This article (Equipping Albanian Counselors with Grace and Truth: Getting to Know Rev. Genci Cesula by Marie Notcheva) originally appeared on the Biblical Counseling Coalition website.
Rev. Genci Cesula is the pastor of “Kisha e Hirit” (“Grace Church”) in Tirana, Albania. He has been instrumental in bringing biblical counseling to Albania and is one of several pastors in the country completing ACBC certification. Genci has established the Albanian branch of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, “Koalicioni i Këshillimit Biblik Shqiptar,” and in conjunction with the Board and ACBC Fellows he has organized several training conferences in Albania. He and his wife Arta have a daughter and two sons. The Biblical Counseling Coalition is pleased to introduce you to our friend and co-laborer for the gospel in Tirana.
BCC: Great to talk with you, Pastor Genci! I noticed from your Facebook profile that you and I are “moshatarë” – we were both born in 1971. Some of our readers may not be aware that Enver Hoxha’s regime completely outlawed all religion in Albania as of 1967. Can you describe a little of what it was like growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s as a boy, in a completely atheistic state?
Pastor Genci: During that time, people were told what to think, believe, and do. Everything was controlled by the State. You were not encouraged to think and do things on your own. We were taught in school that there was no God, and we could not question that. No one could talk about God. We were taught evolution as fact and no other alternatives. We were taught that the origin of religion was part of primitive man, but that man does not need religion anymore because science can explain all human fears. When I grew up, I never heard anything about God, the Bible, or any other religion. I knew nothing. My greatest fear was death. We were taught that life ended with death, which never made sense to me. I could not foresee how life could end to nothing. I would wake up at times terrified at the idea of death or losing people, and never seeing them again. The best remedy was not to think about these things, as there was no one to talk to. Life seemed empty and without hope.
BCC: When did you first hear the gospel and turn to Christ?
Pastor Genci: I heard the gospel in my second year of college. I was learning English, and one of my roommates asked if I wanted to go out and practice English with Americans. We went and discovered these were Campus Crusade for Christ [workers]. They were talking to people about the gospel through the “Four Spiritual Laws” and inviting people to hear more at student meetings. They did this for three days. At these meetings, a missionary spoke about Jesus Christ coming into the world. It was the spring of 1992, and it was the first time that I heard about God, the Bible, Jesus, and salvation. It was all new and fascinating to me. I received for the first time an English Bible, an Albanian New Testament, and a few other books. So I started reading about salvation. I would read the English Bible and the books, keeping a dictionary next to me for the words I did not understand. God had begun drawing me to Himself. What seemed hard for me was understanding sin. I understood salvation intellectually, but He had not yet reached my heart. In the summer of 1992, after talking again to some more short-term missionaries, God convicted me of my sinfulness and that the only hope for me was to repent and trust in Jesus as Savior and Lord. One night in June 1992, by God’s grace, I called upon Jesus’ Name and He saved and changed my life. Immediately I became part of a church and starting growing and serving the Lord with my life.
BCC: How and when did you decide to go into the ministry?
Pastor Genci: When I became a believer, the truth of the gospel was so powerful in my life that I believe God gave me a great desire to share it with others and help others grow in their faith. That desire continued to grow and became a conviction. When I was a student, I was involved in leading Bible studies and discipleship with an American Campus Crusade missionary. Also in my church, I was involved in discipleship, Bible studies, and preaching. As I began to see God using me in different areas in the church, I was only waiting for the moment when God would call me full-time.
After I finished college in 1994, I starting working as a salesperson. A year later, I married a girl I had known from college. She was also a believer, and God united us to serve the Him together. After two years working as a salesperson, we received an invitation to join a church-planting mission outside of Tirana. I served as team leader of the church-planting team with another missionary couple and as pastor, teaching and preaching every Sunday and Wednesday. It was a quite difficult place to minister because of a strong Muslim influence. At the same time, I was serving as Assistant Pastor at a new Tirana church I had started in 1997. We worked with the church plant from 1996-2001, but in 2001 I started working full-time as Assistant Pastor at Grace Church Tirana. In year 2008, I graduated from Southern Eastern Europe Theological Seminary receiving a Master of Divinity. In 2013, I was ordained as a pastor and officially became the Senior Pastor of Grace Church Tirana.
BCC: In the last several years, biblical counseling has grown significantly in Albania. I know that Blair and Sue Alvidrez were the first ACBC counselors to serve there and have helped with the training of new counselors. How did your training conferences in Albania take shape?
Pastor Genci: I believe biblical counseling in Albania is still in its beginning phase. The church in Albania has been exposed to Biblical counseling for the last 3-4 years. Before that, there has not been any serious effort except for pockets here and there. I was introduced to biblical counseling during my seminary years. This is the third year we have done a biblical counseling training conference. We travel to local churches in Albania when we are invited, but we do the training in Tirana. People come to our conference from churches all over Albania every year—more lay people than pastors, and more women than men.
We have offered a first and second level and invited ACBC speakers come to do the training. We have focused our training in two main cities in Albania—Korça and Tirana. Normally, we have had around 100 attendees. The training has been going well, and we have seen a desire for more. Last year we started a two-year module training for a number of lay leaders and pastors in Tirana and Korça. We’ve also traveled to a number of other cities introducing biblical counseling. We have visited Vlora, Elbasan, and Saranda. We hope to see many certified counselors, and when they began to transform their churches, we believe more leaders and pastors will want to be trained.
BCC: How is the idea of counseling, that is, by design, not secular but purely scriptural in nature, accepted by the people in Albania?
Pastor Genci: In general it has been accepted well. A number of churches with whom we work have really embraced it and made a great impact. In Albania, there is some influence of integrated counseling [the attempt to combine secular psychological theories and methods with Scripture], but we are trying to help pastors and leaders who are influenced by this “integrationist” counseling. In addition, the influence of secular counseling is powerful. We encounter Christian doctors who seem to believe that only medicine and psychology can help struggling people. So, part of our training is helping the church in Albania to understand and see the sufficiency of God’s Word and grace. I think we have a long way to go. The changed lives of people who receive counseling will be the proof.
BCC: Here in the United States, depression and marriage counseling account for the vast majority of counseling cases we see. Speaking generally, what would you say are the biggest issues biblical counselors encounter in Albania?
Pastor Genci: I believe we see the same thing here. The biggest issues are depression, marriage, and pornography. But depression is the most common. Yet I think the problem of pornography is bigger, but people are not used to coming and seeking counsel about this. The issue of shame is great, so that prevents people from coming for counseling. In addition, pornography is so accepted by the wider culture that it is not seen as sin; so people do not seek counseling until it has become very bad.
BCC: Thank you very much for your time! Please tell our readers how we can be praying specifically for the people of Albania, and the church there.
Pastor Genci: Please pray that we will see a good number of Albanian pastors and lay leaders in the next 2 -3 years trained as biblical counselors. Also pray that we will see the church offering counseling to unbelievers and use it as a tool to reach people with the gospel.