On Belay: Becoming a Lifeline in the Call to CareApr 28, 2023
by Eric Scalise, PhD
Senior Vice President, Chief Strategy Officer
Hope for the Heart
We live in a fast-paced, push-button, instant-everything world that has produced a perfect storm for increased stress, worry, and any number of crisis-oriented and mental health issues. Throw a pandemic into the mix and it’s a recipe for fear and chaos. If Covid was the earthquake that shook the planet, the resulting tsunami has created havoc on people’s physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, moral, and economic well-being. Nearly every mental health indicator has been on the rise—depression, suicide, anxiety and panic disorders, abuse, addiction issues, domestic violence, and more.
Though we are technologically connected to the Nth Degree, we are also more relationally disconnected than ever before. People are starving for relationship. The extended social distancing and lack of connectivity over the past several years is fueling much of the emotional and mental health problems we see all around us. What then should be our response?
The Problem is the Church
Countless individuals today are hurting, confused, anxious, and brokenhearted, and the Church is not exempt from the stress and pressures of life. A very real “mission field” exists on both sides of the sanctuary doors and unfortunately, mental health and well-being remain largely stigmatized within the Christian community. People of faith are not expected to be lost in their grief, wrestle with an addiction, or be pulled into darkness by depression and despair. Sadly, the Body of Christ is the only army I know of that consistently shoots its own wounded—and then we bury them before they die.
The good news of the gospel is that we are loved, forgiven, offered the gift of grace, and of such great value in the eyes of God, we were worth dying for. This does not “excuse” sinful behavior, poor choices, or never holding people accountable, but rather, being proactive as we have the opportunity to affirm others by “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). I know of many who are buried in negativity, sometimes by their own doing. The necessary dialogue and decision is not “If we should begin to provide ministry in these areas,” but “How and Where should we start?”
The Answer Is the Church
We are called to love one another (John 13:34–35) and to bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). A majority of pastors I know do not feel particularly gifted, properly equipped, or necessarily called to counsel others, even though they acknowledge the tremendous needs within their congregations. More often than not, they feel “called to the ministry” primarily to preach the gospel and teach the Word of God. This paradox is a recipe for burnout and stress among clergy members who are not sure what to do, but also realize they cannot just turn a blind eye and ignore the need for congregational care. Yet, the local church often is—and should rightly be—the first line of defense whenever someone is in crisis, experiencing profound brokenness, or needing godly counsel on a matter.
Years ago, I used to do quite a bit of rock climbing. There are a number of critical voice commands climbers utilize, especially when there is limited or no visual contact between them. Whether climbing or rappelling, “On Belay” is the first command used. It refers to different techniques for keeping sufficient tension on a climbing rope so that in the event of a mishap, a climber will not fall very far before being stopped. It indicates the climber is now connected to the rope. The partner responds by saying, “Belay On,” which conveys the equally important message, “I’m locked in and anchored here for you—for your safety and well-being. I have you, and you’re good to go!”
Mountains, like obstacles in life, can be summited and overcome with determination, teamwork, support, consistent communication, and most of all, the element of trust. The same is true for people facing loss, trauma, crisis, or simply a time when hope has vanished and guidance is needed. So how do we say, “Belay On?” The truth is we cannot fix, heal, save, restore, or change anyone. However, we can introduce the person to the One who is able to do all these things. Faith matters and people of faith matter.
The first step in developing a lay counseling ministry should begin in prayer so that God is the One guiding and shaping the mission and vision. Secondly, it takes the support and oversight of committed leadership from pastors and other overseers to help discern the felt needs within the congregation and determine the appropriate structure and organization of a ministry effort. Protocols should be developed and implemented when it comes to the selection, training, supervision, and evaluation of lay counselors, as well as understanding potential risks and establishing ethical guidelines. Why? Because caring for the downtrodden is a sacred trust.
King Solomon understood the power of connection when he wrote, “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9–10). Caregivers can be raised up as an army of first responders who provide the lifeline that assists others in overcoming the obstacles before them. The goal is to draw people closer to God in genuine relationship and to provide support, encouragement, spiritual care, and referral services on a short-term basis during times of crisis, significant need, or where biblical guidance is necessary.
Answering the call to care must begin somewhere. Perhaps God is encouraging you to take the first step in climbing with and belaying those who need a lifeline. “Then I heard the Lord asking, ‘Whom shall I send as a messenger to my people? Who will go?’ And I said, ‘Lord, I’ll go! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8 (TLB).
Eric Scalise, Ph.D., is a seasoned organizational leader with extensive professional and ministry expertise. Dr. Scalise serves as Hope for the Heart’s Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer. As a Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, Dr. Scalise has 40 years of clinical and professional experience. Additionally, he is a published author and national/international speaker, frequently working with organizations, clinicians, ministry leaders, and churches on a variety of issues. To learn more about Hope for the Heart and to find biblical resources on a variety of mental health issues, visit https://www.hopefortheheart.org/.
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