these are things that are often not possible in a coffee shop.
Now if these were the only things to consider, you would pick some place absolutely private. But that can cause a problem.
You need accountability: both to protect you from sin, but also to protect you from accusations of sin.
Let me explain. Let us say a pastor is meeting with a woman in his congregation who is married to a cruel husband. The pastor is kind and understanding; he is everything she wished her husband would be. I know of more than one pastor who ended up in an adulterous relationship with someone in his congregation.
And even if the pastor does nothing wrong, there is the potential for gossip or false allegations. People become angry and lie. Someone learns of the counseling relationship and starts a rumor.
The best circumstance is to have the same sex counseling relationships: women counseling women; men counseling men. If a pastor simply does not have a woman counselor available, then have a woman with you when you counsel.
But same sex counseling relationship will not solve every problem. You have circumstances where you are counseling someone whose besetting sin is same sex relationships. You again need protection from gossip and sin.
And sexual problems are not the only forms of potential accusation or sin. There is the problem of using your authority to hurt someone; I don’t know what it is called here, but in the States people use the phrase “spiritual abuse”. They mean someone in ministry using their ministry position to hurt people.
This is a grave sin. You may be tempted to sin in this manner. You may be accused of sinning in this manner. And again, the best way to protect against this is to not have a perfect seal of privacy.
One of the very best ways to maintain privacy and accountability is to always have someone with you who is training to be a counselor. We will discuss training new counselors a bit later. But for now, now that training new counselors is a fine way to maintain privacy and accountability.

11. This is not everything
This is not a complete list of things you need to know practically to maintain a counseling ministry. But these are likely the most pressing matters you will face.



We are going to look at two levels of counseling ministry expansion. First, we are going to look at the way in which you will add new counselors who will be doing the work you do: deliberate, intensive counseling. Second, we are going to look at expanding the concept of counseling as a matter of Christian discipleship and how the entire congregation has a role to play.