by Wendy Herrberg and Lori Burns
At some point we’ve all heard information about a person or situation and formed an immediate opinion or judgment. Later, after receiving additional information about the circumstances or details, our perspective on the situation changed dramatically. Context is crucial.
This is often the same experience we have when we are faced with difficult times and wonder what God is doing in our lives. In some instances, we get additional information at a later date that clearly reveals what God was doing. Often, however, we never receive such clarity but have to rely on what we know to be true about God’s character and purpose for our lives to find peace in the middle of the storm.
One of the most helpful things pastoral counselors, whether lay or professional, can do for their congregation is to help them develop a solid biblical contextual lens. This lens serves as a filter for life’s difficult circumstances and provides stability during life’s challenges.
For example, if a person believes that God’s sole attribute is love, it is easy to see how she could be perplexed and frustrated when she feels hurt. If a person believes God’s goal is to make him happy rather than holy, it is understandable that he would be disappointed and irritated when things do not go his way. However, if someone recognizes that the character of God includes both truth and love, and that his ultimate goal is to transform people into his likeness, then life’s circumstances and situations are filtered through a much different lens.
If we do not identify God’s true character and refuse to embrace his transformational process, a process that involves joy and pain, then life will be confusing and its challenging circumstances will be difficult to comprehend. Embracing biblical context doesn’t guarantee we will never question God or have feelings of uncertainty and disappointment. However, if we have proper biblical context, it will allow us to recalibrate and gain a clearer and more balanced perspective in a timelier manner. Biblical context, in addition to a sincere outcry to the Holy Spirit for strength, wisdom, and peace, is an amazing and powerful way to navigate through life’s challenges. These difficulties ultimately will produce another transformational moment in our faith journey. Pastoral counseling assists with understanding that difficulties are not simply a useless annoyance but have meaning and purpose.
Another key to a pastoral counseling ministry in the church is creating and utilizing healthy Christian community. Our church has a counseling center in-house, which clearly displays the church’s commitment to coming alongside individuals not only in their joyful times but also in their darkest hours. Some churches give the impression to the communities they serve that attending church requires dressing up and acting nice. Somewhere in our history, the Christian culture started rewarding the religious façade of slapping on a smile and a tie instead of showing up at church in an authentic manner with your good, your bad, and your ugly. At East 91st Street Christian Church, we gather together because we are a group of sinners, not saints. We embrace the reality of our common condition as broken sinful people and we rejoice in the truth that if we have accepted a relationship with Christ as our Lord and Savior we are on the path of life transformation and will someday spend eternity in Heaven with him.
A community of strong believers helps those who are struggling to stay on course. It is common to look into our human tool bag when trying to fix our problems. When we do, we often “fix” things in the opposite way God intends. For example, although he created us to be relational people, it is not uncommon for us to avoid others during difficult times. Many attempt to escape their troubles through work, general busyness, or some form of destructive behavior such as the misuse of food, drugs, or sex. Due to embarrassment, rebellion, anger, or pride, we hide from God and the resources he has provided to help sustain us through our challenges. Biblical truth and a loving church family are vital to our transformation into the image of Christ.
No matter the size of the congregation, all churches must commit to providing biblical context and a healthy Christian community that provides accountability and support to those who are hurting.
Effective Pastoral Counseling
Effective pastoral counseling in the church ministers to all people across all barriers. It aids not only church members but also provides outreach to the community at large. (East 91st Statistics: 10-15 percent of new clients are non-believers; 35-40 percent claim to be from area congregations; 45-50 percent are members of East 91st.) Everyone has moments in life when additional support is needed. It takes solid, healthy Christians speaking truth and love into those moments to remind us that trials strengthen our faith (Romans 8:18-23). The Bible calls us all (2 Corinthians 1:2-4) to care for the lost and the brokenhearted. Applied properly, pastoral counseling provides an opportunity for people to begin the healing process (1 Peter 1:6, 7). Every congregation and community is different. When developing a system or program, make sure it meets the unique needs of those you serve.
Larger Churches (1,000 or More Members)
The presence of an in-house counseling ministry provides several unique ministry possibilities. First, it allows for more effective ministry to people in your own congregation. In addition to counseling, other services can include providing support groups, training for the congregation, and development resources for the church staff. An in-house counseling center can strengthen the local Christian community by providing partnership opportunities with smaller churches in your area. Finally, it creates an effective outreach to your local community.
Our center is able to provide quality biblical counseling for $5 to $20 per session, depending on the client’s income. This fee structure is made possible through partnerships created with nearby Christian universities. Our facility provides graduate students with internship opportunities needed to fulfill licensure requirements and in return these interns provide hundreds of hours of low-cost counseling to our church members and local community. As both licensed therapists and ordained ministers, we are able to provide these students with clinical supervision as well as train them to integrate biblical truth with counseling theory. We believe it is vital to invest in preparing the next generation of strong biblical counseling professionals.
Mid Size Churches (450-1,000 Members)
Consider providing office space in your facility for a Christian counselor to operate as an independent contractor. This will allow the pastoral counselor to charge lower fees due to lower overhead expenses. If you consider this, please make sure you take the time to interview and hire the right counselor. There are many counselors who call themselves Christian, but do not know how to integrate Scripture with counseling theory. Second, have your church leaders attend a graduate level counseling class or workshop on a yearly basis to become better educated and trained. Third, consider training a group of lay leaders to assist in pastoral care. This can be done by following certain programs like Stephen Ministry (stephenministries.org).
Smaller Churches (450 or Fewer Members)
Most of the ideas for a mid size church can work for smaller congregations as well. Even if the pastoral staff is small and part-time, do not discount the importance of pursuing specific education in this area of ministry. My (Lori’s) uncle went to graduate school and received his degree in pastoral counseling while serving as a minister in a small farming community. His newfound skills allowed him to minister more effectively with area schools, community leaders, and members of his own church. Second, preach and teach on the subject of pastoral care regularly in order to challenge your congregation to build skills for shepherding the community. Many resources are available to help you educate your congregation. Third, research potential partnerships with larger churches in your region that already provide a counseling ministry. Finally, develop a referral network of Christian counselors in your area.
No matter the size of your church or staff, there are many practical and creative ways to provide pastoral counseling. Remember, it is imperative to have a solid biblical context in order to help grow a healthy community of believers. This will help foster the accountability, truth, grace, and love that were present in the first-century church (Acts 2:37-47).
Lori Burns, LMHC, CAC, CCS, BCPCC and Wendy Herrberg, LMHC, LPCC, LMFT, BCPCC, serve on the counseling ministry staff at East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Helpful Counseling Resources
by Gary Collins
(Thomas Nelson, 2007)
Safe People: How to Find Relationships That Are Good for You and Avoid Those That Aren’t
by Henry Cloud & John Townsend
How to Have That Difficult Conversation You’ve Been Avoiding
by Henry Cloud & John Townsend
How People Grow
by Henry Cloud & John Townsend
The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict
by Ken Sande
(Baker Books, 2004)
Stephen Ministry Resources
—WH & LB