I remember hearing a pastor of a fairly large church saying—at a counseling conference no less—that he wasn’t going to hire any more pastor-counselors for the church pastoral staff. What he meant was this: he had hired fine pastoral counselors whose schedules quickly filled with counseling, but they didn’t have time to equip the body to counsel each other. Given that equipping is a critical part of the pastoral mission, his decision made sense.
He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11–12)
Although individual counseling is a priority for the pastoral leadership, the leadership of the church has been commissioned to equip the congregation in caring for each other’s souls.
This lay ministry is an extraordinary happening. No longer do people need a special though temporary anointing to offer a prophetic word of direction and wisdom. Now we are part of the new covenant in which the Spirit has been given to all who have put their faith in Jesus. Lay ministry is one of the premiere blessings of Pentecost. If you feel a little inadequate, God is pleased to have the church mature through the ministry of weak people who seem unqualified in the world’s eyes (1 Cor 1:27–29).
Most likely, this is already happening in your church. People share their struggles with each other. People pray with each other. This is certainly happening with the women in the church; sometimes it is happening with the men. You want it to happen more, and with growing love and wisdom.
The word counseling can distract you in the task. It connotes something professional and could bring legal exposure to the church. What you hope to encourage are increasingly wise and helpful conversations—that is counseling. We all need this and need to give it.
As you set out to further equip your church community, here are two questions to consider. First, how can you grow a church culture in which people are open about their struggles? This has implications even for the way you preach and how the leadership engages with each other. The mutual care of souls will only happen in a church that assumes we all have struggles and invites people to be open with them.
Second, what are the basic skills that everyone in the church should be growing in? Here are some possible essentials you could consider. Speak less and listen more. Follow the person’s feelings because they will usually lead to what is especially important to them. When you don’t know what to say—pray. And make meaningful connections between the struggles of life and Jesus.
This era is full of personal struggles. Some of these are struggles that humanity has always had, such as anxiety, depression, addiction, shame, and anger, yet this era has added some of its own, such as internet addictions, its resulting isolation, and some of the psychiatric diagnoses. All of them can be helped by meaningful engagement by a wise and loving church community.