The Case for Lay Counseling in the Local Church





Alex Tang



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The Case for Lay Counseling in the Local Church

by Dr Alex Tang



I.                 Introduction

                   Scott Peck, a renowned Psychiatrist and best selling author of The Road Less Traveled, began his book by acknowledging , “ Life is difficult.[1]” Living in a modern, fast moving society where change is the norm, it is not surprising to find that people often feel out of control, have problem coping with the continual challenges to their mental, spiritual, emotional and physical health.

                     In a 1957 survey done in the United States[2], most people turned to members of the clergy or pastors when they have problems. The second group of professionals that they turn to are the trained psychologists, counsellors, psychiatrists and their family physicians. Even in the present society where the Church has lost most of its influence, many people still turn to the Church when they are in trouble[3]. In Asia, people would see out the elders of the family or clans for advice. But with increasing affluence and social dislocation, the extended family support are often not there. So nowadays, in Asia, the people are also seeking out the clergy or other religious leaders for help.

                   Pastoral Care is the main calling of the clergy or pastors. One of the component of this pastoral role is Counselling. David Benner clarifies that ‘counselling involves the establishment of a time-limited relationship that is structured to provide comfort for troubled persons by enhancing their awareness of God’s grace and faithful presence and thereby increasing their ability to live their lives more fully in the light of these realizations.” In this clarification, David Benner differentiate counselling from other parts of pastoral care such as preaching, teaching, spiritual direction giving and celebration.

                    Pastors are very busy people. Their schedules are often full; filled with the demands of a growing congregation and the care of their many parishioners with their many and varied problems. It is impossible for one pastor to be all things to all people. But Scriptures has recognised this and has taught the ‘ministry of the laity’. This means that in a congregation, the Holy Spirit has given various spiritual gifts of ministry so that all needs can be met. However, it is the role of a pastor to identify those persons with the spiritual gifts and mobilise his congregation.

                Richard Foster writes,

 ‘ God joyfully employs an infinite variety of means to bring health and well-being   to his people. We are glad for God’s friends, the doctors, who with skill and  compassion help our bodies fight against disease and sickness. We rejoice for  every advance of modern psychiatry and psychology as better ways are discovered to promote the healing of the deep mind. We also celebrating the growing army of women and men and children who are learning how to bring the healing power of Christ  to others for the glory of God and the good of all concerned.’[4]

                Counselling is one of the areas where the pastor can mobilise the lay person. Many pastor finding counselling difficult or that they do not have time to do counselling work. It is a wise pastor who can identify and mobilise members of his congregation to do this. Peter Wagner defines the gift of exhortation as the “special ability that God gives to certain members of the Body of Christ to minister words of comfort, consolation, encouragement and counsel to other members of the Body in such a way that they feel helped and healed”.[5]

II.             Biblical Basis for Lay Counselling

            Galatians 6:1-2

       Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.[6]

Tan Siang Yang’s comment on this passage is :

This directive was given by the apostle Paul to all Christians – and especially

mature, spiritual Christians (v.1) – to get involved in a burden-bearing or

“restoring” ministry to fellow believers who are struggling with sin in their lives.

This “restoring” ministry involves counseling in its broad sense of people- helping,

but restoring also involves more. For example James tells us to confess our sins to

each other and to pray for one another so that we may be healed ( James 5:26).

Confession and prayer are critical component of Christian people-helping.[7]

The emphasis is that all Christians are called to be involved, not only the pastors.

                Dr. Frank Minirth, a Christian psychiatrist has noted all 5 verbs in the New Testament that are relevant to the ministry of counselling is found in 1 Thessalonians 5:14 – parakaleo, noutheteo, paramutheomai, antechomai and makrothumeo.[8]

1 Thessalonians 5:14

 And we urge [ parakaleo ] you, brothers, warn [ noutheteo ] those who are idle. Encourage [ paramutheomai ] the timid, help [ antechomai ] the weak, be patient [ makrothumeo ] with everyone.[9]

                      Again all believers are encouraged to be involved in exhorting, encouraging, comforting and helping – that is counselling. Other passages in the Bible     ( e.g. Rom15:14 ; Col 3:16 ) support the biblical basis for lay counselling ( counselling by the lay person as distinct from the pastor and professional counsellor ).

III.         The Christian Counsellor

                     The Christian counsellor would need to have certain characteristic if he/she is to be effective. Even though all Christians are called to evangelise, not all are equally effective. Hence it is worthwhile to identify those individual who has the spiritual gifts for counselling ( wisdom, knowledge, exhortation, discerning of spirits and helps ) and to further train them.

                         NETWORK,[10] a program developed by Willow Creek Community Church in the United States is a good program to identify the spiritual gifts of the believer. Another such program is Peter Wagner’s The Wagner-Revised Houts Questionnaire.[11]

                      Anthony Yeo listed the following  Characteristics of a Helper[12] :

                                                1.  Sympathetic

                                                                2.  Sensitive

                                                                3.  Tactful

                                                                4.  Calm

                                                                5.  Knowledgeable/well-informed

                                                                6.  Tolerant

                                                                7.  Spontaneous

                                                                8.  Mature

                                                                9.  Warm

                                                                10. Empathetic

                                                                11. Flexible in approach and attitude

                                                                12. Stable

                                                                13. Firm but kind

                                                                14. Understanding

                                                                15. Well-balanced

                                                                16. Impartial

                                                                17. Non-judgmental

                                                                18. Humble

Basically  what the characteristics indicate is a person who loves people and is able to relate well with them.

IV   The Counselling Process

                   While the person of the counsellor is important, how he practices counselling ( the counselling process ) is also important. There are some authors who emphasis that the counselling process is more important than the counsellor. In practical terms, both are of equal importance.

                  In an Asian context, the author would like to suggest using a CILI PADI approach.

The letters are an acronym for -

                        C ore counselling skills

  I nformation gathering

  L istening

  I nformation assimilation


 P roblem definition

 A ttempted solution

 D esired changes

 I ntervention plan

              The details for this approach is discussed by the author in another paper[13]. This approach is based on the medical model, is easy to use and easy to train people to use. It does not need vast experience to use and hence would be adequate in counselling situations that lay counsellors in the church faces.

V.             Lay Counselling in the Local Church

Lay counselling as a distinctive ministry is relatively new in the local church and

will need some planning to implement. It need to have the full support of the pastor and the leadership team in order to be effective.

1.      Models of Lay Counselling

Tan Siang Yang in his book, Lay Counseling- Equipping Christians for a Helping Ministry suggested 3 models of  lay Christian counselling :

1.1    The Informal, Spontaneous Model

                               This models assumes that lay Christian counselling can be done spontaneously and informally in the existing church structure. Such structure would include the home cell groups, fellowship meetings or dinners,  visitations and chatting after church services. It is already happening in many evangelical churches. The counsellors do not receive any specific training but are usually the matured Christians who are able to give spiritual directions or directive counselling.

1.2    Informal, Organised Model

                               The model assumes the lay counsellors to be selected, trained and supervised. The counselling will take place in the informal settings as indicated above. There are no formal time set aside for counselling and takes place wherever people meet including the church, people’s home, hospital and shopping malls.

1.3    Formal, Organised Model

                              The model assumes not only the lay counsellors be selected, trained and supervised but that counselling takes place in specific areas such as a counselling centre, office or designated area for counselling. There are often specific time for the counselling service. There may be weekly or monthly staff meeting which may be supervised by a professional counsellor.

Each church have to choose a model that is suitable. The informal spontaneous model is suitable to a small church with a small congregation, mostly of the younger age group. The formal organised model is suitable for large churches with building facilities, adequate budget, large congregation with many lay persons interested in counselling. In such a structure, a counselling centre may service not only the local church but other churches and the surrounding communities.

2.      Scope of Lay Counselling

Jay Adams has listed 20 most frequent reasons why people seek help from counsellors[14]:

1.       Advice in making simple decisions

2.       Answers to troublesome questions

3.       Depression and guilt

4.       Guidance in determining careers

5.       Breakdowns

6.       Crisis

7.       Grief

8.       Bizarre behaviour

9.       Anxiety, worry and fear

10.    Other unpleasant feelings

11.    Family and marital trouble

12.    Failures

13.    Help in resolution of conflicts with others

14.    Drug and alcohol problems

15.    Sexual difficulties

16.    Perceptual distortions

17.    Psychosomatic problems

18.    Attempted suicide

19.    Difficulties at work/school

20.    Deteriorating interpersonal relationships.

Lay counsellors must be very precise in what they should counsel and what is outside their expertise. They must be willing to refer what is outside their expertise. For example, treatment of schizophrenia and manic depressive disorders should be left to the psychiatrist and exorcism to Christians who have expertise and experience in that area. It is useful to decide in advance what type of problems they should accept and what they cannot accept.

3.      Facilities Required for Lay Counselling

                This depend on the type of model chosen. The Informal, Spontaneous and Informal, Organised  model do not need any new physical facilities. A small library for reference books and magazines may be useful for those counsellors who want to do bibliotherapy[15].

                The Formal, Organised model would need facilities. It may be an independent building as a Counselling Centre, use of a part of the church building or even loan of the pastor’s office. It may also need additional staff,  such as a receptionist to take appointments and to organise the records. The needs depend on how big the counselling project will be, the number of counsellors involved and the budget.

4.      Training for Lay Counsellors

                       Training is important. Other than the selection, the training must be systematic, structured and continuing. There must be supervision and constant reappraisal. There are many training programs for lay counsellors and it is beyond the scope of this paper to evaluate them. Suffice to say that training is important and each church should chose a program suitable to its people.

5.      Relationship of Lay Counsellors and the Pastor

                     It is important to establish early in the lay counselling program on the role of the pastor. The pastor should not feel the lay counselling program to be usurping his pastoral role but that it complements his role. The pastor is in charge of the Pastoral Care ministry and the lay counselling program is but an arm of his ministry. Correct understanding of roles in important and can save a lot of conflicts later on.

6.      Referral.

                      The lay counsellors should know their limitations and should know when to refer. They should also know who to refer to. Hence a network should be set up to inter-referral and support. The network should include professional counsellors, psychologists, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, social workers, police and Christians involved in the deliverance ministries.

VI.         Pitfalls of Lay Counselling

                         The church must be aware of the various pitfalls of lay counselling. These pitfalls are:

1.      The Motivation of the Lay Counsellor

                       Why does a person want to counsel others? Some may be sincere to help others. Others may not be so.

                        Gary Collins lists 5 possible needs some counsellors may inappropriately try to meet through their counselling ministry:

1.       The need for relationships ( or intimacy and closeness with people )

2.       The need for control ( of other people’s lives )

3.       The need to rescue

4.       The need for information ( curiosity )

5.      The need for personal healing

                   It will be inappropriate if the counsellor try to meet their own needs through the lay counselling ministry. It may lead to abuse of relationship, loss of confidentiality and created dependence of the counsellees.

2.      The Limitation of the Lay Counsellor

                      The lay counsellor must be aware of the limits of his/her training and must not attempt to counsel beyond his/her training. They should know when to consult and when to refer. Team counselling is the ideal approach and also the availability of a professional counsellor for consultation and referral is important.

3.      The Commitment of the Lay Counsellor

                       The problem that often faced by a church is that of commitment by the lay persons. The lay counsellors are all voluntary. Hence there will be a high turnover of people especially when they move, change jobs, or face increasing

family pressures and job pressures. After much time and effort in training the lay counsellor, he/she may not be available for the long haul.

4.      The Effectiveness of the Lay Counsellor

                      Some people may be more gifted for the counselling ministry while others are not even when they have a sincere desire to help. Effective screening in selection has be in place to select and train only those who are gifted and thus will be effective in the lay ministry. A common mistake to be avoided is to accept anyone who expressed an interest to counsel.

5.      The Vulnerability of the Lay Counsellor

                        In the process of counselling, the lay counsellor may face a whole range of emotional experiences that may be beyond his own experience. There may be transference and counter transference. There may be manipulation, power struggles and resistance from the counsellees. There will be success and joy. There will be failure and sorrows. Sexual temptations are real. Burnout is a possibility. The lay counsellor is in a very vulnerable position and should be equipped to deal with all this. Hence training and a support network is important.

VII.     Conclusion

                      The needs are great and the pastor or pastoral team will not be able to meet all the needs of the congregation.  Pastoral care has began to be specialised.[16]  In some churches there are specialised music ministry, youth ministry,  worship ministry, small groups ministry and evangelism ministry. These ministries are run by gifted lay persons. The time have come to develop lay counselling ministries.

                     The Christians has always been giving counsel in the church setting ( Informal, Spontaneous Model ). It is time for some churches to move towards a more structured model such as the Informal, Organised and Formal, Organised model.

The need is never greater.


                   The keys to effective lay counselling ministry are :

1.      Spiritual Gifts of counselling

2.       Training

3.       Prayer

Even though prayers has not been mentioned so far in this article, it is the foundation on which this lay counselling ministry is built.


              E.M. Bounds writes in the Reality of Prayer :

‘ Prayer is a privilege, a sacred, princely privilege. Prayer is a duty,

an obligation most binding, and most imperative, which should hold us

to it. But prayer is more than a means, an instrument, a condition…….

Prayer is the appointed condition of getting God’s aid. This aid is as manifold and

exhaustless is this aid as man’s need. Prayer is the avenue through which God

supplies man’s wants. Prayer is the channel through which all good flows from

God to man, and all good from men to men.[17]


With the proper foundation, lay counselling can be a formidable nurturing and evangelistic arm of the church as it moves into the next millennium.


                                                                                                                                                                                                                     Soli Deo Gloria


[1] Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled ( New York : Touchstone , 1980, 1998 ) p. 15

[2] 42% to clergy, 29% family physician and 27 % to psychiatrist, psychologist and other mental health professionals. Quoted, Joint Commission on Mental Illness and Health, Action for Mental Health in Tan Siang Yang, Lay Counseling ( Grand Rapids, Michigan : Zondervan, 1981 ) p. 61

[3] In 1976 the survey showed 39% from the clergy, 21% from family physicians and 49 % from professional mental health sources. Quoted  J. Veroff, R.A,Kulka, and E.Douvan, Mental health in America : Patterns of Help-Seeking from 1957 to 1976 ( New York : Basic Books, 1960 ) in Tan Siang Yang, Lay Counseling  ( Grand Rapids, Michigan : Zondervan, 1981 ) p. 62

[4] Richard Foster, Prayer : Finding The Heart’s True Home ( New York : HarperCollins Publisher, 1992 ) p. 203

[5] Peter Wagner, Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow ( Ventura, California: Regal Books, 1979 ) p. 154

[6] Bible, New International Version

[7] Tan Siang Yang Lay Counseling (Grand Rapids,Michigan: Zondervan, 1991) p. 27

[8] Ibid. quoted p. 29

[9] Bible,New International Version

[10] Each participant in NETWORK will work through a series of assessment which leads them to discover their unique blend of spiritual gifts, passion and personal styles. The materials were developed by Bruce Bugbee, Don Cousins and Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church.

[11] The 25 spiritual gifts covered by this questionnaire are : prophecy, pastor, teaching, wisdom, knowledge, exhortation, discerning of spirits, giving, helps, mercy, missionary, evangelist, hospitality, faith, leadership, administration, miracles, healing, tongues, interpretation, voluntary poverty, celibacy, intercession, exorcism and service.

[12] Anthony Yeo, A Helping Hand ( Singapore: Times Books, 1981 ) p. 20

[13] Alex Tang, Counselling in the Church : A Pastoral Perspective . Project paper for Pastoral Care and Counselling, Master of Ministry, Malaysia Bible Seminari. November 1998.

[14] Jay Adams, Christian Counselor’s Manual ( Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1986 ) p. 277-78

[15] Bibliotherapy refers to the therapeutic use of reading. In a recent survey done in 1990 as reported in David Benner, Strategic Pastoral Counseling ( Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1992 ) p. 131-135  of the 405 pastors, 79% indicated they loan or give reading materials (books/booklets) as part of their counselling help.

[16] In his chapter, Reengineering the Local Church, George Barna stated that for the church to be relevant, the scope of ministry need to be focussed from all-purpose to specialised functions. George Barna, The Second Coming of The Church (Nashville : Word Publishing, 1998 ) p. 177

[17] E.M.Bounds, The Reality of Prayer ( Grand Rapids, Michigan : Baker Book House, 1924, 1978 ) p. 16-17



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