In gearing up to plant Cornerstone Church in Detroit, I thought I had most of my bases covered. Vision statement? Check. Website? Check. Growing team? Check. Discipleship plan? Check. But I was quickly blindsided by an urgent need among our people that I hadn’t anticipated: robust, gospel-centered counseling.
Ministering in inner-city Detroit, our young church suddenly became a haven for people who’ve suffered various types of abuse and for those struggling with mental health. Many were trying to navigate broken relationships. The struggles within our church plant were already many . . . and then 2020 happened. Now we have the added pressures brought on by a global pandemic, nationwide racial tension and unrest, political posturing, and economic downturn.
It’s easy to feel like we’re in a constant state of crisis. The people we pastor feel the rising pressures, uncertainty, and conflict. They’re struggling with spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being. Relational brokenness is boiling over. The issues requiring pastoral counsel are surfacing within our church plants at alarming rates. Needless to say, as we strive to lead our congregations, we must be prepared to shepherd people in crisis.
By no means do I consider myself a counseling expert, but, because of my context, I’m learning as much as possible as fast as possible. Here are four ways I’m learning to become a better counselor to families in crisis.
In 1986, the gospel group The Williams Brothers released the song “Sweep Around,” based on an old saying among black Southerners. The lyrics—Sweep around your own front door before you try to sweep around mine—demonstrate the ethic of self-examination before examining others. To effectively assist families in crisis and conflict, we must first “sweep around our own front doors.”
Too many times I’ve attempted to serve others while my own heart remained unchecked, often to everyone’s detriment.
Too many times I’ve attempted to serve others while my own heart remained unchecked, often to everyone’s detriment. Brothers, we can’t bring others to Jesus for health and healing if our own relationships are decaying or we’re spiritually running on fumes.
See the Signs
It’s helpful to learn people’s patterns and to identify behavioral red flags. This is challenging for planters as we’re often just getting to know people when they join our church plants. I’m learning how impulsive behavior, emotional outbursts, creating distance from the church, constant relational conflict, and sin patterns are all indicators of people in trouble. The phrase I use within our church is “grabbing the fire extinguisher as soon as you smell smoke.”
One way I’m learning to do this is by surrounding myself with trusted men who point out the red flags in my own life. I’m grateful to have people in my life that do what I’m prescribing—point out routine, unhealthy patterns that yield negative results especially when life is difficult. After noticing these unhealthy patterns, we attempt to graciously redirect them back to Jesus, as the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2).
Many people are understandably wary of counseling, due to past and present pain. In inner-city Detroit, offering hurting people counseling is often like what happens when I offer my kids that gross, green baby food. So I’ve started doing what I call “creative counseling.” For people apprehensive or uncomfortable, I’m discovering both planned and impromptu ways to engage that lead to deeper opportunities. It could be a conversation after service, a spontaneous visit to their home, or reaching out electronically with the intent of building trust and encouraging transparency.
By God’s grace, and with patience and intentionality, I’m having rich, transforming conversations with people who “would never do counseling.” I try to express my concern for their pain and point them to Christ as its ultimate cure. I want them to know that I love them, and that Christ loves them infinitely more.
Make It a Team Effort
At Cornerstone Church, we desire to establish a “one another” culture of care. The calls to “build up,” “bear with,” “speak truth,” “comfort,” and “stir up” one another are not only commanded in Scripture, they’re extremely beneficial to strugglers. Serving people in crisis is a team effort, not a solo gig. For example, some ladies from our church developed a ministry named UPLIFT. They meet monthly to give women the opportunity to share their struggles with anxiety and depression, and to strengthen each other in gospel grace.
Serving people in crisis is a team effort, not a solo gig.
Fellow pastors, during these difficult times, take inventory of your flock and determine who’s struggling. One of the greatest ways we reflect our Savior and make his kingdom visible is by extending the grace, comfort, and love of his gospel. I’ve seen his gospel come alive to hurting people through believers “one anothering” well.
Church planting involves more than preaching and leading others in missional living. And while me must rigorously prepare to do those things, we mustn’t neglect preparing ourselves to shepherd people in crisis, too. Our people are struggling under this year’s extra pressures. Let’s be zealous to point them to the Good Shepherd who seeks the lost, brings back the strayed, binds up the injured, strengthens the weak, and feeds us in justice (Ezek. 34:16).
The Gospel Coalition