Reflections on Local Church Ministry after a Para-church Ministry

June 6, 2012

Brad Hambrick

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Brad Hambrick

Biblical Counseling in the Local Church--Part 3

BCC Staff Note: You’re reading Part 3 of a multi-part BCC Grace & Truth blog series on Biblical Counseling in the Local Church. Read Part 1 and Part 2. We asked a number of experienced biblical counselors who provide biblical counseling leadership and equipping in local churches to write on “a topic you consider important to local church biblical counseling.” We’re confident that their varied perspectives and topics will add greatly to your insight into biblical counseling in the local church.

Differences Between Two Ministries

As I (Brad Hambrick) have served as Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church (Durham, NC) for the last 18 months, there is a sentence I have said many times, “I am still figuring out what it looks like to counsel in the local church after almost a decade in the parachurch setting.”

In the parachurch setting I served as a full-time counselor with whom individuals made appointments for one hour sessions. They came to our office that was used exclusively for counseling. They were referred by a friend, pastor, or medical professional. If they heard me teach, it was at a conference or seminar.

In the local church I am a member of their pastoral staff, an elder of the church, available to pray with members after services, and present at most church events. Appointments are still by schedule, but the church office is a much less “professionalized” setting. I teach regularly in a setting that feels like home to most of my counselees.

These differences affect me, my counselees, the pastors I consult (para-church) or work (local church) with, many of my objectives, and the scope of my responsibilities. The four core values upon which I base my counseling are the same—sufficiency of Scripture, necessity of the gospel, centrality of the local church, and a balanced view of sin and suffering—but almost everything else is altered in multiple ways.

In this post I will reflect on several of these differences. My goal is not to deem one setting good and the other bad, or one as better and the other worse. I have found both to be very fruitful and rewarding ministry settings. But there are differences (at least in my personal experience) that are worth noting.

Expectations of Counselees

“Do I really have to complete paperwork? Can’t you meet with me on the weekend? Can I call your cell phone if I have a question? Will you call my friend/family member who has [blank] problem and would benefit from talking with a counselor?” These are not questions I was asked in the para-church setting. In the local church these expectations are relatively common and must be navigated carefully or the inquirers view of church, ministry, and pastors can be negatively affected.

In the para-church setting, counselees were more cautious about my theological convictions. If their faith was important to them, they seemed to doubt a “counselor” would share/honor that. In the local church, counselees seem more cautious about my clinical experience. If their struggle was severe, they frequently doubt if a “pastor” would understand it.

Effects of Location

Walking into the same building where you worship and fellowship for counseling can either be a big plus or significant obstacle. For many, it is a setting of trust that allows the counseling relationship to begin with significant, unearned momentum. The relevance of their soul, the Bible, the gospel, and worship seem naturally relevant in a church setting.

For others, especially those seeking counseling for a past or present trauma, allowing these memories to invade a place of refuge can feel like they are being robbed of something precious. Also, those that hyper-spiritualize their struggles or practice a form of denial can find it very difficult to have these things challenged in their church and by one of their pastors.

Managing Levels of Care

In the para-church setting I only had to do two things—counsel and teach. In the local church, my role is to equip the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:11-13) while teaching and counseling. In the parachurch we did professional quality counseling. In the local church I oversee one-another counseling in small groups, mentor level counseling by lay people, general pastoral counseling, and a team of more formally trained pastoral counselors.

There are benefits to doing one or two things with excellence. There are different benefits to synchronizing the efforts of a community. One of the challenges has been to learn what the sufficiency of Scripture looks like when expressed through various levels of competency in the counselors.

Building on Momentum

In our para-church intake forms I would look at the blanks “Church Name” and “Favorite Christian Authors” and begin to assess where this person was coming from spiritually and theologically. A large percentage of my counselees shared Christian convictions significantly different from my own. What they were learning in their church and personal reading could not always be trusted to aid the counseling process.

In the local church, at least when counseling our members, there is confidence that what they are learning at church will lay a good foundation for counseling. There is a common vocabulary and set of categories for understanding faith. In an endeavor built on language, this advantage is hard to overstate.

Clusters of Cases

In the local church I get fore-warning on one of the major triggering events for counseling—the sermon. While there are many other crises triggers, the sermon is a significant source of prompting for our church members to seek counsel. If our pastor preaches on lust, anxiety, marriage, parenting, or suffering, I can assume an influx of counseling in those areas.

This fore-warning allows for some preparation amongst our various levels of care. Resource lists and “first aid” principles can be compiled for small group leaders. Application supplements can be written for the sermon and posted on the church blogs. If the subject is particularly difficult or delicate, counseling orientations can be done for the pastoral staff.

Post Event Effect

My favorite piece of advice I received as I considered transitioning to local church ministry was from a friend who said, “Brad, you’ll have to clean up your own messes then.” In the para-church, if a seminar I taught generated a high counseling need, that was “referrals” and a vital part of the business model of the ministry. The better the seminar, the more understanding people were that there might be a waiting list for counseling.

In the local church, I have adopted the plumb line, “We don’t do events. We create resources.” Every teaching event of the counseling ministry is designed to have a mentoring component. It takes longer to prepare a teaching event, but this extra effort adds two additional levels of care (one-anothering and mentoring) to help with the care needs revealed by a seminar. These resources also create a context for excellent aftercare within the church for cases requiring more experienced, intensive counseling.

Join the Conversation

  • After reading these reflections, how would you describe the advantages and disadvantages of counseling in the para-church and local church settings?
  • How would this reflection help you guide someone who was considering the type of setting in which they wanted to counsel?
Brad Hambrick

About Brad Hambrick

Brad is Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in Durham, NC. He also serves as an adjunct professor of biblical counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Brad has been married to his wife, Sallie, since 1999.