Lay Counseling and the Local Church
Lay Counseling and the Local Church
Categories: RECENT RESEARCH
Dr. Eric Scalise
We are surrounded and often consumed by our fast-paced, push-button, instant-everything world. Anxiety and depression, substance abuse, marital conflicts, sexual addiction, domestic violence, child abuse, unwanted pregnancy—and the list could go on—are far too commonplace. The truth is that people are hurting and the church is hurting. The Apostle Paul said, “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it…” (1 Cor. 12:26a). Years ago, I attended a church and there was a large banner inside the sanctuary that was displayed over the exit doors going out to the foyer. It simply read, “Now Entering the Mission Field.” I thought to myself, “That sign needs to be on both sides.”
Many pastors wonder if the local church should offer direct counseling-related services and ministries or whether this is more the purview of formally trained Christian professionals. For me, the answer is not an “either-or,” but a “both-and.” The church often is, and should rightly be, a first line of defense whenever someone is in crisis or experiencing profound brokenness. The research tells us that in many of these instances, people of faith seek out their pastor, priest or rabbi (at least initially). Mental health practitioners may work with a client once a week or every other week for an hour. However, when a person’s life has been unexpectedly shaken and turned upside down, he/she will undoubtedly need all the support that might be available.
Sadly, the Body of Christ is also the only army I know of that too frequently shoots its own wounded… and then we bury them before they die. As a licensed clinician with over 36 years of experience, I strongly advocate the need for highly trained, equipped, and authentically Christian therapists. Nevertheless, I am equally fervent about the role of the local church and its responsibility to function as God’s ambassadors of compassionate caregiving. King Solomon understood the power of connection when he wrote, “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up” (Ecc. 4:9-10).
Webster’s defines the term compassion as a, “sympathetic consciousness of another’s’ distress, together with a desire to alleviate it.” The word is derived from the Latin pati (to suffer) and the prefix cum (to bear alongside). In one sense, counselors and caregivers at every level, jour through the pain with others and are frequently in close proximity to their losses, traumatic events, emotional suffering, and the resulting aftermath. From a biblical perspective, compassion can be viewed as one of the distinguishing characteristics of Christ and His own relational style. There are numerous Old and New Testament passages that reference this model (Ps. 103:4 and 135:14, Is. 49:13 and 54:8, Jer. 42:12, Mi. 7:19, Matt. 15:32 and 20:34, and Jas. 5:11). In rebuking the Pharisees because their religious form took precedence over their concern for others, Jesus said, “I desire compassion and not a sacrifice” (Matt. 12:7).
The decision for many pastors and churches when taking this admonishment to heart, may not be, “If we should begin to provide ministry in these areas,” but “How and where should we start?” In the last several decades, the lay counseling phenomenon has grown exponentially and become a global movement. Historically, lay counseling has included a combination of pastoral practice, theology, and soul-care traditions, and has been defined with multiple constructs such as active listening, cognitive and solution-focused processes, biblical counseling, an integrated cognitive-behavioral approach, inner healing, pastoral ministry, or as a combination of several approaches.
Years ago, when working with at-risk and delinquent youth in San Diego, I used to take teens out rock climbing. Life can get very focused when you’re 2,000 feet up. The term, “On Belay,” is commonly used among climbers and signifies that a person is now securely tied into a safety system and can therefore proceed with the task of ascending the mountain before him or her. Crises often feel just like that mountain—looming as a formidable object—even though most dissipate within 6-8 weeks. What often determines the outcome has more to do with how the crisis is addressed and managed. Lay caregivers provide the lifeline that assists others in overcoming the obstacles before them. The goal is to draw people closer to God in genuine relationship and to provide support, encouragement, spiritual care, and referral services on a short-term basis during times of significant hardship.
Over the past several years, I have been working in my home church to help bring this vision into reality. The ministry is actually called Lifeline, and these are some of our foundational principles:
- Giving (Stewardship) – Give opportunities for caregivers to use their God-given gifts to make a difference in the lives of the hurting and broken.
- Going (Evangelism) – Go to people with the good news – have a strong commitment to reach out to the hurting and incorporate the Gospel message of redemption and transformation.
- Gathering (Fellowship) – Gather them into community – emphasize the critical importance of meaningful relationship for the purpose of personal and spiritual growth, accountability, and connectedness.
- Growing (Teaching) – Grow them into fully devoted followers of Christ – guard the responsibility that has been given by God in pursuing restoration and discipleship, and endeavoring to journey alongside those who need care.
- Glorifying (Worship) – Glorify God in all of it – acknowledge that it is God, through the agency of the Holy Spirit, who sets people free, changes broken lives, and is worthy of all honor and praise.
There are many helpful resources to assist with initial design and set up, as well as training protocols. One of my very real joys over the past several years, was to work with Dr. Dobson and the American Association of Christian Counselors to produce a number of courses just for this very purpose (see here).
I also had the privilege of joining my good friend and colleague, Dr. Siang-Yang Tan at Fuller Theological Seminary, to work with Zondervan and publish a revised and updated edition of Lay Counseling: Equipping Christians for a Helping Ministry (see here).
Developing any lay counseling ministry should always begin in prayer, allowing God to order our steps, and to shape the mission and vision. Secondly, it takes the support and oversight of committed leadership from pastors and elders to help discern the felt needs within the congregation and determine the appropriate structure and organization of the ministry effort. Finally, protocols should be created and implemented when it comes to the selection, training, supervision, and evaluation of lay counselors, as well as understanding potential risks and establishing ethical guidelines. As an extension of the church body, these are important steps in the process because caring for the downtrodden, and becoming the eyes and ears, the hands and feet, the voice of the Savior… is a sacred trust.
Eric Scalise, Ph.D., is the former Vice President for Professional Development with the American Association of Christian Counselors, as well as a current consultant and their Senior Editor. He is also the President of LIV Enterprises & Consulting, LLC, and a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with more than 36 years of clinical and professional experience in the mental health field. Specialty areas include professional/pastoral stress and burnout, combat trauma and PTSD, marriage and family issues, leadership development, addictions, and lay counselor training. He is an author, a national and international conference speaker, and frequently consults with organizations, clinicians, ministry leaders, and churches on a variety of issues.