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By C. Michael Courtney

There is a popular children's game called Chutes and Ladders in which you try to scramble to the top of the board by being on the right ladder at the right time and avoiding the chutes that slide you back down to places you've already been.

Organizational development is much like that. We are continually deciding when to move up to the next rung, when to change to another ladder, and even if our ladder is leaning against the right wall.

Branches was born in 2006. I was a newly licensed NCAA counselor with a desire to help people and a vision of how God might use both my story and my training to impact the Kingdom, at least the small circle that I had the ability to influence. Within a couple of years, we added to the counseling, training and equipping like-minded pastoral counselors by becoming a Certified Academic Institution. Dr. Laura Hart was instrumental as my personal supervisor and Drs. Richard and Phyllis Arno were amazing in their attention to and care for the fledgling counseling/training center.

Very quickly both the counseling center and the C.A.I. began to grow and I began to recognize the different skillset and mindset that it takes to “start” some ministry or organization and to develop it into a viable, impactful entity that fulfills its mission and the call of God. The early years were Chutes and Ladders. We would climb to a new level of proficiency only to hit a roadblock and slip back to trying to figure out what we were doing all over again.

My imagination is that we are not alone. Perhaps many of you reading this have experienced the up and down of trying to build your C.A.I. or establish your counseling practice. Owning a business, creating a ministry is very much a “three steps forward and two steps back” process. One month, one week, sometimes even one day, you feel like you have made some good strides and climbed a few rungs on the ladder, and the next you are sliding at breakneck speed back down the hill, trying desperately to stop the decline.

After nearly two decades, and some fairly healthy growth, I have come to understand that, like Chutes and Ladders, much of the success of the endeavor is found in trusting God, not just to help you climb to the next rung, but to help you discern whether or not you are on the right ladder. “The Lord makes firm the steps of the one who delights in Him,” the Psalmist says, “though he may miss a rung (my interpretation) he will not fall.”   Psalm 37:23-24

So here is a quick examination of the ladders we face and the observations I make about climbing them. It seems to me that the ladders that our ministry needs to scale are activity, structure, and then systems. First activity. In the early days of Branches we were just trying to get the word out and keep the doors open. We were driven by the need to stay active. I went to ministerial meetings, took more NCCA classes, volunteered to speak at nursing homes, anything to let people know that we were here. I sent letters to every church in town offering to teach Wednesday night classes on Temperament and invited Mother’s Day Out programs to offer a class for moms on pastoral counseling. The ladder I was trying to scale was calendar driven. It was filling every available time slot with sharing the Branches story. I decided I would work fifty hours per week. If I only had four clients scheduled (that was a good week) then I had forty-six more hours free to be active. I have seen many organizations come and go because they failed to appreciate the activity ladder. We do our training. We complete our required profiles. We earn our degree. And then we sit and wait for clients or students to beat down the door. Get your activity ladder out, lean it against the work wall, and start climbing.

After a while, the activity began to produce results and I realized I was now climbing the structure ladder. Branches was joined by Chandy Powell, a wonderful, NCCA trained pastoral counselor. Then Debi Russell came on board, another NCCA graduate. At some point I saw the need for a receptionist, a clinical director, a part-time marketing person. The school had grown beyond my ability to keep up, so we needed a dean to run the C.A.I. Dr. Marlena Butler was referred to us by the NCCA and came alongside. Slowly but surely, I was climbing the structure ladder. Now the goal was not just to stay busy but to build an effective operation, to work smarter and not harder. Today Branches has thirty therapists, five medical providers, four life coaches, and ten office personnel. The structure ladder was not possible until the activity ladder was scaled. And the activity ladder would have been pointless without the development of the structure ladder.

The final ladder for us has been the systems ladder. Jesus said, “Go into all the world and make disciples.” (Matthew 28:19) It seems to me that the mandate for any ministry or Christ-centered business is to reproduce, to be replicated in the lives and communities around us. The NCCA certainly appears to believe in the call of God to train and equip others. So should we. At some point we begin to climb the systems ladder. How can I put best practices and personal philosophies in place so that what we are doing here can be taught to and repeated by others? Branches has five locations in Tennessee. We are trying to continually climb the ladder of systematizing and simplifying what we do and what we teach. Your ministry will want to go on long after you have slowed down. Another word for this ladder might be legacy. In 2022, I stepped down as the executive director of Branches and turned it over to my son, Joshua Courtney. I still see clients, teach in our C.A.I. and write lengthy articles 😊 but the day-to-day leadership of the Branches system is in another set of very capable hands.

The C.A.I. or counseling center that you lead needs to be both Spirit-led and missional. The Spirit-led individual or organization is astute at when to move to the next rung. But the missional individual or organization will know which ladder to use. Staying on a ladder too long will cause you to lose momentum, forget the mission, and plateau or decline. Changing ladders too quickly will cause you to become unstable, overreach, and eventually fall. The effective leader/counselor/teacher will always be looking closely at the wall and making sure he or she is scaling the right ladder. I do that by making sure I have securely navigated each rung of the ladder before I climb to the next. 

  1. The first rung is foundational. What are our values and core beliefs? Make sure that they are instilled in every process, taught to every employee, and demonstrated by every activity. 

  2. Next is the directional rung. The goals and objectives of the organization need to be crystal clear. Before I let go of a previous rung I want to know which rung I will grab next.

  3. The strategic rung follows. I know why we are here. I know what we should do next. But do I understand how to proceed? What resources, support systems, and skillsets will we need to climb to the next level.

  4. And finally, the communication rung must be in place. The missional leader is ineffective if the mission stays hidden between his or her ears. Tell your people what you are going to do. Tell your people what you are doing. And tell them what you just did. Communicate the activity, the structure and the system every step of the way.

In March of last year, middle Tennessee suffered an unimaginable tragedy when a lone gunman went into a Christian school and opened fire. Three second graders and three faculty members were killed. Within hours, Branches was asked to come in and oversee the trauma training for those who would be trying to comfort this grieving community. We spent months caring for the caregivers, the first responders, the teachers, and parents. From that experience we were recently involved in training orthodox Jewish leaders to provide trauma informed care to their synagogue and community members after the October 7 attack in Israel. If we were still hanging on to the activity ladder, or trying to scale the structure ladder, we would have been unavailable and not even considered for such spiritually ordained tasks. God has a plan for your C.A.I., your counseling ministry. Knowing that you are climbing the right ladder is essential.

I suggest these questions often for you. What ladder are we on right now? How long have we been on it? Have I navigated every necessary rung on this ladder? How do I move on to the next ladder? And does everyone in my influence circle know it is time to take the next step. It is a pretty old adage, but pretty true when it comes to ladder climbing, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will lead you to the next rung.” (Again, my interpretation 😊) God bless you and keep climbing.

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