Increasing Care Through Lay Counseling
One of the pressing needs of the church today, especially as the Holy Spirit lovingly and graciously brings more and more people to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, is for more and better pastoral care of God's people. Larry Crabb, well-known Christian psychologist, recently emphasized that he is "about one central thing: to see more of God's people shepherded."1
It is increasingly difficult for a pastor to shepherd or care for God's people in the church who are hurting.2 Such a ministry of caring and people helping has been given to all Christians (e.g., Galatians 6:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:11,14) but especially to those who have the spiritual gift of exhortation or encouragement (Romans 12:8). Other appropriate spiritual gifts have been given such as knowledge, wisdom, healing, discerning of spirits (1 Corinthians 12:8-10,28), and mercy (Romans 12:8). The Lord Jesus has called us to carry each other's burdens (Galatians 6:2) and to care for one another with His agape love (John 13:34,35).
Scripture teaches the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5,9). We are to be ministers and priests to one another. A key area of ministry in the church is, therefore, that of lay pastoral care and lay counseling (people helping)—God's people being shepherded by appropriately gifted lay caregivers or lay counselors.
Increasing care through lay counselors or lay caregivers is both a biblically based ministry as well as one that has received much research support. Research shows that lay counselors are effective in helping people with their problems in living.3 How then do we go about establishing such lay caring and counseling ministries? There are at least five steps to follow.4
1. Choose an appropriate model of lay counseling ministry.
I have described three major models:
a. The informal, spontaneous model. People care for one another naturally and simply, without any further organized structure.
b. The informal, organized model. Lay counselors are specially selected, trained, and supervised, but they do their caring and counseling ministry in informal settings such as homes, restaurants, and hospitals.
c. The formal, organized model. Lay counselors are specially selected, trained, and supervised, but the caring and counseling ministry takes place by appointment in a more formal office setting or lay counseling center.
The real choice is between the informal, organized and the formal, organized models. Some large churches actually have lay caring and counseling ministries that utilize both models, thus providing different levels of people helping to those in need. Furthermore, in some cultural contexts such as ethnic minority churches and churches in specific parts of the world, the informal, organized model may be more appropriate since the stigma against formal counseling and having to set up appointments may still be great.
2. Obtain the full support of the pastoral staff and church board for the lay counseling ministry. It is crucial to have the full support of pastoral and church leaders so that the lay counseling ministry can get started properly. Such a ministry should be seen by church leadership as an extension of pastoral care and counseling and as a biblically based ministry that is essential for the health and growth of the church.
3. Screen and select appropriately gifted and qualified lay counselors from the congregation. Selection may be open or closed. Open selection involves making a public announcement to the entire congregation inviting people to apply to become lay counselors but without making any guarantees about who will eventually be selected. Closed selection involves pastoral and church leaders nominating potential lay counselors from people they already know quite well who seem to be appropriately gifted for this area of ministry.
Whether open or closed selection is used, potential lay counselors still need to be interviewed and then eventually selected for training. Final selection of lay counselors is usually done at the end of the initial training provided.
The following are some helpful criteria to use for selecting potential lay counselors:
• spiritual maturity;
• psychological/emotional stability;
• love for and interest in people;
• appropriate spiritual gifts such as exhortation or encouragement;
• adequate life experience;
• previous training or experience in lay counseling or people helping (helpful but not necessary);
• age, gender, socioeconomic, and ethnic/cultural diversity relevant to the needs of the church;
• ability to keep confidentiality (with exceptions to confidentiality usually including child abuse or elder abuse and danger to self or others).
4. Provide an adequate training program for lay counselors.
There are various training programs available. They usually range from a minimum of 24 hours to 50 or more hours of training in basic listening and helping skills. The training sessions can be spread over several weeks to several months, meeting weekly or biweekly, for 2 to 3 hours each time. The number of lay counselor trainees for such an initial training program is usually limited from a few trainees up to 25.
Gary Collins, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors, has recommended that the following content areas be covered in any good training program for Christian lay counselors:5
• basic Bible knowledge relevant to people-helping ministry;
• knowledge of counseling skills with opportunities for practice through role playing;
• basic understanding of common problems such as depression, anxiety, stress, and spiritual dryness;
• awareness of ethics and dangers in counseling; and
• knowledge of the importance and techniques of referral.
Lay counselors should also know how to obtain informed consent from counselees before starting lay counseling with them. Counselees also need to be made aware of limits to confidentiality, which usually include situations where there is child or elder abuse or danger to self or others.
Collins also suggests the following components of a good training program:
• clear, practical lectures;
• good reading assignments;
• modeling/demonstration of good counseling skills by the trainer or professional counselor; and
• experiential practice, especially through role playing.
5. Develop programs/ ministries for using the trained lay counselors.
The specific programs or ministries for increasing care through lay counselors will depend on the model(s) of lay counseling already selected. Ongoing training and supervision of lay counselors should also be provided, if possible, by a licensed mental health professional or at least by an experienced pastor or church leader who has been involved in caring and counseling ministries. Regular supervision of lay counselors, usually in small groups and one-on-one when needed, should be held on a weekly or biweekly basis.
It should be noted that in some states, licensing laws for professional counselors may not allow you to use the term lay counselor or lay counseling for such a ministry. In these situations, other terms such as lay helpers or lay caregivers and lay helping, lay caregiving, or shepherding should be used instead. Legal advice should also be obtained to determine whether malpractice insurance is necessary for lay counselors.
Increasing care through lay counselors is a crucial part of shepherding God's people. It should be done in the power and gifting as well as truth and fruit of the Holy Spirit6 so that more lives can be touched, healed, and made whole to God's glory.
1. Larry Crabb, "Struggling Without a Shepherd," Christian Counseling Today 4(1) (Winter, 1996): 15.
2. See Melvin J. Steinbron, Can the Pastor Do It Alone? (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1987); Melvin J. Steinbron, The Lay-Driven Church (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, 1997). Also see Kenneth C. Haugk, Christian Caregiving—A Way of Life (Minneapolis, Minn.: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984).
3. See Siang-Yang Tan, Lay Counseling: Equipping Christians for a Helping Ministry (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1991), 61-81. Also see Yiu-Meng Toh and Siang-Yang Tan, "The Effectiveness of Church-Based Lay Counselors: A Controlled Outcome Study," Journal of Psychology and Christianity 16 (1997): 260-267.
4. See Tan, Lay Counseling, especially 82-95. Also see Siang-Yang Tan, "Starting a Lay Counseling Ministry," Christian Counseling Today 3(1) (Winter, 1995): 56-57.
5. Gary R. Collins, "Lay Counseling Within the Local Church," Leadership 1(4) (1980): 78-86. For some helpful books relevant to training lay counselors see:
Gary R. Collins, Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide, rev. ed. (Dallas, Tex.: Word, 1988).
Gary R. Collins, How To Be a People Helper, rev. ed. (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale, 1995).
Lawrence J. Crabb, Jr., Effective Biblical Counseling (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1977).
Joan Sturkie and Siang-Yang Tan, Peer Counseling in Youth Groups (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan/Youth Specialties, 1992).
Joan Sturkie and Siang-Yang Tan, Advanced Peer Counseling in Youth Groups (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan/Youth Specialties, 1993).
Siang-Yang Tan, Lay Counseling: Equipping Christians for a Helping Ministry (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1991).
Everett L. Worthington, Jr., When Someone Asks for Help: A Practical Guide for Counseling (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1982).
6. See Siang-Yang Tan, "Lay Christian Counseling: The Next Decade," Journal of Psychology and Christianity 9(3) (1990): 59-65; Siang-Yang Tan, "Lay Counseling: A Christian Approach," Journal of Psychology and Christianity 13(3) (1994): 264-269; Siang-Yang Tan, "The Holy Spirit and Counseling Ministries," The Christian Journal of Psychology and Counseling 7(3) (1992): 8-11. Also see Marvin G. Gilbert and Raymond T. Brock (eds.), The Holy Spirit and Counseling Vol. I: Theology and Theory (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1985), and Vol. II: Principles and Practice (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1988); Siang-Yang Tan and Douglas H. Gregg, Disciplines of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1997); and John K. Vining, Spirit-Centered Counseling: A Pneumascriptive Approach (East Rockaway, N.Y.: Cummings & Hathaway, 1995).