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training laity

for Pastoral Care and CounselLing

by Pablo Polischuk

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We believe a pastoral counsellor derives his character qualities from obedience to and faith in God, reflected in his adherence to Scripture and in co-participation with the Spirit’s work of sanctification, resocialization, empowering, and equipping for service.
With today’s complex human needs, demands for attentive care—whether physical, spiritual, social or emotional—present unique opportunities for growing churches.

The Need for Extended Pastoral Counselling
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 fulfil their own expectations as well as those of church members, the demands on 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 counselling. Thus, training laity to help with pastoral counselling to meet current demands fulfils the scriptural emphasis on equipping the saints for the work of the ministry.

The biblical basis for empowering laity comes from the 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 Counselling Ministry in the Church
If a pastor decides to equip believers in lay pastoral counselling, he must take into account the criteria in selecting, training and supervising these counsellors. 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 counsellors? Does the church have a credentialed pastoral counsellor or a pastor with adequate training in counselling to direct the counselling 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 counsellors?

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

Initial Considerations for Lay Pastoral Counselling
Lay counselling 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 counselling 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 counselling as “psychoheresy.”

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

Integrationists attempt to integrate theological and psychological constructs, paradigms and practices into their counselling. Integrationists are usually trained in both disciplines and dedicate efforts toward intrapersonal (pensive, cognitive, introspective) and concrete levels (counselling 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 counsellors 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 counsellors 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 counsellors).

In setting up a counselling ministry, pastors can research several books on lay counselling 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 counselling, provides direction. The church recruits lay counsellors 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 counselling ministry that is organized and well supervised by adequately trained personnel. In this setting, counsellors counsel patients in a formal counselling centre with well-defined structures and functions. Often, a licenced mental health worker (psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, marriage and family therapist, psychiatric nurse, mental health professional or pastoral counsellor) directs the centre.

The counselling centre recruits professional and credentialed staff to do the core work. The centre’s director carefully selects, trains and closely supervises any lay workers. Counselling sessions take place in offices designated in the church for that purpose. Counsellors keep regular hours with scheduled appointments.

Usually, all workers meet to discuss logistics, caseloads, intake evaluations, and assignments to counsellors each month. The director holds weekly supervisory sessions, both at individual and group levels, under the direction of qualified providers. Establishing a formal, organized centre demands structural and functional attention.

Selecting Lay Counsellors
Most pastors agree that carefully selecting counsellors is crucial in developing an effective lay counselling 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 counsellors. Pastors often appeal to whomever 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 centres. In this model, churches screen counsellors through applications, interviews and personality testing. Other criteria include written statements by the prospective counsellors, 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 counselling 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 counselling may take place in formal settings (Bible schools, colleges, seminaries) or be acquired through specialized workshops and training opportunities brought into the church by experts in the field.

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

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

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

Various models of lay counsellor 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 psychological tenets to a more biblical-theological-interactional paradigm.

Several Christian psychologists with theological understanding have fostered lay counselling as well (e.g., Gary R. 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 Counsellors (AAPC) promote pastoral counselling among churches as well as engaging in freestanding clinics or private practice. In my opinion, pastoral counselling is not an isolated endeavour, 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 Counsellors (AACC) membership has exponentially increased (50,000 members as of today), including lay pastoral counsellors besides the classic professional disciplines in the field of counselling and psychotherapy. The AACC offers numerous training and educational opportunities through conferences and workshops, training in specific themes, populations and problems.

These opportunities range from programs available through formal courses and distance 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 counsellor training conducted by experts. Web-based training, conferences and workshops conducted in an interactive, ongoing fashion cannot substitute for personal interaction with trained experts. Rather, they should be viewed as reinforcement. The curriculum and workshops in a church training endeavour need to include basic aspects of biblical theology, utilizing Scriptures in counselling, integrating models of effective Christian counselling, basic psychopathology for pastors, awareness of diagnostic categories, basic interviewing skills, useful counselling methods, and specific issues—depression, anxiety, stress, marital conflict, separation, divorce, sexuality and 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 Counselling
Churches that supervise and maintain lay counsellors 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 counselling. The supervisor does not do counselling through the supervisee (using the counsellee 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 counsellor.

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

Whether a church develops a formal or informal counselling ministry, supervisors need to expect the counsellors 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 counselling. The aim of maintenance is to foster 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 counsellors. The director needs to pay attention to the flow of the counselling work, the nature and type of referrals, the allocation of cases to the appropriate counsellors, and other logistics. Beside monthly meetings, the clinical director needs to support, encourage, train and supervise counsellors 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 counsellors 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 counsellee’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 counsellor through emotional presence with warmth and insightfulness as an observational example worthy of imitation.
The director needs to equip staff and lay counsellors 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 counselling ministry in the church.

Lay Counselling Limits
In the professional domain of psychotherapy, practitioners subscribe to their credentialing codes of ethics and practice within the limits of the law that regulate their practise. 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, and 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 counselling, supervising, training and maintaining staff and lay counsellors demands careful attention to the limits of counselling 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 counsellee 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 counsellee’s problems, labeling inappropriately or misdiagnosing a counsellee) may lead to harmful effects.

Counsellors 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 and obsessive compulsive, among others) offer unique challenges to the best of clinicians. These problems pose a greater challenge to lay counsellors.

Counsellors 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 counsellors 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 counsellors must understand the need for psychological or psychiatric consultations and interventions ahead of time to have a rationale for integration and proper co-operation. 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.

Benner, D.G., Strategic Pastoral Counseling: A Short-Term Structured Model (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003).Bradley, L., and N. Ladany, Counselor Supervision: Principles, Process, and Practice. (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000).Clinton, T., and G. Ohlschlager, eds.,Competent Christian Counseling, Volume One: Foundations and Practice of Compassionate Soul Care (Colorado Springs, CO: Water Brook Press, 2002). Collins, G.R., Christian Counseling: A Comprehensive Guide. 3rd. ed. revised and updated (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007).Crabb, L., Effective Biblical Counseling: A Model for Helping Caring Christians To Become Capable Counselors (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1977).Crabb, L., Connecting: Healing Ourselves and Our Relationships (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004). Egan, G., The Skilled Helper: A Problem-Management and Opportunity-Development Approach to Helping, 8th ed. (Florence, KY: Thomson, 2006).Koocher, G.P., and P. Keith-Spiegel, Ethics in Psychology and the Mental Health Professions: Standards and Cases New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008).Polischuk, P., Llamemos las Cosas por su Nombre [Let’s Call Things by Name] (Grand Rapids, MI: Vida/ Zondervan, 2004).Tan, S.-Y. Lay Counseling (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991).

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PABLO POLISCHUK PH.D.—is professor of Pastoral Counseling and Psychology, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts. This article was reprinted with permission from Enrichment Journal.
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