A dream that started as a nightmare

Overwhelmed by people's needs for counseling or personal support? Relief may be as close as your own church.

Dean H. Whitney is associate pastor at the International Christian Center, Staten Island, New York.

There it was again—the church office telephone, with another person looking for help! This one was a single parent who had come to the end of her rope. Separated from her alcoholic husband, she was working at a secretarial job to try to support her three children, but found herself with more unpaid bills each month. Her hyperactive 12-year-old son had just been expelled from another school. Feeling angry, frustrated, and hopeless, she called on her church, looking for help.

But she was just one of the increasing stream of people who came or called, wanting someone to take time with them.

In our worship services, God touches many people with His love and healing power. Pastors and elders are available to pray with the sick and troubled. Of the approximately 2,000 who attend each week, most go away refreshed and uplifted. But some people's problems are so tangled and the roots go so far back in their lives that they cry out for someone to sit down and take more time with them so that the healing love of Jesus can become real and reachable. They're looking for someone with a listening ear, a caring heart, and the wisdom of God.

In New York City, where I work now, the needs are often staggering. But even in the small Midwest towns where I pastored previously, I found crippling worries and resentments among my parishioners.

The clear command is "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). Wherever Jesus went, troubled people flocked to Him. Both His teaching and His ministry were aimed at human need. We have no option. We are His body. We simply can't ignore the hurts and fears within the church and outside it.

Yet how can one pastor, or even a small staff of ministers, have the time and strength to meet every need that comes along? No wonder pastoral burn out is so common!

The nightmare

The question of how to handle the demands for personal counseling became a nightmare to me as our congregation continued to grow.

Our church stresses evangelism. New people come each week. Yet mingled with my joy in seeing so many come to know Jesus was an uneasiness about the fact that we seemed to attract troubled people like a magnet! They brought their deep-seated problems with them— hurts, feelings of failure and inadequacy, fear, and a variety of marital and family troubles. As evangelism thrived, the number of requests for personal help soared too.

Besides the added load that resulted from evangelism, I could see that city life was becoming more and more pressurized. Loneliness, competition, alcohol, drugs, divorce, fear—all just increased the cries for help.

Then, to make matters worse, one of our small staff resigned to take a church of his own in another city. Finances didn't permit a replacement, so the remaining staff members' load became heavier. As director of pastoral care, I began to feel overwhelmed.

The dream

About that time an idea began to emerge. Why not train laypeople? After all, the Bible says, "Bear ye one another's burdens," not "Take all your needs to the pastor."

A year earlier I had taught two courses to help our church leaders minister informally to personal needs in Sunday school classes, home cell groups, and youth fellowships. I had given some basic training to almost 150 leaders and , workers.

As we faced the growing onslaught of counseling requests, I felt the Lord was saying, "Call on some of those people to help." Most of them were already pretty busy, so I just sent out a letter asking whether any of them felt God might want them involved in a new lay counseling program.

Eighteen offered their time, their love, and whatever gifts God had given them.

A 1 Corinthians 12 clinic

When we gathered the 18 together, I discovered a wonderful variety among them. No two were alike. Some were gifted in working with children, teens, or young adults. Some volunteers had been enriched by going through serious problems of their own—emotional, marital, drug, or alcohol. Some were couples, others single, one widowed. The Holy Spirit's gifts were also distributed in variety. Together we could be a healing "clinic."

We spent about three months in further prayer and preparation before setting up the new program. Since no one person had all the gifts and abilities, we decided to work in teams and to refer a troubled person from one team to another as we found special needs, sort of like a medical clinic with various specialties, so that God's varied gifts could be best utilized. We set one evening a week as a time for my secretary and me to pray over each request, to seek to put the right ministering team together with the particular requests for help.

In the almost two years since we launched this ministry, well over a hundred people have received lifechanging help. Suicides, divorces, and doubt have been prevented from destroying individuals for whom Christ died. We have seen God's love and power.

We still have much to learn. God is still teaching us and increasing our faith, but we are grateful for all the good that has come from this ministry already.

The basic course

Since the beginning we have kept training additional workers, because the requests for help keep coming in. We have offered our basic training course several more times, and every six weeks we take time for further training and refreshment among our present lay counselors.

The basic course takes students through nine fundamental biblical aspects of this ministry: (1) caring and listening, to discover the roots of the problem, (2) receiving God's forgiveness and then extending unilateral forgiveness to all who have caused hurt, (3) accepting the inner healing of memories through prayer, (4) using God's covering grace and help in correcting harmful patterns or habits, (5) learning about the empowering and life-transforming work of the Holy Spirit, (6) delivering from demonic bondage, (7) healing and strengthening family relationships, and (8) aiming to turn troubled people into helpers of others who are troubled.

After taking the course, new trainees usually work alongside more experienced workers for a while.

After each ministry night, the workers turn in written reports so that I can evaluate, guide, and encourage their work. I am continually thrilled by the results of their labor of love.

It can work anywhere

We don't pose as psychiatrists or advice-givers. We're simply the body of Christ caring for one another, bearing one another's burdens in the love of Jesus and power of the Holy Spirit.

According to Dr. Gary Collins in How to Be a People Helper, "when lay counselors, with or without training, were compared with professionals it was dis covered that 'the patients of lay counselors do as well or better than the patients of professional counselors.'" *

Most pastors take time to train their Sunday school teachers, youth leaders, and ushers. Why not train counselors? What we have done in an urban setting could work equally well in a small town or in the country.

Jesus calls us to reach out to an aching, hurting world. Even within the church, the need is enormous. Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted and to set the captives free. He fulfills that mission through believers who make themselves available.

If you are a pastor who sometimes feels overwhelmed by the cries for help, or if your church is failing to meet the deepest needs of the troubled people within and around it, trade your nightmare for a dream that really works. Let the Lord lead you to equip and mobilize your people to do a mighty work to His glory and the blessing of others.

Helpful Resources:

Adams, Jay. Competent to Counsel. Grand Rapids:
Zondervan Pub. House, 1986.

Backus, William. Telling the Truth to Troubled
People. Minneapolis: Bethany House Pubs.,
1985.

Basham, Don. Deliver Us From Evil. Grand Rapids:
Zondervan Pub. House, 1972.

Bennett, Rita. Emotionally Free. Old Tappan,
N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1982.

————. How to Pray for Inner Healing for Yourself
and Others. Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H.
Revell, 1983.

Collins, Gary. How to Be a People Helper.

Seamands, David. Healing for Damaged Emotions.
Wheaton, 111.: Victor Books, 1981.

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Dean H. Whitney is associate pastor at the International Christian Center, Staten Island, New York.

May 1987

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