Riding the Wave
There are some rewards to being on the edge of turning eighty-five. One of those rewards is looking into the review mirror and reflecting upon the hand of Providence in one’s life.
Sitting in the Burbank airport while waiting for my flight to return home from the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors’ annual conference, I write this. The venue was filled with roughly 2,500 folks, with an equal number joining us via streaming. Several younger men (30-40) recognizing me stopped me to say, “Thank you for your faithful service.” The majority probably wondered why this old dude was attending the conference.
Those who greeted me were aware of the history of ACBC, formerly known as NANC. Their awareness prompted our visiting history together, and I had the privilege of filling in details that only someone who lived it could do. You see, I was in the original discussions regarding forming an association to standardize certification. We recognized that Biblical Counseling was, so to speak, competitive with the secular systems of counseling and psychotherapy. Such an association is a cultural reality, but not just cultural. Moses laid out standards for elders and priests, as did the Apostle Paul for elders and deacons.
My Lord guided me into the position of Dean of Men at a Bible college. Six months into that position, it became evident that though I held two seminary degrees, I was not equipped to counsel the men in my charge. At the time, I did not realize that, in fact, I was equipped. However, I did need a better toolbox to use the Word of God effectively. So, I enrolled in an M. Ed program at a local university. After the first summer and three classes, my disappointment was verbalized to a classmate this way. “I put everything I have read and heard into my theological sieve, and it all ran out on the ground.” Later, I used that same explanation for not returning to the program, and a friend said, “You need to read this new book hot of the press, Competent to Counsel.” After reading it two days later, I pitched it on the kitchen counter and said to Pam, “I want to study with this fellow. He has worked out what I’ve been looking for.”
Eighteen months later, the Lord opened the way for me to study with Dr. Adams at CCEF. For nine months, I spent every Monday observing cases, then counseling cases under his coaching eye and sitting around the conference table for two hours listening to cases discussed and counselors defending and explaining what they did and why.
This began a seven-year association with Dr. Adams and working for CCEF counseling and teaching. In the second year of this association, Dr. Adams asked me to create a course for those Monday mornings of the training seminars. This eventually matured into a book titled Curing the Heart, coauthored with my friend William Hines, which continues to be a textbook for introductory courses in biblical counseling.
In the last three of those seven years, I opened and ran a similar training program in Atlanta and Macon, GA. Dr. Lou Priolo took over the Atlanta Biblical Counseling Center and built a strong ministry. During his first year, he served an internship with me while I did post-doctoral work in gerontology at the UGA. The center in Macon was at First Presbyterian Church, where I met Jim Baird and Jay Adams attended.
When Jim Baird took the call to Granada Presbyterian Church in Miami, he asked me to join him. The Lord led us to agree. The next four years were great years of running the biblical counseling program as an in-house ministry of the local church and again running a training program after the format of CCEF. These were great years of blessing for our family. We often refer to those four years as our Granada experience. My father, who lived with us for eleven years, died during these years. Caring for Dad garnered the attention of a fellow PCA pastor who took the initiative to raise funds to provide a sabbatical for me to return to UGA and complete the work in gerontology.
After a year at UGA, the Lord initiated a call to St Louis to join the faculty of Covenant Theology Seminary to teach biblical counseling. Along with this came the opportunity to join the Kirk of the Hills staff, where Dr. Wilson Benton was the pastor who became a special friend as we negotiated some troubled church waters. Wilson was also a great help in establishing the Christian Counseling and Education Center, a place for students to execute internships and sponsor lay counselor training on the format of CCEF. During this time, I was asked to earn an MA degree that would qualify me for licensure. Completing the program convinced me that I did not desire to work under the state authority. This decision eventually led to leaving the faculty and returning to a senior pastor role in Alabama.
Another reflection of the St Louis years is that I was privileged to serve as the first Executive Director of NANC.
On the day of my transfer examination at Evangel Presbytery, Dr. Frank Barker, founding pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church (the mother church of the PCA), approached me and said, “Dr. Wilson Benton said we need to recruit you to teach counseling at Birmingham Theological Seminary.” Not only was this an opportunity to teach. but it allowed the development of a biblical counseling department offering an MA degree. After three years as a local Pastor, Briarwood recruited me to join the Pastoral Staff as Director of Counseling Ministries, a church-sponsored counseling ministry.
In this position, the Lord allowed me to train twenty lay counselors yearly. Not all joined our counseling team but moved to spread throughout the church utilizing the training in various ministries. Observing this phenomenon led to a course title change from Lay Counselor Training to Lay Counselor / Practical Ministry Training. Four elders and their wives decided to enroll in the class in one of those early years. Two of the four became part of the counseling team, and one of those couples still runs our divorce care ministry. We recruit heavily among our Session (75) and Deacons (140) each year into this training.
Concurrent with these various ministries, the Lord opened the door to begin Distance Education as early as 1988 through Trinity Theological Seminary and College. Though an unaccredited school, I took up this challenge because so many were requesting training. It proved to be a vital component of biblical counseling development. Literally, thousands came through the programs over the nearly thirty years I worked in that program, with a good number becoming early leaders in the movement.
After the first three years as Director of Counseling Ministries at Briarwood, I was asked to become President of Birmingham Theological Seminary. In this position, the opportunities to expand biblical counseling abounded. In this role and in conjunction with the Briarwood Church’s extensive World Missions program, came the opportunities to teach overseas, including Hopdong Theological Seminary, Seoul, Korea, a training program in Japan for MTW missionaries and adherents, evangelical seminaries in Brisbane and Perth Australia, as well as New Zealand and Uganda. Teaching biblical counseling took us to twelve other countries, from Romania and Ukraine to Central and South America.
Throughout this journey, the Lord has allowed me to mentor supervisees for ACBC. Since “retiring” from Briarwood, this has included 10-13 people concurrently. It is a wonderful teaching task. I get to evaluate session by session, some 10 to 20 cases a week, and have one-on-one (at least five) Zoom sessions with these folks. It is reminiscent of those early days at CCEF around the conference table but with just one student instead of ten.
Also, all along the way, it has been my privilege to teach at all but two (if my memory serves me well) NANC-ACBC conferences. From the days of Jay Adams to David Powlison at CCEF, Bill Goode, Randy Patton at the helm of NANC, Heath Lambert, and Dale Johnson as standard bearers of ACBC, I’ve ridden this wave of reformation. I sometimes feel like Philip Melanchthon and others must have felt who started out with Luther’s Reformation.
Like Luther, I have had my Katie, only her name is Pamela. If you have read Katie My Rib, it could be Pam, My Rib. Like Katie to Luther when he was depressed and dressed in black provoked Luther to ask, “Who died?” She replied, “God did,” pointing out that Martin needed an attitude check. So, Pam has often done this for me. She has loved me with my foibles. She encourages. She facilitates. She proofreads. She taps her chin to remind me to project when speaking. She has been my first constructive critic after the sermon or seminar presentation. She has kept a beautiful home. She has been a fantastic Mother. She has been a great caregiver for my parents and her parents. She has worked to put me through grad school. As the children left home, she took up the role of my Admin Assistant running counseling centers. She has been a wonderful spiritual companion. She has used her college degree in speech to develop a family life seminar with me that we did for some thirty years.
Oh, there have been challenges, accidents, and the building of five houses together and the strains thereof, BUT GOD! Along the way, the Lord has also given the gift of a host of colleagues, some of whom have become dear friends. He has made the ride of this wave of the biblical counseling ministry, including NANC/ACBC, an incredible gift of a service opportunity in His army.
Thank the Lord for YOUR faithfulness from the Garden to the death and resurrection of Jesus, to your pursuit of my soul, and the call to the ministry. Thank you for your faithfulness that has given me the gift of having a testimony of your love and the joy of knowing Jesus and watching the Holy Spirit change hundreds of lives as you have used me as an instrument of redemption.