I have watched with sadness as the accusations have emerged against Bishop Joseph Walker at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church. The veracity of these allegations will hopefully be proven in time, but Bishop Walker is not the first to be accused of such abuse of their position. What makes this sad to me is that the majority of congregational leaders who seek to offer guidance and comfort to their parishioners do so with honor and integrity. The religious leaders of all faiths seek to meet those in their care at a point of need with the resources of their experience, education, and faith training. In many cases, these faith resources and the care of the Pastor, Priest, or Rabbi are sufficient to help the care recipient resolve their issues. However, most religious leaders who have professional training have received only one or two classes in pastoral care and/or counseling. When the problems that are presented to the congregational leader exceed his or her training, there are many mental health resources to which they may refer, however, Tennessee is one of five states that has a specific license for Pastoral Counselors. In Tennessee, these professionals are called Clinical Pastoral Therapists and like the majority of clergy in the congregation, these licensed men and women are trained in theology, church history, and biblical studies. However, unlike many in the local congregation, these Pastoral Therapists have additional education, experience, and supervision that prepare them to deal with more advanced issues of mental illness, mood disorders, partner relationship problems, and other struggles.
Clinical Pastoral Therapists must have graduate level training in Theology, usually a Master of Divinity, and graduate level training in counseling or psychology. In addition to these degrees, Pastoral counselors licensed by the state or who have achieved Fellow level membership in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors (AAPC) have additional training in personal formation and clinical work as well as supervision of their clinical work equal to or greater than other mental health providers in Tennessee. Many Pastoral Therapists in Tennessee are also ordained in their faith tradition. These theologically trained mental health providers must abide by the ethical standards of their professional organization and must answer to the state of Tennessee for violations of their code of conduct. Pastoral Therapists are also required to have annual continuing education and most operate with consultation available from peers or other mental health disciplines. Those who practice in this way are not perfect and some have been accused of abusing their power, however, there are layers of legal and professional accountability that help prevent such abuses; accountability and guidelines that are sometimes absent for those providing counseling in local congregations.
Again, I would say that the majority of spiritual leaders offering care and counseling as part of their ministry in local congregations do so with honor and integrity. Most people who need assistance would prefer to seek that assistance from someone who understands and respects their faith tradition, but those who are seeking help should also know the education and experience of the person that they approach for help. They should not be afraid to ask about training, credentials, and license. In Tennessee it is perfectly legal and acceptable for a member of the clergy to offer care and counseling as part of his or her role in the local congregation, but in those times when someone might desire a religious professional who has more training in counseling and relationships, I would recommend the services of Licensed Clinical Pastoral Therapist.