(Newsletter September 2014)

Interviewed by Elizabeth Mak

“Counseling should not sound odd in a church because the church was the one that started counseling,” said Ric Rodeheaver, administrative elder at Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada. “The church has been doing this for two millenia and longer. So it shouldn’t be surprising that churches counsel. It’s surprising that more churches don’t counsel.”

The church where Ric serves established a formal counseling ministry in September 2012 called Grace Counseling Center (GCC) to serve its church members with Gospel-focused, Christ-exalting counseling services, training and education. Their brochure points out that, “many of the issues that people struggle with have a distinct god-ward focus that must be addressed.” They specify their task as bringing help and hope to people through the gospel, which provides the proper worldview, methodology and structure for change.

“The gospel’s meant to change us,” said Ric. “And it’s not just about eternal life and forgiveness and praying. It’s about the world of emotions. It’s about our anxieties. It’s about our greatest fears. It’s about despairs. It’s about our hopes. Well, that’s everything that Scripture’s about.”

Grace Counseling Center pairs up those requesting counseling at their church with lay counselors or licensed marriage and family therapists for 10-week sessions. Counselors are members of the church and are trained through the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation. Prior to being paired up with a counselor, each counselee must fill out a Personal Data and Intake Form and give consent on certain issues of liability and the appropriate guidelines for the limits of the lay counseling relationship. An intake session is also held before pairing the person up with a counselor.

“Eighty percent of these people probably could have been helped by someone who loves them and knows them,” said Ric in regard to those who seek counseling at GCC. “The other 10% probably could have been helped but…they never dealt with it and it got to a point where they really do need some specialized help. And the final 10% are those who need professionally trained people.”

For more severe cases of mental illness, GCC will work in tandem with a counselee’s psychologist and/or psychiatrist. They will also create what they call an advocacy group, in which 5-8 individuals work together to care specifically for that individual and act as that person’s accountability. This plan helps to provide a continuity of care for the counselee while preventing burnout on the part of those caring for the counselee.

“People always think that we can handle it all. And no, we can’t,” said Ric. “A depressed person can really suck you dry emotionally. And what happens is that they’ll go to one person and that one person wants to love them, but after three months of it, they just burn out. And then they go to the next person and what we have is not a consistency of care but a lot of burnt out relationships. Eventually, this person burns out all their relationships.”

In these advocacy groups, one person a week will act as the crisis care person. Everyone follows a set of expectations and knows what they need to do to walk with the counselee the week they are scheduled. Everyone on the team works toward the same treatment goals and agrees on how to reinforce them. The group also meets up regularly to give one another feedback about how the counselee is doing, and how to best care for him or her. Of course, the counselee is informed of this treatment plan, and the support group must fully agree to commit to helping this person before moving forward.

“We’ve had remarkable success,” said Ric. “Now that’s relative when you’re dealing with someone with severe depression, right? Success can be this person hasn’t been hospitalized this year.”

Their counseling ministry also works alongside their church-wide shepherding ministry called Grace Groups where all who attend the church are encouraged to be a part of an intergenerational small group of 10-15 people. Their Grace Groups are usually led by two shepherding couples who, according to their website, actually “function as pastors of their own small flock within the church”. Through these two ministries, the church emphasizes spiritual growth and healing for individuals within community.

“This modern way of counseling is not really the best way. It’s really to be in your life, to be in community with people, with God’s people at work,” said Ric. “When I speak to therapists and psychologists, I will be upfront and say, you know, what you’re doing is what a pastor does.”

Jim and Tracy (actual names changed here) have been Grace Group shepherds for the past 10 years and have learned the importance of relationship in difficult times. Jim said that they had carried some heavy burdens and encountered issues that were beyond what they could handle. Many times, caring ministry workers like Jim and Tracy, may not be familiar with all the specific struggles that come their way. It is important for pastors and caring ministry workers to get the proper training and resources needed to know how to care for someone dealing with specific issues.

“You don’t have to do it all by yourself,” said Jim. “If it’s too big of a task, ask for help, or you know, find an expert, somebody who knows more about helping someone like that—whether it be a person, or a book, or information.”

Tracy also talked about the value of just being present with someone, especially in hard times. She had been on the receiving end of that when members of her Grace Group visited her at home after her father passed away. It was a comfort to her and an extremely powerful experience of God’s love. Although she never really knows how what she is doing may be impacting others, she believes it is important to just keep doing what is right by the Lord, to be consistent with people, and to pursue them. She sees the value of perseverance in walking with others through difficult times.

“If there’s a level of health in the church…people are willing to let you in,” said Tracy. “The elders talk about getting into the trenches with people and getting in the mud. That is very true. If people will let you into each other’s lives—you see family fights, you see children yelling at each other, you see people being mentally ill, you see things that are embarrassing…just because somebody has a mental illness or marital struggle, it doesn’t give you permission to quit.”

Presence seeks to come alongside and support various church communities. It is not our goal to promote any one church as the model for all other churches. However, we are thankful to Grace Evangelical Free Church in La Mirada for sharing with us how they have helped those in their church struggling with mental and emotional issues and what has been effective for them. We believe that each church has its own story and specific community issues. It is important that each church develop their own model for intentionally addressing these issues in ways God would have them best minister to their specific church community.