There’s no doubt pastors today have more on their plates than they can get to, and the escalating mental and emotional health needs related to COVID have only exacerbated this problem. Thankfully, there is help for pastors in this area. Studies have shown that individuals in need of mental and emotional health assistance can be helped just as well by lay counselors and caregivers as by professionals in these areas, so gifted church members can be a resource to pastors in sharing this load.
How can a pastor recognize which church members might be specifically called and equipped to serve in this area? Below is a list of 10 key characteristics pastors can look for to determine if a lay leader might qualify as one of these “people helpers.”
1. First, they should be spiritually mature Christians and committed Christ followers themselves (see Galatians 6:1), with a thorough knowledge of Scripture and wisdom in applying it to daily living. They should be someone known by church leadership who has a healthy prayer life, respect for spiritual authority, and a strong moral and ethical reputation. It would be beneficial if they have been involved in the life of the local congregation for at least one year.
2. Those under consideration should be stable psychologically – not emotionally volatile, but open and vulnerable. They should have no serious psychological disorders, marital conflicts, or addictions. If they are in recovery from an addiction, I recommend that they have been in recovery for a minimum of two years.
3. Potential caregivers should have a love for and interest in people. They should be warm, caring, and genuine, with true concern for others’ welfare.
5. They should have some life experience under their belt – that they not be too young to understand multiple relational contexts. Younger people are especially passionate about helping others, but we need to make sure their zeal doesn’t outweigh their maturity.
6. Previous training or experience in helping people would be extremely beneficial. Academic or formal training isn’t necessary, as that can be provided.
7. The person should exhibit availability and teachability. They should be willing to spend several hours a week in training, and be open to being supervised in their ministry. They should be responsive and open to learning a biblical approach to helping people.
8. They must be able to maintain confidentiality. Ministry guidelines are very specific about the need to protect privacy of individuals seeking counseling, so anyone being considered for the role of lay counselor or caregiver should exhibit the utmost respect for people’s privacy and confidentiality.
9. One commonsense aspect to selecting people helpers that pastors will want to take into account is the person’s willingness to submit to a complete and thorough background check.
10. Pastors also should seek individuals from a variety of age, sex, education, and socioeconomic statuses as well as ethnic/cultural backgrounds. This will be helpful so that those in need of assistance can have a lay counselor or caregiver with whom they feel most comfortable and relatable.
By finding a few key individuals within a congregation who fit these criteria, pastors can ensure that they are equipped and trained with the necessary people helping skills to become fully qualified lay counselors and caregivers. Often, church members experiencing mental or emotional distress just need someone to talk to and to know that they are being looked out for – someone with whom they can get coffee once a week and it doesn’t need to feel like a formal counseling session. Having a team of people empowered to serve in this way will not only help the congregation but will also take a huge load off of overburdened pastors’ shoulders.
Adapted from Lay Counseling: Equipping Christians for a Helping Ministry (revised & updated) by Siang-Yang Tan & Eric T. Scalise, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016), 106–107.