A Counseling Center for the Church and the Community
By Adam MacInnis

Kyle Ferguson is amazed at the growth and saddened by the need of Blue Ridge Christian Counseling’s services.

“I think we somewhat underestimated the need for a counseling center,” said Ferguson, a pastor and member of Blue Ridge’s board. “We knew there was a need, and we thought it was possible, but I don’t think we anticipated as much need as there is.”

Blue Ridge was born out of the prayers of members of PCA churches in the Roanoke Valley in southwest Virginia as they turned to God for direction about how best to serve the needs of their community and the church.

After more than a year of planning, it became reality in January 2018 with the hiring of Executive Director Michael Gembola. Since then the counseling center has grown to include about 10 employees who are offering services both virtually and in person.

A Presbytery Ministry

One of the men involved in the project from day one was the Rev. Doug Hart, who is now chair of the Blue Ridge board of directors.

42% of U.S. adults  have seen a counselor.
Source: Barna Research, “Americans Feel Good About Counseling”

From the start, Hart says he and other leaders in the area wanted a counseling center that would be a ministry of the presbytery as opposed to a ministry of an individual church. There were several reasons for this, but a primary one was for accountability and to avoid the center from ever drifting from the PCA’s confessional and orthodox position.

“We recognize there is a lot of value, a lot of common grace, wisdom, and insight that we can glean from secular sources, but we wanted Scripture to govern us and wanted to be accountable to the local church,” Hart said.

Tying it to a presbytery and having the board of directors approved by the presbytery, Ferguson believes,  prevents one or two people from changing the direction of the organization down the road.

“It’s kind of a broader base of leadership hopefully to protect the philosophy and the mission of the counseling center for years to come,” Ferguson said.

To further ensure a common and clearly stated philosophy of counseling, Blue Ridge adopted the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF) model of care, a Christ-centered approach to counseling.

Another major benefit of having the PCA involved as an organization is that it spreads the center’s load  around so it doesn’t place the burden on an individual church.

“It allows us to pool resources,” Gembola said. “Most churches in the area aren’t big enough to start a center.”

A Counseling Center That Blesses Pastors and Parishioners

Now almost four years in, all involved say they are amazed at how God has worked through it, not only in the Roanoke area where the center is based, but also in churches and mission fields scattered around the world.

In Roanoke itself, the center has grown steadily as it helps the needs of those in the community. While Hart estimates that about three-quarters of the people seeking counseling come because of a church referral; others find the center on their own.

As a teaching elder of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Roanoke,  Ferguson said that prior to Blue Ridge Christian Counseling, he often questioned where the best place was to refer people to for Christian counseling. 

“I probably refer roughly the same number of people, only now I have a greater confidence of who I am referring them to,” Ferguson said. “I’m referring them to something that’s Reformed and gospel-based, not just Bible-stamped. It’s a fully biblical approach to counseling. That gives me real peace of mind.”

The center has been a blessing to churches in several other ways as well. From lightening the load on pastors and elders to holding training sessions to better equip lay counselors to better care for the local body of Christ, the impact has been practical and prevalent.

“We’re trying to help churches grow in their ability to care for a wide range of people’s needs,” Hart said.

When clients give permission, the counseling center can also work directly with a member of church leadership to discuss an issue. Through that mutual collaboration, both the counselors and pastoral staff can benefit.

“We think that through that process, we’re helping pastors learn to do a better job of counseling as well as learning from them,” Hart said.

Gembola said he has heard a lot of positive feedback about the work they’re doing. “One pastor said it’s probably the best thing we’ve done as a presbytery together,” he said.

Blue Ridge is also a place where pastors themselves can turn when they’re facing a struggle, whether it be with depression, marital problems, or even conflict in the church. Ferguson said that because they offer virtual services, they can give counsel to pastors from anywhere in the world through Skype or Zoom. 

“I think it’s a great resource and a great help,” he said. 

Missionaries are similarly able to access the service, and that’s an area where Gembola said he would like to see more growth. While the center does charge fees, when it comes to pastors and missionaries, it tries to be as accessible as possible, Gembola explained.

From the start, Doug Hart and other leaders in the area wanted a counseling center that would be a ministry of the presbytery as opposed to a ministry of an individual church.

As Blue Ridge continues to grow, the leadership plans to stay within the southwest Virginia geographic area, but add more specialized counselors to help people who speak different languages or deal with specific issues such as PTSD.

While they don’t have plans to expand beyond their own region, all involved believe their model can be replicated in other regions. Hart said they’ve already had many people contact and ask them what they’ve learned.

“It does take a solid network of churches who want to work together,” he said.

For other presbyteries looking to add a ministry like this, Gembola also encourages having a unifying philosophy, such as Blue Ridge has with the CCEF philosophy of counseling.

While some costs may be offset eventually with donations and fees, Hart said it’s important to consider startup capital to pay people until the ministry can be more self-supporting.

“We don’t envision it will be completely self-supporting, but churches are helping us with donations that are credited to folks that they send us who can’t afford to pay for their counseling or can’t afford to pay the full rate,” Hart said.

Ferguson has no doubt that more centers like Blue Ridge are needed. “It’s amazing how many people I talk to around the country who are in need of counseling and know they’re in need of counseling but don’t know where they need to turn,” Ferguson said.

He’s thankful that for people in his community, there’s somewhere to go for help.

“It’s been amazing to see God’s sovereignty in all of this and the way he orchestrated it,” he said. “It wasn’t something we came up with, but something that God led us to.”

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