On belay: answering the call to care

By Eric Scalise, Ph.D., LPC, LMFT

Years ago, I used to do quite a bit of rock climbing when I lived in California. I also worked with at-risk teens, most of whom lacked any meaningful connections in their lives.

There are a number of critical voice commands climbers use, 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 wellbeing. 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.

Mental health & the Church

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This year, perhaps more so than in the past, the significance of this month is being filtered through the global coronavirus pandemic. Every indicator — anxiety, depression, suicide, domestic violence, abuse, addiction — has been magnified.

Yet, the Church-at-large continues to wrestle with the right approach, the right resources, and competent servant leaders who are properly equipped to make a difference in the middle of this ongoing storm. So how do we say, “Belay On?”

The truth is: a mission field exists on both sides of the sanctuary doors. Mental health in general remains largely stigmatized within the Christian community. People are hurting, and the Church is hurting. The apostle Paul said, “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26 NKJV).

Many pastors wonder if they should offer direct counseling-related services and ministries or whether this is more the purview of formally trained Christian professionals. For me, the answer is not an “either/or,” but a “both/and.” 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.

The need for compassionate caregivers

Sadly, the Body of Christ is also the only army I know of that consistently shoots its own wounded — and then we bury them before they die. As a licensed clinician with over 40 years of experience, I strongly advocate the need for highly trained and authentic Christian therapists. However, I am equally fervent about the role of the lay caregiver and our responsibility to function as God’s ambassadors of compassion.

Webster’s Dictionary defines the term compassion as a “sympathetic consciousness of another’s distress, together with a desire to alleviate it.” The word is derived from the Latin pati (“to suffer”) and the prefix com (“to bear alongside” or simply “with”). Much of the research on this subject underscores the importance of the helping relationship, along with caregivers who are frequently in close proximity to the emotional suffering and resulting grief of those they minister to. This is the essence of the counseling and caregiving alliance.

From a biblical perspective, compassion can be viewed as one of the distinguishing characteristics of Christ and His own relational style. There are numerous Old and New Testament passages that reference this model (Psalm 103:4, 135:14; Isaiah 49:13, 54:8, Jeremiah 42:12; Micah 7:19, Matthew 15:32, 20:34; James 5:11). In rebuking the Pharisees because their religious form took precedence over their concern for others, Jesus said, “I desire compassion, rather than sacrifice” (Matthew 12:7 NASB). Taking this admonishment to heart, the decision for many pastors and churches might become this: not so much “If we should begin to provide ministry in these areas,” but “How and where should we start?”

Become a lifeline to hope

There are a number of tools and resources available at our ministry to help individuals address life’s challenges or become equipped to be trained caregivers. There are multiple individual topical videos and books that provide practical, biblical guidance on specific spiritual, emotional, and relational issues and that share clear answers from God’s Word and concise, practical guidance for life’s various challenges.

Just like a climber’s rope represents a “lifeline” of trust and safety, these resources provide the necessary tools to help people manage some of the significant issues they might be facing. They also equip men and women to become more effective people helpers — rope holders who can say with confidence and humility, “Belay On.”

Our mission at Hope for the Heart is to help others draw closer to God in genuine relationship. The objective of our Lifeline to Hope caregiving resources is to train people 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 being sought.

Proverbs 13:17 (ESV) encourages us that, “a faithful envoy brings healing.” An envoy is an ambassador, a title derived from a Celtic word that means “servant.” It was first used in this manner by Charles V in the middle of the 16th century and later found its way into the Germanic languages and Old English as “ambeht” or “servant messenger.

Answering the call to care must begin somewhere. Perhaps God is encouraging you to take the first step in walking alongside and climbing with those who need a lifeline. Billy Graham once said:

“The highest form of worship is the worship of unselfish Christian service. The greatest form of praise is the sound of consecrated feet seeking out the lost and helpless. God has given us two hands — one to receive with and the other to give with. We are not cisterns made for hoarding; we are channels made for sharing.”


Eric Scalise, Ph.D.,LPC, LMFT serves as Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer (CSO) of Hope for the Heart, a worldwide caregiving, coaching, and counseling ministry offering biblical hope and practical help. He is the Lead Course Developer of Lifeline to Hope, a new product suite of lay caregiving video courses from Hope for the Heart.



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