by Marie Notcheva
BCC Staff: For this post, Marie interviewed Tim Pasma, Brad Brandt, and Sue and Blair Alvidrez in order to share with us how biblical counseling is growing in Albania.
“As a young person, reading about Albania fascinated me because the nation claimed to be 100% atheist,” said Timothy Pasma, Senior Pastor at LaRue Baptist Church in Ohio. During the Communist regime, neighboring Romania and Bulgaria also outlawed most religious practice; and following the Soviet model, atheism was taught in the schools. Christians were imprisoned and killed in many places behind the Iron Curtain, but in 1967 dictator Enver Hoxha made Albania the first constitutionally atheist nation in the world. Most churches and mosques were destroyed, and there were reports of believers being sealed into wooden barrels and rolled into the Adriatic Sea.
It wasn’t until after the collapse of Communism in 1991 that the first missionaries were allowed into Albania. Little did Pasma imagine that a generation later, he would have the opportunity to visit – as part of a team providing training to novice biblical counselors.
From Grace Fellowship, with Love
The prelude to the biblical counseling movement in Albania came in 2007, when Grace Fellowship Church (pastored by biblical counselor Brad Bigney) sent Blair and Sue Alvidrez to Albania on a short-term mission trip. Later, after settling down in Lushnjë, Albania in 2010, Blair and Sue became the first certified biblical counselors in Albania – due to the Skype-based supervision of Brad Brandt and Tim Pasma. This connection led to Brandt and Pasma travelling to Albania to speak at biblical counseling training conferences arranged by Alvidrez. Along with Pastor Genci Cesula, Senior Pastor at Grace Church, and the collaboration of several Albanian pastors and missionaries, Blair established Koalicioni I Këshillimit Biblik Shqiptar (Albanian Biblical Counseling Coalition). The ministry now has a website, replete with counseling materials, training videos, and an Albanian-language blog.
“Biblical counseling is definitely catching on,” according to Alvidrez. He and his family now live in the capital city of Tirana, where he works with Cesula to disciple and train other pastors seeking certification.
“Many people said at first, ‘This is never going to work here’,” Blair noted, since there is an aversion to talking openly about one’s problems.
“One big hindrance is gossip,” added Sue. “No one wants to tell people their business. But word got out, and now we have people on waiting lists.”
Several Albanian pastors have submitted their exams and are nearing completion of their biblical-counselor certification. In addition, pastors’ wives are helping both with counseling and book translation. Word is spreading even beyond the borders of Albania: one church in Kosovo now also stocks translated biblical counseling literature, and pastors from Skopje, Macedonia, will attend the next training conference.
One of the difficulties of equipping believers to counsel is the influx of psychologized counseling theories. As is the case elsewhere, the sufficiency of Scripture in matters of soul-care can be confusing to well-meaning counselors who believe secular psychology must be blended with the Bible. Pasma says that psychologically based counsel is definitely gaining momentum in Albania. “Many of the missionaries come with an integrationist view and don’t like what we’re doing,” he said. “We had one man attend a conference who was very well-versed in ‘Christian psychology’ – he was almost hostile to what we were teaching,” Pasma recalled.
In Balkan nations, including Albania, the Church has been traditionally viewed as a house of worship, but not what Pasma calls “disciple-making institutions,” where people seek help for issues. “[Albanians] generally don’t see a meaningful connection between church and life.” In such a context, secular counsel makes more sense. Nevertheless, because of the conferences in Durrës, Tirana, and Korçe, interest in ministering the Word has grown, and relationships with schools and medical clinics have been established. The Christian-run ABC medical clinic in Tirana has sent employees to sit in on teaching sessions about anxiety and depression and have asked Alvidrez and Cesula to send them biblical counselors. The Alvidrezes have also been asked to help counsel at their daughter’s high school in Tirana.
The Big Picture – The Church as Part of Life
As in any postmodern culture, Albania faces its own set of problems that many would deny have spiritual implications. Pastor Genci Cesula cites both depression and marriage problems as being among the biggest counseling issues, but also includes pornography “addiction” on that list. Sexual immorality is becoming much more visible than it had been previously, and without a grounding in a Christian-Judeo heritage, morality becomes subjective. Assisting national believers to establish a growing, dynamic Church that is seen as relevant is a formidable task.
Both the American and Albanian pastors have tried to communicate that “church” is not a building; it is a body of believers interconnected and involved together in all facets of life. “Biblical counsel isn’t just ‘giving answers’, nor is it an ‘American thing’,” Brandt explained. “We want to help them to see what God has designed the Church to be—how to live as disciples of Jesus. It is exciting to see how God is raising up people all around the world who are hungry to learn the biblical answers to [problems in] their lives and heartening to see the dedication of His people all over.”
Albania, which means “Land of the Eagle,” is being renewed in strength. In Scripture, the eagle is a symbol of strength and being able to bear much weight (Ex. 19:4; Deut. 32:11). In fitting metaphorical fashion, Albania has risen in just one generation from oppressive atheism and tyrannically-induced poverty to one of the strongest Christian environments in the Balkans. Due to the unwavering work of Albania’s new generation of pastors and biblical counselors, the country is indeed “rising on wings of eagles” as new believers make His Name known.