The Rev. Dr. Belen Gonzalez y Per

A Response to Dr. Powell’s Prophetic Clarion Call to the CPSP

by The Rev. Dr. Belen Gonzalez y Perez

In 2011 Dr. Robert Charles Powell, the leading historian of the Clinical Pastoral movement, was invited by the CPSP–in his words–”to present views on what is wrong with CPSP.” His contribution  was the propitious essay he called Tolerance and Encouragement: Within a Covenant of Mutual Accountability. Over ten years have passed since we first read the auspicious essay and yet Dr. Powell’s statements remain pointedly relevant, insightful and timely today for the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy.

As I revisited Tolerance and Encouragement, I got the sense that at no fault of its own, Dr. Powell’s essay became the ‘message in a bottle’ that was allowed to go adrift by its audience and is again driven ashore with coordinates and directions that the CPSP can use to move toward a healthy degree of self-critical awareness and honest organizational introspection it will need to make course corrections that can nurture its magnificently diverse and energetic membership in the present and for years to come. To ignore or disregard the counsel in Dr. Powell’s essay would likely result in the CPSP going adrift within a sea of organizational malaise and dysfunction, not unlike many other organizations bereft of a life-giving anima and animus. 

Striking is that Tolerance and Encouragement speaks to the CPSP’s present reality and current condition although written in 2011. To what can I attribute this? Although perhaps not what many would expect, we in the CPSP have not actively engaged or acted on much, if any, of the guideposts in Dr. Powell’s essay. Yes, we have improved our written operational Standards, Handbooks and Manuals, just as we should; but we have left unattended and unexamined a significant chunk of the internal vitality of our collective shared life as clinicians–chaplains, psychotherapists, pastoral counselors, and clinical educators. 

I suspect most of us find it challenging to change our habits of thinking and practice on any given day. And yet we willingly take on the challenge of sharing membership in the CPSP and commit ourselves to a Covenant that envisions a living community engaging itself in the transformative process of mutual self discovery, collegiality, accompaniment, and the mutual support of midwifery. How do we measure our relative fidelity to those ideals and goals? Dr. Powell’s essay lends itself to asking: Do we assume that we are in fact living out our Covenant with any tangible fidelity or do we courageously and truthfully examine the degree to which we are not engaging one another to learn a better way to realize our lofty ideals? Dr. Powell hits the nail on the head when he says that to acknowledge and overcome our shortcomings will require our courage and dedication “to solving them.” The default option is a quagmire of “denial” and “evasion” and “concealment” and “avoidance” to save face in public.

Taking note of Dr. Powell’s observation that the CPSP was intentional in not reproducing barriers for clergy “to enter the clinical pastoral field,” takes me back to my first encounter with the CPSP as a seminarian in 1994. Little did I know at the time that it was a fledgling 

organization with much road yet to travel. But as Dr. Powell puts it, I was caught by its very “simplicity” and humanity. It was not until I joined a Chapter that I learned about “the complexity” “within all the joys and heartaches of working with brothers and sisters.” I quickly learned that chapter life was not business as usual. As with clinical training, chapter life was a safe space to find my voice and grow into my idiosyncratic self with the mutual support and mutual accountability of my peers and colleagues. Never in my seminary training was anyone ever interested in my “voice” or my “idiosyncratic self.” I have to admit that I discovered in the CPSP an organization and assembly of individuals centered on the value of redemptive humanity. In chapter life I was challenged to be known and to know others. The simplicity and complexity inherent in the CPSP ethos were unique and idiosyncratic.

Dr. Powell’s essay is a gentle and compassionate clarion call. This does not diminish its urgency for the CPSP. For many years since its founding our membership growth was explosive. More recently, our growth has leveled off. With our growth, new leadership evolved that was added to our Chapters at the local, regional and national levels. Our growth required that the CPSP re-evaluate and restructure by forming Chapter of Chapters and Chapter of Diplomates, etc., in order to foster a functional and consistent adherence to our professional organization’s collaborative bottom-up  model of governance and covenantal ideals. Dr. Powell’s essay addresses our organizational growth and maturation with the utmost wisdom when he says, ”the College that burst upon the scene twenty-some years ago was an improvement over professional chaplaincy’s past … now into a new decade with new challenges must become an improvement over its own past – in order to fulfill the promise of its future.”

My appraisal of such a spirit-filled exhortation of Tolerance and Encouragement is to observe that it speaks to the CPSP with warnings of the pending perils of solely engaging our shortcomings at a minimalist or micro level that focuses on the individual instead of the shortcomings of the collective life of the whole membership. The essay tells me that to remain faithful and worthy of the legacy of Anton Boisen, what is needed is a macro level organizational critical analysis that is intentional, consistent, and persistent, one that can foster an organizational “critical tradition” of honest and humble confession and repentance of our failures in the spirit of kindred bonds. Certainly we have many successes. But what more is to be learned from our successes, while many of our “shortcomings and failures” remain? Dr. Powell puts it well, “There is no substitute for facing the truth head-on” … “Can the College repent before it's too late?” I hear in those words a heartfelt reminder for persistent transformation and improvement that will strengthen our clinical practice and kindred and collegial bonds.

It is true for me that the CPSP is a life-affirming organization. I have grown in my human interactions and psychologically matured because of my fellowship and life within it.  Also true is that as the CPSP has matured, many of our earliest members (elders) have also run the course of their life cycles. New members share the CPSP responsibility of living anew our Covenant, putting flesh on bones, as it were, making the “Covenant of Mutual Accountability” as per Dr. Powell, the ideal by which we live together, move and have our being.

Yet, as per Dr. Powell’s insightful observation, the CPSP remains with the preoccupation of the “succession of leadership;” the selection of competent and committed new leadership, for example, someone to step into the role of General Secretary of the CPSP. Why is this so difficult for the CPSP? What are the trust issues that we harbor and that have gone unaddressed and unexamined as our membership considers candidates from among our diverse kin– sisters, brothers and non-binary siblings? What concerns surface about a potential candidate’s loyalty to the CPSP Covenant and commitment to our shared life of mutual accountability?  Because of the ‘unspoken’ internal conscious or unconscious angst experienced by the membership, Dr. Powell’s essay Tolerance and Encouragement remains all the more vitally important to the process of self-critical analysis and self-correcting action by the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. 


There isn’t anything that I take issue with in the essay. Yet, there is significantly more that can be examined beyond what Dr. Powell described. For instance, how can the CPSP intentionally include representation at every tier of the leadership structure from represented members of the historically marginalized and disenfranchised groups? With so many People of Color in our organization, how do we proceed to examine the historical fact that only our White colleagues have been recipients of the Helen Flanders Dunbar award since its inception? What process is being used in the selection of the distinguished award recipient? Or another can be, why is it that the CPSP has a reciprocity process spelled out for cognate groups members to be received fully credentialed into the CPSP and yet a fully credentialed CPSP certified or diplomate member cannot easily transfer their membership from one CPSP chapter into another CPSP chapter without being put through a litmus test of “we first need to get to know you better”? There is some dissonance here that needs to be addressed. To be sure, Dr. Powell’s essay sets an agenda for serious and mature work to be done in the CPSP. 

In conclusion, as I reflect on the CPSP in light of Dr. Powell’s essay, I can discern the potentiality and vitality inherent within the CPSP. Our organization is certainly like no other professional credentialing organization. It is a bottom-up structure. It's like a pyramid, where the strength lies at the base that is able to withstand external forces of compression and tension exerted on it. But what of forces and tensions that come from within? These too must be engaged with healthy self-critical evaluations where tensions and weaknesses are courageously faced head-on in a spirit of “acknowledgement and correction” instead of silence, trepidation, and “denial and aversion.”

Dr. Powell has set for us a critical roadmap. The CPSP can choose to toss it and send it adrift again at its own peril. It will take courage and a healthy degree of resilience on our part but should the CPSP take it on, our college will be all the more satisfied and capable to face the present and future as a mature organization that again and again makes the commitment to live in the legacy of Antone Boisen and remain a prophetic voice in the clinical pastoral movement for generations to come.


The Rev. Dr. Belen Gonzalez y Perez, DS, PS, is a member of the Tri-State, NY Chapter of CPSP.
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