Prophets of the People or Chaplains of the Status Quo?

It is much easier for a religious leader to be a shepherd than a prophet, to see people as sheep to be tended to, rather than as individuals with human rights that may be violated and need to be fought for. The two roles are inseparable, as the well-being and rights of people are interrelated.   However, the primary role of many faith leaders is to provide individual support for people in crisis, not address, also, the political, economic and legal oppressive realities that cause, or contribute to, their crises. Here the focus is often interpersonal, not institutional.  One-on-one, apart from society’s structural realities. Transcendent, more than grounded. It is far easier, for example, to provide spiritual comfort for the grieving family of a son killed in Iraq, than to also join others in confronting one’s bipartisan government’s criminal invasion of Iraq that needlessly put him in harm’s way. Far easier—and safer– to rally spiritually around the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, than to also rally politically against our government’s imperialistic policies that create enemies and provoke such blowback violence.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. And where I’m going is not intended to minimize the importance of providing spiritual and pastoral care for individuals. What I want to emphasize is that full spiritual ministry is not just about caring for people who are in crisis, but also about challenging what causes and sustains their hurt. Adversity calls for advocacy, as well as empathy.

My assumption is that most theological schools in the United States specialize in educating their students to provide spiritual leadership and care for individuals in their congregations, and avoid dealing in depth with political, economic and legal influences oppressing their members and others in society. My concern in addressing this neglect is to help restore a greatly needed prophetic tradition in religion, which should be an integral part of “advancing exceptional experience-based theological education and professional practice to heal a hurting world.” (ACPE/ Mission & Vision Statements)

I’m quoting the mission statement of the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE), the first and leading self-described “multicultural, multi-faith organization devoted to providing education and improving the quality of ministry and pastoral care offered by spiritual caregivers of all faiths through the clinical education methods of Clinical Pastoral Education.” (ACPE/About Us, ) ACPE’s outreach is seen in its having “accredited over three hundred and fifty clinical pastoral education centers and clusters throughout the United States,” staffed by “about 600 . . . certified faculty members (called CPE [Clinical Pastoral Education] Supervisors),” and a total of “2300 members” — consisting of hospital, hospice and military chaplains, pastoral counselors, pastoral care educators or CPE supervisors, and clergy specializing in pastoral care in churches. (ACPE Accredited Centers; ACPE/About Us, Ibid)

Many faith groups are involved in ACPE’s training programs: “Protestant, Roman Catholic, Judaism, Islam, Orthodox Christian, Native American religions and Buddhism.” ( Ibid) And ACPE Centers are also located in Hong Kong (three), Cameroon (one), Nairobi (one) and Kenya (two). (International Affiliates) ACPE also reports that since its formation in 1967 [the merging of four separate training groups], “CPE has been offered to about 75,000 individuals from the United States and many other countries internationally.” (ACPE/About Us, Ibid)

Well over a hundred theological schools require their students to take a unit of clinical pastoral education, which offers them hands-on experience with persons in crisis (hospital patients, prison inmates, military personnel, congregants, and others). Under the supervision of a clinically (psychologically) trained Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) supervisor, this reality-based training helps “students develop new awareness of themselves as persons and of the needs of those to whom they minister,” acquiring “skills in interpersonal and inter-professional relationships.” The goal is the “integration of theological, psychological and pastoral insights into pastoral functioning for parish work or . . . a career goal of chaplaincy or pastoral counseling.” ACPE/FAQ)

To put it another way: hands-on, supervised clinical pastoral education enables the theological student to take an inward journey into self: where one develops self-awareness, is in touch with and works through personal issues, and becomes accepting of oneself. The more such integrated self-awareness one gains, the better prepared one is to understand, lead and provide competent spiritual care for the members of one’s future congregation and others.

In other words, theological students need to know where they—and their “God”—are coming from, in order to know where the members of their congregation and others—and their “God”—are at. Such self-awareness enables them to experience the reality of others, rather than interpret it. Integrated self-awareness and inner emotional security foster theological clarity and pastoral effectiveness—which are primary goals of clinical pastoral education, and a critical aspect of any faith leader’s qualifications. Thus my aim is not to minimize the importance of clinical pastoral education in preparing theological students to provide spiritual care for people in crisis.

But an equally important mandate of a faith leader is missing from the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education’s stated mission. The prophetic role in pastoral/spiritual care. Last month’s Annual Conference of ACPE in Atlanta is an instructive case in point

“Advancing exceptional experience-based theological education and professional practice to heal a hurting world.” ACPE held nine “network meetings” at its May Annual Conference, three of which especially would appear to deal with the prophetic role in pastoral/spiritual care. These meetings were listed as “Racial Ethnic Multicultural (REM),” “Peace” and “GLBT.” (Survey: Questions, Saturday, May 9, 2015, Network Meetings ) Those attending were asked to evaluate the meetings by completing a questionnaire. That appeared to be it.

The June ACPE Newsletter listed the “2015 Annual Conference Highlights,” and the only highlight reported was the REM meeting: “We have heard many positive reviews of the event but we want to hear from you formally– please let us know what you thought of the conference to help improve future meetings. Then followed these questions: “Want to download pictures from the event? Looking for PowerPoint presentations? Want to purchase a recording?” ( That was it.

ACPE’s Racial, Ethnic Multicultural event is in keeping with its emphasis on “Values”: “We value
albertsdiversity and strive to educate culturally competent clinical pastoral educators and spiritual care providers. We engage in professional development in order to increase cultural awareness.” (ACPE/Values).

But the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education’s emphasis on “cultural competency” apparently did not lead its members to issue a policy statement on a major issue raging around them at their May meeting in Atlanta. That major issue, which continues to draw protests nationwide: the killing of black men and youths by white police officers in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, North Charleston, Baltimore and other cities. One would think that a self-proclaimed commitment to “heal a hurting world” would lead ACPE to use its annual meeting, especially with all members gathered, to declare “Black Lives Matter!,” and to issue a policy statement and plan of action to join with other community groups in addressing the “hurting world” of persons of color. ACPE’s stressing of “cultural competency” seems not to be grounded in community competency.

“Cultural competency” and “awareness” are critical components of any spiritual caregiver. But it is not enough if one’s mission is really “to heal a hurting world.”

Urban and environmental specialist Dr. James Jennings adds what seems to be missing from ACPE’s “cultural competency.” His essay on “Community Health Centers in US Inner Cities: From Cultural Competency to Community Competency,“ has implications for pastoral/spiritual care givers, and not just providers of health care. He writes, “The idea of multiculturalism or cultural diversity in the delivery of health services is limited and incomplete in responding to health challenges in US low income urban communities. In these places”, he says, “where problems of poverty, unemployment, bad housing, toxic air, and dirty streets are found in greater levels than other places, community health centers must move beyond simply being culturally sensitive or reflective of local groups.” (Ethnicity and Race in a Changing World: A Review Journal, Winter 2009)

Dr. Jennings then emphasizes the importance of advocacy, stating that community health centers “must enhance their organizational role as community actors and become involved in working with other non-health organizations seeking to challenge the local and spatial manifestations of inequality.” His point: “Structural inequality is considered an impediment to good health and wellness.” (Ibid)

He provides helpful guidance to any group’s mission “to heal a hurting world,” concluding, “Public health officials interested in enhancing the well-being of residents in low-income and impoverished neighborhoods must be familiar with discourses and strategies which reduce wealth and power inequalities.” For Jennings, “Community health centers in low-income communities represent a key venue for linking better health for all people with a more just society.” (Ibid)

ACPE and other Clinical Pastoral Education training organizations would benefit from the wisdom and expertise of community researchers and activists like Dr. Jennings. “Community competency” provides the advocacy that appears to be missing in Clinical Pastoral Education.

“Advancing exceptional experience-based theological education and professional practice to heal a hurting world.” At its Atlanta meeting in May, ACPE held a “network meeting” on “Peace” for interested members. And those attending were asked to write on a form, their “opinion of the network meeting . . . in the comment box.” Whatever happened at that “Peace” meeting did not make the “2015 Annual Conference Highlights” reported in the June ACPE Newsletter.

It seems as if the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education members met in an island of calm, oblivious to the surrounding seething, violent sea of American-made imperialistic wars. The Illegal, falsely-based wars of choice against Afghanistan and Iraq, resulting in the deaths, dislocation and destruction of the life-diminishing infrastructure of millions of innocent persons.   The violation of the national security of countries with weaponized drones, filling their skies with dread, and bringing sudden death and injury to innocent children, women and men. The pursuit of world domination in the name of protecting us Americans. The creation of endless enemies that fuel an unending “war on terrorism,” which benefits the political/corporate/military/energy/intelligence complex. The insidious militarization of America. And the ever widening gap between the politically influential wealthy and a critically growing “hurting world” of U.S. citizens.

The moral decay of America is increasing, partly because prophetic voices have not been loud and insistent enough to call for national soul-searching in response to the horrific 9/11 attacks against America—which self-reflection is a key emphasis of ACPE’s “experienced-based theological education.”

Another advocacy activist, writer Michael Albert, would be most helpful to ACPE’s focus on “Peace.” In an article on “Why Militarism?,” he quotes David Swanson’s writing on “military expenditures.” Swanson’s point, which Albert highlights, is that “’military spending is now 54% of the U.S. federal discretionary spending,’” yet, “he convincingly points out that the military benefits have been nil.” Then Albert quotes Swanson’s conclusion: “’If U.S. military spending were merely returned to 2001 levels, the savings of $213 billion per year could meet the following needs:

* End hunger and starvation worldwide– $30 billion per year.

* Provide clean drinking water worldwide.. $11 billion per year.

* Provide free college in the United States– $70 billion per year.

* Double U.S. foreign aid—$23 billion per year.

* Build and maintain a high-speed rail system in the U.S.– $30 billion per year.

* Invest in solar and renewable energy as never before– $20 billion per year.

* Fund peace initiatives as never before– $20 billion per year.

* That would leave $19 billion left over per year with which to pay down debt.

(teleSUR English, May 25, 2015)

In providing a fuller picture of “a hurting world,” Michael Albert asks, “If military spending doesn’t curtail wars and violence or protect people [and] is a gigantic drain on well-being due to using so much wealth that could, instead, improve people’s lives—why the hell do we keep allocating it in such gargantuan amounts?” Albert’s answer: “The reason to spend it on weapons is precisely to avoid spending it on socially worthy and valuable programs.” Why? According to Albert’s take on David Swanson, “The relative balance of power between elites . . . and those who finally get serious benefits . . . shifts in a major way . . . that could easily snowball into continuing gains for the poor as against the rich. And that is the heart of it.” Thus “healing a hurting world,” which would empower countless Americans, “is anathema to the powers that be.” (ibid)

“The Powers that be.” ACPE may fear losing its U.S. Department of Education endorsement if it becomes too political. ACPE may also avoid political issues, fearing losing the goose with the golden egg, as the Chaplain Corps uses ACPE training for military chaplains, with CPE centers also on military bases and in VA hospitals. In the latter, the supervisors may be military, but are also ACPE certified. It is the politics of religion that often keeps religion out of politics—out of risky political issues.

The information provided by Michael Albert and David Swanson—and many other peace and justice specialists and activists– needs to be integrated by pastoral/spiritual care providers of all faiths in the United States, if they are to move beyond being trained primarily to be chaplains of the status quo, and fulfil their prophetic role as prophets of the people.

“Advancing exceptional experience-based theological education and professional practice to heal a hurting world.” The ACPE members attending the recent Annual Conference could also have chosen to participate in a “network meeting” called “GLBT.” Like the meeting on “Peace,” it did not make the “Highlights of the Annual Conference listed in the June ACPE Newsletter. But, again, there was the form with the box in which to write one’s opinion of the meeting.

“Healing a hurting world” includes addressing, not only being sensitive to, the oppression of LGBTQ persons—including members of ACPE’s own organization. ACPE-affiliated denominational bodies, like the Southern Baptist Convention and The United Methodist Church, would benefit from a psychologically-informed ACPE advocacy position — wrapped in the moral empathy of The Golden Rule—that states the psycho-sexual development of LGBTQ persons is natural, not deviant, and challenges their own affiliated denominations’ dehumanizing beliefs about homosexuality. Such as, “The Bible condemns it [homosexuality] as a sin” (Southern Baptist Convention), and “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” (United Methodist Church).  This kind of advocacy position, linked with other justice groups, could help such denominations move beyond their homophobic, culturally-conditioned, Biblically-limiting passages and truly act as if “all persons are of sacred worth (United Methodism wants it both ways). It is one thing to be “culturally aware” and accepting of LGBTQ persons in one’s own and other more progressive settings, and another to advocate strongly for them to have full access to their own denominational altars– and to the services in their own states.

The issue is not only addressing the “hurting world” of LGBTQ persons, but enriching the world with their caring, humanity and creativity. “Cultural awareness” should lead to full cultural inclusion—rather than accommodating pockets of church or state laws that discriminate.

While ACPE touts “healing a hurting world,” any prophetic role it may advocate is hard to find in its document, 2014/Year in Review. In his Year in Review Report, Executive Director Trace Haythorn sums up the year with, “Most importantly, you, the members, have been very busy providing the quality experimental theological education that is critically needed by our communities.” Haythorn does not state what “is critically needed by our communities.” Instead it appears that the Year in Review relies on quotes of CPE students, interspersed throughout the Review to put flesh and blood on the “critically needed . . . experimental theological education” ACPE provides.

The selective testimony of the CPE students quoted in Year in Review reveals an individual emphasis on helping “hurting” persons, which, while essential, is lacking the equally important prophetic focus on the causes of people’s crises and need of advocacy. The students’ testimonies speak for themselves:

The experience of CPE excavates those raw spots in our lives that might hold pain and difficulty. Through that work, we can cultivate strategies and resources that  will support and sustain us so we can provide effective spiritual care for others.

The CPE experience gave me the chance to develop cultural competencies, diversity appreciation and professional relationships through accountability, respect and collaboration. All over the world there is a great need for this exceptional education to help individuals become professional, theologically sound caregivers who listen to the “personal story” while being aware of the theological and behavioral components.

CPE opened my eyes to see ministry not by words, but by the power of love, the power of being present, and the power of empathy. Even though there were cultural and language barriers, patients opened their hearts and requested my presence.

Encountering the humanity and value of people who believe differently than you every day, as well as coming face to face with an ocean of pain you cannot fix or make go away, has a way of making ministry not about belief, doctrine, or theology, but about heart, compassion, presence.

The CPE program helped me grow in courage and most importantly in faith—faith in myself and faith in my fellow human beings. I remain eternally grateful for these challenges that gave me the opportunity for exponential growth.

These CPE student testimonies stress the importance of developing competent interpersonal skills in caring for individual persons in crisis—and that is very important! Equally important is the historic vocation of the pastor, priest, rabbi, imam as prophet—which is difficult to distinguish in the above testimonies.

Clinical Pastoral Education helps prepare many theological students to become faith leaders, and a number of them become denominational leaders. The fact that this country is spiraling morally downward, partly because of a lack of prophetic leadership, is a commentary on many faith leaders and those CPE supervisors– and theological school professors– who train them. Clinical Pastoral Education without a prophetic focus becomes a hiding place for CPE supervisors themselves—as well as for many of the theological students they help prepare for ministry.

The pastoral/spiritual role of faith leaders is indispensable, as is their prophetic role. Jesus said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovering of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (Luke 4: 18, New International Version)

The Jewish prophet Isaiah declared, “Is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood.” (Isaiah 58: 6-7. New International Version)

And the prophetic words of Islam in the Qur’an: “True piety (or righteousness) does not consist in turning your faces toward the east or west but truly pious is he who believes in God and the last day and the angels and revelation, and the prophets; and spends his substance upon his near dear kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggar, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage; and is constant in prayer, and renders the purifying dues; and truly pious are they who keep their promises whenever they promise, and are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril, it is they that have proved themselves true, and it is they, they are conscious of God.” (Qur’an 2: 177) Three interfaith reminders of the pastoral/prophetic role of faith leaders.

I myself am a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy (CPSP), which also provides Clinical Pastoral Education for theological students, has 934 members and 79 training centers. CPSP, which is not recognized by ACPE up to now, was formed 25 years ago by ACPE members who became disenchanted with a perceived bureaucratic ACPE structure they saw as failing to care for its own members in crisis.

I was drawn to CPSP by its leadership’s emphasis on social justice in pastoral care, an emphasis which was missing from pastoral counseling circles I have known over the years. Not that CPSP does not have its share of chaplains of the status quo. There has been some strong blowback in reaction to CPSP’s leadership’s public stances against the Iraq war and support of same-sex marriage equality—which may indicate why ACPE has not made such public declarations.

A great challenge of clergy is to embrace their prophetic role of confronting political and corporate power—and often their own faith leadership– with reality and moral truth, rather than serve as chaplains of the status quo and provide the Invocations and Benedictions for those in power. Clinical Pastoral Education especially, whether provided by ACPE , CPSP or other certified supervisors, can help show the way—if its supervisors are really serious about their commitment “to heal a” whole “hurting world.” America desperately needs prophets of the people, and not merely spiritual caregivers of the status quo.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Loretta J. Williams, dear friend and colleague, who died on June 11. Loretta was Director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Social Responsibility Department in the 1980s, and then long-time Director of the national Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights. She is the person who suggested that I put my Counterpunch articles in book form, hence The Counterpunching Minister. And a number of my Counterpunch articles benefited from her extraordinary moral sense and editorial expertise in advance of publication.

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is


Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His newly published book, The Minister who Could Not Be “preyed” Away is available Alberts is also author of The Counterpunching Minister and of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review of the book in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is