Counseling is listening and responding to people, which seems simple enough. The difficult part is listening well and responding with wisdom. But these two aspects of counseling—listening and responding—are also the basic elements of friendship. You are a counselor for anyone you count as a friend. And likewise any counseling scenario demands the basic elements of friendship.
What does this look like in the local church? Say you’ve just met someone in your church who you quickly identify as being overly emotional, sensitive and co-dependent. Beyond that, it seems like she’s not aware of these things. What should you do? Well first, remember that she probably is aware of her troubles, but she might give them different names. Where you might say she is overly emotional, sensitive and co-dependent, she might instead say that she is traumatized from past experiences, has trouble trusting people’s good intentions, and is desperate to receive affection. We are usually aware of problem spots in our own personalities, but don’t usually diagnose them the same way that others would.
This is partly due to the fact that our lives are timelines not snapshots. The personalities we have are wired into us, but they are shaped in the context of life. This means that the person you think is overly emotional is speaking and acting out of some experiences. While this doesn’t excuse certain behaviors it may explain them, and at the same time may elicit compassion toward the struggler.
But what should you do next? If your first reaction is to recommend a professional counselor, please reconsider. Instead, let’s ask this question: How can you be used by God in helping someone like this with wisdom and love?
Paul writes a long letter to the church in Rome, full of theological and practical insight. Then near the end of the letter, he acknowledges that they likely already understand much of what he has just written.
I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14)
Because the church members in Rome were full of goodness and knowledge, they were capable to give counsel to one another. Or consider a similar comment Paul makes to the Colossians.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” (Colossians 3:16)
When someone needs help and counsel, the local church should be the best place for them. Christ’s body should be full of people who know and love the “word of Christ,” the good news that we are broken people being helped by the Spirit to follow Jesus for the glory of God. People who know this gospel are the best kind of people to compassionately help strugglers find their way forward.
Many Christians have come to think that “serious problems” should only be dealt with by the professionals, by trained counselors or pastors. And while there may be a place for this, perhaps we have come to overly rely on professional counselors with the result that the church has atrophied in its ability to respond well to those in need of help.
When counsel is needed for problematic emotions, persistent sin struggles, relational conflict or complex decision-making, according to Paul, the first line of help is the relationships within the local congregation of believers.
In our church we think of responding to these challenging situations with four lines of help.
First line of help: friendships. Those with closest proximity to the struggler should be the first to help. Friends help first. Of course this can be intimidating for strugglers who would rather mask their struggles in front of friends and reveal them only to a counselor who remains at a safe distance. And it can also be intimidating for the friend, who might not feel equipped or competent to respond to the struggle.
Despite these challenges, every member of the church should take responsibility for the well-being of those around him or her. If your friends are struggling in marriage, don’t just tell them you’ll pray for them and leave it at that. Ask for details. Ask how you can help. Offer to meet consistently to pray together and to ensure that they are not giving up on working toward resolution.
Every Christian should be preparing to be a counselor—not a professional counselor of course, but at least a mature believer who can give wise help to those who are struggling. The author of Hebrews describes the mature as “those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).
How can you help? Start with those two aspects of counseling: listen and respond. Listen thoughtfully, ask probing questions and think through what you’ve heard. Then respond after reflection and prayer. Respond with the word of Christ, the gospel as it applies to the particular challenge at hand. Of course there is a place for practical tips and insights gained from your own experience, but don’t start building a house until you’ve poured the foundation. Begin with the gospel and never lose sight of it as you go along.
Don’t underestimate the profound help that you may be able to offer to a struggler simply by listening thoroughly and responding with gospel hope.
Second line of help: care group leaders. We encourage all the members of our church to be involved in care groups where they can build spiritually helpful relationships. The leaders of these groups act as under-shepherds looking out for the safety and health of those in their group. So if someone in a care group is struggling, then in addition to the help of friends, the care group leader would be a wonderful next place to turn. Go to the leader and/or his wife to ask for prayer and to seek further counsel.
Third line of help: pastors and elders. Pastors and elders have often spent significant time preparing to counsel (reading and study) as well as actually giving counsel. Their knowledge and experience may be helpful when trying to sort out the complexities of certain struggles.
But members shouldn’t “hand off” their struggling friend to the pastor. Rather a pastor may be “drawn in” to give further counsel and perspective. The goal is that a struggler would not be relegated to finding help in only one office, but rather would have a dense network of relationships where they are finding help in a variety of forms from different people in the church.
Fourth line of help: professional counselors. I’m certainly not against the profession of counseling. Our church has good relationships with several Christian counselors and we occasionally recommend that a member go seek their help. But even then, we try to work together with the counselor to provide a spectrum of help, where friends in the church continue praying and encouraging, care-group leaders stay involved, and pastors and elders keep shepherding.
The professional counselor will play a different role than the person who is strictly a friend. Those who are struggling need a network of people around them who are each playing their role. The professional counselor will listen and respond at a different level than the typical friend, and yet the elements of both relationships are fairly similar. Which is to say that we must approach friends who are struggling not primarily as problems to be solved, but as people and as friends.
The main point here is that when it comes to the local church the bulk of counseling ministry should take place not in a counseling office but in the many relationships within the church. How are you preparing to be a counselor?
Resources for Preparing to be a Friend-Counselor
- Side by Side: Walking With Others in Wisdom and Love, Ed Welch
- The Pastor and Counseling: The Basics of Shepherding Members in Need, Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju
- Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, Paul Tripp
- When People are Big and God Is Small, Ed Welch