On Equipping the Saints for Counseling Ministry

April 25, 2013

Equipping Series - On Equipping the Saints for Counseling Ministry
John Henderson

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John Henderson

Equipping Series - On Equipping the Saints for Counseling Ministry

BCC Staff Note: You’re reading Part Four of a seven-part Grace & Truth blog mini-series on Equipping Counselors for Your Church. In this series, you’ll read:

Learning the Calling to Equip

“And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).

When I began serving as a pastor at my church 13 years ago, the bulk of my schedule was devoted to direct counseling ministry with people. Around half my counseling time was devoted to members of the church and half to members of surrounding churches or the community at large. After all, I was a counseling pastor, and that’s how I thought counseling pastors were supposed to spend their time. I embraced the counseling element wholesale. I just happened to miss the boat on the pastor part.

As time passed, I continued to learn, quite sloppily, the nature and work of biblical counseling. Listening to people, discerning the joys and troubles of their lives, drawing them into the Word of God, helping them push the gospel of Jesus Christ into hard-to-reach places, exhorting them to love and good deeds, and so on. What I continued to neglect, however, was the nature and work of pastoral ministry, at least a critical facet of that work.

An interesting cascade of events unfolded in the months and years to follow, and I was shocked by how disturbing it looked. First of all, a great many people from the church and community began calling our ministry for help. Okay… so what’s the problem? Then members of the church and community started sending their friends and neighbors to our counseling ministry. Seriously, isn’t that the idea? Fellow pastors expressed their delight having counseling pastors on the church staff so that they had somewhere to send all the people who needed care. Amen! I mean, is there something wrong with that?

Well, here’s what happened next. Our ministry schedules got packed with counseling meetings before you could say, “Drowning.” People who couldn’t wait for help from the counseling staff were sent to professionals in the community (which I think could be fine under specific circumstances). Church members and other pastors felt increasingly less qualified to help anxious, depressed, grieving, angry, or otherwise suffering people because an “expert-model-view” of counseling had very quickly and quietly taken over (which I think is absolutely deadly). The body of Christ, as a whole, seemed less able, willing, and comfortable exhorting, encouraging, bearing with, and ministering to one another. They didn’t know where to begin or what to do.

The Ephesians Model

Several years into this cascade, I was studying through Ephesians and the passage from chapter 4 hit me like a freight train. In the face of this incredibly clear passage I had to admit that I was laboring in the opposite direction to God’s design and purpose. I was dominating the work of service, intentionally or not, and the saints were left on the outside. The body of Christ was not being built up because the very means God had given for the construction had been short-circuited. Beyond the practical problems I cited earlier, I had to come to terms with the fact that I was neglecting a huge and vital task God had clearly assigned.

Now, this idea may be obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me. I should say, it wasn’t obvious to me in the area of counseling. You see, I had believed in Ephesians 4 for quite a while, but had never applied its truth to the ministry of counseling. I had always thought of counseling work as falling somewhere outside the range of “the work of service” to which Paul is speaking. Not only did I need to redefine what it meant to be a pastor, I had to redefine, according to God’s point of view, the essence of counseling ministry and where it fit in the life of the church.

Of course, we don’t have time or space to talk about that part. What I would like to do is speak to any of you who find yourselves where I was and would like to make a shift. What can you do? How can you begin to move towards an Ephesians 4 kind of paradigm? Let me offer a few simple ideas.

Clarify Your Role and Protect It

Firstly, clarify your role in your own mind. If God has given you to the church as a pastor or teacher, then your primary call is to equip the saints for the work of service. I say primary rather than only because I don’t think our equipping role exempts us from continuing to engage in various works of service in the body of Christ. In the case of counseling ministry, I have found that staying directly engaged in counseling ministry informs, humbles, and invigorates my efforts to equip the saints in counseling ministry.

Once your role is clarified, you’ll probably want to guard it. That is, protect the time and energy set aside for training others so that you don’t get bogged down and distracted in all the other great ministry things going on. Our churches suffer when we fail to multiply, especially when we fail to develop wise and loving leaders/shepherds/counselors.

Clarify Their Role and Encourage It

If God has redeemed the people sitting in front of you, baptized them into His body, and filled them with His Spirit, then they have been assigned the privilege and responsibility of counseling one another in the church.

  • “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34) .
  • “So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19).
  • “And concerning you, my brethren, I myself also am convinced that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able also to admonish one another” (Romans15:14).
  • “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:1-2) “Therefore, laying aside falsehood, speak truth each one of you with his neighbor, for we are members of one another” (Ephesians 4:25)

We could talk about a great many passages of Scripture teaching and showing what it means to care for one another in the body of Christ. Counseling one another is both a responsibility and a great joy. The opportunities for humble, compassionate, and wise conversations about the gospel applied to hardships of human life seem to be everywhere. I think we should encourage those we equip to seek and seize those opportunities.

Trust, Follow, and Teach the Word

This point brings us back to Ephesians 4. The whole chapter seems to show us how the Lord Christ is building His church through our union to Him and “the proper working of each individual part” (Ephesians 4:16). The Lord gave apostles, evangelists, and pastor-teachers to help each individual part walk worthy of their calling, share the grace which they have received, speak truth in love, and much more, which then “causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16). I think we’re meant to trust in the plan and process God has given us. I think we’re meant to help our precious people see how the Lord Jesus Christ grows His people and His body in concert through their work of service.

Trust the Holy Spirit Laboring in His Saints

Other people may not counsel the way you do. From your point of view, they may not counsel as well as you do. It could be hard for you to watch the saints fumble around as they learn to minister the Word to one another, like toddlers learning to tie their shoes. It may be tempting for you to just grab the strings back and do it yourself. You’ll need to resist this temptation if you want these ideas to take root. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).

Of course, I think you’ll need to oversee the work. I think you’ll need to observe, graciously evaluate, and continue teaching the saints as they grow in counseling ministry. But I think there’s a way to go about this oversight that expresses a deep trust and joy in the Spirit’s power and wisdom working through His people.

Aim Small

Depending on your particular church context, it may be impossible, even unwise, to launch a large program to equip the saints for counseling service. You don’t need to start big. A reasonable first step may be taking two or three people every week through a biblical counseling curriculum, or Instrument’s in the Redeemer’s Hands by Paul Tripp, or articles from the Journal of Biblical Counseling.

It could mean helping those few men and women apply the Scripture to real life situations they are facing (which is hard work). Over time, they could start attending and observing your counseling meetings with men and women from the congregation. Then you could start encouraging them to minister to others while you observe and watch their counsel in action. The training context, I believe, matters about as much as the training content.

Aim Long-Term

In my experience, training men and women to counsel one another wisely and graciously from the Word of God takes time. If Jesus Christ gave three years of daily training to twelve men, and they still weren’t perfected by the time He ascended, then it’s probably safe to embrace a long-term perspective when equipping the saints. Learning a foreign language is no quick task. Learning to play an instrument requires dedication over the long haul. Learning to counsel with grace and truth takes much effort, perseverance, and commitment. Praise the Lord for His help, patience, and willingness to put us into service so early in the process.

Join the Conversation

What would it be like in your church to shift from pastors focused on doing the ministry to pastors focused on equipping the saints for the work of the ministry?

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