(More notes for an upcoming conference on establishing a biblical counseling ministry in a local church; all notes subject to revision):
Whom Should you Choose to Train
The Church is an organic unity from the time of the Apostles until the present. We are here today because others passed along the faith. We learn how to minister from those who have ministered. We have learned preaching from those who preached.
Counseling is learned from those who counsel. This is the nature of discipleship: teaching someone else what we know.
As you know, counseling is something which cannot be learned in an afternoon. Not only must one be taught formally – such as we are doing here – one must also learn from experience. It is one thing to know biblical principles, such as all things work together for good. Rom. 8:28 It is quite another to realize that the good described in 8:29 is to be conformed to the image of Christ, who was also known as a “man of sorrow and acquainted with grief”. Is. 53:3. It takes born of experience to know when to “Alegrense on los que estan alegres, lloren con los que lloran” Rom. 12:15. It takes experience to know when to rebuke, encourage, support. 1 Thes. 5:14.
The only way such wisdom can be gained is from experience. And such experience can only be gained in the counseling relationship.
This means that as soon as you begin to counsel is good to have other whom you are beginning to train. The sooner someone is learning to counsel; the sooner they will be able to counsel without your help.
Before I go on, I know at one of you is thinking: I don’t know enough to be able to train anyone else to counsel.
Let’s think about that: First, you at least know more than the one who is being trained. Second, there is no better way to come to understand a topic than to teach it. The act of restating what you have learned will cause you to learn that subject better than you could have ever known it on your own.
Third, it is true you that very few if any of you have had thousands of hours of pastoral counseling experience. That can only come with time. Another person in the counseling room will be a benefit to you and to the fellow Christian you are trying to help.
You’ll make mistakes: you will misunderstand statements, you will speak when you should have been silent, and will be silent when you needed to speak. You will miss important details, and will misapply a biblical principle. You will make mistakes; that is unavoidable. Another person in the counseling room will be able to see situations and mistakes which you will miss.
Another person counseling with you will help you. None of us will ever come to the point that we will never error. We can always do better.
Therefore, bringing someone else into training with you to counsel should begin as soon as possible. The question is not when should you start training someone else: the question is who should you train, and how much training do they need?
Again: there are two separate questions: Whom should you train? How much training does this other person need? There are actually levels of counseling and levels of training. You here are aiming for the highest levels of training: the work which is done by pastors and elders, and the most highly trained women in the church. Not everyone in your congregation needs to know how to respond to threats of suicide or how to show care to someone who has suffered serious abuse. We will talk about the level of training question in the end.
For right now, our question is Whom should you train?
Greg Cook and Jack Delk (Launching a Biblical Counseling Ministry) explain
A biblical counseling ministry is not a “y’all come” [that is an American expression which means all of you come over, it is a very friendly and informal phrase] ministry. There should be a careful selection and screening process for bringing in potential new counselors…A lay-led counseling ministry tends to attract people with mixed motive and agendas as well as wolves in sheep’s clothing (1 Tim. 5:3; Thess. 3:11). 
It is actually easier to train the right, willing person than it is to select the right person.
Someone who is willing:
In 1 Timothy 3:1, Paul gives qualifications for an overseer. He begins with the statement that if someone desires the work of an overseer. The translators render this verb in various ways, but the word at heart means to strive for something, to want something.
And while a counselor is not necessarily an elder or overseer, the principle remains the same. It is a great deal of work to become and be a counselor. There are many hours of training and then experience, and then training. And all of the work is for purpose of doing work. Hard, often painful, work.
If someone does not desire the work, they will never complete the work.
But not everyone one who is willing
And here is where the difficult part comes: selectivity. You must choose one person and not another. You must only choose people are who are willing, who desire the work. But you must not choose everyone who desires the work. And unfortunately, counseling seems to attract many people who should not be in the position as counselor.
Often these are people who think they personally have a great deal of wisdom. They know very much how other people should order their lives. They like telling people what to do, and they are quite certain of their rightness in doing so. Often, these people do not think they need training.
I know that I just said not to choose someone unless they are willing; but I also say, there is a kind of eagerness which is dangerous. You could say, these are people are too willing.
What to look for
The New Testament gives us various lists of what to look for those who lead in a church. Counseling is a kind of leadership position: I am not saying that a counselor is the pastor or an overseer. But by providing very direct teaching to people in the congregation, you are engaged in an aspect of spiritual leadership.
The qualities we look for in a church leader should be present in the counselor.
- Don’t Choose Someone Abuses Leadership
Throughout the New Testament, there are various sections of instruction given on the quality of Church leaders. But there is only quality which is repeated by Jesus, Paul, Peter and John: do not use a position of leadership to control or abuse others. The image is of a shepherd leading and protecting a flock of sheep, not a butcher driving cattle into a slaughterhouse.
I know a man who grew up in Greece as a shepherd. His father and uncle were shepherds. He said, I like what I could get from the sheep. But by father and his brother loved the sheep. Many people get into leadership because of what they want to get from the sheep.
Jesus in Mark 11:41-45 says that the leader must be the servant of all. Don’t be like the “rulers of the Gentiles” who “lord it over” others. Paul says an overseer must not be pugnacious, a fighter; but gentle and peaceable. 1 Tim. 3:3. In Titus 1:7, Paul says the overseer must not be “self-willed or quick tempered.” In 1 Peter 5:3 Peter says an elder must not lord it over the flock. In 3 John, John condemns Diotrephes who “loves to be first” and who will not take instruction from John.
A counseling relationship has great potential for abuse. A counselor is giving instructions to another person in a position of trust; often a person who is quite vulnerable. The potential for abuse is high.
If you permit someone who has a tendency to lord it over others to become a counselor, you endanger your congregation.
- Above Reproach
The counseling relationship is difficult and dangerous for the counselor. Counselee’s can make accusations. People outside the relationship can gossip.
Let us say you have someone who gained a reputation for being sexually immoral; say a man who has committed adultery in the past. This man may have repented and may have come to a very different life. If you put this man into a counseling role, you are exposing both him and the people he counsels to accusation – even if it is false accusation.
Am I saying that no one can every outlive their past? No. But it will take wisdom here.
If the reputation is a current reputation, then such a person should not become a counselor.
There needs to wisdom in the counselor on how to conduct himself. He will need prudence in the way he deals with others whom he counsels, but also in his own life. Paul says an overseer must be able to manage his own household well. If a man lacks all practical wisdom in conducting his own life, he should not be seeking to give other people sustained counsel.
- Careful with the tongue
The Bible says a great deal about the tongue. There is much which should be said, but we will have to settle for 1 Peter 2:1, “Therefore, putting away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.”
One must not only be careful in how we speak to some-one, we must be careful how we speak about some-one.
Someone will come to the counselor and will divulge very private information about their own heart, about their home, their family. You will learn details about others finances about their sexual relations and their children. This is very dangerous information.
I have seen people publicly attack others by using private information gained because they were in a position of pastoral confidence. I have seen pastors gossip to their wives about private information.
I know others who were attacked publicly and did not respond by disclosing private information gained because they were a pastor. I have seen people lie about what they supposedly knew so as to hurt others.
Our Lord was falsely accused. Paul was slandered. Revelation says all liars will be in the lake of fire. Rev. 21:8. The famous missionary St. Patrick of Ireland wrote his confession because someone had betrayed a very private confidence in an effort to discredit Patrick’s work.
In the life of the church, there is very little which is more destructive than gossip and slander. Counseling makes such sins especially possible.
Here is something from the great English Preacher Charles Spurgeon:
There are some brethren with whom it is ill for us to associate, lest they do us hurt, and it is ill for them that we associate with them, lest we seem to assist them in their evil deeds. Especially is this so in the case of brethren of the class that he is about to describe—mischief makers, troublers, people that can always tell you the gossip of a congregation, that can tear a neighbour’s character to pieces, that are able to perceive spots on the sun; people who delight in parading the faults of God’s own children, and are never so happy as when they are making others unhappy by what they have to retail. These are the kind of people to whom you should give a wide berth.
- H. Spurgeon, “A Challenge and War-Charge,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 51 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1905), 167. If you should stay away from gossips generally, it applies triple for counselors.
You must never trust a gossip to be a counselor. There is perhaps nothing as dangerous and disqualifying for a counselor as having a gossiping, slanderous tongue. If you catch a counselor gossiping, fire them on the spot.
- Able to Teach
Paul gives this as a qualification for an overseer in both Timothy and Titus. This is a critical characteristic. If you cannot teach, you cannot counsel. Maybe you are not a good public speaker; that is a particular skill. But you must be able to understand and then explain the Scripture clearly and usefully when you are counseling. If you cannot teach, you cannot counsel. Dr. John Street calls biblical counseling expositional counseling. A counselor exposits the Scripture like a good preacher exposits the scripture. You open the Bible and make it plain and powerful.
It is not a moral fault or a character fault to be unable to teach. But it is a fatal fault in a counselor to be unable to teach. In the end, counseling is teaching. If you can’t teach, you can’t teach. That merely means that God has work for you elsewhere in the church.
Ron Allchin and Tim Allchin in their essay, Equipping Biblical Counselors for Your Church give the follow lists of whom you should choose and whom you should avoid when it comes to counselors. They use the text of Colossians 3:12-17 as the basis for their list:
- A potential counselor sees people as a priority.
- Experiences peace with God through the Gospel
- Have a passion for the Word of God.
- They demonstrate practical wisdom
- They live out a passionate praise for God.
On this last people I just want to say that one way to understand sin is as a worship defect (I owe this observation to Dr. Ernie Baker). That means that the counselor is a worship leader, of sorts.
The Allchins then give a list of whom to avoid. Those who
- Lack a proper balance of grace and truth. They are neither legalists nor do they indulge sin.
- Have more zeal than knowledge. These people will find you. They may really want to help; but if their zeal exceeds their knowledge, they will do far more harm than good.
- They manipulate and control others.
- They are people pleasers. They change to make other people like them.
- They rely on their personal experience, their common sense rather than the Word of God.
At this point, you may think: Okay, no one is qualified in my congregation. I’m probably not qualified.
Paul writes to the Corinthian church:
2 Corinthians 3:5 (NASB95)
5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as comingfrom ourselves, but our adequacy is from God,
That realization that I am not able to do this work is perfect. God uses imperfect instruments, us, to do his work. The sufficiency of our counsel is not in us, but in the Word of God. If we had confidence in ourselves, then would not leave room for God’s work.