Search This Blog

Friday, November 27, 2020

Discipleship Model of Lay Counseling


Pastoral Care Interview: With Sean Fryling, Pastor for Real Life Ministries


 Darrell Wolfe

Biblical Counseling, The King’s University

Counseling in the Church (BIBC 3304)

Glenna Massey

November 29, 2020



On Wednesday, November 11, 2020, I interviewed Sean Fryling, Pastoral Care Pastor for Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Idaho (Fryling, 2020). Though many pastors freely meet with their congregants, most of the churches in North Idaho are too small for a designated counseling ministry. After asking several people, including two licensed counselors, Real Life was the only church I found with an advertised Pastoral Counseling service in this area. Several people indicated they send people to Real Life for that need (which played an interesting role in our interview). Real Life also offers group opportunities, like Griefshare and Celebrate Recovery. While Elijah House (mentioned in the text on pages 90 and 307) holds office right here in the area, they did not respond to my request for an interview (Tan & Scalise, 2016). The following are the results of my interview with Sean and some conclusions about Pastoral Care as described by Real Life.

Keywords: pastoral care, lay counseling, marriage counseling

The Interview

            Right up front, Sean let me know that Real Life no longer offers true lay counseling but offers a discipleship model. He is the third pastor to handle Pastoral Care for Real Life. The first two pastors who started the program were both licensed mental health counselors who met with members of the congregation for counseling sessions. As the ministry grew, the need for counseling outgrew the ability of these two men to keep up with demand, which is when they began to develop the discipleship model. Sean has a Masters in Theology and moved from California to join the staff at Real Life ministries. Although the church typically only hires and trains from within, due to the same discipleship model throughout the church, they brought Sean in as one of the few “outsiders”.


Lay Counseling Ministry System: Discipleship Model

The model described by Sean would be closest to an Informal-Spontaneous model of lay counseling, conducted by small group leaders and class leaders in the context of on-going relationship. To his knowledge, Real Life did not base their model from any other church’s model, though some of the work predated his arrival. Pastors in the community previously referred their members to Real Life; however, Sean discouraged this practice. He says that “all we do is discipleship”. He said that when a pastor refers people to Real Life, Sean calls the pastor to discuss what it means to disciple your own people, and offers to help the pastor develop a discipleship culture in his own church. Through this process, they have worked with multiple churches around the country to develop a discipleship culture in their own church communities.

As Sean sees it, “counseling” has been largely ineffective for Real Life, they even removed the term counseling from the website and replaced it with Pastoral Care. What they found was more effective was “discipleship”. When someone comes in to meet with Sean, he assesses their needs in one to five intake sessions. He offers biblical insights and a non-judgmental ear, then directs them to a small group, group class (such as Celebrate Recovery), and/or to service-involvement in a ministry. He says that “relationship is key”. He claims that up to ninety-five percent of the people who see him find their problems resolve themselves when they are plugged into vibrant community and into active (not passive) discipleship.

In these small group/class environments, leaders are hand-selected, supervised, and trained in on-going relationship with their own leadership. The culture of the church is a culture of “discipleship”. He says that leaders must be “pastoral”; they must know the names of the people in their groups, their family’s names, their successes, and struggles, and follow up with them regularly. They are expected to reach out to anyone missing more than two weeks to see how they are doing and if there is anything they can do to help. They are also expected to look for those who are “pastoral” within their own groups, and disciple them into up and coming leaders.

For a select few, typically couples, who need more than small group community offers, Sean meets with them for regular Pastoral Care (counseling). The counseling is focused on listening to them, helping them listen to each other, and listening for and seeking God’s heart in the counseling session. Sean said that he only works with people who demonstrate and openness to hear God and change. If they are defensive, blaming, or showing any other signs of abuse, addiction, mental illness, or trauma, he refers them to licensed counselors in the area with a demonstrated heart to provide biblical counseling as well as clinical therapy. He stopped referring to counselors outside of this list, because he found anyone going to a counselor who did not also discuss the Bible often showed no improvement or even got worse. Sean claims these cases of requiring referral comprise less than five percent of the people he sees.


Counseling Process

            Sean’s most common on-going counseling is done with couples in the form of marriage counseling and pre-marital counseling, though he works with others too. The approach is described as “take the Bible, apply it to real life, and change will happen in the context of relationships lived out of those realities”. He says that many people have never heard the real-life application of Biblical wisdom as applied to marriage conflicts. Sean will use psychological techniques if they work; however, he does not purposefully study them. He prefers to leave those to “professionals”. There is only one assessment or test used in his office, it is known as the Prepare/Enrich Marriage and Premarital Assessment (P/E Assessment, 2020). He claims that it has a high success rate in predicting marital failure and works well in preparing a couple to marry or go deeper in marriage.

            Each session starts with prayer and focuses on listening. He says that he knows he is successful if he did more listening and asking than talking or preaching. Sean also stated that the better he listens for the Holy Spirit in the session, the more accurate and helpful questions he can ask. The sessions are focused on faith in God to restore, hope that God will show up and things will get better, and on loving each other well.

            If the church refers to a specialist, they will work with the individual to get the help they need. How much support, especially financial support, depends on how connected they are in the church. If the person rarely comes and is not involved, Sean tries to get them involved first. He finds most problems resolve themselves in connected community. However, if they are connected and still struggling beyond what the church can provide, they will jump in and assist the person with getting the right help. Sometimes this includes helping them apply for help that is available, such as Medicaid or other insurances, while sometimes the help is direct financial aid in the form of paying for a certain number of sessions.

Counselor/Leader Selection, Training, and Oversight

            Real Life bases their model on the foundation scripture of Matthew 4:19: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men”. One cannot simply sign up to lead a class and be leading by the next week. When someone has either asked to lead or has been identified as a good candidate to lead; they are invited into a selection process.

The process begins informally as a series of coffee meetings. The pastoral care team member, often Sean himself, seeks to understand the person’s background, motives, and history with discipleship. They want to know first, “are you a disciple”? If they are not actively being discipled, they are referred into a small group or mentorship to begin that process first. They see the progression as Share (the good news), Connect (with community), Minister (within community), and Disciple (be trained and be training others). Therefore, the next thing they want to know is if the candidate is disciplining people already. Are they already leading in the roles they have? Have they reached out to people, shared with them, helped them connect with community, etc.?

Once selected, the leader is trained under other pastors and leaders who are looking for “pastoral” qualities. They watch how the person develops and whether they take initiative to lead well and love well. Through weekly check-ins, they seek to ensure the process is going well for everyone involved.

They ask questions such as:

·         How are you, really? Is everything going well?

·         Are you making disciples? How many leaders are you developing?

·         Are you loving people well, reaching out when they are missing, and generally “pastoral”?

·         Do you know that you are more important to us than the tasks we assign you?

Leaders are all accountable to other leaders. Everyone is responsible for the people who serve under them, attend their group, or participate in their classes. Therefore, if there are issues or failure during the leading process, they are not rejected but discipled further, with a focus on confession and healing. If someone appears to be struggling, Sean himself may take them out for coffee and say “Hey, how are things going? What’s happening in your life”? He said, “Never assume you know anything. You might think they are slacking, but they are dealing with a death in the family.”

Sean said that the church must stop expecting baby Christians (new Christians) to come into the church knowing anything. Too often the church the focuses on “getting people saved” and then once saved they are left to figure it all out on their own. Then the churches wonder why the pews are full of baby Christians who have not grown. This process of discipleship is the process Real Life uses to bring people from one level of maturity to the next. Sunday mornings are the “lecture hall” of Church. Lectures are good but are the least effective mode of transformation. Discipleship has proven to be the most effective. People are transformed in the context of connected community.

When asked for the greatest dilemma he has experienced as a Pastoral Care/Counselor, Sean said that the issues of boundaries with the opposite sex often poses the biggest problems. A person will let a person of the opposite sex drop off things at the house or become too close on social media; then an affair is discovered, or someone ends up in prison. The best policy is to not be too loose with any relationship, regardless of how harmless you think it is.

When asked for his thoughts on the LGBT community, Sean smiled. To anyone claiming LGBT identity, Real Life says “Welcome, we are so glad you are here.” However, if that person wants to lead or perform a same-sex wedding, there will be deeper conversations. Real Life does not consider “orientation” a sin; however, does consider the only appropriate expression of sex to be within the confines of a one-man, one-woman, marital covenant relationship. There have been pastors on staff who had an LGBT orientation but did agree that the expression of that would be sin, and therefore live as celebrate pastors. They are loved and welcome on staff, provided they continue that lifestyle.

Finally, he said that abiding in relationship with God is more important than any work he does for the ministry. If he finds he is relying too much on his own skills, he considers that a warning sign he is not abiding enough. He said he is steadfast in not brining work home. He leaves on time (unless there is a true crises) and turns off the phone when home. He will not answer calls, texts, or emails from the home. If he were to answer the phone while his wife was talking, he would be telling her that the church was more important than her heart, and he refuses to do so. He was even fired once for taking a hard stand on this policy, the church later repented and brought him back.

Sean said his personal best practice to avoid burnout was a quote from Dallas Willard, which he keeps on his desk: “Ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life”. To practice this, he chooses the slow lane on the freeway, picks the longest line in the grocery store, and lingers after service. He asks himself this question: “Do you rest from your work; or, do you work from a place of rest? You’ll always find joy and peace in rest.”

Sean left me with this parting thought: “The reason we have so many Bible colleges is because the church failed to do its job in discipleship.” For this reason, pastors are generally selected from within Real Life, trained up to be disciplers, and then hired on staff after an ordination process (including defending a theological position). They hire very few people from Bible colleges unless those people have shown an affinity for the discipleship culture or have been raised into the discipleship culture by attending Real Life for some time. Many of their pastors were former electricians or farmers; “sound familiar?” he said with a wink.


            The interview gave me mixed feelings. On one hand, I lament over pastors who say things like “If you just believed this Bible, you wouldn’t be depressed”. In my experience, it has been Biblically oriented licensed mental health professionals that provided me with the most growth, while well-meaning pastors often did more harm than good. In some ways, I felt that sentiment during this interview. However, Sean listens and asks questions, gets the counselee talking and expressing emotions, and naturally does the things a good counselor would do. He did some of these with me during the interview. So, I feel that he may be a “counselor” even if he does not study counseling techniques.

            On the other hand, I found my heart “burned within me” as he described the atmosphere of discipleship (Luke 24:32). I am, by nature and nurture, an isolationist. This is a character defect I have been working on for a few years. I have come a long way, but I am nowhere near as connected as Sean described. I do not know that I would pass the Real Life selection process for leadership as I exist today. This will be a continued area of improvement for me.

The Real Life setup does not seek to incorporate counseling techniques into its model, I see this as a deficit. While I would prefer to see a layer of lay counseling added to the Real Life model, I am hard-pressed to ignore the amazing work they have done and their results. I would love to see the discipleship model as the foundation under which a lay counseling service operated. Lay counseling could reach those who find it hard to connect and counseling training could make the disciple-makers more effective. While I will continue to seek training as a lay counselor and possibly a licensed counselor, I will be looking for ways to incorporate discipleship into my life as well. The benefits of connected community are core to any effective counseling program.



Fryling, S. (2020, November 11). Pastoral Care/Lay Counseling Interview: Real Life Ministries (D. Wolfe, Interviewer) [Interview].

PREPARE/ENRICH PREMARITAL AND MARRIAGE ASSESSMENT. (2020). [Informational Sales Page]. Prepare-Enrich.

Tan, S.-Y., & Scalise, E. T. (2016). Lay Counseling: Equipping Christians for a Helping Ministry (Revised and updated edition). Zondervan.



Interview Questions

Counseling Ministry/System

1.       How do you explain the difference between clinical counseling and biblical counseling?

2.       What model do you prefer?

a.       Informal-Spontaneous; Informal-Organized; Formal-Organized

3.       Did you base your model on examples of other ministry’s models? If so, which ones.

4.       Where do you counsel: In office, coffee shops, homes?

5.       What types of resources do you offer outside of one-on-one Counseling?


6.       Your approach: Psychology vs Christianity?

a.       Separate but equal; equal mixable; only the Bible is needed; use whatever works if it lined up with scriptures, other way of seeing things?

7.       Do you use any tests (spiritual gifts, personality, or otherwise) with counselors or counselees?

8.       How do you rely on the Holy Spirit in Counseling?

9.       When do you refer to specialist, attorney, licensed counselor?

10.   Do you assist with that referral, financially or otherwise, make sure they are seen?


11.   How do you select counselors?

12.   How do you train counselors?

13.   How do you decide who to assign a counselee with?

14.   How do you evaluate the effectiveness of counseling?

15.   What, if any, oversight/supervision do counselors receive?

Additional Required for Class

1.       Ask the pastor/counselor about the greatest ethical issue he/she has addressed and why he/she sees it as his/her greatest dilemma.

2.       Ask the pastor/counselor if and how he/she integrates biblical truths into counseling a specific counseling topic. Pick one topic that is relevant to current sociopolitical and spiritual trends impacting the church and community. LGBT Clients

3.       If there are topics from our readings you do not understand, ask the pastor you are interviewing for his/her perspective and insight. Nothing I can think of today. Test warning, but I don’t think he would know. Just posted it in General Questions in Blackboard.

4.       Ask about the pastor’s self-care.


Shalom: Live Long and Prosper!
Darrell Wolfe (DG Wolfe)
Storyteller | Writer | Thinker | Consultant @

Clifton StrengthsFinder: Intellection, Learner, Ideation, Achiever, Input
16Personalities (Myers-Briggs Type): INFJ


Post a Comment

Be Nice, Be Kind, Be Thoughtful, Be Honest, Be Creative...GO!


* indicates required

View previous campaigns.

Powered by MailChimp