When a crazed gunman entered Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, and shot 15 people, counselor Kevin Gailey wasn't able to offer immediate help to survivors– he was one of the victims.
After his release from the hospital, the director of Wedgwood's counseling center directed follow-up care for hundreds of students at the "See You At The Pole" rally interrupted by violence. Since that tragic evening, Wedgewood added seven full- or part-time counselors and one intern. The expansion proved beneficial when the 9-11-01 terrorist attacks dredged up memories of the church shootings two years earlier.
"A counseling center isn't dependent on the size of a church," Gailey says. "For a very minimal cost, a church can have a viable and working presence in a community."
It can also reinforce a pastor's proclamation that the church is a caring place, says the director of the counseling ministry at Southern California's Saddleback Church.
After starting 16 years ago with lay counselors, Bob Baker says the church has developed a full-fledged counseling ministry that handled more than 19,000 appointments last year.
"The Church Counseling Ministry provides a higher level of care than our pastoral staff could provide," Baker says. "Our people are not getting second best when they see a church counselor."
While there aren't firm records of church-based counseling ministries nationwide, an official with the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACP) estimates the number is in the thousands.
Eric Scalise, vice president of professional development, says increasing numbers of churches and pastors are contacting the AACP– which has nearly 50,000 members-because counseling-related needs continue to grow.
"Church leaders can sometimes be overwhelmed by the felt needs within their congregations," Scalise says. "Most pastors are trained to teach and preach and not necessarily how to counsel others."
Counseling is a broad-based term that can cover everything from support or discussion groups to a host of personal needs, according to a counseling minister at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY.
Don Delafield works with the megachurch's care ministry, which evolved after the church hired him 19 years ago as its first staff counselor.
Today, he oversees a no-cost ministry to members that offers marriage mentoring, financial advice, parenting tips and other services. For serious personal problems, the church has a separate, fee-based counseling center with more than 20 staffers.
"One of the big questions a church has to decide is how do we want to view our role as a church," Delafield says. "There are lots of possibilities for churches to bring people on board."
In other words, congregations can develop a lay ministry that can offer guidance in certain areas and maintain referrals to professionals for more serious situations. Or, designate a staff member for the latter task.
Another possibility is a group of churches in an area pooling their resources to fund a position. Whoever does that should be a licensed counselor if the church or association expects to have a self-supporting, fee-based operation, Gailey says.
In his case, Gailey started as a private counselor with an office in the church for several years until Wedgwood made him a staff member in 1994.
In addition to grief and emotional crises, the leading concerns his center deals with include marital disputes, parenting problems, depression, financial difficulties and addictions to drugs or alcohol.
The essentials of counseling
Confidentiality is one of the cornerstones of a sound counseling practice, particularly in church settings where counselor and client may rub elbows outside the office. Such "dual relationships" can be a challenge, although Gailey says he has been able to separate the two and assure clients their issues will remain confidential.
Another important aspect of church counseling is quality, meaning the counselor should be state licensed and have adequate training, experience and skills to deal with multiple situations.
"It's all about the counselor and how well trained (he or she) is," Gailey says. "How well they keep up with on-going education, training and in our counseling center, how well they integrate counseling with theology."
In addition to a biblical basis, Baker says a ministry must reflect the church's teaching and values, and bring people closer to God and each other.
"It has to be able to address the fullness of the person and not be restricted to solving the problem," Baker says.
Delafield says a congregation contemplating starting a counseling ministry must be familiar with its state's laws and related policies, guidelines and ethical considerations- especially if it will fall under the church's umbrella.
The mere existence of a counseling ministry can create a dilemma since various aspects of counseling have always been viewed as a normal function of the church, Delafield says. In addition, he points out there may be conflicts between certain professional guidelines and church policies or theological views that must be resolved.
Besides the cost of office space, equipment and supplies, a church wanting to start a counseling ministry must obtain liability insurance. One church association in Texas recommends $500,000 of coverage for a counseling center and a minimum of $1 million per counselor.
Weighing the benefits
A church counseling ministry can become a key part of how your church fulfills the six purposes outlined in Acts 2. It can be a vehicle for discipleship, prayer, fellowship and ministry. Baker says Saddleback's counseling ministry has enabled some members to use their spiritual gifts in the church, while offering other members and community residents a place to come when they are struggling.
Sometimes the church counseling ministry can be an entry point for new members as well, fulfilling the church's purpose of evangelism.
"It's a good way of introducing people to the church and Christ," Southeast Christian's Delafield says of the counseling ministry there. "It can become evangelistic."