by Eric Dishongh
Leaders in the Lord’s church are often fearful of counseling, even if the word Christian is attached to it! This fear is based upon ministers and church members conducting counseling without adequate training often resulting in reproach and embarrassment to the church. More harm than good is typical, and churches subsequently abandon efforts to reach out to the emotional and relational needs of their members and community. Due to this ignoring of pain, Christians resort to secular therapists who conduct counseling from a non-Christian perspective. This creates additional problems for the church because people who receive secular counseling typically make decisions contrary to Christian principles. With this in mind, churches have an enormous outreach opportunity to provide professional, competent counseling to families from a Christian perspective. This can be accomplished by collaborating with a licensed Christian counselor.
In the process of collaborating with a licensed Christian counselor, elders should be interested in the doctrinal beliefs of the counselor in order to prevent conflicting messages from the pulpit and the counseling office. Although there must be congruency between the doctrines presented from the pulpit and the counseling office, there must also be an understanding that professional counseling (even from a Christian perspective) is not synonymous with preaching. Preaching is a direct method of spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, and Christian counseling is an indirect method. Ultimately, both avenues have the same goal; however, the emphasis in counseling is listening, understanding, and treating the emotional and relational needs of clients utilizing theory and techniques consistent with biblical principles. Scripture reading and prayer are appropriately utilized in the process; however, the counseling session should not look or feel like a “Bible study.”
Pertaining to the arrangement of the collaboration with the licensed Christian counselor, various options are available. First, the counselor may be an “independent contractor” who utilizes an office in the church building. Fees would be mutually agreed upon between the counselor and clients, and the client may rent space from the church. Second, the counselor may be an “employee” of the congregation who receives a salary. This could facilitate a reduction or elimination of client fees. Third, the congregation may establish a separate “non-profit organization” that could be located in the church building or a nearby location. Outside funding may be secured to help cover costs. Elders should consult with their insurance agent and/or attorney to address the pros and cons of each arrangement. Also, the counselor should maintain professional liability insurance.
Pertaining to the logistics of counseling, including privacy and confidentiality, careful attention should be given to the following items. First, there must be an office in the church building designated solely for counseling. The office should have a lock on the door and locked file cabinets. If there are “thin walls,” a sound machine may be utilized to create additional privacy. Second, the counselor needs a telephone. One option is to utilize an existing church telephone line. Extensive precautions, though, should be taken to ensure the secretary’s understanding of the confidential nature of counseling-related phone calls and appointments. Another option is to use a telephone line for solely for counseling. In either case, a private voicemail is needed. Third, counseling sessions should not be scheduled immediately before or after church services. Finally, unless there is some threat of harm to the client or someone else, the counselor should not discuss counseling sessions with anyone, including elders, deacons and ministers.
In conclusion, developing a counseling ministry in the local church is not an overnight process. Numerous items must be considered to minimize liability and maximize privacy and confidentiality. However, once these logistics are arranged, churches have a wonderful opportunity to edify their members and to evangelize their communities.
Eric Dishongh serves as a minister for the Hickory Knoll Church of Christ in New Orleans, LA. In conjunction with this ministry, Eric is a licensed professional counselor and an instructor in the School of Human Services at Amridge University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.