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The Caring Church:

Training Laity for Pastoral Care and Counseling

With today’s complex human needs, demands for attentive care — whether physical, spiritual, social, or emotional — present unique opportunities for growing churches.

By Pablo Polischuk

The Need for Extended Pastoral Counseling

Assemblies of God pastors have always relied on the power of the Holy Spirit as they minister to others. They employ prayer, fasting, and faith-based interventions when they pray for the sick or those who are demonized.

Pastors today encounter further challenges as the number of complex problems exceeds their expertise and capacity to intervene. Consequently, pastors may realize that, in an attempt to fulfill their own expectations as well as those of church members, the demands for their time and efforts often exceed their capacity. With today’s complex human needs, demands for attentive care — whether physical, spiritual, social, or emotional — present unique opportunities for growing churches.

The demands for guidance and answers in a postmodern world pose dilemmas in ministry, especially in counseling. Thus, training laity to help with pastoral counseling to meet current demands fulfills the scriptural emphasis on equipping the saints for the work of the ministry.

The biblical basis for empowering laity comes from Pauline teaching that God has given apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers to “shape up” (katartismon — to mend, to set broken bones together; to reconcile political parties; to furnish, to equip) the saints (hagion — used to describe those separated to the Lord, believers, disciples in a generic sense) for the work of ministry (diakonia — service, ministry) and to build (oikodomen — the act of building, or metaphorically “edifying”) the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11–13).

Issues in Starting a Lay Pastoral Counseling Ministry in the Church

If a pastor decides to equip believers in lay pastoral counseling, he must take into account the criteria in selecting, training, and supervising these counselors. First, what human resources are available in the church? How will he set up and organize this ministry? Who will be the leaders, administrators, and clinical directors? Who will be lay counselors? Does the church have a credentialed pastoral counselor or a pastor with adequate training in counseling to direct the counseling ministry? Does the church have professionals such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, mental health provider, or social worker? If so, are they interested in and committed to the Lord and the church? Do they share the vision? Would they volunteer or be paid for directing or consulting? How would the church recruit, train, and supervise lay counselors?

Depending on demographics and size of church, a lay counseling ministry may also evolve into supplying local community needs for pastoral counseling. By drawing from existing counseling models, the pastoral staff can brainstorm concerning the model they want to follow. Then, they can form the counseling group. Next is norming — providing guidelines, philosophy, and criteria for recruiting, selecting, and supervising counselors. Finally, performing means the lay pastoral counselors begin their ministry.

Initial Considerations for Lay Pastoral Counseling

Lay counseling has proliferated in the last four decades and reflects diverse approaches, strategies, models, and practices. Many evangelical pastors have not necessarily approved or supported these trends. Critics often regard the lay-counseling movement as secular. They consider it a therapization of ministry that debunks a reliance on prayer and the Holy Spirit in healing. These critics sometimes refer to lay counseling as psychoheresy.

Others have found this lay-counseling movement to be functional, helpful, and desirable. Some synthesize lay counseling into two trends: Those who integrate theology and psychology, and those who subscribe to strict biblical counseling.

Integrationists attempt to integrate theological and psychological constructs, paradigms, and practices into their counseling. Integrationists are usually trained in both disciplines and dedicate efforts toward intrapersonal (pensive, cognitive, introspective) and concrete levels (counseling by drawing from both fields), doing research (investigating the possible correlations, interactions, causations derived from both fields), and engaging in abstract postulations (along conceptual lines, constructs, extracting paradigms).

Biblical counselors tend to reflect a more exclusive claim, relying on Scripture as the only source of truth and regarding it as sufficient for all human needs. These counselors exclude secular sources. In general, practitioners of this persuasion object to utilizing any secularly derived premises, strategies, or practices. They tend to rely on more direct, exhortative, confrontational counsel (e.g. nouthetic, biblically informed counselors).

In setting up a counseling ministry, pastors can research several books on lay counseling written by medical professionals. These books provide the synthesis of diverse models. An informal, functionally organized model can serve the purposes of smaller congregations. The pastor or a member of his staff with some training in biblical counseling provides direction. The church recruits lay counselors as volunteers. The church then supervises these volunteers through ongoing informal mentoring and training by pastoral staff and other trained professionals.

Larger congregations may benefit from a counseling ministry that is organized and well supervised by adequately trained personnel. In this setting, counselors counsel patients in a formal counseling center with well-defined structures and functions. Often, a licensed mental health worker (psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, marriage and family therapist, psychiatric nurse, mental health professional, or pastoral counselor) directs the center.

The counseling center recruits professional and credentialed staff to do the core work. The center’s director carefully selects, trains, and closely supervises any lay workers. Counseling sessions take place in offices designated in the church for that purpose. Counselors keep regular hours with scheduled appointments. Usually, all workers meet to discuss logistics, caseloads, intake evaluations, and assignments to counselors each month. The director holds weekly supervisory sessions, both at individual and group levels, under the direction of qualified providers. Establishing a formal, organized center demands structural and functional attention.

Selecting Lay Counselors

Most pastors agree that carefully selecting counselors is crucial in developing an effective lay counseling ministry. Yet, there is less certainty concerning the criteria for selection. Criteria may vary depending on the size of the church.

In smaller churches people know each other and churches have less need for using instrumentation in selecting counselors. Pastors often appeal to whoever is available. That poses some challenges because many well-intentioned people may not qualify for the task.

In larger churches and emerging megachurches, the trend has been to establish more formal and organized centers. In this model, churches screen counselors through applications, interviews, and personality testing. Other criteria include written statements by the prospective counselors, stating their adherence to the church’s statement of faith, as well as their personal testimony. The ministry reviews the applicant’s desire to engage in the counseling ministry. These churches also require letters of recommendation. Interviews with the applicants assess their spiritual maturity, stability, and motivation.

Today, in the Assemblies of God, training in pastoral counseling may take place in formal settings (Bible schools, colleges, seminaries), or acquired through specialized workshops and training opportunities brought into the church by experts in the field.

We define a pastoral counselor in terms of his call and giftedness derived from the Holy Spirit. We believe a pastoral counselor derives his character qualities from obedience to and faith in God, reflected in his adherence to Scripture and in coparticipation with the Spirit’s work of sanctification, resocialization, empowering, and equipping for service. We then select, train, and supervise counselors based on the needs for these services and the willingness of this select group to engage in counseling with mutual accountability. This model empowers lay counselors and assesses their character qualities, endowments, knowledge, insight, and wisdom necessary in a counseling ministry.

From personal experience (having been involved in selecting, training, and supervising volunteers at the Hollywood Presbyterian Church in the late 70s; running a Lifeline phone counseling ministry; and then, selecting and training psychology doctoral interns at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in the 80s and 90s; and presently, providing clinical training for interns in psychology at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary), it is safe to state that those who show certain traits and display certain characteristics make good counselors. These traits include: empathy, unconditional love and positive regard for people, accepting and validating fellow human beings with a nonjudgmental stance, genuineness, flexibility, personal sociability, maturity, high ethical standards pertaining to confidentiality, respect for boundaries, and personal conduct.

Among our churches, in my opinion, the obvious criteria we need to add include being Spirit-filled, displaying spiritual maturity and giftedness, possessing knowledge, insight, wisdom, and genuine love for people, demonstrating psychological stability, teachability, mutuality, and accountability in the context of the church.

Those who display the spiritual gifts of the word of knowledge and the word of wisdom need to couple these gifts with their affable, empathic, and hospitable character qualities (accepting and validating the person in need). Of course, knowledge of Scripture is essential and applying it to here-and-now situations using proper hermeneutical principles is imperative.

We expect counselors to be able to attribute meaning and insight into Scripture. This includes understanding biblical-theological truth, not recited dogmatically, but rather committing it to heart, meditating on it, and renewing the mind by which the transformation of one’s being takes place. This is coupled with the character, conduct, and influence due to growth in the Spirit and the Word with training in the right disciplines, in behavioral sciences and therapeutic principles, and in approaches and strategies. Our denomination has grown in terms of such personnel, expertise, and capacity, as reflected by the curriculum offered by our seminaries, colleges, and institutes, and the expansion of pastoral counseling centers in local churches.

Equipping and Training Counselors

Before beginning a lay counseling ministry, it is imperative that the church develops a guiding rationale and a philosophy of ministry. Churches need to communicate the biblical importance of equipping laity so lay counselors are in harmony with the overall preaching, teaching, and discipleship ministries of the church.

One of the biggest challenges to starting a lay counseling ministry is recruiting, training, and supervising counselors. This aspect of the ministry depends on the church’s demographic variables (e.g., locality, setting, size of the church) and the availability of personnel.

Training lay pastoral counselors requires supervision by individuals well-versed in Scripture and who possess the ability to insightfully and wisely apply Scripture in practical counseling situations (Colossians 3:16). If a church employs an integrated counseling ministry, those who are versed in both theology and psychology need to be a part of selecting, equipping, and supervising counselors. In this sensitive ministry, inadequate knowledge and training present several risks. As the saying goes, “A little bit of knowledge is dangerous,” especially in the field of pastoral counseling.

Various models of lay-counselor training programs have appeared since the 70s. Many of the originators have elaborated and refined their programs. Larry Crabb’s (2004) thrust was toward helping one another in the local church by connecting, based upon the “one-another” theology of mutuality, empowering, and accountability in the body of Christ. Crabb’s shift from his original postulates in the 70s to the present reflects a turning away from more psychological tenets to a more biblical-theological-interactional paradigm.

Several Christian psychologists with theological understanding have fostered lay counseling as well (e.g., Gary Collins, Timothy Clinton, Siang-Yang Tan) and provide training resources to that end. In particular, Tan’s seminal book Lay Counseling (1991)has been a useful source for the last two decades. Organizations such as the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) promote pastoral counseling among churches as well as engaging in freestanding clinics or private practice. In my opinion, pastoral counseling is not an isolated endeavor, but needs to be conducted within the realm of a church, under the auspices and jurisdiction of the local ministry.

Besides the AAPC, the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) membership has exponentially increased (50,000 members as of today), including lay pastoral counselors besides the classic professional disciplines in the field of counseling and psychotherapy. AACC offers numerous training and educational opportunities through conferences, workshops, training in specific themes, populations, and problems. These opportunities range from programs available through formal courses and distant learning through the Web, to micro-skills and micro-interventions applicable in discrete and specific situations via electronic media. Those interested in this training can see the courses they offer in Christian Counseling Today.

I cannot stress enough the need for personal interaction in counselor training conducted by experts. Web-based training, conferences, and workshops conducted in an interactive, ongoing fashion cannot be a substitute for personal interaction with trained experts. Rather, they should be viewed as reinforcement.

The curriculum and workshops in a church training endeavor need to include basic aspects of biblical theology, utilizing Scriptures in counseling, integrating models of effective Christian counseling, basic psychopathology for pastors, awareness of diagnostic categories, basic interviewing skills, useful counseling methods, and specific issues — depression, anxiety, stress, marital conflict, separation, divorce, sexuality, addictions, among others. Also, properly utilizing referrals and psychiatric interventions may complement such training. The local needs and the availability of resources will influence curriculum development.

Supervising and Maintaining Lay Pastoral Counseling

Churches that supervise and maintain lay counselors need to have a rationale and a defined philosophy of ministry based on scriptural principles, ethical standards, and good clinical judgment and experience. Supervision is equipping the saints for care and counseling. The supervisor does not do counseling through the supervisee (using the counselee as his clone), nor does he counsel the supervisee (doing therapy with him). Rather, the supervisor empowers the supervisee in the process of becoming a pastoral counselor.

In a formal counseling ministry, churches will recruit credentialed supervisors. A certified pastoral counselor may serve in this role. A church may employ a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, psychiatric nurse, or mental health counselor if available. If the church prefers an informal counseling ministry, then a pastoral staff member trained in counseling can act in a supervisory fashion. In any case, the supervisor empowers, coaches, provides interactive opportunities and feedback, and the environment in which growth takes place. This allows the counselor in training to experience optimal contingencies in the process of becoming an efficient counselor.

Whether a church develops a formal or informal counseling ministry, supervisors need to expect the counselors to combine cognitive aspects (theoretical, academic, insightful interchanges) with developmental ones (fostering growth, experiential, observational learning). The director needs to address two main aspects: accomplishing tasks and maintaining the group. As tasks go, setting goals and objectives are necessary to have a sense of direction and tempo for those who provide counseling. The aim of maintenance is to foster the health, cohesion, morale, strength, and mutuality among staff. Those in charge of the group’s clinical direction can accomplish this through monthly meetings with staff and lay counselors. The director needs to pay attention to the flow of the counseling work, the nature and type of referrals, the allocation of cases to the appropriate counselors, and other logistics. Beside monthly meetings, the clinical director needs to support, encourage, train and supervise counselors each week.

Supervision (both individual and group) is an interactive process. The clinical director attends to important issues, including: intake of cases needing help, evaluation and assessment, possible diagnostic impressions in each case, choice of treatment modality, type of counsel given, projected number of sessions, expected outcomes, prognosis, and the possibility of referral.

Supervisors need to see that counselors develop and grow by shaping and empowering them through diverse interactive avenues. One avenue is teaching along both disciplines: biblical-theological and psychological (models, theories, clinical cases, symptoms and syndromes present in discrete problems, diagnoses, family systems at work, etc.). Another avenue is promoting insight and understanding of the underlying aspects of the counselee’s problems (interpreting data and meaning) and supporting and encouraging (in times of self-doubts, stress, and possibilities of burnout).

The clinical director must also confront areas needing alignment or change (speaking the truth in love) as well as providing spiritual guidance. Finally, the director can support the counselor through emotional presence, with warmth, and insightfulness as an observational example worthy of imitation.

The director needs to equip staff and lay counselors through continuing education and training. This refreshing and renewing of the mind can come through retreats. Invite speakers with diverse expertise in areas that pertain to the counseling ministry in the church.

Lay Counseling Limits

In the professional domain of psychotherapy, practitioners subscribe to their credentialing codes of ethics and practice within the limits of the law that regulates their practice. These include confidentiality, necessary training, limits of expertise, avoiding false claims, misdiagnosing, violation of boundaries, unethical use of power, adequate record keeping, duty to warn in cases of abuse, limits of confidentiality in cases of suicide or homicide, among others. Professionals are well aware of the possible ethical and legal pitfalls and challenges inherent in treating individuals with emotional and mental health issues.

In pastoral counseling, supervising, training, and maintaining staff and lay counselors demand careful attention to the limits of counseling interventions and the potentially high-risk situations that may arise. These may include direct violations of ethical codes and moral standards such as sex with a counselee or improper disclosure of information resulting in a breach of confidentiality. Poor judgment in providing advice and behaving beyond their level of competence and expertise (e.g., developing an erroneous impression of the counselee’s problems or labeling inappropriately or misdiagnosing a counselee) may lead to harmful effects.

Counselors need to take into account their limitations in dealing with those who are psychotic, who suffer from bipolar disorder, and who are highly depressed or suicidal. Characterological aspects of personality disorders (narcissistic, borderline, antisocial, histrionic, obsessive compulsive, among others) offer unique challenges to the best of clinicians. These problems pose a greater challenge to lay counselors.

Counselors should not spiritualize biological, genetic, and developmental aspects of mental disorders but rather use careful assessment and attention. Experts in the fields of biology, genetics, and neurology need to work with these patients. Lay counselors need to refer cases that demand expertise in medical, neurological, genetic, or cognitive-emotional deficits. These would include bipolar disorders, depression, suicidal cases, psychotic conditions, pervasive developmental disorders, autism, and attention deficit disorders.

Lay counselors need to understand the need for psychological or psychiatric consultations and interventions ahead of time to have a rationale for integration and proper cooperation. Sometimes medical personnel need to ascertain the role of medication and when to utilize pharmacological interventions (sometimes a touchy subject among Assemblies of God pastors) as a possible avenue in treating those with special needs.

In summary, to know our limits allows us to behave with zest and passion, but also with insight and wisdom. God took away our sins, not our brains. We can still use them.

PABLO POLISCHUK, Ph.D., is professor of pastoral counseling and psychology, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts.

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