Congregationalist minister founded clinical training program for pastors
Written by Barbara Brown Zikmund
January - February 2004


Barbara Brown Zikmund

A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ

Clergy are educated to be knowledgeable about the Bible and theology. At the same time they are also expected to provide pastoral care in a variety of situations. For most clergy, the primary training that prepares them for this pastoral role is "Clinical Pastoral Education" (CPE).

CPE was started by a man named Anton T. Boisen (1876-1965), who grew up in an academic family in Indiana, felt a call to the ministry, and eventually graduated from Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1911. Unfortunately, several significant psychotic episodes caused him to be hospitalized for 15 months at Westboro State Hospital, a mental health facility.

After his release he studied psychology and religion at Andover Theological Seminary and became convinced that some mental illnesses are "problem-solving experiences." He reported that he had had a "valid religious experience, which was at the same time madness of the most profound and unmistakable variety."

"Mental disorder," Boisen later wrote, "is the price humanity has to pay for having the power of choice and the capacity for growth."

Building upon his personal experience, Boisen developed a life-long interest in science and theology. As a Presbyterian, and later a Congregationalist, he never lost his Calvinist concern with sin and salvation. In 1925 he became a chaplain at the Worcester State Hospital, where he inaugurated an innovative program of "clinical training" for theological students. Boisen believed that students could learn some important things about health and religious experience by "studying living human documents" in a mental hospital. His clinical training program addressed the needs of the patients; but it also challenged students to become more self-aware about their own mental and spiritual health.

In 1930 Boisen joined with others to form the Council for the Clinical Training of Theological Students, forerunner of the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education. He started lecturing on his theories at UCC-related Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS), and in 1932 he became chaplain at Elgin State Hospital near Chicago, serving there until his death in 1965 and continuing his teaching at CTS. Boisen published his ideas about religion and health in numerous books, beginning in 1936. His autobiography, "Out of the Depths," published in 1960, documents how his own experience helped him gain new religious insights.

As Boisen's legacy, CPE is today offered in hospitals, prisons, correctional institutions, hospice settings, retirement homes, rehabilitation centers and in hundreds of local congregations. Through guided exposure to people suffering from illness and crisis, seminarians and religious leaders gain needed pastoral skills and self-understanding for effective ministry.

Church historian the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ. Currently, she is a missionary associate for the Global Ministries Board. She teaches American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.

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