The Law and Church Counseling: Scope of Care

Note: You’re reading Part Three in a blog mini-series on The Law and Church Counseling.  Read Part One Caring Carefully and Part Two The Legal History and Climate. I’m summarizing these posts from material in chapter twelve of Equipping Counselors for Your Church. To learn more about the book, which is now available for pre-order, visit Equipping Counselors.  

Informed Consent: Communicating Honestly and Accurately about Your Ministry

The first law-of-the-land and law-of-love issue that biblical counseling ministries must address relates to informed consent. Technically, informed consent means that the care-giver has a duty to disclose fairly the scope and nature of the care provided and alternative modes of care so that the person seeking care can make an informed voluntary decision. Adequacy of disclosure is judged by what a reasonable person would want to know to make that informed decision. 

Practically speaking, this means that with our biblical counseling ministries we need to communicate honestly and accurately who we are, what we are offering, and what we are not offering. In other words, we never hold out our graduates to be more than they are trained and qualified to be. In the event of a legal action, the standard our graduates will be held to in a court of law is that which we held them to in public. 

In Appendix C11.1 of Equipping Counselors for Your Church, I include three forms (Biblical Counseling Ministry Welcome Form, Biblical Counseling Ministry Consent Form, and the Biblical Counseling Ministry Consent to Minister to a Minor Child)that express ways to communicate informed consent in local church biblical counseling. The second form, states, in part: 

I have been informed that the spiritual care I will be receiving from _______________ (Name of Biblical Counselor) at _______________ (Name of Church), is Christian and biblical in nature. I have also been informed that _______________ (Name of Biblical Counselor) is an encourager and discipler trained at _______________ (Name of Church) as a biblical counselor and spiritual friend in the church’s LEAD (Life Encourager And Discipler) Biblical Counseling Ministry. Under supervision from one of the LEAD trainers, _______________ (Name of Biblical Counselor) offers to provide biblical encouragement and discipleship on personal and relational matters from a spiritual perspective guided by biblical principles. He/she is not trained, authorized, or licensed to provide professional counseling, psychological treatment, or psychological diagnosis. I understand that if and when I desire and request professional counseling, then I will be free to seek such outside assistance. I give my consent to _______________ (Name of Biblical Counselor) to discuss any and all of the information that I talk about in our meetings with his/her supervisor(s) in the LEAD Biblical Counseling Ministry. 

Clearly Communicate Who You Are 

Appendix C11.1 includes several important aspects. First, the forms carefully label the type of care being offered. In the sample forms, biblical counselor is the primary label chosen and defined. It is supported by other terms such as spiritual friend, encourager, discipler, soul care, and spiritual direction. Second, the forms repeatedly use terms like ministry, discipleship, and local church to highlight the non-licensed, spiritual nature of the help offered. 

What Do You Call Yourself?

Practitioners in best practice churches often debate whether or not to use, in any form, with any modifiers, the term “counseling” or “counselor.” Some people choose to avoid terms such “lay counselor,” “Christian counselor,” “biblical counselor,” or “spiritual counselor” because of the possibility of someone mistaking this non-professional, non-licensed counseling for professional licensed counseling. Instead, they choose other legitimate words and descriptions used in the Bible and/or in church history—words with less potential for causing confusion in the mind of the person seeking care. 

Others strongly desire to claim and even reclaim the mantle and label of “biblical counselor” seeing it as a legitimate scriptural description that the church should not allow the world to usurp. They then carefully explain what they mean and do not mean by their terms. 

Whatever term you use, never label your graduates something they are not trained to do. Regardless of which term you choose, the vital issue is how you describe and define your terms. 

Clearly Communicate What You Offer and What You Do Not Offer

A central aspect of defining your label involves stating what goals you aim to address and what goals you do not aim to address. What is the scope and nature of the care you are offering? The LEAD Biblical Counseling Ministry Welcome Form outlines specifically what I mean by biblical counseling. In part, it says:   

You have read our term “biblical counseling.” We would like to explain what we mean by it. Biblical counselors are spiritual friends who commit to the historic roles of soul care and spiritual direction through: 

  • Sustaining: Empathizing with your suffering, helping you to understand that “It’s normal to hurt.”
  • Healing: Encouraging you to see life from a biblical perspective, helping you to know that “It’s possible to hope.”
  • Reconciling: Examining and exposing your current responses to life and suggesting new ways of handling problems, helping you to see that “It’s horrible to sin, but wonderful to be forgiven.”
  • Guiding: Exploring how and empowering you to mature through Christ, helping you to grasp that “It’s supernatural to mature.”

The LEAD Biblical Counseling Ministry Consent Form (all those who receive care must read, discuss, and sign both forms) clearly distinguishes between what is offered and what is not offered, what the biblical counselor/spiritual friend is and is not qualified to do. As you read above, it says: 

LEAD biblical counselors offer to provide biblical encouragement and discipleship on personal and relational matters from a spiritual perspective guided by biblical principles. They are not trained, authorized, or licensed to provide professional counseling, psychological treatment, or psychological diagnosis. 

To maintain this distinction, I recommend never charging any fees for counseling services. Once a fee is mandated, then an implied professional relationship is established. At that point, both the state and the individual receiving counseling would likely perceive you to be offering professional counseling. 

The Rest of the Story

Join us for Part Four as we learn biblical principles of caring carefully, specifically Quality of Care: Building Safeguards in Your Ministry

Join the Conversation

 Do you think “counselor” should be a part of the title for those who minister in the local church?

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