Joel Sarli was Associate Secretary of the General Conference Ministerial Association and the second editor of Elder’s Digest when this article was written.

Often people need someone who is willing to just listen. Counseling experts say that listening is one of the most important parts of a counseling procedure. We have to learn to listen with the heart.

Because elders usually remain many years serving in the same congregation, people tend to see them as reliable counselors. In many cases, our pastors move frequently from one church to another and do not have time to establish a solid relationship with all the members of the congregation. Therefore, elders can be very helpful and effective in the area of counseling, cooperating with their pastor in making up a team ministry.

Counseling can be one of the most important activities in the ministry of the local elder. It is indispensable, therefore, to learn professional counseling skills and procedures.

Psychologist Lawrence Crabb, one of the pioneers in this field, has proposed that counseling should take place on three levels in the local congregation:

  • Level 1 is counseling by encouragement. This involves all believers of a local church, and its objective is to teach them how to be more sensitive and caring.
  • Level 2 is counseling by exhortation. It is more selective, and is implemented by a group of mature believers who learn helping skills and prove themselves available and reliable for such a ministry.
  • Level 3 is counseling by enlightenment. A few selected Christians in each local church are willing to handle the deeper, and more stubborn problems which do not yield to encouragement or exhortation.

It is in the second and third levels that local elders encounter most of their counseling activities.

In Romans 12:8 we read that paraklesis is a spiritual gift. The gifts are distributed throughout the body of Christ, as God wills, and are used for the purpose of edifying the church. Not all members of the body have this gift of "coming alongside to help." But many do, and these people must form the basis of a counseling program.

The elders that feel the burden to help the congregation in this area should obtain the necessary basic skills and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit bless the congregation. There are many skills to be learned. There will always be room for improvement in this area, but do not wait until you are an expert to start helping people. Many of the needed skills will come as a result of practice and observation.

Listening—The first and indispensable skill in counseling

Someone has said that God gave us two ears and just one mouth meaning that we are to listen twice as much as we talk.

In 1980 at the James White Library at Andrews University someone gave me an issue of the Personnel Journal. This issue contained nine questions related to effective listening. Read them and evaluate what kind of listener you are. If you are not as good a listener as you might be, practice the techniques in your daily relationships until you become a perfect listener.

1. Since you think about four times faster than a person usually talks, do you use this time to think about other things while you're keeping track of the conversation?
2. Do you listen primarily for facts rather than ideas when someone is speaking?
3. Do you avoid listening to things you feel will be too difficult to understand?
4. Can you tell from a person's appearance and delivery that there won't be anything worthwhile said?
5. When someone is talking to you, do you try to appear to be giving attention when you're not?
6. Do certain words and phrases prejudice you so you cannot listen objectively?
7. Do you turn your thoughts to other subjects when you think a speaker will have nothing particularly interesting to say?
8. When you're listening to someone, are you distracted by outside sights and sounds?
9. When you are puzzled or annoyed by what someone says, do you try to get the question straightened out immediately, either in your mind or by interrupting the speaker?

If you answered "No" to each question, classify yourself as a perfect listener.

Joel Sarli is an Associate Secretary of the Ministerial Association of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.