Counselling in the Context of Small Groups

By Steve Prokopchak

As a small group leader, do you fear being drawn into “counseling” situations because you have no idea what to do or say? Pastor, do you fear that a small group leader may give wrong advice or counsel? There is hope for both of you!

Josh called the church counseling department one day to request help for “a lack of energy.” As the small group leader and I interviewed Josh, we discovered his problems included the loss of employment, discouragement with attempts to start his own business, and a weight problem. As we discussed a goal plan, I released Michael, a small group leader, to meet with Josh on a weekly basis. Michael would maintain regular contact with me concerning Josh’s progress.

If you’re a pastor, I know you can identify with the cries for help. How do you in a responsible manner respond to all the of congregants’ needs? Should we as a pastoral team rush to their aid? Can every church afford a full-time professional counselor? Are we to refer to community services such as support groups or private counseling (whose personnel may hold differing values or theology)?

Does everyone need a “professional” in order to get help? Why is it that we look to professionals for services today and not just in the medical or mental health field? There are professional carpet cleaners, lawn mowing services, landscaping, laundry, and even professional manicurists.

Focus on the Possibilities—Faith and Prayer

The problem is not the number of professionals but the number of Christians who believe they cannot help anyone. Often this belief is generated by hearing advertisements from professionals or books written by them. These Christians have bought the lie that since they do not have formal, professional training, they will hinder someone more than help them. They have focused more on the limitations than possibilities— faith and prayer.

My wife and I began to have children before we were “professional” parents. During the challenging years of raising children, our counsel came from other parents or those wisest of parents, grandparent figures. The Lord allowed us to give birth to children before we were fully trained ourselves.

Professional vs. Paraprofessional Counseling

Local church outreach ministries are often built on the volunteering of faith-filled paraprofessionals. These are persons with a heart to serve, some years of experience under their belt and a listening ear. Paul Vitz, professor of psychology at New York University, writes the following: “Research studies suggest positive outcomes in psychotherapy, but those outcomes appear to be unrelated to psychological theories . . . the psychological concepts guiding the therapy do not seem to have much causal connection to the positive effects. The major beneficial factors of psychotherapy reflect the character, or therapeutic virtues, of the psychotherapist . . . Successful therapists are described as ‘empathetic, supportive, caring, and patient.’ Thus, one major contributor to the benefits of psychotherapy is the extent to which the therapist establishes a strong and positive relationship with the client. . .” (1)

Because local churches can be described as families of families built by relationship, I suggest that the local church is an ideal healing community in which people can come alongside of and serve the hurting in our world.

The August 14, 1995 issue of Christianity Today had a cover caption which read, “Larry Crabb’s Anti-psychology Crusade.” Dr. Crabb, a well-known author, psychologist, and college professor who is not “anti-psychology” speaks out on the subject of professional vs. paraprofessional counseling. During his interview Crabb stated, “The primary context for healing, then, should be the Christian community, not the antiseptic world of a private-practice therapist.” (2) Crabb believes that godly men and women in a church have more power to impact upon people’s lives than they are given credit for.

Os Guinness, an author with a doctor of philosophy from Oxford University, England, in his article, “America’s Last Men and Their Magnificent Talking Cure,” makes the comment, “‘Seeking help is more likely to mean a seventy-five dollar, fifty-minute hour at the psychologist’s office than a time of prayer and meditation with God or an unstinted time of counseling with a pastor, confessor or friend.” (4) It seems that both Crabb and Guinness are pushing some of the same buttons.

People Helping People

While Crabb’s vision is not that of a lay counseling program (a point he clarifies in his interview), he opens the door to create an awareness needed in the local church today. At the core of people helping people is what the scripture calls “one anothering.”

Have you ever taken notice of the two words “one another” in the New Testament? Romans 15:7 in the New International Version admonishes us to “accept one another…,” Romans 12:10 states, “be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves.” Also, in Romans we are told that we are, “competent to instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14)

Paul told the Galatian Christians to … “serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). The book of Ephesians includes many one anothering references: Ephesians 4:2 “…bearing with one another in love,” 4:32 “…Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other…” James admonishes us to “…confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed…”

Our Lord summed it up this way, “A new command I give you; love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). Jesus was emphatic in His encouragement to us to love. Why? Because He knew we are inclined to be cannibalistic Christians and “devour one another” (Galatians 5:15).

Legal Concerns

I am often asked the question, “But what about the legalities of lay Christians counseling? Couldn’t the church get sued?” The truth is, today anyone can be sued for practically anything. Steve Levicoft, in his book, Christian Counseling and the Law, points to the impact of the Nally case. (4) Ken Nally was receiving counsel from Grace Community Church of the Valley in California where John MacArthur is pastor. Ken committed suicide and his parents sued Grace Community. The end result of nine years of litigation and thousands of dollars spent was that Grace Community Church of the Valley won the case in the state Supreme Court.

This decision impacts the field of Christian counseling including small group leaders who counsel, self-help groups, or crisis counseling calls. It has allowed “religious” counselors to practice without government regulation. To be “wise as serpents” (Matthew 10:16) we need to practice good Christian ethics of confidentiality and documentation. I also encourage you to learn the laws of your specific state regarding clergy and counseling and any laws pertaining to licensing. It is also an important practice to have a trained Christian professional counselor available for your counseling ministry as a consultant to you and your small group leaders. It is vital to make use of this person and to not treat them as an unnecessary figurehead.

Small Groups Are an Excellent Place to Start “One Anothering”

In I Corinthians 12, Paul writes about various spiritual gifts. He states, “now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” For what reason do we seek these gifts? Not for the sake of the manifestation itself, but because we are to be involved in the “common good” of body ministry. After a description of the gifts (verses 8 – 10) the remainder of the chapter is about people, “But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (I Corinthians 12:24-26).

As the New Testament small group-based church, let’s get back to the belief that we can love and serve each other. One Christian can make a difference in the life of another. Michael was able to help Josh through listening, prayer, encouragement, and accountability with some practical steps to engage in. Every person with a problem may not find all they need when counseling with their small group leaders, but it is an excellent and natural place to start. Let’s take the necessary steps to see our leaders trained and become confident in “one anothering.”

1 No God but God, Os Guinness and John Seel, © 1992, Moody Press
2 Christianity Today, August 14, 1995, Vol. 39, No. 9
3 No God but God, Os Guinness and John Seel, © 1992, Moody Press
4 Christian Counseling and the Law, Steve Levicoft, © 1991, Moody