How Churches Can Partner with Outside Counselors

From a Counselor: Rebecca Meyer

The sermon text was Psalm 88, a raw, riveting prayer of a depressed author, and the pastor did not hold back. As he drew out themes of loneliness, betrayal, and isolation I saw heads nodding and notepads filling up. The dizzying Psalm seemed to capture everyone present.

At the end of the sermon, the pastor extended an invitation. “Prayer ministers will be available throughout the sanctuary to pray with you.” Within minutes, the prayer ministers were surrounded. They prayed, wept with those suffering, and moved to the next waiting person. As I watched, I began to wonder, what is next for these people? How can the balm of prayer on Sunday become an entry gate to transformational change or perseverance in suffering? What’s next for the person whose heart was laid bare by the Psalmist’s harrowing conclusion: “Darkness is my closest friend”?

This is where churches have an opportunity to partner with outside counselors. What if, as the prayer ministers closed their conversations, they could have offered each grieving person a chance to meet with a professionally trained, biblically grounded counselor?

Earlier this fall I met with a group of pastors and shared some thoughts on coming alongside hurting people. While they appreciated the tips I shared, they explained to me that engaging in more long conversations is a luxury, and that to stack them on top of their already high list of responsibilities would be overwhelming.

To me, the solution was obvious. Overworked and overwhelmed pastors can turn to counselors to meet the needs of their flock. As I’ve had conversations with pastors and staff at a number of churches throughout the Chicago area, I’ve learned a lot about how churches can partner with counselors.

Perfect Partners

After studying counseling in seminary, I joined Cross Care Counseling, a group that partners with churches to offer counseling, under church authority. But few of the people I counsel are familiar with the organization. They identify me with their church rather than a counseling practice outside of the church. This is intentional. Cross Care is sustainable because of the adjunct nature of the church partnerships. For example, at Calvary Memorial Church, I may counsel one or two clients at a time, but I also have other clients in other churches throughout the city. Clients pay for their own counseling, but most churches offer various levels of support to subsidize the cost. At Calvary Memorial, the referring pastor acts as the sponsor for the person seeking counseling, and helps them navigate a Benevolence Fund request and advocate for the need.

My relationships with churches begin in a variety of ways. Sometimes a partnership is born when one of my clients refers someone from a different church to meet with me. In other instances, a pastor will give my contact information to someone in need of counseling. Once the counseling relationship begins, it can take many forms.

Rather than a brick and mortar office space, I value meeting with clients in their space of worship. When we meet like this, we are saying to people, “Your church sees you and values your need!”

At Calvary Memorial, there is a small library to help supplement counseling conversations. Another church, without a permanent sanctuary, opens their office space for counseling hours. At a third church, I once found myself squeezed into a broom closet that smelled distinctly of trash, meeting with someone during a busy time of year (we eventually found an empty classroom to meet in). Rather than a brick and mortar office space, I value meeting with clients in their space of worship. When we meet like this, we are saying to people, “Your church sees you and values your need!” and by extension, “God cares for you in the muck and mire of life!”

Meeting in the church building can destigmatize counseling. As I become a regular face around churches, staff and pastors work to overturn misperceptions about the need for counseling. They enthusiastically tell their congregants, “We are needy people, and we can turn to God for help through counseling!”

Supplementing, Not Replacing

When working to establish a partnership with a thriving church in Chicago, one deacon asked, “Isn’t the care you are describing what we pay pastors to do?” In no way does Cross Care seek to subvert the important role of pastoral care. Rather, we seek to enhance and support those tasked with overseeing it.

This unique vision for counseling in the local church allows me to partner with many pastors across Chicago who are deeply invested in the flourishing of their congregants. Not only am I accountable to the person I’m counseling, but I’m accountable to pastors who are extending me the privilege of counseling their flock. Pastors speak into my life as I seek to speak into the lives of the people I’m counseling. The process of accountability includes regularly meeting with pastors and church staff. I often listen to the sermons preached at the churches I partner with. I familiarize myself with their small group ministry structure and church resources.

Often, I work with clients to connect personal insights with Scripture the church is studying. This deepens the significance of the corporate worship for clients and allows them to share what God is doing in their lives with familiar language in the church. One of my clients taught Sunday school. As she prepared lessons on the wilderness wandering in Exodus, we used the scriptural story as a lens to view her own story. We explored what God might be inviting her to do in the midst of “wandering” circumstances.

As I counsel in the local church, I also connect with resources outside of the church. Like pastors, I cannot meet all the needs I encounter. One of the most difficult conversations I had involved telling someone that we would have to postpone our counseling sessions until she was evaluated by a psychiatrist. As much as I wanted to meet with her during that difficult time, I needed to refer her to a trusted psychiatric practice.

Even without advertising, people in need of counseling find their way into pastors’ offices and eventually sit across from me in a counseling relationship. I consider this a “win” if the church can receive these people. Most people I counsel reached out to their pastor for support because they knew their church was a place where help and hope were available.

By establishing counseling in the church, I hope it will become more accessible to people unlikely to pursue help—those who recognize they might need counseling, but do not have the resources or experience to select a counselor. This goes beyond a pastor handing someone a list of trusted counselors to call. Pastors should be able to offer the person in need a streamlined process to help them step into counseling, in a space they are already know, under the oversight of pastors and elders they trust to shepherd their souls.

Rebecca Meyer (M.A. Counseling, Westminster Theological Seminary) counsels with Cross Care Counseling and in the Chaplain's Office at Wheaton College. She lives on the South Side of Chicago with her husband, Ben.

From a Pastor: Gerald Hiestand

When I sat down with Annie and Tom to discuss their marriage, things were not going terribly. But they were not going particularly well either. They had come through a rough spot a few years back—a testimony to God’s redemptive grace. Annie had left Tom, and then had gone on to spend six months in serial adultery. Her abusive childhood, and the self-loathing that stemmed from it, drove her into a cycle of self-destruction. At one point she said to me, “I can’t stop. I hate myself. I want to die. I’m drawn to guys who just use me. I’ll keep living like this until it kills me. Then I’ll die and go to heaven and finally have peace.”

I gently pointed out that giving herself over to the flesh wasn’t the Bible’s proscribed way for making it heaven. She needed a different plan. She made her way back to the Lord and to Tom. But as any pastor or counselor knows, trauma that leads to that sort of destructive lifestyle isn’t easily tidied up. And so Annie and Tom were back in my study. Annie wasn’t about to leave; that much was behind them. But their capacity to engage in meaningful sexual intimacy was virtually non-existent. After so much infidelity, Annie had shut down sexually. And Tom was frustrated; having persevered through her sexual license with other men, he now found himself with a wife who was shutting him out.

Given my already busy schedule, combined with my family commitments, it would be unwise to fill my evenings with counseling appointments. If I did, my wife and I would wind up in marriage counseling ourselves!

Counseling is an aspect of pastoral ministry that I find richly rewarding. But I also find it overwhelming. The needs of my congregation extend beyond my personal capacity to meet them. This is in part because I lack the specialty training required to minister to folks who have experienced deep trauma, or who have significant psychiatric needs. But more often than not, it is simply because I lack the time. My schedule as a pastor fights against me. Most folks who need to meet with a counselor work during the day, and thus can only meet in the evenings and on weekends. Given my already busy schedule, combined with my family commitments, it would be unwise to fill my evenings with counseling appointments. If I did, my wife and I would wind up in marriage counseling ourselves!

I do what I can, as do the other pastors I serve with at my church. But it isn’t enough. We need the body of Christ. And so we lean upon our small group ministry, our lay elders, and folks in our congregation who minister as counselors in a professional capacity. And beyond this, we also lean upon counseling services in the area.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about referring my congregants to outside counselors—partly because I don’t always know the doctrinal framework that drives their counseling; I don’t know their capacity to listen, to empathize without subtly affirming sinful practices. But also because I hate to send folks away from the church to receive care. But we have a large congregation and a limited staff. We can’t minister to everyone, and so we refer out and pray for the best.

The best kind of outside referral is the kind that isn’t very far “outside.” Our relationship with Rebecca Meyer of Cross Care Counseling is an example of the kind of close outside partnership that can work well. Rebecca first met with me earlier last year to explain Cross Care’s ministry. After visiting with her, I invited her to attend one of our weekly ministry staff meetings. This gave our staff an opportunity to get to know her, to ask her questions about her counseling philosophy, and to make sure that Rebecca was the kind of person our staff would feel comfortable referring our congregants to.

We often use our benevolence fund to help underwrite the expense of counseling. In light of this, we arranged a disclosure agreement between Rebecca, the congregant, and the referring pastor. This allows our pastoral staff to stay connected to the situation, and gives Rebecca an opportunity to let us know if it is wise for us to continue providing financial support. It also allows Rebecca the ability to disclose details that are pastorally relevant—the sorts of things that would be disclosed to me as their pastor if I was doing the counseling directly.

When possible, Rebecca meets with our congregants in our church building (though this isn’t required; some congregants prefer to meet offsite). Meeting at the church affirms the partnership between Rebecca and our church, and helps keep the counseling sessions more integrated into the rhythm of the worshiping life of our congregation.

Rebecca has also made herself available to provide training to our ministry leaders. We run a basketball program that ministers to young men from at-risk environments. Many of these young men have seen significant levels of trauma. Rebecca was able to help our volunteers and youth staff understand how the human body, on a visceral, sub-conscious level, responds to trauma, and how this in turn affects behavior. And she was able to give us pointers and directions about how best to minister to such individuals. This type of ongoing training—whether for youth leaders, small group leaders, lay elders, or for pastoral staff—is a significant service that a close partnership with an outside counselor can provide.

Rebecca has been meeting with Annie and Tom for just over five weeks. We recently had our midway check in. Rebecca feels like they are making progress; Annie and Tom would like to continue the counseling. So we’ll all press on.

As much as possible, I like to care for the folks in my congregation through the resources that are available in my congregation. But when we’ve reached the limits of our capacity, as every church must at times, I’m grateful for folks like Rebecca who have a heart to work closely with our pastoral staff—serving not simply as an outside referral, but as a ministry partner.

Gerald Hiestand is senior associate pastor at Calvary Memorial Church in Oak Park, Illinois.