It Takes a Church
It Takes a Church
Categories: RECENT RESEARCH
T.J. Gentry, D.Min.
“Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
– Galatians 6:2
“What does love look like? It has the hands to help others.
It has the feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery and want.
It has the ears to hear the sighs and sorrows of men. That is what love looks like.”
Who are the people helpers in the church?
Should John and Mary, when dealing with basic challenges related to being newlyweds, rely exclusively on the pastor for help, or is it wise that a seasoned married couple come alongside for counsel and encouragement? What about Bill, a single undergraduate student struggling with loneliness? Is it only the college pastor’s calling to offer Bill wisdom and comfort?
These question reveal a concern that many church leaders regularly face regarding the ministry burden created by the volume of pastoral counseling needs, and the limitations present when the pastor and staff are already overwhelmed with the demands of ongoing church life. The ministry needs simply far exceed the available ministers. Or do they? What if the prevailing attitude and practice in the church were different? What if the laity also engaged the counseling needs around them, offering help and extending the pastoral ministry of the church beyond that which the pastor and staff can personally provide? Sound far-fetched? It’s actually biblical.
Ministry is never the sole responsibility of the pastor and staff.
The answer to the challenge posed by the reality that there is far more ministry than available pastoral staff is two-fold. First, we must learn to think more broadly about who the ministers are in every congregation. Yes, there is certainly a central role given to those specially called to vocational ministry as pastors and other staff members. As Paul explains in Ephesians 4:11, God “gave some to be . . . pastors and teachers.” Pastors and teachers, what we usually think of as the leaders in our churches, are certainly a gift from God to the church. They are not, however, the only ministers.
Actually, as Paul goes on to explain in Ephesians 4:12, the reason pastors and teachers are given to the church is “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry.” Did you catch that? The reason God gave ministry leaders to the church is to equip every believer to take their share in the work of ministry. While there are varying degrees of responsibility between pastoral staff and the congregation, as well as differences in gifts and callings, the biblical view is that every member is a minister. Thus the first step toward meeting the demands of ministry is to broaden our definition of minister to include every member of the Body of Christ.
Second, we need a plan to make sure that those in the church who have both the inclination and the gifting to come alongside the pastoral staff in providing counsel are properly trained and supervised to do so. This involves differentiating between those counseling needs that require specialized attention from the pastoral staff and, in some instances, the help of licensed professionals to whom a person may be referred. It would be neither responsible nor helpful to assume that the laity involved in counseling are to function on the same level of interaction as the pastoral staff or licensed professionals. However, and this is the key to lay involvement in counseling within the church, there are many instances in which the needs of people seeking counsel are within the realm of basic Christian teaching and people helping skills.
Lay counseling has its place in the ministry of the church, and it is an important place.
For example, I identified the various counseling needs presented over the course of one year in my pastoral context, and approximately half of them were in areas that properly trained and supervised lay counselors could engage via informal counseling conversations over a cup of coffee and with Bible in hand. When someone needs help discerning God’s will, a lay counselor can offer basic guidance and insight. If a brother struggles to overcome a particular temptation, another brother coming to his aid with biblical wisdom and accountability helps tremendously. Not every situation is appropriate for lay counselors, but many are, and the way to extend the ministry effectiveness of the pastoral team is to enlist the help of the laity.
The Lord’s command through Paul in Galatians 6:2 is to, “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” The context in which Paul give this word is a discussion about how to help someone struggling with sin, what Paul describes in 6:1 as “a man . . . overtaken in any trespass.” Notice Paul’s answer to this dilemma. It is to call upon the Body of Christ, the “brethren” (6:1), to help. Paul does not limit the helpers to the pastors and teachers; he calls upon the other believers “who are spiritual” (6:1) to help the struggling brother. Who are the spiritual ones he speaks of? They are the other believers with the gifting and inclination to help, who are living in step with the Holy Spirit and making themselves available to minister in the church, regardless of whether or not they are called to be the pastor or other staff. Paul directs the church to be the church, helping others by bearing their burdens with them, following Christ’s example.
So, who are the people helpers in the church? Who is responsible to provide counsel and insight as brothers and sisters wrestle through the challenges of life this side of heaven? Is the answer the pastor and the other staff? Yes, but that is not the whole answer. The people helpers in the church include every believer, and some will have a special calling to also serve alongside the pastoral staff by offering counsel to those in need. The counseling ministry in the church is broader than you might think. Pastoral counseling, professional counseling, and lay counseling all come together to help others. It takes a church.
T.J. Gentry, D.Min., pastors Fellowship in Christ Church in Carterville, Illinois, serves as an Army National Guard chaplain, and directs Grace Pointe Christian Counseling Ministries, a church-based ministry offering pastoral counseling and counselor training.